The Fox and the Jewel

This book, subtitled “Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship”, is the product of extensive research into the Inari cult in contemporary (early 1990s) Japan. The author spent a year at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the oldest Inari shrine and still, in some sense, the centre of the cult, and a further year at Toyokawa Inari, a Buddhist temple.

The choice of research centres highlights the first way in which the Inari cult complicates the standard picture of Japanese religions, because Inari is normally thought of as a Shinto kami. Indeed, I’ve classified this post under Shinto on my blog. However, before the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto and Buddhism were closely intertwined, Inari had very close ties to Shingon Buddhism, and when the Meiji government forced all religious institutions to choose whether they were Shinto or Buddhist, a few Inari centres chose to be Buddhist, although most decided to be Shinto.

The main message of the book, however, is that things are much more complicated and less unified than they look. There is a mountain behind Fushimi Inari Taisha, and the mountain is covered with red torii and small stone shrines. These small shrines started to appear in the mid nineteenth century, and the shrine initially opposed them, before giving in and authorising them. However, the shrine exerts virtually no control over worship at them; they are scattered all over the mountain, so supervising them would be impractical if the shrine even wanted to do it. What’s more, the shrine does not, in fact, own the whole mountain, so some of the small shrines are on land over which the shrine has no authority to start with. The author of the book, Karen Smyers, got to know several of the groups who worshipped on the mountain, and learned quite a lot about their beliefs and practices.

What she discovered was that every group was different. Even though most paid for ceremonies at the main shrine, they generally placed greater importance on the rituals they carried out on the mountain, in front of the minor shrines. These rituals, and the meaning attributed to them, differed significantly from group to group. Even the name of the kami varied, although it usually ended in “Inari”. While this is, in some ways, similar to Western phenomena such as “the Virgin of Lourdes”, it goes deeper, because there is no consensus on which kami Inari actually is. There is a common one, Uganomitama no Kami, but this was largely a Meiji imposition. Fushimi Inari enshrines five kami, including Uganomitama, and different places enshrine other groups. Toyokawa Inari, naturally, enshrines a Buddhist deity instead, Dakiniten. Even if the kami were agreed on, there are few general legends; Inari seems to be a very personalised deity.

One thing that all the priests and monks agree on is that Inari is not a fox. There may be fox images at virtually every Inari shrine, and the fox may be closely associated with the kami, but the kami is not, they insist, a fox. However, popular belief is much less clear about this. Some people agree that the fox is a messenger or servant of Inari, but others believe that Inari him or herself (Inari’s gender is not constant from one group to another) is a fox. Who’s to say which group is “right”, or “orthodox”.

Smyers also devotes some space to discussing the strategies used for avoiding conflict between groups of Inari worshippers. In essence, there are a number of ways to avoid talking about the issues over which they are likely to disagree, such as “which kami is Inari?”, “how should one worship Inari?”, or “what is the proper way for a follower of Inari to live?”. Obviously, this leaves conversations between representatives of Inari groups at quite a superficial level; Smyers reports that some of her informants tried to get her to tell them what other of her informants actually believed.

This is entirely consistent with the impression I’ve picked up of Shinto. There’s an emphasis on creating a surface image of unity, with torii at almost all shrines, fixed vestments for the priests, and a standard framework for rituals and festivals. However, underneath that surface, every shrine is different. As Smyer’s research shows, even when the shrines all fall into the same cult, such as Inari, they can all be different, and I suspect that that is true far beyond Inari. I’ve not done the formal research to back that intuition up, but it would be surprising to discover that all shrines were the same. Of course, because shrine priests do not preach, the beliefs and practices of the worshippers are also likely to vary widely.

Smyers suggests that this may, in fact, be a broader feature of Japanese society. The apparent conformity is a mere surface, below which there are countless small groups, all different. That is also consistent with my experience of Japan, but too large a claim to make on the basis of the evidence I have.

In any case, this is a very interesting book, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, particularly if they were interested in religion, or Shinto specifically.

Posted in Literature.

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