Monthly Archives: June 2013

Criticizing Female Exclusion in Fifteenth Century Japan

Part of my research this year has been devoted to a text entitled The Transmitted Account of Kenkō-ji of Mt. Togakushi (Togakushi-san Kenkō-ji ruki 戸隠山顕光寺流記), compiled by the monk, Jikkokusō Ujō 十穀僧有通, in 1458.

Among the many vivid aspects it provides on the religious culture at Mt. Togakushi in the mid-fifteenth century, a passage I came across on the mountain’s practice of nyonin kekkai 女人結界 (a boundary prohibiting women) especially sparked my interest.  With some help from my research advisor, Suzuki Masataka (who’s written extensively on the practice) and medieval Buddhist scholar, Iyanaga Nobumi, I came up with a translation for the following passage:

A transcription of the Kenkoji ruki.  The translated passage begins on the right, 8th line in.

A transcribed page from the Kenkoji ruki. The translated passage begins on the right, 8th line in.

“On the twenty-sixth day of the eighth month of the first year of the Kōhei 康平 era (1058), during the reign of Goreizei-in 後冷泉院, a bright light was radiating out from atop a giant tree fifty cho 町 from Honnin [now Okusha of Togakushi-san].[1]   It seemed like a mysterious and unusual living being.  The image was that of a divine true body (mishōtai 御正躰).

At that time, there was a young girl of twelve to thirteen years of age in such mental and physical agony that she passed out on the ground.  When asked why, she said, “I am the avatar of Jizō 地蔵, the greatest of the three avatars of this mountain, who stands on the left side.[2]  That area is a bordered land (kekkai chi 結界地), upon which the trace of women has been removed.  Because this defies the Buddha’s orders and ignores his original vow, the benefits of conversion are shallow and scarce.  Please erect a building in this place and have me installed.”

Many had their doubts.  They insisted that if this was really the divine oracle [of Jizō], then have [the bright light] moved into the sleeve of someone among the priests and laity.  Then, it flew down into the sleeve of a śramaṇa among them who had great faith.  He worshiped it, [making it] the site of the honored form of the bodhisattva Jizō.  Not moving for days, he built a shrine with an attached hermitage.  It became a hut in which to pursue the Dharma.

The place where the divine true body [of Jizō] flew down is called Fushigami 伏拝. The temple was first named Fukuokain 福岡院 and later became known as Hōkōin 寶光院 [now Hōkōsha of Togakushi].”

The alleged tall tree of Fushigami, where a bright light radiated from and a young girl was possessed by the bodhisattva Jizō (though this tree was probably planted later - Edo period?).

The alleged tree at Fushigami where a bright light radiated from above and a young girl below fell under the possession of the bodhisattva Jizō (though this tree was probably planted later – Edo period?).

Nyonin kekkai became widespread among sacred mountains in the medieval period so it’s no surprise that the practice was adopted at Togakushi-san as well.  What is fascinating here is the apparent critique of it at Togakushi in the comment–voiced by Jizō–that it defies the Buddha’s vow (it’s said that Sakyamuni welcomed both men and women into the sangha).  As a result, conversion to Buddhism at the mountain provides limited benefit.

Is this Jikkokusō Ujō’s own opinion inserted into the text or does it reflect a wider spread sentiment?  Whatever the case, its uncommon to see a critique of the practice coming from within a religious community in premodern Japan.  Max Moerman (Localizing Paradise, 2005) discusses other examples, but this one seems particularly pronounced.

Fushigami (literally, to “lie down and worship”), an allusion to the Kumano site of Fushigami, is marked to this day on the old path (古道) between Togakushi’s Hōkōsha and Chūsha shrines.  Given the geography of the mountain, this would mean that Hōkōin accepted women while the temple complexes of Chūin (now Chūsha) and Okuin (now Okusha) remained off-limits at this time.

The boundary was later moved in 1795, as evident from an engraved stone marker still standing in between Chūsha and Okusha.  (Here’s a Japanese map of the shrines of Togakushi.)  The practice was abolished in the Meiji period.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why the boundary was moved between the medieval and early modern periods.  The erection of the stone nevertheless, suggests that the rule may have not been strictly enforced up until then.  Why after all, reestablish a rule if no one is breaking it?


[1] One chō equals approximately 109 meters.

[2] This orientation is likely referring to the triad of buddhas/bodhisattvas at Togakushi.

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Is Mt. Fuji overrated?

Alright, so Fuji is a bit of a slog.  As the saying goes in Japan, “You’re a fool not to climb it once; you’re a fool to climb it twice.” (一度も登らぬ馬鹿、二度登る馬鹿).

It lacks the exposed ridge lines and cliff faces that attract alpine climbers.  Beautiful ravines and waterfalls typical of other great peaks are few and far between.  Even its iconic cone shape disappears from view once you’re on it.  Instead, seemingly endless fields of boulders and scree fan out from its center in all directions, eventually merging with forest floor beneath.

And its a really, really long way to the top.  Most people nowadays begin from one of its fifth stations (mountains routes in Japan are generally segmented in tenths from base to summit).  Even this head start though leaves roughly 1300 to 2400 vertical meters (4300 – 7900 ft) above, overcome by switchback after switchback after switchback…

That said, the experience of scaling one of its faces brings you into immediate connection a terrain that you likely only experienced beforehand through its branded ubiquity on billboards, TV ads, and commercial print and of course, national symbolism.  Once you’re climbing, these projections vanish amidst its vast scale and scope.  People above resemble a line of ants for most of the route, while the trail start gradually becomes a tiny speck below.

As Japan’s tallest peak, Fuji ascends to 3776 m (12,389 ft).  That would make it comparatively lower than many of the high ranges around the world.  But while many of those peaks (the fourteeners of Colorado, for example) begin at high elevations, Fuji spans from sea level to summit – making altitude sickness common among hikers.  And despite the predictability of much of the route, an immense crater inverts its top, resulting in multiple summits rising along a jagged, circular rim.  These aspects – alongside its rich cultural and religious history – ultimately make the peak a must climb (once, that is).

The pics below are taken from the Fujinomiya 富士宮 trail off-season (late May) – unadvised unless you have advanced mountaineering skills.  Here’s a good site for planning during the regular season.

Click to expand.

Reference:  Earhart, H. Byron. 2011. Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.