Cookies Policy

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

I accept this policy

Find out more here

Full Access Observations on the Blurring of the Religious and the Secular in a Japanese Urban Setting

No metrics data to plot.
The attempt to load metrics for this article has failed.
The attempt to plot a graph for these metrics has failed.
MyBook is a cheap paperback edition of the original book and will be sold at uniform, low price.

Observations on the Blurring of the Religious and the Secular in a Japanese Urban Setting

Full text article:

  • PDF
  • XML
  • XML
Add to Favorites

image of Journal of Religion in Japan

AbstractThis paper presents some observations on how the borders between the religious and the secular are perceived, blurred and reinterpreted at the community level in Kyoto. These reflections are based mainly on my extended fieldwork in the city, where I participated in and took note of the activities of two chōnaikai (neighborhood associations). I also observed and examined events related to the Gion matsuri, which takes place in July and is one of the three main festivals in Japan. The neighborhood associations play a pivotal role in Kyoto’s community life, and the boundaries between the religious and the secular very often remain indistinct due to the ambiguous character of the chōnaikai. In this context, I analyze some of the religious activities within the chōnai, such as taking care of the small votive shrine dedicated to the bodhisattva Jizō, and events related to Shintō. With regard to local festivals, I explore religious and secular aspects of the Gion matsuri, an event that attracts crowds of visitors from all over Japan and abroad, which offers the opportunity to investigate the intermingling of religion and business, local government, culture and tourism.

