When Tengu Talk

When Tengu Talk: Hirata Atsutane's Ethnography of the Other World

Wilburn Hansen
Copyright Date: 2009
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    When Tengu Talk
    Book Description:

    Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) has been the subject of numerous studies that focus on his importance to nationalist politics and Japanese intellectual and social history. Although well known as an ideologue of Japanese National Learning (Kokugaku), Atsutane’s significance as a religious thinker has been largely overlooked. His prolific writings on supernatural subjects have never been thoroughly analyzed in English until now. In When Tengu Talk, Wilburn Hansen focuses on Senkyo ibun (1822), a voluminous work centering on Atsutane’s interviews with a fourteen-year-old Edo street urchin named Kozo Torakichi who claimed to be an apprentice tengu, a supernatural creature of Japanese folklore. Hansen uncovers in detail how Atsutane employed a deliberate method of ethnographic inquiry that worked to manipulate and stimulate Torakichi’s surreal descriptions of everyday existence in a supernatural realm, what Atsutane termed the Other World. Hansen’s investigation and analysis of the process begins with the hypothesis that Atsutane’s project was an early attempt at ethnographic research, a new methodological approach in nineteenth-century Japan. Hansen posits that this "scientific" analysis was tainted by Atsutane’s desire to establish a discourse on Japan not limited by what he considered to be the unsatisfactory results of established Japanese philological methods. A rough sketch of the milieu of 1820s Edo Japan and Atsutane’s position within it provides the backdrop against which the drama of Senkyo ibun unfolds. There follow chapters explaining the relationship between the implied author and the outside narrator, the Other World that Atsutane helped Torakichi describe, and Atsutane’s nativist discourse concerning Torakichi’s fantastic claims of a newly discovered Shinto holy man called the sanjin. Sanjin were partly defined by supernatural abilities similar (but ultimately more effective and thus superior) to those of the Buddhist bodhisattva and the Daoist immortal. They were seen as holders of secret and powerful technologies previously thought to have come from or been perfected in the West, such as geography, astronomy, and military technology. Atsutane sought to deemphasize the impact of Western technology by claiming these powers had come from Japan’s Other World. In doing so, he creates a new Shinto hero and, by association, asserts the superiority of native Japanese tradition. In the final portion of his book, Hansen addresses Atsutane’s contribution to the construction of modern Japanese identity. By the late Tokugawa, many intellectuals had grown uncomfortable with continued cultural dependence on Neo-Confucianism, and the Buddhist establishment was under fire from positivist historiographers who had begun to question the many contradictions found in Buddhist texts. With these traditional discourses in disarray and Western rationalism and materialism gaining public acceptance, Hansen depicts Atsutane’s creation of a new spiritual identity for the Japanese people as one creative response to the pressures of modernity. When Tengu Talk adds to the small body of work in English on National Learning. It moreover fills a void in the area of historical religious studies, which is dominated by studies of Buddhist monks and priests, by offering a glimpse of a Shinto religious figure. Finally, it counters the image of Atsutane as a forerunner of the ultra-nationalism that ultimately was deployed in the service of empire. Lucid and accessible, it will find an appreciative audience among scholars of Shinto and Japanese and world religion. In addition to religion specialists, it will be of considerable interest to anthropologists and historians of Japan.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6559-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: A New Medium for an Old Message
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Japanese religious academician Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly studies undertaken by Japanese intellectuals of varying types beginning not long after his death and continuing into the twenty-first century. Atsutane’s prodigious output of written text and transcribed lectures still leaves room for, in fact begs for, new discoveries and fresh analyses in this new century of scholarship on Japanese religion. Western scholars of the last century, most notably Donald Keene and Carmen Blacker,¹ have confirmed Atsutane’s importance to the Western academy by their recognition and inclusion of his idiosyncratic writings and interests in...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Constructing Japanese Identity: Senkyō ibun
    (pp. 17-41)

