AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 413

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Session 413: Making Religious Spaces in Contemporary Japan - Supported by Society for the Study of Japanese Religion

Organizer: Garrett L. Washington, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

Chair: John K. Nelson, University of San Francisco, USA

Discussant: Nancy K. Stalker, University of Texas, Austin, USA

Since the Meiji period, a rapidly modernizing Japanese society has raised unprecedented religious and spiritual questions, multiplied the types of consumers seeking answers to these questions, and expanded traditional boundaries delimiting religious experience. To establish and maintain relevance, religions have drawn upon built and natural environments in creative ways to attract greater participation, heighten ritual efficacy, and facilitate specific behaviors within their facilities. This multi-disciplinary panel considers the ever-widening, increasingly versatile spatial tool set that Japanese religious leaders and practitioners have used to conceptualize, construct, and reshape their temples, shrines, sanctuaries, and churches in order to meet changing religious needs over time. In each case, confirming the insights of Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and others, the shape and nature of their religious spaces have been intimately connected to the workings of the minds and actions of the people who animate them. Garrett Washington will examine the use of location and architecture to make Meiji-era Protestant churches accessible, highly visible, appealing, and distinct Japanese religious spaces in Tokyo. Elizabeth Kenney will explore the post-war creation of curiously attractive rural and urban chinji (strange temples), the actions and attitudes of their visitors, and these sites’ relationships with their physical surroundings. John Nelson will survey some of the unique and experimental trends in the recent placement, reconfiguration, and utilization of Buddhist religious spaces. Barbara Ambros will describe the appropriation of both explicitly religious and ostensibly secular spaces to foster corporate identity and improve corporate public image through the performance of animal memorial rituals.

A Spatial History of Tokyo's Protestant Churches, 1886-1917
Garrett L. Washington, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

The founders of Meiji Japan’s new gathering spaces, from the National Diet and Yasukuni Shrine to public schools and military barracks, imagined distinct, new structures with representative and practical qualities. Well aware of the power of space, later demonstrated by scholars such as Georg Simmel, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel Foucault, they realized physical spaces that would influence the attitude and behaviors of the people who saw and animated them. Among these gathering spaces were the Protestant churches that took on an unprecedented importance in the late 1880s, as Christianity gained acceptability and legitimacy and distanced itself from missionary governance. The pastors and congregations of Tokyo’s largest Protestant churches believed that the specific location and shape of the Protestant space held the key to attracting Japan’s most influential present and future leaders and facilitating their interactions inside. Situated within the administrative and educational centers of the capital, Protestant churches were designed by the period’s most prominent Western-style Japanese architect, and equipped with diverse meeting spaces and attractive, state-of-the-art facades and forms. These characteristics distinguished Protestant churches from existing Christian, Buddhist, and Shintō religious spaces in Japan, enabled them to reach and appeal to the well-traveled, educated elite, and helped make them an integral and recognizable piece of the Japanese religious landscape. Using autobiographies, newspapers, correspondence, photographs, architectural drawings, city ward maps, and other sources, this paper analyzes the transformation of Tokyo’s Protestant churches into urban accessible, highly visible, impressive, open, and functional religious gathering spaces in Meiji and Taishō Japan.

Strange Temples: Sites of Wonder in the Japanese Religious Landscape
Elizabeth R. Kenney, Kansai Gaidai University, Japan

“Strange temple” (chinji) designates a certain type of Buddhist site. Usually built or modified within the last forty years, these temples have none of the architectural grandeur of the showcase buildings constructed by Japanese New Religions. Nor do they have the quiet beauty of traditional wooden temples. Furthermore, the Japanese esthetic of cuteness is not much in evidence. Instead, these temples have an ad-hoc outlandishness that makes them, to the sympathetic visitor, curiously attractive, fascinatingly odd. Two temples, both of which are pilgrimage destinations for dedicated fans of strange temples, will serve as case studies. One temple is a concrete mishmash of a building. The other temple, set among tea fields, is notable for its outside space, which includes a sunken garden for memorial rites for aborted fetuses, a fox shrine, and a large paper-mache radish. I will discuss the motivations of the priests, the actions and attitudes of the visitors, and the relationship of the temples to their surroundings, both natural and man-made. I will compare strange temples to haikyo, the eerie “ruins” (abandoned factories, hospitals, schools) of Japan’s post-industrial landscape. Strange temples and ruins are found together in magazines and on websites. Both of these contemporary spaces--one officially sacred and packed with religious objects, the other secular and empty but filled with a ghostly otherworldliness--appeal to people who seek a bit of re-enchantment in the world of Japan.

“Transformations of Buddhist Religious Space in Contemporary Japan
John K. Nelson, University of San Francisco, USA

Throughout much of Japanese history, Buddhist temples have functioned as tools of the state, as sites where patronage creates merit, and as vehicles delivering the promise of salvation. These roles are now undergoing rapid change due to dramatic social, cultural, and demographic shifts that were set in full motion during Japan’s economic “bubble” of the 1970s and 80s. Greater mobility, higher education, travel abroad, increased secularization, and a general ambivalence about religious leaders has caused a loss of support for temples of all denominations unlike any in the history of Japanese temple Buddhism. As a consequence, some priests are trying to “think outside the box” about how their temples can regain relevance and once again serve their communities. This presentation will survey some of the unique and experimental trends that are reconfiguring Buddhist religious spaces in contemporary Japan. Utilizing the main sanctuary for performances of hip hop, jazz, classical, and popular music, as well as for comedy, lectures, theater, and even fashion shows are a few of these initiatives. Outside the temple as well, Buddhist spaces can be found in storefronts within shopping arcades, in parking lots fronting major roads, and on the web where the “visual ideology” of a temple is applied to a wide range of venues. While some of these events may seem trivial or even heretical, it is the space in which they occur that, as Foucault reminds us (1980), nonetheless disciplines both activity and awareness.

Masking Commodification and Sacralizing Consumption: Corporate Animal Memorial Rites in Contemporary Urban Japan
Barbara R. Ambros, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

This paper analyzes public and corporate spaces that have been appropriated for the performance of animal memorial rituals. According to Michel Foucault, mortuary spaces are heterotopias, “real places … which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites … are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault 1986) Modern animal memorial rituals and monuments have been nostalgically constructed as embodiments of Japanese tradition and respect for the natural world, but they in fact invert actual human-animal relationships and contest modernity with its inherent commodification of animals while simultaneously sacralizing their consumption. Many contemporary animal memorial rituals are sponsored by corporations, professional associations, and research and educational institutions. The language of corporate animal memorial rituals emphasizes animal sacrifice for the prosperity and health of the nation. Therefore, they serve to legitimate the consumption of animals rather than critiquing it. In many cases, the rituals and monuments were initiated in response to animal welfare legislation implemented in the 1970s. They have provided corporations a means to create a positive public image and to hone corporate identities. Whereas some animal memorial monuments are located, and some animal memorial rituals are conducted, in explicitly religious spaces (temple or shrine precincts), many are set in corporate or public spaces (often not even involving religious specialists). The paper examines the reasons behind these choices, linking them to concerns about the separation of church and state and the creation of corporate and local identities through spatial practices.