ISSA Seminar “Izumo and Ise: Ancient Sovereignty and Sacred Space”

The International Shinto Studies Association held an international seminar entitled “Izumo and Ise: Ancient Sovereignty and Sacred Space (The roots and transformation of the two great sacred places)” on October 26, 2013, at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies Soukairou Hall in Tokyo. Approximately 160 people attended. In the keynote speech in the first session, ISSA Chairman Shinichiro Kurimoto (former President of Ariake Junior College of Education and the Arts) delivered a lectured entitled “Ancient Sovereignty of Ise and Izumo”. During the ensuing panel discussion “Izumo and Ise: Sacred Spaces”, ISSA Director Professor Fabio Rambelli (University of California, Santa Barbara) presented his ideas on the international transformation  in perception of “sacred space” in Ise and Izumo. ISSA Vice President Professor John Breen (International Research Center for Japanese Studies) talked about Ise as a modern sacred site, and Director Michael Pye (Emeritus Professor, University of Marburg), discussed the history and significance of pilgrimages to Ise.

Seminar Report

ISSA Chairman Yoshinobu Miyake (Executive Director, Konko Church of Izuo) introduced the research activities of the ISSA in the field of Japanese culture, and explained the purpose of the seminar. President Kurimoto’s speech focused on examples of various forms of ancient sovereignties in East Asia, and examined the Japanese experience. Chairman Miyake commented, “Thanks to President Kurimoto’s lecture on the dual structure of ancient sovereignties and sacred directions, we were able to deepen our understanding of the connection between sacred space and imperial authority.”

During the panel discussion, Professor Rambelli referred to the international perceptions of medieval Shinto theory, and explained how Japanese mythology was not sufficient to explicate Ise Shinto given the infiltration of esoteric Buddhism and Confucianism. “As Buddhism and Chinese thought became established and indigenized in shrines, a universalization of symbolism in shrines also occurred. In this sense, Shinto could be described as a medium for altering international sensibilities by transforming things into forms unique to Japan.”

Professor Breen focused his talk on modern Ise. He introduced people and groups in Ise that facilitated its “purging”, as it was transformed from a pilgrimage destination for commoners into a site that articulated political order and was the sacred site for the emperor. Professor Breen also discussed the transformation of Furuichi, the former entertainment district. “Sacred sites are connected with ritual performance and legendary events. At the same time, however, they are intrinsically political in nature and constantly subject to historical change.”

For the purpose of explaining religious journeys to Ise, Professor Pye showed slides of religious cultural elements such as “ema”, “o-meguri”, and “shuin” and explained that Shinto and Buddhism were mutually influential. “Pilgrim behaviour is not just a matter of a single visit to a sacred site, but also involves the creation of new patterns of pilgrimage.”

After the presentations, ISSA Standing Director Tomoko Iwasawa (Associate Professor, Reitaku University) summarized the content. “The presenters did not only discuss the meaning and significance of sacred locations from a cosmological level, but also took into consideration historical, social, and political levels.” She emphasized the multifaceted role of sacred locations in that they not only function as places that bring individual spiritual transformation, as seen in the recent popularity of pilgrimage, but also they serve as locations that symbolize national identity in each era.

A Q&A session followed in which each speaker took questions from the audience. Director Yoshimura Masanori (Superintendent, Shinshukyo) concluded the seminar with the flowing comment. “We are able to deepen our knowledge on a subject by looking at it from various perspectives. Ise and Izumo are receiving a lot of attention at the moment, and I hope that they continue to shine through initiatives such as this.”