1. Ama Toshimaro Why are the Japanese Non-Religious? 2005 Lanham University Press of America
2. Aoyagi Kiyotaka Ghaus Ansari , Nas P. "“Viable Traditions in Urban Japan: Matsuriand Chonaikai”" Town-Talk: The Dynamics of Urban Anthropology 1983 Leiden Brill 96 111
3. Asahi Shinbun 朝日新聞 "“(Gion Matsuri 09) Junkō anzen inoru, En no Gyōja yama (祇園祭09)巡行安全祈る、役行者山”" 2009 7 17 28
4. Asahi Shinbun 朝日新聞 "“Kyōto/Gion no maboroshi, yamahoko ato matsuri: ipponka de dai konzatsu, fukkatsu e chōshū ugoku “京都・祇園の幻、山鉾後祭―本化で大混雑、復活へ町衆動く”" 2011 7 13 9
5. Asahi Shinbun 朝日新聞 "“(Gion Matsuri 2011) Mori no miyako de konchikichin Gion bayashi, Sendai tanabata matsuri ni shucchō (祇園祭 2011) 杜の都でコンチキチン 祇園囃子、仙台七夕まつりに出張”" 2011 8 7 35
6. Ashkenazi Michael Matsuri: Festivals of a Japanese Town 1993 Honolulu University of Hawaii Press
7. Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) "“Final Report of the International Partnership Programme for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2009-10. 3rd Training Course for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.”" 2009 Tokyo ACCU 17 (accessed 12 September 2011)
8. Bestor Theodore C. "“Tradition and Japanese Social Organization: Institutional Development in a Tokyo Neighborhood”" Ethnology 1985 Vol 24 2 121 135
9. Bestor Theodore C. Neighborhood Tokyo 1989 Stanford Stanford University Press
10. Bodiford William M. "“Sōtō Zen in a Japanese Town: Field Notes on a Once-Every-Thirty-Three-Years Kannon Festival”" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1994 Vol 21 1 3 36
11. Brumann Christoph "“Outside the Glass Case: The Social Life of Urban Heritage in Kyoto”" American Ethnologist 2009 Vol 36 2 276 299
12. Forfar David Roger Goodman , Neary Ian "“Individual Against the State? The Politics of Opposition to the Re-emergence of State Shintō”" Case Studies on Human Rights in Japan 1996 London Routledge 245 276
13. Fukami Shigeru 深見茂氏 "“Gion matsuri yamahoko gyōji no iji keishō no tame ni 祇園祭山鉾行事の維持継承のために.”" [available in English. “Lecture 8: Activities for Maintaining and Succeeding Tradition of the Gion Festival Yamahoko Events.” Mukei bunka isan no shisutemu ni kansuru ichi nyūmon hen 無形文化遺産のシステムに関する一入門編 I ntroduction to Systems of Safeguarding ICH - UNESCO’s Convention and Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in Japan]. 2008 1 25 Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto ACCU (accessed 2 September 2011)
14. Gion Matsuri Yamahoko rengōkai 祇園祭山鉾連合会 "“Gienkin 1647man en, hisai bunkazai no shūfuku ni 義援金 1647 万円、被災文化財の修復に”" Asahi Shinbun 2011 35 7.8.2011
15. Hinatani 雛谷優 "“‘Koto no kaze’ (113) fukkatsu naru ka yamahoko junkō ‘ato matsuri’ [rensai]” [古都の風] (113) 復活なるか山鉾巡行「後祭」(連載)" Yomiuri Shinbun 読売新聞 2011 23 2011.07.24
16. Hur Nam-li Prayer and Play in Late Tokugawa Japan: Asakusa Sensōji and Edo Society 2000 Boston Harvard University Asia Center
17. Imamura Anne E. Urban Japanese Housewives: At Home and in the Community 1987 Honolulu University of Hawaii Press
18. Inoue Nobutaka , et al "“A Festival with Anonymous Kami: The Kobe Matsuri”" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1979 Vol 6 1-2 163 185
19. Inoue Nobutaka , et al Basic Terms of Shinto 1997 (accessed 2 September 2011)
20. Ishii Kenji "“The Secularization of Religion in the City”" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1986 Vol 13 2-3 193 209
21. Ishii Kenji Noriyoshi Tamaru , Reid David "“Urbanization, Depopulation, and Religion”" Religion in Japanese Culture: Where Living Traditions Meet a Changing World 1996 Tokyo, New York, London Kodansha International 156 170
22. Isomae Jun’ichi Timothy Fitzgerald "“The Formative Process of State Shinto in Relation to the Westernization of Japan: The Concept of ‘Religion’ and ‘Shinto’”" Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formation 2007 London Equinox Publishing 93 101
23. Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan 国立国会図書館 "“The Constitution of Japan”" 2003-2004 (accessed 10 September 2011).
24. Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan 国立国会図書館 Ito Miyoji The Constitution of the Empire of Japan 2003-2004 (accessed 3 December 2011)
25. McMullin Neil "“On Placating the God and Pacifying the Populace: The Case of the Gion ‘Goryō’ Cult”" History of Religions 1988 Vol 27 3 270 293
26. Nelson John K. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine 1996 Seattle and London University of Washington Press
27. Okami Risa 岡見理沙 "“(Gion Matsuri 2011) Higashi Nihon dai shinsai no hisaichi fukkō inori yamabushi dokyō (祇園祭 2011) 東日本大震災の被災地復興祈り山伏読経”" Asahi Shinbun 2011 25 17.7.2011
28. Platvoet Jan "“The Definers Defined: Traditions in the Definition of Religion”" Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 1990 Vol 2 2 180 212
