Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain
Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain

Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain

by Ellen Schattschneider


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822330752
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/16/2003
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 9.72(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Ellen Schattschneider is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University.

Read an Excerpt

Immortal Wishes

Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain

By Ellen Schattschneider

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8477-9


predicaments of history

Ritual Life on a Japanese Periphery

Memories of Conquest

On a warm summer evening in July 1992, a group of a dozen women were gathered in the Shinden (Inner Sanctuary) of Akakura Mountain Shrine, located on the lower slope of Akakura Mountain, as the northeastern face of Mount Iwaki is popularly known. The women had just participated in the first phase of the shrine's annual summer festival, the climax of the ritual year at Akakura. A senior kamisama spirit medium had led them in an hour-long performance of the shrine's primary chant, "Saigi, Saigi" (Repentance, repentance) as they had collectively besought the aid of the mountain's great divinities. Now, this group of women remained seated in the sanctuary for an extraordinary conversation. Led by the shrine's two most important spirit mediums, Okuda Setsuko and Narita Emiko, they shared stories of firsthand encounters with the divinities on the rugged upper slopes of Akakura.

As Okuda and Narita repeatedly reminded the lay worshipers, Akakura is the ura (rear, or hidden) face of Mount Iwaki, the great three-peaked volcano that towers over the southern Tsugaru plain. As such, Akakura is contrastively paired with the omote (front, or public) face of Iwaki, the mountain's much more placid southern slope. For generations the southern omote front face of Iwaki has been associated with political authority and the state Shinto establishment. In contrast, Akakura, the more remote ura face, has long been popularly conceived as the site of dangerous, unruly cosmological powers linked to the indigenous onigami (demon gods) and Onigamisama, the great Demon Queen.

Yet Okuda, Narita, and their fellow ritual specialists at Akakura did not consider themselves simply successors of untamed local demons. Rather, they understood themselves as emerging out of a complex political and cosmological history that stretched back over a millennium, encompassing both the early, conquering Yamato state and the conquered powers of the indigenous landscape. As they perform rigorous physical and spiritual austerities on Akakura's dangerous slopes, these ascetics tangibly encounter and embody a hybrid history, alternately fusing and transcending the categories of foreigner and native, divinity and demon, male and female, past and present.

At one point during the conversation, Okuda recalled that during an early exercise of shugyo on the mountain, the spirit of the great Japanese war leader Sakanoue Tamuramaro, who died more than 1000 years earlier, had possessed her. As she felt Sakanoue's breath coursing though her, her companion, an asthmatic young man, was purified and cured of his affliction. As Okuda recalled, "The kami said, 'This is the place to set down a little of your burden. This is the place.' And it was awe-inspiring. You could feel Sakanoue Tamuramaro's breath and even that young man, his body was frozen in fright, and something stuck into his body, making the sound, gichya, gichya" (rattle, rattle).

In describing her Possession by the healing mountain spirit of Sakanoue Tamuramaro, Mrs. Okuda, like Kawai Mariko before her, is heir to a popular mythic history stretching back many centuries. Sakanoue Tamuramaro, a historical personage in the ninth-century imperial court at Kyoto, is remembered in local oral histories as the Yamato conqueror of the indigenous Ezo and Ainu peoples of northern Honshu (ethnically cleansed from Tsugaru in the early modern period). Although most historians consider it highly unlikely that Tamuramaro or any figure of the ninth-century Kyoto court actually came as far north as Tsugaru, popular legend has it that Sakanoue Tamuramaro defeated the indigenous aborigines and colonized the region for the expanding Yamato civilization. He is said to have accomplished this feat by seducing Mount Iwaki's resident Demon Queen or Dragon Princess, variously referred to as Anjuhime, Akakurasama, Onigamisama, or Tatsubihime no Mikoto, who provided him with the ritual paraphernalia with which to defeat the indigenous armies (see Kodate 1980, 1986).

