Category Archives: gender

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.


The 2012 Japanese Mountain Religion Conference at Mt. Omine

Earlier this month, the Association for the Study of Japanese Mountain Religion (日本山岳修験学会) held its thirty-third annual conference at the base of Mt. Ōmine 大峰.  One of Japan’s most important numinous peaks, Ōmine stands between the historic Shugendō sites of Yoshino (to the north) and Kumano (to the south).  As such, Ōmine constitutes the nexus of two geographically-imposed mandalas (the Diamond and the Womb) that stretch across the Kii Peninsula.  Below lies the hamlet of Dorogawa 洞川, which has served  a supporting role for Ōmine kō 講 (pilgrimage confraternities) for centuries.  While Dorogawa continues this tradition, it has also transformed itself into an onsen getaway in recent decades.

While the conference is held at a different mountain site each year, this year’s conference was especially exciting, given the location, history and ongoing prominence of Ōmine.  The first day commenced with shugenja blowing horagai (large conch shell instruments) and followed with talks on the history of Ōmine by luminaries in the field, Miyake Hitoshi and Suzuki Shoei.  After a full day of presentations ranging all topics Shugendō on Day 2, guests were to treated to kagura, taiko drumming and martial arts by local performers at the evening banquet.  On Day 3, participants joined one of two itineraries: an ascent up the numinous peak of Sanjogatake 山上ヶ岳 or a tour of temples and shrines—many of which have been historically patronized by women—along the base of the mountain.

But among the events, talks, and discussions that took place over the three-day conference, it was perhaps what remained absent from open discussion that was most intriguing.  Namely, that a significant number of conference participants were forbidden from joining the ascent up Sanjogatake.  Like numinous mountains around the country, Sanjogatake has long been off-limits to women (a practice known as nyonin kekkai 女人結界 or nyonin kinsei 女人禁制).  Unlike other peaks though, the surrounding community has upheld the exclusionary practice down to the present.

One would think this issue might arise at a conference devoted to better understanding the nature of Shugendō—especially when it is taking place at the last holdout for nyonin kekkai.  One can speculate on the reasons for this silence, though Dorogawa’s role as host to the conference was likely a significant factor.  Such a touchy subject, which has placed the community on the defense many times in recent years, would be considered awkward and improper to address as guests.  This, in tandem with the cultural inclination toward harmony over contention, took it off the table as an issue for open discussion.

In the end, I participated in the Sanjogatake climb, though not without mixed feelings.  Here are some pics from the day (click on thumbnails to switch to slideshow mode).


Were there female yamabushi?

Practitioners of Shugendo have often been referred to as yamabushi 山伏, meaning those who ‘sleep in the mountains.’  Throughout Japan’s medieval and perhaps early modern periods, these hardcore ascetics engaged in a curriculum of harsh mountain austerities that included remote peregrinations, secluded meditation in caves, submersion under frigid mountain waterfalls, and a meager diet of mountain flora and vegetation.

It is typically assumed that yamabushi were only men, in part because women were forbidden from entering numinous mountains for fear of polluting the space (a practice known as nyonin kekkai 女人結界).  So I was surprised to recently read several lines from a sixteenth century Shugendo text alluding to female practitioners.  The text, Shugen mondō (Questions and answers regarding Shugen[do]), was composed by an unknown author at Togakushi-san in 1561.  The passage reads,

“The pure, true women [of Shugendo] recite chants and they attain the fruit [of awakening] just like the [male] upāsakas (i.e. lay practitioners).”  (清信女読、是得道得果道同優婆塞。)

And later,

“The good lads and good women of our school moreover, do not shave their heads.” (善男子・善女人、尚以於吾等宗不剃髪。)

This is especially surprising given references to nyonin kekkai in an earlier text composed at Togakushi.  Forbidding women from entering the Togakushi peaks presumably continued without interruption until the late nineteenth century, when the practice was abolished at most sites throughout the country (the famous Mt. Ōmine continues to be an exception).

On the other hand, women established routes around the perimeter of Togakushi and other numinous peaks.  These circuits allowed them to come close enough to worship the mountain and its resident gods.  This practice also supported a growing cottage industry throughout the early modern period.  Blind female oracles, known as miko 巫女, also have a strong place in Shugendo, though I’m not sure how far back records date.  And then there were male/female couples during the Edo period who worked in cooperation to rid evil spirits from their clients (the male shugenja would temporarily transfer the spirit from the client on to his female partner in order to manipulate and eventually banish it).

So historically, women certainly played central roles within Shugendo.  Still, I couldn’t help but be surprised to find overt inclusion and equal treatment of women in the lines above – especially given the seemingly hostile attitude towards them setting foot in numinous mountains.

Then again, the complexities of gender roles and attitudes in historical contexts are perhaps not easily bridged by modern modes of understanding of gender.  How should we situate the role of women in Shugendo, both historically and in the present context?