29. Platvoet Jan Jan Platvoet , Molendijk Arie L. "“To Define or not to Define: The Problem of the Definition of Religion”" The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts, and Contests 1999 Leiden Brill 245 265
30. Reader Ian "“What Constitutes Religious Activity? (II)”" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1991 Vol 8 4 373 376
31. Reader Ian "“Ideology, Academic Inventions and Mystical Anthropology: Responding to Fitzgerald’s Errors and Misguided Polemics”" Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 2004 (accessed 5 December 2011).
32. Roemer Michael K. "“Ritual Participation and Social Support in a Major Japanese Festival”" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 2007 Vol 46 2 185 200
33. Schnell Scott The Rousing Drum: Ritual Practice in a Japanese Community 1999 Honolulu University of Hawaii Press
34. Steiner Kurt Local Government in Japan 1965 Stanford Stanford University Press
35. Sonoda Minoru "“The Traditional Festival in Urban Society”" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1975 Vol 2 2-3 103 136
36. Umemoto Mayumi 梅本真由美 "“Meiji Jingū: 100 nen kōken sueta chinju no mori 明治神宮―100 年後見据えた鎮守の森”" Asahi Shinbun 朝日新聞 2011 accessed 20 September 2011 30 15.1.2011:
37. Williams Duncan Ryūken The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan 2009 Princeton Princeton University Press
38. Yamada Patricia "“A Friend in Need: The Bodhisattva Jizō”" Japanese Religions 1991 Vol 16 3 76 92
39. Yomiuri Shinbun 読売新聞 "“Buji o hōkoku 無事を奉告”" 2011 08 01 24
40. FN1 1An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Second Annual Conference of the Centre for Area Studies (University of Leipzig), “Multiple Secularities and Global Interconnectedness,” 13-15 October 2011, Panel “East Asian Secularities.” I would like to thank the convener of this panel, Philip Clart, for giving me the opportunity to discuss this topic, and Paul Katz for his remarks during the conference. I am particularly grateful to Ian Reader for his insightful comments and suggestions.
41. FN2 2This festival takes place mainly in the Kansai region. Jizōbonis officially on 24 August, since the 24th of each month is the day dedicated to Jizō ( ennichi縁日). However, the various chōnaiorganize it during the weekend nearest to that date. Originally, as Patricia Yamada (1991: 83) also notes, it was held for gratitude towards Jizō in his role of protector of both children and the recent dead of a neighborhood; later the main emphasis was put on the children.
42. FN3 3 Uji氏 means “clan,” and ujiko氏子, literally means “children of the clan,” that is, the “children of the clan kami,” the ujigami氏神. The latter “denotes the clan’s guardian kami, the kami who look after family and community life. The ujigamisymbolizes the superordinate system of the community” (Sonoda 1975: 104).
43. FN4 4There are other divisions, such as wards ( ku), but here I am referring in particular to chōnai, or chōnaikai.
44. FN5 5We should, however, take into account that the Japanese constitution has been well accepted by the population and that attempts to change it, in particular with reference to articles 9 and 20, have always failed.
45. FN6 6I am referring here, in particular, to the constitutional form of the separation of religion and state, since we should not forget, as Reader (2004) also highlighted, that the two categories of religious and non-religious have been distinct at various levels in Japanese history from at least the eighth century onwards (see, for example, the ōbō-buppō王法・仏法 dichotomy).
46. FN7 7On the other hand, however, we should consider that the separation of religion as linked to the private sphere, and the secular sphere of morality linked to the public sphere, was a product of the Japanese government’s policy that started in the Meiji period. This was sanctioned by Article 28 of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (1890-1947): “Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief ” (Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan 2003-2004); and was aimed at not threatening the Emperor’s system and, later, at ensuring the power of State Shintō, kokka shintō国家神道 (cf. Isomae 2007: 93; Ama 2005: 31). Moreover, Shintō was redefined as not having religious characters, but was only linked to imperial rituals.
47. FN8 8The Jizō-dō, however, is not always present in new areas.
