AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 32

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Session 32: Religion Goes Pop: Manga and Religion in Post-1995 Japan

Organizer: Erica Baffelli, University of Otago, New Zealand

Chair: John A. Shultz, Kansai Gaidai University, Japan

Discussant: Mark W. MacWilliams, St. Lawrence University, USA

Despite the popularity of manga, which constitutes a significant portion of all publications in Japan, noticeably few academic studies have been done on religion and manga. Several studies, however, have discussed the central role of media in influencing the ways in which religious thought and practices are understood and “consumed” in modern Japanese society. Manga, in particular, have been used extensively by religious groups and examples of religious topics portrayed in manga are countless, including, for example, the immensely popular Tezuka Osamu’s Buddha and the very recent Seinto oniisan. Indeed, the ubiquity of manga in Japanese culture demonstrates its significant potential to shape how religion is perceived and defined. This panel would look at contemporary manga constructed around religious themes, characters, and the supernatural to consider both their structure and reception with respect to traditional religious organizations and new religious movements. The panel is designed to explore representations of religiosity in popular media specifically in the so-called "post-Aum era", after 1995 and the cataclysmic events of the sarin gas attacks launched by Aum Shinrikyo. Additionally, this analysis will also provide important perspectives that could support or dispute theoretical assertions which consider modern Japanese phenomena under the rubric of 'spirituality'. These papers have been selected to cover not only different religious traditions (Christianity, Buddhism, New Religious Movements), or practices (as pilgrimage) but also to provide innovative interdisciplinary perspectives on the topic.

Creative Misreadings of Christianity in contemporary shojo manga
Rebecca Suter, University of Sydney, Australia

A particularly interesting, and as yet not much studied, subgenre of manga dealing with religion comprises works set during the so-called Christian century of Japan (1549-1639), the brief period of evangelisation before the ban on Christianity in the Tokugawa period. The mid-1990s and early 2000s have seen a small boom in this kind of comics, from Toba Shoko’s Makai tensho--yume no ato (1997) to Fujita Takami’s Shimavara (1999), to Ishikawa Kan’s Makai Tensho (2005). Interestingly, a number of these works focus on the irrational elements of Christianity, representing it as a form of magic and superstition, in contrast with the prevalent image of the West as the harbinger of science, rationalism and Enlightenment. In this paper, I will focus on one manga series that falls in this category, Michiyo Akaishi’s Amakusa 1637 (2002). The comic tells the story of Hayumi Natsuki, a modern-day Japanese schoolgirl who is shipwrecked during a school trip and time-travels to medieval Japan. There, she is mistaken for Amakusa Shiro, the Messianic leader of the Shimabara rebellion of 1637-38, the last Christian revolt before the final repression of the religion. Taking advantage of a series of technological gadgets that have time-traveled with her (mobile phone, torchlight, pet bottles) Natsuki performs “miracles” and successfully passes as a “messenger of God.” By analysing the comic’s peculiar combination of religion, technology, and fantasy, I will investigate its creative appropriation of Christianity, and the way it undermines common notions of East-West cross-cultural influences and negotiations.

Healing Humor—Nakamura Hikaru’s Seinto oniisan (Saint Youngmen)
Mark W. MacWilliams, St. Lawrence University, USA

One of the pleasures of manga is that they are often funny. The large role humor plays is indicated by the original meaning of the characters for manga in Chinese, "light-hearted jokes” (man) expressed in “pictures” (ga). Manga’s power to make people laugh is particularly at work in a genre of commercial manga called “gag manga,” which are stories typically structured into short episodes filled with ridiculous situations and silly characters, word plays, and jokes designed less for deep reflection than to get a quick laugh. In this paper, I will explore the religious dimensions of humor in a recent best selling gag manga, Nakamura Hikaru’s Seinto oniisan (Saint Youngmen). It is about Buddha and Jesus who are living a Gen Xer life as 20 somethings in Tachikawa, an ordinary suburb of Tokyo. Nakamura describes her work as a “lighthearted (nukunuku) comedy where “even laughs can save the world!” The question is: Should we take seriously Nakamura’s claim that “laughs can save the world”? Does her humor have a spiritual or religious dimension to it? Through an analysis of the numerous fan websites, blogs, and review lists devoted to the saints, I will argue that many fans find a spiritual healing in Nakamura’s “healing laughter” (iyasareru warai). The laughs, outside of any traditional religious organizational context, challenge Seinto oniisan’s readers to revision the way they understand their lives.

New Religions in/and manga
Erica Baffelli, University of Otago, New Zealand

Manga have been used by many of the so-called Japanese New Religions (shinshukyo) to spread their message or, in same case, to attack their critics. The former group includes both manga focusing on the leader's life (as, for example, one of the first manga published by a new religious movement, The Founder of Konko Religion, published in 1966 by Konkokyo) and works aiming at explaining teachings and doctrines, often using “conversion stories” as examples. These “stories” are used, I argue, to create a standard model of “conversion stories”, repeated in other publications and internalized during group meetings. Other manga have been used to reply to criticisms, as, for example Kibo no kakumei published by Kofuku no kagaku in the 1990s to attack Kodansha and journalists. At the same time, however, new religious movements have been depicted in manga, although often they are not explicitly named. I argue that manga representations of new religious movements, especially post-1995, reflect the generally negative (or even “dangerous”, as in the manga Karisuma (charisma) published in 2006) image of new religion still lingering in other media and popular culture. This paper will discuss the representations of new religious movements in manga using examples from works published by religious groups (in particular Aum shinrikyo and Kofuku no kagaku) and post-1995 mainstream manga representations of such groups.

Squiggly Seichi: Pilgrimage Rendered in Manga and Manga Pilgrimage
John A. Shultz, Kansai Gaidai University, Japan

In contemporary Japan, pilgrimage is one of the most important means of popular religious expression, while manga is a top form of popular literary expression. What might the intersections of manga and pilgrimage culture tells us about religiosity in Japan? In this paper, I explore that question by considering an example of a traditional pilgrimage rendered in manga and also by examining manga culture's recent appropriation of the term 'junrei,' the most common Japanese word for pilgrimage. In the first section of the paper, traditional pilgrimage in manga is examined through Kurosaki Kazuto’s sai no chizu (2005), a semiautobiographical account of a pilgrimage to the 88 places of Shikoku accomplished on a tricycle. This dramatic mystical quest begins with the author symbolically abandoning his identity as a manga writer, only to be reborn through the journey both spiritually and professionally. In the second section, manga junrei is considered through a variety of websites and recent publications, such as Doriru Purojekuto's Seichi junrei NAVI-Anime & komiku (2010). Here I investigate what constitutes seichi, or "holy places," for manga enthusiasts, as well as the colloquialization of the term junrei. Finally, I compare these understandings of 'pilgrimage' to draw out their implications for religion and popular culture.