A Japanese fashion start-up puts Buddha on a shirt to encourage interest in religion, and offer mental health support

Nishikeke Kanoko, founder of Bosatsu Brand, makes T-shirts, sweatshirts and socks featuring drawings of Buddhist gods to encourage more interest in the religion.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A Japanese fashion start-up is using Buddha to show there is more to belief than meditation and sutras, and to encourage those struggling with their mental health.

Nishikeke Kanoko launched Bosatsu Brand in June 2020, in her hometown of Nara – an area in central Japan that’s famous for its Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple – where she designs and produces T-shirts, sweatshirts and socks.

The clothes and accessories feature drawings of various Buddhist deities and are manufactured at a local, traditionally run factory.

Her two-tone socks, for example, bear images of Maitreya, Nyorai or Kannon and sell for 2,200 yen (S$27) a pair. Bodhisattvas are beings on their way to achieving full enlightenment.

Socks depicting Buddhist deities from Bosatsu Brand.
PHOTO: Bosatsu Brand

Nishikeke, 31, has no classical training in fashion or design. Instead, her inspiration for the brand came from music festivals – where simple, unique designs can be found – and her fascination with Buddhist statues.

“I have done my research in libraries, on Instagram and by visiting temples, but I believe the most important part of the design process for me is to simply look at images and collections of Buddhist statues,” she says. “I find that my ideas for designs come from just looking at those statues for a long time and absorbing them.”

The seeds of a brand that uses Buddhist imagery began to germinate in February last year, when the coronavirus pandemic truly began to impact the world.

PHOTO: Bosatsu Brand

“I have liked Buddhist statues since I was young, and one of my friends is a monk,” she tells the Post . “When I was helping at my friend’s temple, I thought about designing a bag some years in the future to hold the goshuin stamps that are hand-carved by monks at each temple and are collected by people who are making pilgrimages.

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“But then I realised that if I do not act on my plans when I first think of them, then the years will quickly pass and I will never actually follow through.”

One of the main ideas behind Bosatsu Brand is to encourage people to look more closely at Buddhist statues. They don’t just look nice – they reflect the era in which they were created, as well as the hopes and wisdom of the people who commissioned and crafted them, she says.

By making the images accessible and attractive, the brand may also serve to encourage people who have little interest in Japan’s religious culture and history to take another look at these statues.

“I also want the brand to be of items that I can use every day,” she said. “Many famous Japanese temples have great souvenirs, but it is difficult to use them on a daily basis and they just become part of a visitor’s memories. I want to bring together Buddhist statues with useful everyday items.”

Clothing and socks from Bosatsu Brand can be worn every day.
PHOTO: Bosatsu Brand

The Japanese have an interesting and very pragmatic approach to religion. Ostensibly a Buddhist or Shinto nation, they have proved happy to adopt the trappings of other religions or belief systems, such as the tradition of giving Christmas presents to children, “white weddings” and Halloween.

However, Buddhism and Shintoism have done an impressive job of remaining relevant – even for young people – at a time when adherence to a religion and worship are declining in other societies.

At New Year, people of all ages visit shrines and temples to pay their respects, buy trinkets that are meant to give them good fortune in the year ahead and spend time with friends and family.

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“It’s hard to explain, but I believe that the sense of morality that we have in Japan is similar to the perception of religion in the rest of the world,” Nishikeke says. “Japanese people have a deep-rooted sense of customs, of Buddhism and Shintoism being the right and appropriate behaviour in certain situations.

“Faith is the core part of most religions, but I like to study Buddhism to get ideas about how I should live my life.”

Another driver behind the brand is mental health, something that bears importance in Nishikeke’s life. When she was at university, her best friend died from alcoholism. Her own family was, at the same time, facing its own challenges.

“I do not have any clear images of this year in my life,” she says. “My heart was saved through the Buddhist tenet of kuu , the way of being natural and having no biases, at the same time as I spent time examining Buddhist statues.

“For me, this combination of kuu and the statues was like me going into a hospital for treatment because I was feeling so down.”

Now she wants to help people who are similarly facing difficulties in their life, and hopes her designs encourage others to take an interest in Buddhism and the soothing impact it can have.

A T-shirt from Bosatsu Brand. Nishikeke hopes the designs encourage others to take an interest in Buddhism.
PHOTO: Bosatsu Brand

“I strongly believe that wearing clothes that you love is an expression of pure joy,” she adds. “I think that having fun is a very important way of learning something.”

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Nishikeke is selling her designs through her website. They are gaining traction with people who are interested in Buddhist design and sculpture, although she hopes that appeal will extend to others – even overseas.

She has plans to expand her line-up and recently purchased an industrial embroidery machine. Another idea she has is for a children’s card game featuring different Buddhist statues.

“It takes a long time to design Buddhist images that are catchy but also simple,” she says. “I believe that the most important thing is to include love and respect for Buddhist statues in the design. And that is why, maybe not surprisingly, it takes me so long to complete the designs.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.