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Comodified Spirituality: Marketing Pilgrimages in Japan

Panel Chair: Mark MacWilliams | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Ian Reader has recently pointed out the “problematic assumption” made in academic studies of pilgrimage that distinguishes its “sacred” or “authentic” nature from its contemporary guise, “despoiled and undermined by modern commercialism” (p.11). This panel takes its inspiration from Reader’s important new comparative study, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (2014). The panel’s goal is to apply, challenge, question, and extend Reader’s key point by focusing on mass marketed pilgrimages in contemporary Japan. All panel participants begin with Reader’s key observation that the “dynamics of the marketplace” are essential for pilgrimages’ “successful functioning, development, appeal, and nature” (p.15). Each panelist looks at this by drawing from the rich examples of Japanese pilgrimage today: Yamanaka looks at religious tourism in Nagasaki; Imai looks at otaku pilgrims and their new use of votive tablets (ema) at Washinomiya-shrine; Shultz looks at asceticism and “brand building”for individuals who write about their journeys as Shikoku henro. MacWilliams looks at the character-centered sacred narratives of Ano hana, key to the anime pilgrimage now popular in Chichibu Japan.

Hiroshi Yamanaka

Commodification of Contemporary Pilgrimage in Nagasaki, Japan

Many scholars in religious studies seem to take for granted that religion has nothing to do with tourism, which is considered a symbol of secularism. However, as the current popularity of the less religiously motivated pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela shows us, the boundary between religion and tourism seems to be blurring in Western Europe. Even in Japan it is said that the number of young travelers who do not have any explicit religious motivations has been increasing in at popular Buddhist pilgrimage sites. In Japan, the designation of particularly famous places as World Heritage Sites plays an important role in blurring the lines between religion and tourism. In Nagasaki, Catholic churches and other sites associated with the city’s rich Christian related heritage will be designated as a World Heritage sites next year. The Nagasaki Pilgrimage Center has already developed a new pilgrimage package called the "Nagasaki pilgrimage" in cooperation with tourist agencies. Nagasaki's case provides an interesting example for examining religious tourism in Japan.

Nobuharu Imai

Anime Fans and Votive Tablets-- Reinscribing Sacred Landscapes in Japanese Otaku Pilgrimage

The aim of this paper is to discuss the fans who visit Japanese sites associated with anime or “animated films”. Japanese anime are hugely popular in Japan, and there are many real-life locales that form the backdrop of the stories in these films and TV shows. The fans, called otaku (anime fans) in Japanese, often visit these places and describe them religiously. They call their journeys "sacred pilgrimages" (seichi junrei). But what do they mean when they describe their journeys this way? Why call it a “pilgrimage” and what makes these sites appearing in anime stories “sacred”? To answer these two questions, I will analyze the votive tablets (ema) that otaku have left at one of these anime seichi, Washinomiya-shrine in Saitama prefecture, which appears in the popular anime and comic book (manga) series Lucky Star. Ema are typically used by pilgrims and parishioners at Japanese shrines and temples to post prayers and wishes for this world benefits to the kami or Buddhist divinity enshrined there. Interestingly, otaku have continued this practice, often hanging up their own ema, but have transformed this practice by using their own hand made illustrations of anime characters. Moreover, rather than serve as a means of linking otaku pilgrim to the divine, otaku ema are used as if they are communicating on Facebook, Mixi, and other electronic bulletin boards on the Internet. Although initially criticized by the mass media, the new forms of ema have gradually become normal at shrines and temples, and otaku pilgrimage has gained acceptance as a new form of young people’s spiritual journey. In other words, ancient shrines have gained a new relevance as a "sacred place" for otaku whose initial connection with them comes from animated films and TV shows. In this paper, I will argue that ema serve as a new mode for reinscribing a mass mediascape at traditional religious centers in Japan.

John Shultz

Gyō-ing Somewhere: Pilgrimage Ascetic Practice to Finance Human Capital

The notion of individuals representing their own commercial brand has become ubiquitous in contemporary society, and brand building can be enabled through many types of media. In this research, I concentrate specifically on pilgrimage asceticism as an avenue for the development and marketing of personal human capital. In particular, I consider examples of several prominent individuals in the Heisei era (1989-present), who have published first person pilgrimage narratives of their experiences on the Shikoku henro, a 1200 km journey that has become Japan’s most famous pilgrimage. These cases include religious professionals, authors, and characters that have become famous personalities in the wider social sphere of the pilgrimage itself. In all of these instances, pilgrimage asceticism provides very unique—even unrivaled—opportunities for both personal development and career advancement.

Mark MacWilliams

Rethinking the Sacred in Japanese Pilgrimage: Ano Hana, Anime Pilgrimage, and the Chichibu Thirty-Four Temple Circuit

In this paper, I show how commercialism and pilgrimage are one and the same by looking at the well-known anime pilgrimage devoted to “Ano hana,” a popular 2011 TV show set in Chichibu, which is also the site of an ancient sacred pilgrimage route devoted to Kannon bodhisattva. I will argue two key points. First, both pilgrimages offer radically different discourses about what Eliade calls “hierophanies,” or manifestations of the sacred. By using Eliade’s model, however, I make no claim that the sacred is somehow intrinsic or innate to Chichibu pilgrimage sites. Rather I argue, following John Eade and Michael Sallnow’s critique of Turner’s concept of communitas, that Eliade is not describing something innate but rather types of discourse. Temple traditions, commercial interests, and the mass media generate very different fields of sacred discourse for Chichibu pilgrims: There is the more temple and icon-centered discourse of Kannon “reijô” (sacred places) of traditional Chichibu pilgrims and the 2011 anime character centered discourse of Ano hana for fan-based (otaku) who visit what they call Chichibu’s “seichi” (holy land). Second, I will also show that while Eade and Sallnow are correct that pilgrimages offer a field of multiple discourses, these need not be contested. The Chichibu pilgrimages generate coterminous discourses—sharing the same boundaries of Chichibu while intersecting only spatially once—at temple 14. But even there reijô and seichi inscribe the space in radically different sacred ways.

Ian Reader


Ian Reader will respond to the issues raised in the papers of this panel.


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