Gods in the Making: A Reconsideration of the Process of Deification in Medieval Japan and Beyond

Emily Simpson (University of California at Santa Barbara)
Hiroo Sato (Tohoku University)
Religion and Religious Thought
Torre A, Piso 0, Sala 03
Start time:
31 August, 2017 at 9:30
Session slots:

Short abstract:

The panel seeks to illuminate the process of deification in medieval Japan through case studies examining the elevation of Empress Jingū and monastic acolytes (chigo) into godhood. We also consider how the concept of human deification evolved and expanded from medieval to modern times.

Long abstract:

In Japan, the medieval period (twelfth to sixteenth centuries) was one in which society overflowed with the existence of the sacred. The possibility of becoming a Buddha, limited to a select group of religious professionals in earlier periods, became accessible to the laity, and the idea that kami resided within human beings circulated widely. In this panel, we will first present several examples of the phenomenon of deification as conceived in the medieval period, such as Empress Jingū's divine status and the chigo kanjō ritual. Through these case studies, we attempt to illuminate the process by which humans transformed into divinities against the backdrop of medieval history and its cultural worldview. The discourse of humans becoming gods has already been thoroughly discussed within the context of the Tendai original enlightenment (hongaku 本覚) philosophy and Kamakura Buddhism, but little research has directly considered the origin of this medieval trend. Therefore, this panel will explore the development of the tradition of human deification, in both text and practice. We will also consider why, compared to earlier and later periods in Japanese history, the medieval period fostered such a culturally shared belief in deification, and how belief and worship changed over time. Through this examination, we aim to elucidate the particular characteristics of "medieval" deification of everyday people. In medieval Japan, the word "deification" (shinkakuka 神格化) held the assertion of "people becoming kami," which calls to mind the fierce modern debate surrounding Yasukuni Shrine and the deified souls it enshrines. Our third goal of this panel is to follow the transformation of the logic of deification after the medieval period, delving into its discursive continuities and discontinuities. From the medieval period, in which it was believed anyone could become a deity after death if infused with a potent power, the idea of deification expanded to include living souls who possessed a kami within. Through charting this trajectory of belief in deification and its process, we also aim to shed new light on the Yasukuni controversy.