48. FN9 9In this regard, see also Reader (1991) and the issue of whether or not inscribing emais a religious activity. Moreover, phenomena, such as praying before the Jizō-dō or taking care of the votive shrine, may make sense within the interpretative framework offered by Jan Platvoet, who defines religion as a communication process between the “believers as empirical persons and putative ‘unseen beings’ whom the believers accept as real persons” (Platvoet 1999: 262). He speaks, in this regard, of “beings whose existence and activity cannot be verified or falsified but whom the believers believe to exist and to be active, directly or indirectly, in their lives and environment” (Platvoet 1990: 195). In this regard, see, for instance, the suffix -san/-samaadded to Jizō or Kannon, which makes such “unseen beings” to some extent ‘real.’ In addition, I would avoid speculating whether people actually think they are acting religiously when they ring the bell of a temple or a shrine, or offer coins, in order for us to decide whether or not these acts are religious. This approach is not only unnecessary for our analysis of religious phenomena, in my view, but also is not suitable to the work of scholars of religions, who should investigate the observable world and not assess “non-perceptible realm(s)” (Platvoet 1990: 185).
49. FN10 10See also the guidelines for foreign residents (City of Kyoto) under the heading “Community Associations”: “In Japan, there are organizations in each district that are generally referred to as chonai-kai [町内会] or jichi-kai [自治会]. The chonai-kai or jichi-kai organize or supervise the kairanban (a file containing notices from public offices or the community attached to a clipboard, etc.), and also organize festivals and disaster prevention activities. Membership fees collected from each resident cover expenses incurred in running these activities. If they are residents of the community, foreigners can also become members of the community organization. Please listen the next time an organization committee member visits you to talk about joining such an organization.” 20 September 2011).
50. FN11 11One of the three Aum Shinrikyō members, Hirata Makoto, turned himself in to police on 31 December 2011.
51. FN12 12Notice the use of the honorific suffix -sanhere. Cf. note 9 above.
52. FN13 13The festival then enters the entertainment phase, with games for children and other activities, like the preparation of the evening party on the street. In our neighborhood, on the other hand, usually bus trips to cities and other places were organized.
53. FN14 14 10 August 2011). Such positions are in the minority in Japan; however, other cases of Shin Buddhists who refused to pay chōnaikaifees were reported to me. This attitude towards Shintō is related to the non-acceptance of the worship of kamiin Shin Buddhism, although kamiworship is not uncommon among the followers ( monto門徒) who, for example, pay visits to shrines or have a kamidanaat home. There are adherents from other religious groups, such as Sōka Gakkai and Christian-based groups, who object to Shintō-related activities undertaken within the chōnai.
54. FN15 15The whole article reads: Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. (2) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice. (3) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity (Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan 2003-2004).
55. FN16 16A clear example of the link between the chōnaikaiand local authorities are the procedures for renting flats that are administered by the city government of Kyoto. Among the several documents necessary for the rental contract, residents are required to sign an agreement through which they commit themselves to enter the chōnaikaiand actively participate in its activities.
56. FN17 17 Jichikai自治会, or self-governing association, is usually composed of the residents of a housing project, while the chōnaikaiis based on the division of the city or village into blocks (Imamura 1987: 8).
57. FN18 18To complicate the situation, there were donations made by the shrines to the city office to be used by the neighborhood association (Forfar 1996).
58. FN19 19In this regard, see also the various court trials and controversies related to the Yasukuni Shrine and other cases that are mentioned by John Nelson (in this issue).
59. FN20 20With reference to the relevance of the neighborhood association for the social mobilization of Shintō festivals in an urban environment, Sonoda claims that this can happen because the chōnaikairepresents the only collectivity in such an environment “that still maintains its traditional character as a territorially defined community” (Sonoda 1975: 135).
60. FN21 21The other two being Tenjin matsuri天神祭 (Osaka, 24-25 July) and Kanda matsuri神田祭 (Kanda Myōjin 神田明神 in Tokyo, on the Saturday and Sunday closest to 15 May).
61. FN22 22See “Nomination for inscription on the Representative List in 2009 (Reference No. 00269)” at 20 September 2011). See also the promotional video produced by the Foundation for Gion Festival Preservation Associations on the same website. In the context of the Kanda festival in Tokyo, Sonoda highlighted the importance of the chōnaikaiin its overall organization. He noted that the core “agency of social mobilization is not the shrine-related organization embracing all parishioners but the neighborhood associations . . . and the federation of neighborhood associations ( chōnaikai rengō).” He also pointed out that the most important of the events organized at the neighborhood level are the mikoshiparades that are promoted by the chōnaikai(Sonoda 1975: 120).
