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The Japan Times: Jan. 10, 2004
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Buddha, Shinto artifacts make great new business

By ANGELA JEFFS

Having purchased a figuratively decorated enameled wall vase before Christmas for my daughter in Toronto, but not quite sure what I'd got, I headed for the home of Byron Monasmith in Tokyo's Shinanomachi.

"Ah," he said, perching tiny Taisho-era silver glasses on his nose and reaching for a reference book. "Benzai-ten, commonly known as Benten-sama, derived from the Hindu god Sarasvati, and the only female figure among Japan's seven gods of good luck. The goddess of water and music, she's usually depicted playing a 'biwa' (lute), as here."

I knew I'd gone to the right person.

When I return to talk more generally, Byron is photographing a black lacquer-on-wood "zushi" (a protective case for Buddhist images) to sell online via eBay auctions. In the growing Internet market, a good photo means a profitable sale, so he shoots carefully from various angles. Also, his descriptions are impeccably researched and beautifully written.

Though Byron wouldn't describe himself as a professional dealer, he is moving fast in that direction. "I began collecting Japanese Buddhist sculpture after moving into this house six years ago. When a friend expressed interest in a particular Yakushi Nyorai (Healing Buddha), I agreed to sell it to her. That's how this started, really."

The youngest child of six children parented by schoolteachers, Byron grew up in a small rural town in eastern Colorado. After getting a C in chemistry during his freshman year at Harvard, he chucked all ideas of becoming a medical doctor. "I thought, OK, this course in Chinese history looks groovy." That led inevitably to Japanese history.

After taking a degree in history, he came to Tokyo in autumn 1987. "I just wanted to check out the place for awhile." After working one year as a copy editor of "corporate whitewash," he went to Paris to study organ and harpsichord, then returned to more whitewashing. "I went freelance in 1996, the same year I began an MA in Asian studies at Sophia University. With time on my hands because the bulk of my freelance jobs came in over the summer, I started to consume."

Indeed Byron's Buddha-based business, which brings together interests in history, research, photography and writing, began as a collecting passion, pure and simple. "I began going to flea markets, attracted by practical stuff in wood. Then one day this beatnik-type guy showed up flogging a pair of wooden 'shiza,' the Okinawan version of 'shishi' (Chinese lions) or 'koma-inu' (Korean dogs). I've still got them."

With no time for organized religion, Byron wasn't held up by any religious hocus-pocus, such as believing a piece harbored evil spirits. "My approach is anthropologically distant and purely aesthetic. Also, I'm intrigued by the complicated pantheon of Japanese Buddhist deities, rooted in Indian religions but with Chinese and Korean influences and intertwined with native Shinto."

Dozens of stone figures line the mossy entrance path to his traditional home. "I've grown to love stone. The overseas demand for Buddhist stone sculpture is limited; for one thing, it's expensive to ship. But I can't help buying it, partly because my best supply connection is a young stone dealer in Shizuoka who, oddly enough, gets stuff directly from road construction companies."

Inside there are artifacts -- gleaming with gold and lacquer, hints of old paint and ancient patina -- on just about every surface, perched above doorways and stashed away in dark-grained "tansu."

He uses a small, hand-held halogen spotlight, sometimes even a cigarette lighter, to illuminate his latest acquisitions. Hating harsh lighting, he prefers a vaguely sacerdotal atmosphere. Luckily he and his four cats have learned to see in the dark. "Remember Mephisto?" he asks as a huge black moggie unwinds from the depths of an old leather chair. "Went off mousing for nine months, then dropped in again for lunch."

This year, Byron plans to start dealing seriously, which necessarily entails setting up his own Web site. For the past six months, he has been building a small international clientele base via eBay auctions. "My best clients, met via eBay, are a completely adorable Dutch couple. I privately offer them pieces at very reasonable prices, which means lots of repeat business."

He also supplies a few international dealers who then flog pieces for up to five times his selling price. "The obvious move is to establish my own retail presence, selling directly at far lower prices than established Internet sites."

Five complete sets of Juni Nisho (12 Heavenly Guardians) posture menacingly at each turn in Byron's home. One set arguably dates from Nanbokucho/Muromachi -- 500 to 600 years old. "Someday soon, someone is going to realize that a set of these bizarre dudes represents a brilliant decorating option: tellingly antique, theatrically consistent, and 12 different ways to get a conversation going."

For Christmas, Byron gave himself a pristine 54-cm-high mid-Edo Period Kannon Bosatsu (the Bodhisattva of Compassionate Mercy): "Pricey but highly liquidatable if things get tight." Currently his collection exceeds 300 items, most of which are for sale.

Now he is photographing a wooden depiction of Tamonten, one of the Shi Tenno (Four Heavenly Kings) who protects the land of Buddhism at the northern approach. "He's mean and tough. It's not easy to protect good from the endless encroachments of evil, you know!" Seated on a base bearing a golden cross, this could be an extremely rare Edo-period "kakure Kurishitan" (secret Christian) piece. "I'm researching it now."

While increasingly focusing on marketable pieces in excellent condition, Byron most cherishes items that proudly bear the tangible traces of their histories, such as a powerfully expressive late-Heian Kannon nearly eaten away by wood worm down one side. Maintaining appearances, he believes, is tantamount to telling a lie. Given a choice, he sides with honesty.

"Besides," he adds, "impermanence is one of Buddhism's philosophical underpinnings. The nobility intrinsic to rot, the ineffable romance of decline: These are positive aesthetic principles inasmuch as they're distinctly rooted in reality."

The Japan Times: Jan. 10, 2004
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