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Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Hank Glassman with a Jizō statue (center) in the College’s Japanese garden.
Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Hank Glassman with a Jizō statue (center) in the College’s Japanese garden.

Faculty Profile: Hank Glassman

By Rebecca Raber

(This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.)

On a trip to Japan in 1985, while still an undergraduate at Columbia University, Hank Glassman was taken by carved stone statues, wrapped in cloth, that decorated shrines all over the country. The image on the statue was unfamiliar to Glassman, despite having several classes on Japanese Buddhism under his belt. So, with his curiosity piqued, he decided to snap a picture of the mysterious icon every time he encountered one on his trip. Which was often.

“It was everywhere,” Glassman remembers. “Chained to Coke machines and set up in some little alley. … But then we went to Kôyasan, a very old mountain temple, and I realized when we got off the funicular and looked at the graveyard there— the biggest one in Japan—that there were just too many of them. So I just put my camera away.”

That seemingly ubiquitous stone statue, often draped in a red cloth bib or wearing a knitted hat, was Jizō Bosatsu, a bodhisattva (or “enlightenment being”) known today as the protector of children, women and travelers and one of the “most Japanese” of the Buddhist deities. The figure would go on to inspire years of Glassman’s research.

The associate professor of East Asian studies recently published his long-gestating book, The Face of Jizō: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, which was inspired by that early trip to Japan. “This deity, Jizō, is a topic that I went to grad school thinking I would study,” says Glassman, who received his doctorate from Stanford University. “But I realized quite quickly that it was far too vast a topic for me at that stage. While I have published on a number of topics within the field of medieval Japanese religion, it has taken until now to get this book out.”

Jizō’s role has changed over time. “Jizō had originally been a savior of people in the [different Buddhist] hells in general,” says Glassman. “So my question is, ‘How does Jiz ō go from being a savior of the people in hell to being the protector of women, children and travelers?’ And that’s what the book is about.”

Glassman is interested in visual culture, so the book includes numerous depictions of the deity in paintings and sculptures. “Really, what I try to do is look at lived religion, and what I like to call ‘religion on the ground,’ ” Glassman says. “As a way of doing that, I look at statues and paintings and miracle tales.” He is most proud of how he was able to find a way in his book to use both literary texts and visual images to investigate and tell the story of what medieval people believed and thought. For example, abandoned gravestones, no longer taken care of, are often wrapped in cloth to become Jizō images. “So it’s a way, from the medieval period on, that Japanese Buddhism began to think and care a lot about the collective and anonymous dead,” Glassman says. More recently, some of the most arresting photographs of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami have featured a Jizō statue standing stoically amid the wreckage. Glassman personally righted a few toppled Jizō statues last June while volunteering in Ishinomaki, a northern town hard hit in the disaster. He will return this July to help with continuing cleanup efforts.

Jizō makes only fleeting appearances in Glassman’s Haverford courses, which include “Japanese Civilization” and “Death and the Afterlife in East Asian Religions.” But that doesn’t mean his research and classroom teaching are separate entities. Two recent grads, Jesse Drian ’09 and Murakami Masataka ’08, worked with Glassman on the book while they were at Haverford and are thanked in the acknowledgments. Glassman also returned to that old mountainside graveyard at the Kôyasan temple recently with a group of students. The trip to Japan was part of a “360-degree” course cluster at Bryn Mawr College on the science and cultural history of mindfulness meditation. (To learn more about this two-week tour of Western Japan, read the Contemplative Traditions blog at

Glassman, a soft-spoken and accessible teacher, is an ideal match for Haverford’s intimate, cooperative learning environment. In addition to his scholarly research, he fosters dialogue in his classroom and collaboration with his students. “His teaching style encourages student participation, student interactions and in-class activities that are not just lectures,” says Grace Park ’12, an East Asian studies major. “His methods encourage really good input from students. He’s very approachable and very positive.”

The appreciation is mutual.

“We’re all here to learn and get work done,” says Glassman of his Haverford students, “and as a professor there couldn’t be a better atmosphere.”


Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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