In her possession episode, Okuda moves back and forth between the structural positions of conqueror and conquered, foreigner and native. She follows in the footsteps of the ancient Yamato invader, retracing his ascetic pathways, yet is simultaneously followed by his invisible spirit, which moves on the mountain wind. Like the ancient indigenous Dragon Goddess, seduced by the male general, Okuda herself is penetrated by the presence of Sakanoue and begins to speak with his voice. Yet this process of possession also marks her emerging status in the shrine community; a visible representative of the ancient conqueror, she instructs the young male student in the mysteries of the cosmic mountain.

As noted earlier, Okuda had been compelled to undertake this initial period of ascetic discipline out of her overwhelming sense of unfulfilled obligation to her living and dead relatives, burdens that had afflicted her with terrible debts and seemingly terminal heart disease. Yet now, filled with the spirit of the ancient conqueror, she is granted peace. Her once heavy body becomes "light," and she communicates to her ill companion the words of the possessing divinity: "This is the place to set down a little of your burden." A few months before this mountain climb, she had believed herself entirely isolated and defeated, an utter failure in the eyes of her husband, neighbors, and ancestors. Now, atop the sacred mountain, Okuda is triumphant, a gifted healer and teacher within whose body is fused the divine couple, the foreign general and the native Dragon Princess. On the mysterious, hidden side of the mountain, far away from the familiar world of home and the plain, she is no longer a victim of history but is conjoined with history's victors.

As Okuda's possession narrative suggests, one cannot meaningfully separate the familial crises of obligation that impel worshipers to journey to Akakura Mountain from local and national histories. In many senses, these colliding histories have generated the collective and personal difficulties that motivate pilgrims on Akakura's healing slopes. At the same time, the ritual solutions developed by these actors creatively incorporate features of the remembered past, selectively drawing on mytho-historical personages and processes.

A historically isolated region associated with traces of conquered indigenous communities, the Tsugaru peninsula has long been consigned to the cultural and economic periphery of the nation. Existing precariously within a comparatively impoverished labor reserve, the fortunes of Tsugaru agrarian households have been intimately tied to the course of industrialization and urbanization in the core Japanese regions, yet they have rarely been able to reproduce themselves on their own terms. Under these conditions, a complex range of popular ritual practices has emerged and flourished in Tsugaru, surviving both central state repression and cosmopolitan bemusement. Since the 1920s, the ritual specialists of Akakura have imaginatively drawn on the rich local history of remembered conquest, labor, and symbolic action to create an innovative complex of myth and performance on the peripheral, "hidden" face of the sacred mountain.

Tsugaru Histories

Located at the northeastern tip of Honshu, Japan's largest island, the Tsugaru peninsula is surrounded to the west by the Sea of Japan, to the north by the Tsugaru Straits (which divide Honshu from Hokkaido), to the east by the broad circle of Aomori Bay, and to the south by mountains that run from the Sea of Japan to Lake Towada. The northeastern and southwestern sections are especially mountainous; the coastal plains are composed of marshes and swamplands. For millennia most human settlement has concentrated in the Tsugaru plain, the basin of the Iwaki River that flows north from a confluence near Mount Iwaki into the J?san Lagoon and the Sea of Japan. The plain, about forty miles long and between four and twelve miles wide, is bordered to the east and south by mountain ranges, and to the west by the massive volcanic Mount Iwaki and a series of sand dunes that stretch along the Sea of Japan. Although inhabitants have practiced irrigated rice cultivation in this central basin since at least the third century (Ravina 1991, 76), rice yields have never been high or reliable.

The Tsugaru region has short summers and long winters, and receives among the heaviest snowfalls in Japan. North of the protective coverage of Mount Iwaki (which for centuries has served as the symbolic center of Tsugaru ritual life), extremely high winds and snowdrifts buffet the central and northern portions of the plain during the long winter season.

Neolithic Jomon-era archaeological sites are widely spread in Tsugaru and are particularly concentrated in the well-watered, fertile plain beneath the volcanic fissures of Akakura, the northeastern face of Mount Iwaki. The Tsugaru peninsula provided the last habitat of the aboriginal Ainu and Ezo peoples on Honshu, before the Yamato state's conquest and extermination campaigns forced their gradual expulsion to Hokkaido or their reclassification as Japanese from the eleventh century onward. (The last Ainu in Honshu, residing in the village of Utesu at the northern tip of Tsugaru, were officially registered as Japanese in 1756.) As noted above, various local narratives compress this long historical process into the mythic seduction of Mount Iwaki's resident Demon Queen by the Yamato conquering general Sakanoue Tamuramaro.

