Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan

By Ambros, Barbara | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan


Ambros, Barbara, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Maria Rodríguez del Alisal, Peter Ackerman, and Dolores P. Martinez, ed., Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2007. xxi + 184 pp. £75.00/$150.00 Hardcover. ISBN 0-415-32318-5.

PILGRIMAGES and Spiritual Quests in Japan is a collection of essays on spiritual journeys that has been eleven years in the making. The volume traces its origins back to the Ninth Japan Anthropology Workshop (1996) on the theme "Pilgrimage and the International Encounter." The workshop was held at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, one of Europe's most famous historic pilgrimage destinations. The collection consists of sixteen essays divided into four parts: 1) pilgrimages, paths and places; 2) reconstructing the Quest; 3) the quest for the magic, luminal, and non-ordinary; and 4) the quest for vocational fulfillment.

In her preface, Joy Hendry alludes to the editorial challenges the collection faced. She promises that the volume contributes in-depth studies with innovative anthropological perspectives on pilgrimage and spiritual quests that "ultimately open the eyes of our readers to new ways of thinking" (p. xi). There are several contributions that fulfill Hendry's promises: the chapters on pilgrims on Shikoku during the Edo period and the contemporary period by Natalie Kouamé and Hoshino Eiki respectively, Joy Hendry's chapter on contemporary Japanese theme parks as pilgrimage that is, short-term fieldwork such as traveling to sites for single or multiple short trips. Though disparaged by Western anthropologists and ethnographers as shallow and scientifically inadequate, travel ethnography has a long history in Japan. Van Bremen traces the use of travel ethnography by Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), the founder of Japanese folklore studies, and other ethnographers up until the present. He then singles out two significant travel ethnographers, Torii Ryuzo (1870-1953) and Miyamoto Tsune'ichi (1907-1981), to show how travel ethnography informed their research conducted during World War II. He concludes that travel ethnography can be particularly useful during times of war and natural disasters and can serve as a valuable supplement to more extended fieldwork. Though van Bremen's essay contains no methodological reflections on pilgrimage, his analysis of Japanese approaches to ethnographic and anthropological research represents a valuable contribution to the field. It makes for especially interesting reading in the context of other recent methodological reflections on anthropological research on Japan such as Doing Fieldwork in Japan (2003) and The Making of Anthropology in East and Southeast Asia (2004) and Asian Anthropology (2006), a volume van Bremen himself edited with Eyal Ben-Ari and Syed Farid Alatas.

Several other contributions are of note as essays that established innovative starting points of inquiry with great potential, but they ultimately fall short of realizing their potential-perhaps in part because the articles were of such limited length. Patrick Beillevaire's essay on agari-umai, a royal tour of sacred places on the Ryukyu Islands, provides a solid historical summary, but unfortunately the essay ends at the most salient point: the contemporary appropriation of the practice. Given that the volume was promised to present anthropological perspectives on pilgrimage and travel, I was surprised that Beillevaire did not explore in depth how agari-umai serves to create ethnic and regional identities in contemporary Okinawa.

The essays by Pilar Cabanãs and Rosalia Medina Bermejo explore the relationships of Japanese artists and poets with Spain by following Thomas Rimer's approach in his Pilgrimages: Aspects of Japanese Literature and Culture (1988). The essays are well researched and contain interesting biographical data. One could argue that the expansion of the category of pilgrimage to a personal quest of self-discovery has innovative potential, but the essays do not develop the theme with clarity, nor do they examine the implications of the inclusion. …

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