Folk Beliefs in Modern Japan
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INOUE Nobutaka

1. Social Change and Folklore in Postwar Japan

The discipline of Japanese folklore studies was begun through the efforts of two great figures, Yanagita Kunio[Glossary: yanagita_kunio] and Orikuchi Shinobu[Glossary: orikuchi_shinobu], whose overwhelming influence determined the basic direction of Japanese folklore studies thereafter. The publication of the journal Kyôdo kenkyû ("homeland research") by Yanagita and Takagi Toshio in 1914 marked the real start of Japanese folklore studies. In the 1930s, Yanagita gradually established his own unique methods of research and attempted to make them more comprehensive.

One of his most important concepts was that of jômin. Meaning "ordinary people," the term was used to refer to the masses of everyday people--primarily peasant farmers--whose lives were not recorded in historical documents, but simply lived average lives and died unnoted. Yanagita's focused his greatest interest on the beliefs and customs, or way of thinking, of such people, because he thought that such areas would reveal the typical mentality and behavior of the Japanese people as a whole. He undertook field research in numerous villages in the attempt to vividly depict the lives of such ordinary Japanese.

Orikuchi began his study of folklore in the second decade of the century, just after making Yanagita's acquaintance. Orikuchi's chief energy, however, was placed in depicting the traditional mentality and lifestyle of the Japanese people through a study of the Japanese classical literature. He had a special ability, in particular, to use both logical analysis and emotional empathy to analyze the beliefs and religious life of the ancient Japanese. Although he showed little interest in the established religions, his interpretation of Shinto[Glossary: shinto] is frequently cited in debates regarding the nature of Japan's indigenous religion and the imperial institution.

As a result, folklore studies of religious phenomena developed primarily in the two directions of direct fieldwork and literary studies of the Japanese classics. When performing fieldwork, folklorists tend to record oral legends, taboos, concepts of deities, and the traditional customs in each district. When the material is Japanese classical literature, researchers delve into classical mythology, historical works, fiction, and poems. By using these methods, scholars have pursued a better understanding of the religious life of the Japanese people, and attempted to make comparisons of religious phenomena between different districts or between different historical epochs.

However, Japan's social structure and the life patterns of its people have changed remarkably in the process of rapid social change following World War II. To begin with, the process of urbanization has resulted in a high ratio of younger people living in urban areas. As a result, a decline can be witnessed in the transmission of local regions' ancient sayings, legends and customs from older to younger generations. The chances for communication between generations are attenuated, making it increasingly difficult to organize traditional village festivals and rituals, and on occasion leading to the real fear that such traditions will be forgotten after the present generation; in short, long-time residents of urban areas tend to display a lower level of interest in maintaining traditional observances.

Japan has also experienced momentous changes to its industrial structure since the war. The most important of these changes is the great decrease in the rural agricultural population. While an estimated eighty percent of the total population were farmers during the Edo period (ca. 1600-1867), that proportion has rapidly declined in recent years, and is now estimated to be only about seven percent. Accordingly, few Japanese feel intimate familiarity with rituals relevant to agriculture, since the majority of those Japanese are now employed at offices, stores or factories.

The level of education has also risen in the postwar period. Since the 1970s, the rate of attendance at four-year or junior colleges has risen to include about one-third of all Japanese young people. And when at these institutions, students display more interest in learning about Western culture than about traditional Japanese culture. As they possess quite different sensibilities from former generations, these young people also indicate an overall lower level of interest in being taught by those of the older generation. In the villages, meanwhile, the postwar collapse of the traditional village structure has resulted in a loss of authority by senior residents, making it additionally difficult to transmit the old ritual traditions.

These and other social changes have resulted in transformations to the appearance and shape which folk beliefs take, and the discipline of folklore studies is itself facing a turning point. Many folk beliefs have simply disappeared. And it is inevitable that popular consciousness will change with changes in daily life. That consciousness naturally extends to religious beliefs, as well, and many new religious movements have arisen in pace with the changes of in daily life and consciousness found in modern Japan.

The new religions have found their support mainly from residents of urban areas, and the number of such new groups has increased even since the war. Some groups have attracted large numbers of followers, increasing their membership and establishing large organizations. In comparison, "folk beliefs" would appear to be in an inexorable process of decline.

