Producing Place, Tradition and the Gods: Mt. Togakushi, Thirteenth through Mid-Nineteenth Centuries

PhD defended at: 

UCLA

Author: 

Caleb Carter

Defended: 

2014

This dissertation considers two intersecting aspects of premodern Japanese religions: the
development of mountain-based religious systems and the formation of numinous sites. The first
aspect focuses in particular on the historical emergence of a mountain religious school in Japan
known as Shugendō. While previous scholarship often categorizes Shugendō as a form of folk
religion, this designation tends to situate the school in overly broad terms that neglect its
historical and regional stages of formation. In contrast, this project examines Shugendō through
the investigation of a single site. Through a close reading of textual, epigraphical, and visual
sources from Mt. Togakushi (in present-day Nagano Ken), I trace the development of Shugendō
and other religious trends from roughly the thirteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries. This
study further differs from previous research insofar as it analyzes Shugendō as a concrete system
of practices, doctrines, members, institutions, and identities. By identifying a constituency of
these elements, we can determine the historical and regional contexts in which Shugendō became
a self-conscious school. This approach, furthermore, clarifies the interests—religious, social,
economic and institutional—that guided the school’s formation.

The second objective of this project concerns the role of place in the formation of
Shugendō and other religious systems. It addresses the processes through which ritual, thought
and religious identity are transmitted and adapted to specific places. To this end, I consider two
other significant entities that overlapped with Shugendō at the site: Togakushi’s central deity,
Kuzuryū (literally, the “nine-headed dragon”), as well as the administrative and ideological
contributions of the eighteenth-century cleric, Jōin. The chapter on Kuzuryū explores how an
abstract deity from esoteric rituals and Lotus Sūtra narratives in Tang China comes to reside at
Togakushi. Through an investigation of its development over time, I consider how its presence
adds to the identity and numinous power of the mountain. The final two chapters analyze Jōin’s
treatment of Shugendō as well as his attempt to construct a new religious school that coalesced
around the mountain’s practices, history, and identity.

Investigation of these concomitant developments at Togakushi reveals a twofold process.
As rituals, doctrines and deities gained regional traction, religious participants rewrote the site’s
historical narratives, developed new identities, and situated divine elements into the landscape. I
suggest that these modes of importation and domestication over time guide the construction of
numinous places like Togakushi. On a broader scale, we might understand this continual
adaptation of translocal trends to a specific locale as a defining element in the formation of
overarching religious systems in premodern Japan.

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