Partly because of this relatively recent association with the indigenous Ainu and Ezo peoples, Japanese scholarly circles have widely regarded Tsugaru as somewhat of an ethnological curiosity. The nasal twang of its dialects has been ridiculed, its ritual complexes dismissed as not "fully Japanese," and its populations characterized as "hybrid" or "underdeveloped."

In 1189, when central state control was established over all of Tohoku, the peninsula was officially incorporated into Mutsu province, comprising the area of present-day Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures. Even within this historically underdeveloped region, Tsugaru was long considered especially provincial and impoverished. At the northern edge of the Sea of Japan, the peninsula was relatively isolated from the major Pacific sailing routes to the shogunate's capital at Edo. Difficult overland travel from the south over steep mountains limited exports to rice, lumber, and modest quantities of the distinctive local laquerware.

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, Tsugaru was administered as a feudal domain (han) by the Tsugaru family, based in the castle city of Hirosaki at the southern edge of the peninsula, to the immediatesoutheast of Mount Iwaki. From the seventeenth century onward, Hirosaki developed as the cultural and intellectual center of the region. The Tsugaru daimyo (feudal lords) historically stood in opposition to the rulers of Nanbu (the eastern region of Northern Tohoku), from whom the first Tsugaru lord, Tamenobu, had wrested the Tsugaru peninsula in the late sixteenth century. To this day, Tsugaru residents speak scornfully (or at least jokingly) of their traditional Nanbu rivals.

Periodic food crises and unusually extensive samurai involvement in farming and land reclamation projects marked Tsugaru history during the Tokugawa period (Ravina 1999, 115–53). For example, in the novelist Osamu Dazai's birthplace of Kanagi village in central Tsugaru, samurai owned 62 of 105 homes and controlled 79 percent of the land by the late seventeenth century (Ravina 1991, 84). Though well watered, the basin of the central Tsugaru plain has proved an unsteady site of rice production. Under state-enforced policies of rice monoculture, the region experienced several catastrophic famines throughout the Tokugawa period. Between the early seventeenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, the region's rice harvest failed on average once every five years (Dazai 1987, 62–63). The national Tenmei famine of the 1780s and the Tempo famine of the 1840s proved especially calamitous in Tsugaru. Following the eruption of Mount Iwaki in the tenth month of 1783, the region's entire crop was destroyed, and the subsequent famine and epidemic killed over 80,000 people between 1783/9 and 1784/6 (about one-third of the population of 250,000). This demographic disaster and subsequent labor shortages were followed by an extensive policy in the 1790s of forcibly relocating samurai retainers from the castle town of Hirosaki to rural communities. The policy, which rural elites and peasantries actively resisted, was officially abandoned by the end of the eighteenth century (Ravina 1999, 128–41). However, memories of samurai-peasant tensions as well as samurai-peasant intermarriage have continued for generations, and many of my informants recounted them. The chronic late Tokugawa food crises also led the Tsugaru han to place severe restrictions on sericulture in an effort to maximize available land for rice cultivation and increase fiscal revenues.

Soon after the Meiji Restoration (1868), Tsugaru was merged with the impoverished Nanbu-speaking peninsula of Shimokita to its east to constitute the prefecture of Aomori in 1871. Although Aomori City, aport city on Aomori Bay midway between the two peninsulas, was designated the new prefecture's administrative capital, Hirosaki remained its intellectual and cultural center, and its residents insist that the city is the "true heart" of the region.

