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Orthodoxy in Japan
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Seraphim (Sigrist) of Sendai
Daniel (Nushiro) of Japan
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Irina Rin Yamashita, an early convert of Archimandrite Nicholas, later St. Nicholas of Japan, to Orthodox Christianity, was the leading iconographer and painter of religious art for Nicholas' Orthodox mission in Japan. Examples of her works are preserved in many of the older Orthodox churches in Japan as well as in private collections in her hometown of Kasama.
Irina Yamashita was born in Kasama, Japan, on May 22, 1857. As a teenager she moved to Edo (Tokyo) to learn the art of traditional Japanese woodblock printing (Ukiyo-e) as an understudy at various studios. In 1877, she entered the newly established National Academy for Fine Arts and studied Western painting. Through a friend, Varvara (Barbara) Yamamuro, at the institute, she met Archimandrite Nicholas and became interested in Orthodox Christianity. In 1878, she was baptized an Orthodox Christian. Noting her talent as an artist, Bp. Nicholas, in 1880, arranged for her to study iconography in Russia for five years. At that time, her professor at the National Academy, Antonio Fontanesi stepped down and went back to Italy, and she was losing interest in studying at the academy. Quitting the National Academy, she was sent to Russia under Bp. Nicholas' arrangement and studied at the Novodevichy Resurrection Monastery for women in St. Petersburg, Russia, from 1881 to 1883. In St. Petersburg, she had opportunities to visit the Museum of Hermitage and was impressed by Western style paintings, including Raphael Santio. On the other hand, she had difficulties being sympathic toward Byzantine style icons and sometimes even expressed her frustration. In 1883, Bp. Nicholas called her back to Japan in accordance with the planned schedule.
She returned to Japan where she became the principal artist of religious art, including iconography, at the mission headquarters in Kanda Suragadai in Tokyo. She resided in the headquarter area, in the dormitory of Tokyo Orthodox Seminary for Women.
Over the ensuing years, Irina produced many icons and other religious works and illustrations for the Japanese Orthodox Mission. Her talent and devotion to her occupation was respected among faithfuls. In 1891 she depicted an icon of Theotokos as gift from the church of Japan to the Russian Crown Prince Nicholas, the future Nicholas II of Russia who visited Japan in that year.
She is remembered as the leader and forerunner of iconography in Japan. Irina never married and lived a life of celibacy, much in the style of an Orthodox monastic. In 1918 she retired and went back to her birthplace, Kasama. She died in 1939.