2. New Trends in Folklore Studies

Under these circumstances, students of folklore have begun to cultivate new areas of research. In a word, the objects and methodology of study have diversified beyond those established by Yanagita and Orikuchi.

Of the many attempts to diversity the frontiers of research, the following are particularly important: First is the establishment of the field of "urban folklore." People have lived in cities for long years now, and a distinctly "urban" style of life has set down deep roots. Although that way of life is different in many ways from rural life, a considerable number of traditional folk customs survive within the urban environment. Needless to say, those customs are not merely the same as former rural traditions, nor are they always well integrated with the overall urban way of life.

While the depopulation of traditional village communities has resulted in a weakening of the socially integrating function of festivals and ritual, some residents of urban areas are attempting to form new kinds of communities with enhanced social communication. Communities of these kinds frequently create new festivals or organize new support groups for existing festivals. If the object of folklore is to investigate the consciousness and way of life of the "ordinary people," it should initiate new research on the residents of urban areas, simply because most "ordinary Japanese" live in such areas these days. An abundance of potential research subjects should appear by changing the field from the village to the city. In that sense, urban folklore should have the greatest potential "market" of all new directions of study.

On the other hand, a so called "magic and occult boom" has been observed since the latter half of the 1970s. It is often said that as part of this trend, young men are displaying strong interests in divination, magical power, and occult films and comics. Many students at the middle-school level have experienced playing a game called kokkurisan, a Japanese version of the "Ouija board." And since 1974, when Uri Geller first came to Japan and demonstrated his uncanny "spoon-bending" and other "magical" powers, it is likely that most young people have attempted--at least once or twice--to mimic his prowess. Some will confess they believe in the existence of Geller's kind of "super power," but since the phenomenon has become so well known, most now consider it passé and show little interest.

In the beginning, the magic and occult boom was interpreted as a new trend among young people, because it seemed to move counter to the postwar trend toward rationalization. Watchful observation, however, has now shown that the interest in occultism is, in fact, a revival of earlier elements of folk belief, even though they appear superficially in new garb. Beliefs which were long forgotten or discarded have been thus revived and now display a new level of influence. This fact demonstrates the tenacious nature of folk belief.

3. Shamanism, Urban Folklore and the Revival of Matsuri

Given this background, we have selected five papers for translation here, although many other noteworthy studies exist.

The first two papers, by Ikegami and Kawamura, focus on shamanic figures of northeast Japan. Ikegami's paper is based on a careful survey of a local prewar newspaper in Aomori Prefecture, the Tôô Nippô. Based no doubt on a self-awareness of the need for "civilization and enlightenment," the newspaper frequently editorialized against shamans and their activities. As a result, mediums in a state of possession or performing faith-healing activities were condemned as forms of superstition. Ikegami argues that this kind of belief survived in spite of public attacks of the kind mounted by the Tôô nippô. While many of the "elite" classes despised such beliefs, the masses of ordinary people refused to abandon it.

Kawamura, on the other hand, undertook interviews with mediums in order to depict the process whereby a shaman[Glossary: fugeki] is "made." He cautiously depicts what kind of religious training is involved, and how they changed their perspective to society. Kawamura's interest lies both in the process of religious conversion and the structure whereby blind girls have been socialized as independent adults through a process of arduous training.

As Kawamura's paper demonstrates, recent studies of folk belief, especially those involving possession by deities, spirits or demons, invoke the concept of "shaman" or "shamanism." The concept of shaman is frequently applied to founders of new religions, as well as persons like those Ikegami and Kawamura analyzed. The new religions demonstrate numerous cases in which leaders became founders through the experience of possession by deities, and thereby underwent religious conversion. Female founders, in particular, are typical examples of this process. This suggests the question of what factors are involved in making women more receptive than men to such possession experience.

This issue has been discussed by many researchers from a variety of viewpoints, including the sociological, psychological, and even physiological, although it would appear that the sociological perspective provides clearer answers than any other. Analysis suggests, for example, that women have experienced such social oppression in Japan that they tend to express their deepest hopes and desires through the state of possession. This is one possible answer, but, needless to say, it is not sufficient, and the issue demands further careful consideration.