From the 1860s onward, American missionaries from Illinois and Indiana based in Hirosaki introduced North American apple strains and commercial apple farming in Tsugaru. Since the late nineteenth century, apple monocropping has become the economic mainstay of the southern peninsula; the sandy western shore areas have emphasized melon growing. With the virtual elimination of hunting and gathering, the central and northern zones have depended on timber, charcoal making, scattered rice production, dairy farming, and tourism. Fishing remains important in coastal areas. During the Meiji and Taisho periods, Tsugaru residents, like other Tohoku peasants, provided the bulk of migrant, low-wage labor for the fisheries and canneries of Hokkaido. According to popular memory, Tsugaru also provided a disproportionately high number of conscript combat soldiers during the Great Pacific War (World War II).

Following the postwar land redistribution, chemical-intensive smallholder apple agriculture spread throughout the southern half of the peninsula, on Iwaki's slopes, and in the surrounding plains. Through an extremely labor-intensive process, these small orchards produce apples that are nationally renowned for their size, roundness, lustrous glow, and smooth skin. Elegantly maintained orchards fill the hills and flatlands of the region. During the summer months the air vibrates with the sound of pesticide sprayers and buzz saws as farming men and women painstakingly prune back dead branches and thin all but the most perfect young apples. Each remaining apple is carefully wrapped in layers of colored tissue paper, peeled back one or two weeks before harvest to ensure a perfectly ripened fruit. Also shortly prior to harvest, reflective foil "blankets" are spread out on the ground below to redden the bottom side of the fruit, guaranteeing the uniform coloration for which Tsugaru apples are prized. Regional farming cooperatives provide loan packages for seeds, chemicals, and other inputs, and they purchase apples from farmers at controlled prices.

Although the process depends on extensive petrochemical inputs, apple growing has been subject to considerable aesthetic and ritual elaboration over the past century. Many farmers refer to their skill at nurturing apple trees as ringo-do (the way of the apple), comparing this craft to martial arts such as kendo (the way of the sword). They speak of an intimate relationship between their own bodies and the "bodies" of the apple trees, which they carefully tend throughout the year. Enormous pride is taken in the autumn harvest. Unblemished, round, glowing apples are considered an excellent offering to the kami. Those who work in them usually consider apple orchards beautiful and tranquil places. For all the physical exhaustion (and possible long-term side effects from exposure to chemical toxins) associated with apple cultivation, the practice has romantic connotations for many farmers and is often spoken of wistfully by those who no longer farm.

Few farming families, however, can subsist solely by commercial farming. All of the multigenerational households with whom I worked depended on remittances from relatives working in urban centers, either in long-term employment or short-term contracts. Many families could recall histories of seasonal labor migration going back for at least four or five generations. As elsewhere in northern Tohoku, the fishing, mountain, and farming villages of Tsugaru have constituted an important labor reserve for the industrializing core areas of central Japan since the late Tokugawa period. Nearly all of the rural families with whom I worked had relatives in the Tokyo or Osaka metropolitan areas with whom they were in regular contact. Most households also depended on seasonal labor migration by at least one middle-generation member in construction or light industry in Kanto or Kansai, or at the increasing number of resorts and luxury hotels springing up throughout northern Japan. Many Tsugaru residents worked as labor migrants in the fisheries and canneries of southern Hokkaido during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; extensive links of kinship and friendship continue between Tsugaru and Hokkaido communities.

During the Second World War, the Allies designated Hirosaki a cultural center and thus spared it the extensive aerial bombardment that leveled the military port of Aomori City thirty-five miles away. Now a city of approximately 180,000, Hirosaki is still celebrated for its scenic Tokugawa-era Castle and Cherry Tree Festival, its excellent National University, its old twisting streets, and its elaborate wards of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and samurai houses.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Conventions xiii

Introduction: Labor and Transcendence 1

1. Predicaments of History: Ritual Life on a Japanese Periphery 19

2. Between Worlds: Akakura's Architecture of Potential Transformation 46

3. Labor and Rebirth: Cosmological Kinship in the Annual Ritual Cycle 86

4. Miniature Mountains: Offerings and Exchange 121

5. My Mother's Garden: Ascetic Discipline on the Mountain 145

6. I am the Mirror: The Political Dimensions of Representational Action 173

Conclusion 210

Appendix: Guide to Persons Mentioned in the Text 231

Notes 233

Bibliography 251

Index 263

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