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View my ignoble return to the blogosphere. In particular, my revival of this particular blog, in which I had only ever posted a paltry two entries about a year and a half ago. Well, I don't know how well this will go, but in any case, being in grad school now and having to read a book or two a week for my Japanese history class this semester, I figured I could start writing about those readings instead of relegating them to the recesses of my mind because, really, some of them are quite good. And some, not so good. These aren't meant to be critical academic reviews, just a brief overview and my thoughts.

Anyways, I'll start with something good. Last week I read Sarah Thal's Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods: The Politics of a Pilgrimage Site in Japan, 1573-1912 (2005). The book focuses on the pilgrimage site Konpira (later renamed Kotohira), and its changes through time as a consequence of various social, economic, and political pressures.

Prior to the Meiji Restoration, temples and shrines weren't exclusive of each other the way they are today. You'd have shrines on temple grounds and temples on shrine grounds. You'd have kami, Buddhist deities who were supposedly avatars for native Shinto kami, long-nosed goblins (tengu), and mountain asceticsm all gathered together and worshipped at the same site. Konpira was a hugely popular pilgrimage site that at the height of its popularity around the 1850s was even compared to Ise. It's located in eastern Shikoku on Mt. Zouzu in Takamatsu domain and identified with the Buddhist Shingon sect, with its main deity being Konpira. The temple was well off economically during the Tokugawa period. It had a taxable population in the town of Konpira at the foot of the mountain, income lands donated through various connections, and a close alliance between its head priests and the daimyo lords of the domain. The deities of the site were associated with miracles, healing, safety at sea, gold, and so on. The very ambiguity of the gods made it all the more popular, as pilgrims could interpret them as they wished.

With the Meiji Restoration came major changes institutionally and economically. The new government decreed the separation of temples and shrines. The head priest of Konpira during the transition years, Yuujou, in the interests of the site's survival, saw that Konpira's success up until then had been in part because of its close associations with the state. Thus, hoping to win similar sponsorship under the new system, he made the decision to throw in his lot with the Meiji government and convert the site to a Shinto shrine. He had to change his Buddhist name to the native reading, Kotooka, and also the shrine's name from Konpira to Kotohira (though he did this very cleverly. The original Konpira, 金毘羅, became Kotohira,金刀比羅, which, if you write vertically and scrunch the second and third characters together, could even be mistaken for or read as a simplification of the original Konpira. This he did in an effort not to alienate the Buddhist pilgrims who came to worship). The new Kotohira deity was supposed to be a combination of the kami Oukuninushi, the god of the unseen world, and the vengeful spirit of the emperor Sutoku.

The book goes into detail about various other changes; how the government instituted a ranking system for imperial and provincial shrines, with the effect of providing state shrines with incentive to support the state in hopes of being promoted; how Kotohira was stripped of its administrative and income lands, shrinking the power of the head priest to just the mountain of the shrine; how the new state shrines became "non-religious" as they cooperated with the new education campaign designed to inculcate the larger populace with loyalty to the Emperor and state; how Kotohira made the gradual transition from Buddhist to Shinto, burning many of its Buddhist artifacts and saving the most valuable to later transform into cultural artifacts in an effort to raise money; how, in lieu of state support, the priests at Kotohira were forced to come up with new ideas such as the Reverence Association to draw pilgrimage groups to it and maintain the economic viability of the shrine; how the Sino-Japanese War and later the Russo-Japanese War transformed the shrines again into places of miracles and a gathering place for nationalistic sentiments and support for war efforts.

As a narrative of the life of a pilgrimage site with attention to the social and political environment over time, it's a great read if you're interested in this kind of stuff. I loved it. The head priest, Kotooka, did whatever it took to ensure the survival of the shrine. He petitioned many times to be appointed the head Shinto priest after the transition and to have the shrine be raised to the status of an imperial shrine. He was looking for state support and recognition when the new state was withdrawing its support from religious institutions, with Ise being the exception. More than adhering to a certain doctrine or practice, the shrine was a fluid site of transformation as its priests struggled to maintain its political status economic feasibility.

To end, one passage that particularly amused me was this bit concerning Kotooka's decision to transform the Buddhist pilgrimage site into a Shinto shrine. It's amusing because it follows after several pages where the author goes into all the reasons Kotooka might have had to justify why converting to Shinto made sense for the survival of Konpira: "Later Buddhist accounts, seeking to portray his capitulation as the result of trickery or personal weakness instead of logically reasoned intention, asserted that Yuujou was harangued, forced to eat meat, and lectured on the imminent destruction of all temples until he caved in." (p.133)


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October 2010


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