Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Scooping, Raking, Beckoning Luck: Luck, Agency and the Interdependence of People and Things in Japan

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Scooping, Raking, Beckoning Luck: Luck, Agency and the Interdependence of People and Things in Japan

Article excerpt

Luck has been discussed at great length within Eastern and Western thought. A detailed discussion of the Western notion of luck (1) falls outside the scope of this article. In short, a strong emphasis is placed on unpredictability; luck implies the existence of agency, good or bad, outside the control of the human individual. Within Christianity, for example, luck is portrayed as 'a secular faith' because 'it pertains to the worldly or temporal as distinguished from the spiritual and the eternal' (Oates 1995: 5). This-worldliness may be associated with secularization in Western societies (Bell 1997), but it is also a trait intrinsic to Japanese religion. The spiritual is considered to be present in all realms of life and people may turn to religion in their search for success, wealth, and prosperity. (2)

The Japanese religious landscape is extremely diverse, (3) but I am mainly concerned with Shinto, the indigenous religious tradition, together with sectarian Buddhism and the Taoist concepts that have influenced both. Shinto and Buddhism have a long history of amalgamation in Japan. In times of need, people may visit religious centres (4) in order to pray for 'benefits in this world' (gensei riyaku) to a multitude of deities, both Shinto and Buddhist, whose popularity is often transitory. Money and acts of devotion are exchanged for sacred objects and assistance from the deities.

It would be wrong, however, to see these activities (5) as purely instrumental practices reflecting nothing more than a concern with personal gain. Such reductionism has been challenged for other contexts as well. Parry's (1994) discussion of the fierce bargaining between Hindu priests and clients in mortuary rites in Banaras (North India), for example, has challenged assumptions that link bargaining with the impersonal relationships that supposedly characterize monetary exchange (Parry 1994: 139-41). In contrast, Tambiah (1984: 342) has shown that Thai amulets invested with the charisma of Buddhist mountain priests may be employed to take advantage of others because Buddhism propagates an ideology of generous giving that can be combined with exploitation for material gain.

The above examples draw attention to a contradiction inherent in all salvation religions. In their striving for a transcendent world that is free from suffering, orthodox religious doctrines focus on renunciation of the world, but in practice alternative routes to salvation are sought within the existing social order of the human world. In Hinduism and Buddhism these alternatives are commonly grounded in bodily practices. Dying in Banaras is one way to find salvation in the Hindu tradition (Parry 1994). In this case priests are key mediators between both worlds. Similarly, in Japan, religious professionals have a degree of control over the access to spiritual power. For example, people turn to Buddhist priests for the organization of funeral rituals, while their Shinto equivalents orchestrate other life-cycle events, such as birth or marriage (Reader 1991: 55-106). However, the availability of a variety of material objects which mediate between the spiritual and the material worlds enables people to have a multitude of embodied interactions with deities (for example, ringing the bells at shrines and temples, throwing money in an offering box, or rubbing statues). (6)

This article, which is based on eighteen months of fieldwork conducted in 1996-1997 and in 1999 at multiple locations in Japan, focuses on one category of material objects. These are engimono (literally, things that bring about good fortune--engi--through establishing a bond with certain deities), small good luck charms which are invested with spirituality and distributed via religious and commercial networks. Engimono originated at both Shinto and Buddhist religious centres and are intended to be placed in the home. They are available at a variety of prices according to their size or the materials from which they are made. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.