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Studying the Anthropology of Women and Religion in Japan

Saturday, September 18, 2004 Posted: 08:39 AM JST

(by Ellen Schattschneider) - As an anthropologist my research has concentrated on women and religion in Japan. But my interests in Japan actually come out of my background as an artist and textile designer, before I became an anthropologist. Many years ago, I worked with indigenous women in northern Luzon (the Philippines), documenting traditional textile designs and helping to reintroduce back strap weaving techniques into local women's cooperatives.

In a circuitous fashion, my work in the Philippines led to my being invited to spend a summer in Kyoto to study kimono weaving at Kawashima Textile School, one of the oldest textile academies in Japan. During our long days at the looms (10-12 hours of intense, precise work) I became fascinated with the extraordinary concentration, focused aesthetic sensibility, and exacting attention to detailed perfection that these women brought to their work. Living at Kawashima, I was also deeply moved by the quiet friendship, solidarity and humor among women.

Years later, when I returned to Japan to pursue doctoral research, I decided to explore women's labor discipline and aesthetic sensibility by concentrating on the domains of religion and ritual performance. My fieldwork was based in the Tsugaru region of far northern Honshu (Japan's largest island). I worked primarily at Akakura Mountain Shrine, a popular Shinto shrine (with extensive popular Buddhist influences) that had been founded by a local woman in the 1920s. The shrine and the rocky face of the sacred mountain on which it is located have long been associated with women spirit mediums known as 'kamisama' (literally, divine beings). On the mountain's rugged slopes, many local women undertake long and demanding stints of ascetic religious discipline ('shugyo'), leaving their homes to spend days or weeks living at the shrine.

After about six months of fieldwork, I was finally allowed to begin shugyo myself. At 4:00 am each morning the women at the shrine would rise to present offerings to the divinities enshrined in the major altars. By 5:00 a.m., an experienced woman ascetic and I would leave the shrine to begin to climb the mountain, performing austerities making prayers and offerings to the mountain divinities along the way. I gradually began to appreciate the complex forms of embodied knowledge that women mastered as they climbed the mountain; as my friend and teacher Fumiko told me one day, as I struggled to leap from boulder to boulder, 'The mountain will teach you through your body.'

At first I had thought that life on the mountain was entirely distinct from these women's everyday experiences in towns and villages in the plain below. Yet as I pursued shugyo and spent more time with women in surrounding communities, I slowly came to understand that on the mountain women dramatically re-enacted, and in some respects refashioned, key events and relationships in their own lives, as daughters, mothers, wives, sisters, and workers.

At the great boulder known as Old Woman Stone (ubaishi), high on a windswept ridge, we crawled six times through a narrow tunnel, in a process that recalled the great cycles of birth and transmigration. As we climbed to the mountain summit we followed a line of thirty-three statues of the compassionate bodhisattva Kannonsama, the Buddhist goddess of mercy that for these women was intimately associated with their mothers and foremothers. As they strove to serve the divinities within the shrine kitchen, a larger version of the regular kitchens in which local women worked for hours each day, many women attained a form of emotional and spiritual equilibrium that infused their labor activities throughout their everyday lives back on the plain. In dreams and mystical visions experienced during mountain shugyo, women relived, and in subtle ways sublimated, traumatic experiences in their own autobiographies. The mountain, conceived by many as a kind of great, cosmic womb, allowed many women, in effect, to attain a form of spiritual and psychosocial rebirth.

Over time, I discerned in the forms of religious discipline followed at Akakura striking parallels to the therapeutic regimens of psychoanalysis. In choosing the title for my first book, Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain, I thus drew on Freud's famous image in The Interpretation of Dreams of our unconscious desires as 'immortal wishes', struggling to emerge from the depths, like the Titans imprisoned by Zeus underneath Mount Olympus.

In my subsequent work, I've continued to concentrate on ways in which Japanese women work to fashion their interior lives and their relations with other persons, living and dead, through tangible engagement with the material, object world. I've become fascinated with the importance of 'ningyo' (literally, "human shape," although the term is usually translated as 'doll') for women in Japan, especially in memorializing the dead. I've worked at Buddhist sites in Tsugaru where bereaved persons, primarily women, dedicate beautiful bride dolls to the souls of children and youths who died before marriage, to grant them peaceful repose in the other world through posthumous spirit marriage.

This work has led me to explore the importance of dolls and related figurines during the Asia Pacific War, as the Second World War is known in Japan. Many Imperial Army soldiers carried small 'mascot' dolls, made by mothers, sisters, and sweethearts as well as junior high school girls from across the nation. These dolls became especially important for the thousands of kamikaze pilots who flew fatal missions in the war's final months. I've come to know many of the women who, as teenagers, were assigned to look after the kamikaze, in a sense as honorary sisters; I've been deeply moved by their memories of the pilots and of the war, by the stories of their subsequent close friendships with one another across six decades, and by their recollections of the dolls they made for the lost pilots, so long ago. I'm currently completing a book about the significance of these dolls in reference to popular memories of the war period, 'Facing the Dead: Japan and its Dolls in the Mirror of War.'

Ellen Schattschneider is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA.

To learn more about her book. "Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain," see her website.

Keywords: culture_news religious society

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