Day 09 in Ise… Shintō Issues and the Academic Community Abroad

Listening to these lectures delivered by Kōgakkan University’s professors on Ise’s history, the evolution of Shintō, and others has reminded me of a few issues that have been brought to my attention in other venues. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I am a member of a few Japanese Studies listservs, one of which is the Premodern Japanese Studies (PMJS) listserv. I joined this listserv as a graduate student and have been a subscriber for many years. Top scholars from across multiple fields related to Japanese studies subscribe and actively contribute to the list. Reading their posts not only keeps me aware of current trends in Japanese studies, but also gives me a peek into their thought process as they hash-out complicated issues brought up in the group.


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Nō satisfaction: a scene from a typical nō performance

One such Shintō related topic from June 2016 was raised by Ross Bender and is as follows with my comments added:

A friend recently sent me a link to an article by J. Thomas Rimer titled “What More Do We Need to Know about the No?” (Asian Theatre Journal, 9 (2) 215-223. Stable URL:

Rimer points out that while we know a good bit about Buddhism in Noh, Shinto has been neglected:

“A number of important plays by Zeami that remain untranslated into English are those that deal not with Buddhist but with Shinto subject matter, plays as central to his dramaturgy as Akoya no matsu (The Pine at Akoya), Hakozaki (the title refers to a Shinto shrine in Kyushu), Hojogawa (The River for the Hojoe Ceremony), and Fujisan (Mount Fuji); the latter two are still performed in the modern repertory. It is clear from the treatises that such Shinto plays were highly popular; today, they may seem remote and formal. Yet without real familiarity with their texts, we cannot enter into one area of Zeami’s mental and spiritual world.”


I do not have much experience with , other than what is found in Japanese literature anthologies. However, I do study kōwakamai, which is closely connected to both in subject matter and in the time period in which they were written. Actually many kōwakamai pieces have nō counterparts. Present day scholars are uncertain about the definite links between the two genres, which has led to a lot of speculation.


“The second agenda, then, on my list of what we need to know about the no concerns the need for a closer study of Shinto as understood and practiced at Zeami’s time, as well as its complex relationship to Buddhism. One of the best methods for such a study, of course, might consist of an examination of the texts of those same plays, as well as those by some of Zeami’s contemporaries-well-known plays (many of them not as yet translated into English) such as Awaji by Zeami’s father Kan’ami (1333-1384) or Gendayu (set at the Ise Shrine) attributed to Kiami (c. 1350). William La Fleur, in his Karma of Words (1983), has given us a provocative vision of the functioning of Buddhism in the no; we need as well a parallel and interlocking account of Shinto.”

This part is really fascinating. It also somewhat echoes the instructional goals of the Ise and Japan Study Program, i.e. the need for a closer examination of Shintō. People outside of Japan studying Buddhism, Shintō, or both often have a hard time conceptualizing just how closely related the two are in Japan. There are very few distractions in Akita (that’s a nice way of saying it’s in the middle of nowhere!) so the “complex relationship” between Shintō and Buddhism has really been noticeable to me while being here, i.e. many traditional festivals share both Buddhist and Shintō elements.

Also, re-reading this thread has brought the titled Gendayū 源太夫 to my attention. It’s about Ise Jingū, so maybe if I start studying it then I’ll have an excuse to come back and visit!



“Again, there may be reasons why such studies remain imperfectly realized, even in Japan. Yamazaki, for example, has suggested to me that postwar scholars in his country have tended to pay less attention to such material because of the nationalist sentiments aroused by the wartime links between Shintoist concepts and military ideals. At the least, there is no question but that the Shinto aspects of no exist at a considerable remove from the concerns of our modern consciousness. The no will become much stranger, much less well domesticated, when examined for what it can reveal about these presumably distant or archaic systems of belief. Yet unless we undertake some kind of examination of these underpinnings, our understanding of Zeami and his contemporaries will be as incomplete as our knowledge of Mozart without Idomeneo or Shakespeare without Coriolanus. Again, it seems to me, the surest place to begin is with an examination of the texts themselves in order to ascertain what attitudes, what assumptions, both explicit and implicit, are contained in them.”