    Carmen Blacker’s translation ofSenkyō ibunis “Strange Tidings from the Realm of Immortals.” The word “immortals” is one standard translation for the Chinese character sen commonly found in combination in Japanese assennin.¹ The tradition of the so-called immortal comes from classical Daoism. In its most general sense, it refers to a man who may or may not leave civilization for the mountains, but who performs special ascetic and/or ritual practices for the purpose of attaining a transcendent state of being. Atsutane’s text will extensively refine that definition into a specific class of humanity, and that refinement will be...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Medium Finds a Promoter: Torakichi and Atsutane
    (pp. 42-73)

    Although Atsutane placed himself in a genealogy of nativist scholars whose scholarship depended on philological method, he claimed to dislike learning that focused on the organized study of classics. Clearly, by his choice of method inSenkyō ibun, Atsutane had begun to experiment with an alternative he hoped would be a superior means of acquiring knowledge and, not coincidentally, was the very way he acquired his in-depth knowledge of thesanjin. This brings us to the tale, strange in itself, of how Atsutane came to befriend the so-called Tengu Boy whom Atsutane usually referred to as Torakichi. Torakichi was to...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Manipulating the Medium: Separating the Sanjin from the Tengu
    (pp. 74-102)

    Senkyō ibunopens with a conversation between Atsutane and his elder confidant and friend, Yashiro Hirokata, in which the existence of a mysterious and supernatural Other World is a premise accepted by both parties. As explained earlier, for Atsutane, the Other World had the meaning of the normally invisible half of a universe made up of two worlds, one seen and one unseen. As he explained in his most famous cosmological textThe August Pillar of the Soul, drafted in 1812, the unseen half of the universe was first mentioned in the ancient stories about Ōkuninushi ceding the land of...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Critique of China and Defense of Native Culture
    (pp. 103-139)

    Atsutane’s overall objective in his research was to rediscover what was originally Japanese and to rid Japanese culture of all foreign influences so that native culture could be revalued and understood as superior to other cultures. However, in pursuing this objective he had a habit of appropriating his so-called original and native Japanese ideas from foreign cultures. For example, his version ofjindai moji, or the native Japanese writing system, which he claimed was developed in Japan’s mythological Age of the Kami long before contact with the continental cultures, was criticized by important people¹ within his ownkokugakumovement for...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Critique of Buddhism and Defense of Native Religion
    (pp. 140-168)

    Senkyō ibunis filled with anti-Buddhist rhetoric, as are many of Atsutane’s writings. The usual way Atsutane countered Buddhist discourse was by direct criticism and slander of Buddhist beliefs and practices as well as the believers and practitioners. The new method of attacking Buddhism inSenkyō ibunwas the creation of an alternative religious virtuoso that equaled or surpassed the champions of Buddhism. Through the new medium of Tengu Boy Torakichi, the native Japanesesanjinwas discovered and presented as a Japanese human who had become a superhuman hero much like, but better than, the bodhisattva of Buddhism, the immortal...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Critique of the West and Defense of Native Knowledge and Ability
    (pp. 169-194)

    Atsutane’s attitude toward Western knowledge was one of respect, but he was also compelled to remind his audience that no matter how fine Western knowledge was, the Westerner’s character and habits were bestial at best and they were therefore not to be admired or emulated. Nevertheless, he felt that Western knowledge and technology could and should be appropriated by the Japanese, using the pretext that this knowledge originated in Japan and thekamihad brought it back demanding that it be repatriated.

    Atsutane displayed contempt for Europeans as a race and furthered the opinion that they were an entirely different...

  11. CONCLUSION The Medium Is the Message
    (pp. 195-212)

    I chose the Marshall McLuhan reference in the title of this chapter to emphasize the focus of this particular study, which is the importance of the medium in Atsutane’s message.¹ That message inSenkyō ibunis ultimately no different than Atsutane’s standard offering, which he usually delivered through a textual medium. Its import was, of course, that the Japanese people are essentially different and superior to all other human beings in the world. This study has sought to examine the packaging of that message in a new delivery system, as described in the text ofSenkyō ibun.

    The key to...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 213-242)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-268)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-272)