In Focus

Emma-O

Emma-O is the Japanese version of Yama, the Hindu god of death and Judge of the Dead. He was one of the Ten Kings of Buddhism (Ju-O) and leader of a panel of ten judges known as the kings of hell. Each king was believed to preside over his own court, through which the newly deceased must pass and receive judgment.

During the Heian period (794-1185), the idea of the "six roads," or ways of reincarnation, was developed. Buddhism does not believe in the concept of sin, karma, or the accumulated effect of all actions taken during a person's life, reflecting instead one’s detachment from earthly illusion or ignorance rather than number of “good” or “bad” deeds. By weighing karma, Emma-O decided the proper penalties and rewards and assigned the deceased to one of the “six roads” or reincarnations that ranged from heaven to one of the many hells.

Though the cult of Emma-O and the judges first came from China to Japan in the 8th century, the concept of the divine judges became widespread in the 12th century, and the worship of Emma-O eventually developed into a popular cult. Followers made offerings to Emma-O and regarded him as a benevolent force due to his ability to perform miracles and grant those with positive karma a favorable reincarnation. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), in both paintings and sculptures, Emma-O and the Judges assumed a standard appearance. The intense and violent character of such images became an important part of a Japanese Buddhist aesthetic, representing the idea that a violent appearing image could actually be beneficent, acting as a protective shield for religious values.

Carved from a single block of wood, this sculpture from the late Momoyama period (1568–1600) when the cult was still popular, shows the figure of Emma-O in Chinese judicial robes and large black hat with the character “king” emphasizing his importance in the judgment process. His menacing appearance emphasizes his role as a protector who drives away evil and guards temples, tombs, and dharma or Buddhist law.

Adapted from

  • Acquisition Proposal, copy in Dallas Museum of Art Collections Records object file (2008.25.A-H).

  • DMA Connect, 2012.