I shared the same trepidation before participating in this study program. The thought that all of the lectures during the course would be Nihonjinron propaganda really worried me. I’m happy to report that I had no reason to fear and that the lectures have been pretty fairly balanced. It is really important for the Ise and Japan Study Program coordinators to understand Bender’s point here. People outside Japan (and even Japanese scholars) approach Shintō very, very cautiously and sometimes even downright avoid it because of the way Shintō is such closely tied to WWII Japanese fanaticism.

After being on this program I no longer am wary to address potential Shintō themes influence in the material that I study. If anything, I am happy to learn of this extra dimension that I can add to my research.

This post really instigated a long and vigorous discussion. It can be found here  or by searching for the keywords PMJS.


Day 19 in Ise… Other Ise Blogs

As part of the Ise and Japan Study Program, participants were encouraged to use social networking as much as possible. Not only did the program coordinators want us, the participants, to learn about Ise’s importance in Japanese culture and history, but they also wanted us to share our experiences with the world.

Although we all participated in the same lectures and fieldwork, the participants represent a broad range of academic backgrounds, so reading their posts really changed my perspective on things that we had learned about together.

While many participants shared their experiences in private outlets, some made blogs visible to the public. Here are a few:

…from Belgium:

Ise no Beruto

…from Holland:

Philo in Ise

…from Poland:



…from Spain

Frutas del Bosque

…from Ukraine:

Kolesnykova Olga and Japan

…from Germany:

Ise in a Box



Day 08 in Ise… Ise and Literature

Kōgakkan University‘s professors have presented a lot of great material on a wide variety of topics so far. One topic that I was anxiously awaiting was about the literary connections to Ise. I already wrote a post about a trip to the saikū 斎宮 where I was able to learn a lot about the historical background of some poems found in the Manyōshū 万葉集, but today’s presentation (3 March) on literature was the one to which I was really looking forward.

Arakida Moritaka

The presentation was given by Fukatsu Mutsuo-sensei 深津睦夫氏, who is a member of the literature department here at Kōgakkan. A few of the topics he spoke about were:

  1. The History of Japanese & Sino-Japanese Poetry (shika 詩歌)
  2. Waka 和歌 Poetry Connected to Ise
  3. Linked-verse Renga 連歌 Poetry
  4. Haikai 俳諧

In the History of Japanese & Sino-Japanese Poetry portion of his talk, Fukatsu-sensei provided a brief history of how Chinese writing (Japanese did not exist in a written form until the arrival of Chinese writing) prompted the Japanese people to begin writing their own poetry. He also introduced some of the main poetry collections of the early Japanese canon.

In the Waka 和歌 Poetry Connected to Ise portion, he spoke about how aristocrats in the Heian period would write waka poems both about Ise and while in Ise. He also spoke about the famous poet Saigyō’s 西行 connection with Ise. I found this really interesting because Saigyō was a Buddhist monk and all things Buddhist were banned from the Ise Jingū area. Apparently Saigyō revered Ise Jingū and had no problem stripping himself of Buddhist accoutrement during his stay. Shrine officials also had a penchant for writing waka, apparently. I love Saigyō’s poetry and strongly recommend it to everyone.

Linked-verse Renga poetry is poetry composed in groups, when each member writes a stanza building on the previous member’s stanza. This form of poetry was a very popular way for aristocrats to entertain themselves and was also a favourite pastime of shrine officials in Ise. One Ise Shintō priest, Arikida Moritake 荒木田守武 (1473-1549) is particularly famous for writing renga. This is the first time that I have ever heard of him, I think, and am interested to read about him some more.

Finally, waka and renga gave way to haikai, so Fukatsu-sensei ended with a brief explanation of haikai and of course Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 whose hometown is in Mie and who travelled to and composed poems about Ise.