62. FN23 23In this regard, see also the Okunchi festival in Nagasaki, where the guiding principle of the Nagasaki Organization for the Promotion of Traditional Performing Arts, which takes care of the festival, is to fully promote its touristic aspects and not to “touch” its rituals (Nelson 1996: 138). Similar patterns are to be found in the case of pilgrimages as analyzed by Ian Reader (in this issue).
63. FN24 24See, for example, Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) (2009: 17). See also Fukami (2008: 8-9), where the importance of the religious aspects is mentioned, but in the end the cultural aspect of the yamahoko(or yamaboko) procession prevails when he points out that the Gion Matsuri Yamahoko Rengōkai strives to “preserve and pass on the yamahokoprocession of the Gion Matsuri as cultural property of the Japanese people.” I will analyze this and other aspects in detail in my research project on the Kyoto Gion matsuri.This paper is intended as a preliminary study for it.
64. FN25 25See also Schnell’s analysis of the Furukawa matsuriin connection with tourism (Schnell 1999: 267-273). The touristic and entertaining aspect of festivals is not new, and has been a constituent part of this, and other festivals, for a long time. In regards to the connection between entertainment and religion, see for example, the excellent study on Asakusa Sensōji in the Edo period by Nam-lin Hur (2000).
65. FN26 26For example, in 2011, during the first three days in January the Meiji Jingū in Tokyo was visited by 3.2 million people (see Umemoto 2011: 30). In Kyoto the most visited shrine is Fushimi Inari Taisha in the southern part of the city. These visits seem to involve, in particular, major shrines and do not necessarily mean that Shintō institutions are flourishing, as Reader has also underlined (in this issue).
66. FN27 27See, for example, the Okunchi o-tabisho(Nelson 1996: 153, 157).
67. FN28 28See, for instance, the case of the Jōdoshū temple Akamon Shōgakuji 赤門正覚寺 mentioned by Ishii (1996: 166).
68. FN29 29See, for example, the recruitment campaign for volunteers for pulling the floats, the Kyōto Gion matsuri yamahoko junkō hikite borantia boshū京都祇園祭曳き手ボランティア募集, where male volunteers between the age of 18 and 40 are sought. They should either belong to the youth division of the association Kyoto Gion Matsuri Volunteer 21 (Kyōto Gion Matsuri Borantia 21 京都祇園祭ボランティア 21) or be interested in and have sufficient knowledge of the basic tenets of the festival. See 20 December 2011).
69. FN30 30In this regard, see also the specialized committee, the Jikkōkai, which is responsible for the planning and management of the kaichō(Bodiford 1994: 15-16).
70. FN31 31Interview in Hinatani (2011: 23). Of course, we should note that the ludic aspect of festivals is not something completely new, as it may seem from this comment (see note 25 above).
71. FN32 32See also Kadokawa shichō 門川市長, “Gion matsuri yamahoko rengōkai Furuta rijichō kyōdō kisha kaiken (2011.6.15) , ‘Sendai Tanabata matsuri’ de no Gion yamahoko no hayashi nado no hirō 祗園祭山鉾連合会吉田理事長共同記者会見( 2011年6月15日)「仙台七夕まつり」での祇園祭山鉾の囃子等の披露, 28.7.2011” on the website of the City of Kyoto 25 August 2011). See also Asahi Shinbun(7.8.2011: 35), where the president of the board of trustees of the Yamahoko Rengōkai mentioned the plague in 869 that was at the origin of the goryōerituals to placate the spirits and save people from calamities; and Asahi Shinbun(13.7.2011: 9). During the 2011 matsuri, the Yamahoko Rengōkai gathered a great sum (16,470,000 yen) to help the reconstruction of the areas hit by the disaster ( Asahi Shinbun7.8.2011: 35).
72. FN33 33 Gomagi護摩木 is firewood that is used during the gomaritual ceremony. Kyoto Shinbun(16.7.2011), 25 August 2011). It is interesting to note that here there is no mention of the nuclear disaster.
73. FN34 34This was, of course, not emphasized, for example, in the 2009 gomaritual (see Asahi Shinbun17.7.2009: 28).

Article metrics loading...


Affiliations: 1: University of Leipzig Leipzig Germany, Email:, URL:


Can't access your account?
  • Tools

  • Add to Favorites
  • Printable version
  • Email this page
  • Subscribe to email alerts
  • Get permissions
  • Recommend to your library

    You must fill out fields marked with: *

    Librarian details
    Your details
    Why are you recommending this title?
    Select reason:
    Journal of Religion in Japan — Recommend this title to your library

    Thank you

    Your recommendation has been sent to your librarian.

  • Export citations
  • Key

  • Full access
  • Open Access
  • Partial/No accessInformation