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.


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