What was most interesting to me was the very idea of “Ise” as a theme in literature. I had never considered it before, but as Fukatsu-sensei demonstrated, literature was “happening” at Ise from very early. Ōku no himemiko 大来皇女 (661-702) who is famous for her poetry in the Manyōshū is one of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals, is a key figure in Ise history. Saigyō had a very influential effect on later poetry, especially with the way he incorporated Buddhist messages and themes into poems. His poetry and style influenced poets for generations to come (for example Bashō was a huge fan of his, 500 years later). At a time when Buddhist language and culture were taboo in Ise, renga became a popular pastime–case in point, Arikida Moritake. And finally Bashō and his connections to Ise are important to note.

An Essay by Achim Bayer: “Silence (沈黙): The Cannon and the Cross”

I’m subscribed to a few Japanese culture and literature listservs. Topics that fellow subscribers post about range from arcane vocabulary in the Kojiki 古事記 to problems facing today’s humanities programs.

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Shūsaku Endō

Just today I saw a post by Achim Bayer, an Associate Professor at Kanazawa Seiryo University 金沢星稜大学. The post advertised an essay that he has recently written and made available for free online about Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. Scorsese’s film is based on the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō’s 遠藤周作 (1923-1996) novel Chinmoku 沈黙 (1966). The essay is titled “Necessary Reflections on Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”: Religious Violence in the Seventeenth Century, as Seen from Japan.” It’s a short read, but full of pertinent information regarding the state of world in which Silence is set. And, while Bayer wrote this essay in response to Silence, the information is also to germaine to another of Endō’s novels, The Samurai (Samurai 侍, 1980).

In the article Bayer seems to be criticizing the film (and by extension, the novel) for not portraying the ugly affairs happening in other parts of the world in which Christians were involved. (see Dr. Bayer’s cordial comment below about my interpretation of his article.) He mentions Spain’s conquering of the Philippines and the bloody 30 Years’ War–two “current events” that Bayer claims the Japanese shogun (who was the military, de facto ruler of Japan)  knew fully about. Understanding the historical background is important for understanding any text, I would argue. But I do not think Endō was purposefully leaving out key information (such as the role played by missionaries in conquering lands), I think he was just a guy trying to write a novel. I do not think the novel makes the Japanese warlords or the missionaries look like the villains, nor do I think it makes them look like the heroes. The novel is simply a commentary about a historical event in Japan.

I was really excited to see a Japanese novel make it to the big screen in America–not only make it to the big screen, but be a masterpiece–so I have posted about Silence in the past here and here. Bayer’s essay covers information that I did not address in my previous posts.

Day 07 in Ise…Disrupting the Shintō Tradition

This post is titled “Day 07…” but really it’s the end of week 2! Time flies.

By now I’ve attended many lectures on Shintō 神道 that have covered a wide range of topics. I feel as though two radical changes in the way Shintō has been practiced over the centuries have been detrimental to maintaining “true” Shintō.


This family shrine was probably once in the middle of the rice field they tended–now surrounded by buildings. No rice fields for miles.

Uji-gami 氏神

The first one is when local family shrines were forced to combine to form conglomerate shrines.  For argument’s sake, let’s just call Japan’s native folk religion Shintō.” This form of early Shintō centered on village worship practices focusing on agriculture. Therefore worshiping the kami 神 (deity) associated with the family or village was the center of Shintō traditions. A family, or clan, ruled a particular area and that family’s or that area’s kami was the object of worship. The term for this is uji-gami 氏神 (clan deity). As Japan began establishing itself as a nation, the regions’ powerful families combined and many uji-gami were discarded.

Today what we have in modern Japanese Shintō is not families or villages worshipping their own kami. Instead, what happened at various times in history but (mainly in the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912) is that families and local areas were forced to dismantle their local shrines (in essence, relinquish their ancestral kami) and focus on new larger shrines representing the nation. These larger, newer shrines were established in order to rally the Japanese people around the emperor and the “nation” rather than around their ancestral kami.