Since numerous examples of shamanism can be found in northeastern Japan, and Okinawa to the south, most students of folklore involved with this field have undertaken their research in these geographical areas. Interestingly enough, a considerable number of scholars now take the position that shamanism is neither superstitious nor a low form of religious phenomenon, but should be understood rather as an expression of a vivid religious life. This is a reflection of the fact that both shamanism and animism have tended to receive more positive evaluations in recent years.

Ishii Kenji discusses how seasonal rites and customs have been transformed in the age of rapid urbanization, pointing out in particular the way in which the contents of observances has changed. These changes are characteristic, above all, of the behavior patterns of the younger generation. While the young incline to be innocent of traditional seasonal rites and customs, they easily adopt new seasonal observances such as Christmas and Valentine's Day. Here, the original religious meaning of these events has been almost entirely lost. His study thus manages to portray a general outline of the way in which seasonal observances have changed among the younger generations in Japan.

Murakami Kôkyô also discusses the way in which folk beliefs have changed within an urban environment, although his more detailed survey was undertaken in the Osaka district. Murakami argues that some elements of folk belief have been maintained even within the large metropolis of Osaka, despite the fact that local community rituals have long been declining due to the loss of population with urbanization. At the same time, this loss is offset by the increase in personal private supplications. His argument points to the issue of what features of folk belief can be sustained within rapid urbanization, and he calls for more studies on this topic.

In the last translated paper, Ashida Tetsurô gives attention to the fact that matsuri[Glossary: matsuri] or traditional festivals appear to have undergone a recent revival, in spite of claims that they were in irreversible decline. Ashida's analysis suggests that people have begun to display more interest in "events" than in "possessions" as Japan has passed the peak of high-rate economic development. He links this enhanced concern for "events" to recent increased interest in traditional festivals, noting that young people may undergo an intensely refreshing experience through participation in such festivals.

At the same time, Ashida points out that modern capitalist society is provided with a built-in mechanism for transforming traditional communal festivals into a variety of "merchandise." As a result, he warns us not to forget that aspect of economical rationality lying behind the revival of such festivals. Religion and economy are always more deeply connected than is usually presumed.

The volume is completed by the paper written by translator Norman Havens, who discusses several issues lying in the background to the concept of "modern folk beliefs."

4. Conclusion

As these papers suggest, Japanese research on folk beliefs is facing a new stage of development. While former methods and perspectives have tended to persist almost unchanged, the entire structure of society has evolved drastically, accompanied by rapid and momentous changes in life style and popular consciousness. This new situation calls for new research on the kind of changes observable in folk beliefs. Folk beliefs obviously may have their own determinate characteristics in village communities, but they reveal unpredictable aspects when transplanted to the urban environment.

In that context, we might approach the discussion by considering what elements of folk belief have strong and deep roots in the life of the people, and what elements have little or no power of survival. It might be that folk beliefs possess some sort of autonomy concerning their own spread and maintenance. Compared to the established religions, such autonomous structures are not so clearly distinguished in the case of folk belief, obviously since they have no particular leaders, teachers or adherents. Regardless of this characteristic, folk belief manages to carry on, sustained and transmitted by individuals and groups. While the fundamental elements are common, each geographical region displays a wide range of variations on common customs and sayings.

One more point should be added regarding the future of Japanese folk studies, namely, the possibility of international comparison of folk beliefs, especially between Japan and other Asian countries. Until recently, students of folklore have been primarily concerned with domestic Japanese phenomena. Folk beliefs in Japan, however, are deeply connected to those of other East Asian countries. Ancestor worship, shamanism, animism, or divination based on Book of Changes--all are common elements of East Asian folk belief. A comparative study of folk beliefs in East Asian countries would be particularly meaningful in the context of discussions of the relationships between modernization and changes in traditional beliefs. Most East Asian countries are currently going through the processes of urbanization, industrialization and exposure to the computerized "information society." How these social changes influence folk belief in each country, and how the differences between countries can be explained, should prove fruitful topics.

It can be said that studies of folk belief and new religions are currently being undertaken with great enthusiasm in Japan, compared with those in other Asian countries. Under these circumstances, it is highly desirable that our perspectives be broadened from the domestic scene, to encompass phenomena of international scope, while maintaining as reference point the accumulated results of the numerous folklore studies undertaken in Japan until now.

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$Date: 1999/03/09 02:00:30 $
Copyright © 1994, 1997 Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. All rights reserved.