Lunar Solar Calendar 太陰太陽暦

The second harmful change to practicing true Shintō is when Shintō officials decided to adopt the western calendar. The result is that annual matsuri 祭り (festivals, rituals) became divorced from the natural agricultural-based seasonal calendar. Shintō and kami worship is intrinsically and undeniably an agricultural based religion. The matsuri were created to be in-sync with the planting season and the lunar-solar calendar, thus bringing harmony between people, the kami, and the seasons. By discarding the lunar-solar calendar, which is deeply connected to the planting cycle, in favor of a western calendar beginning on January 1st,  Shintō officials (who probably live in the middle of Tokyo and don’t know the first thing about rice farming) have essentially eradicated part of what makes  Shintō Shintō.”

The population in rural areas is declining in Japan, just like it is in many countries all over the globe, so revitalizing family and village kami worship would probably be a very daunting task. However, re-claiming the lunar-solar agricultural calendar would be rather easy to do. For example, everyone knows about “Chinese New Year”–well that’s the Shintō New Year, too! But in all my time in Japan  I have never heard of a festival happening at that time of year at a Shintō shrine. (There are thousands of Shintō shrines in Japan, so one of them must have a Lunar New Year festival, I just have not heard of it.)

Modern day Shintō leaders should turn back to the family- and community-centered roots rather than focusing on the country and politics.

Day 06 in Ise… Japanese Pilgrimages

About 8 years ago I was part of a program that retraced Matsuo Bashō’s 松尾芭蕉 (1644-1694) Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道. Many western scholars refer to Bashō’s journey as a type of pilgrimage. What I had read about Bashō’s pilgrimage gave me the impression that Japanese pilgrimages were circular (starting and ending in the same place) whereas western/ European pilgrimages were linear (a start point differing from the end point). However, participating in the Ise and Japan Study Program has changed my understanding of Japanese pilgrimages.

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Bashō’s counterclockwise pilgrimage route.

As for western pilgrimages, consider the Canterbury pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage, or even the Hajj (which is not western or European obviously but I feel as though Christianity and Islam share enough history for their respective pilgrimages to be similar). The Canterbury pilgrimage, made famous by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, begins in London’s Southwark and ends in Canterbury. The Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage begins at various starting points in Europe that all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James the Great are buried. Similarly, the Hajj has various starting points all which end in Mecca. Each of these pilgrimages follows a linear route.

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The Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury.

Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi

Bashō’s pilgrimage route was circular, following a counterclockwise path. His route starts in Tokyo then proceeds north along Japan’s east coast towards Sendai, then traverses Honshū to present day Yamagata/Akita, and back south down to Ogaki, just outside of Nagoya. The Shikoku Junrei 四国巡礼 starts in Tokushima, Shikoku and follows a clockwise route ending in Kagawa.

I thought that these pilgrimages were indicative of all Japanese pilgrimage traditions, but this is wrong. Take for example the pilgrimage to Ise Jingū. Since the Jingū was originally only for the tennō 天皇 (emperor) exclusively to make pilgrimages, it began wherever the tennō was (generally in the areas of Nara and Kyoto) and ended at Ise Jingū–a linear route. In the Edō period 江戸時代 (1600-1868), pilgrimages to Ise Jingū were open up to everyone. Pilgrimage starting points were thus established any place where people could gather in groups and make the journey. One such gathering spot is located in Osaka at Tamatsuri Inari Jinja 玉造稲荷神社 and follows a linear route to Ise.

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Linear Pilgrimage Route from Tamatsuri Inari Jinja to Ise Jingū

Since checking out more information on Japanese pilgrimages, I have found quite a lot of linear pilgrimage routes, especially into mountain regions (i.e. the base of the mountain, to the top, and back). I’ve learned that in Japan there are a variety of pilgrimage routes through out the country and that they vary in either linear or circular layouts.