Anyone out there working in a rural area in Japan? If so, I'd like to hear your thoughts about rural areas in modern Japan.

What are the major problems facing your or all rural communities?

What are areas of inquiry, and/or struggle, for the future? In other words, what are the key questions we need to be asking/issues we need to be addressing?

How are rural areas articulating with the larger, mostly urban, Japanese society?

I'll wait to weigh in, but look forward to hearing from any and all of you.



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Several members of the Anthropology of Japan in Japan group have worked in rural areas. I would recommend, in particular, getting in touch with John Mock (, who has worked in Akita and knows a lot more about this stuff than I do.
Regarding anthropological studies of Shinto cult festivals in rural village cultures of Japan

One important reason to visit rural locations in Japan is the study of traditional Shinto cult festivals.

Each rural town, village, or even hamlet, has its festival calendar with at least one annual festival of great local importance usually focused on the local Shinto shrine and the local protector deity of the village (ujigami, or ubusuna gami).

There is a surprising element in this phenomenon of Japanese Shinto festival: the tremendous manifold of forms and types, an incredible multitude of religious performances and procedures. Most striking is the still strongly bilevelled character: history and most ancient rural tradition. Many traits evidently speak the language of the traditional world of the local agrarian village society. On the other hand dominantly historically imprinted higher civilizational structural elements play an important role, expressing quite different means and goals. In other words, Shinto is not simply something controlled and modified by a vertical system. It has saved important traits of its agrarian origins. And this makes it interesting in regard to the anthropology of religion as well as in view of a wider anthropology of culture.

Of the endless quantity of Japanese Shinto festivals there is a considerable amount which show dominantly medieval or classical characteristics often with ancient political or military character, temporally revitalizing historical figures and their influence being shown in their geographical and cultural landscape. There are huge processions, impressive demonstrations of dynamic warlike events, showing weapons of those times and so on. There are also events which show strong influences of historical Buddhism.

But on the other hand there are dominantly festival types which definitely correspond to the rural agrarian world showing local territorial implications. There are endless villages all over the country which - as the central content of their annual festival, build signs and symbols with a technique which must be very old (the hand is the first tool!). Fibrous materials are used to build sacred signs, often called (seats of) deities. Often these signs and symbols also carry the name of the local village protector deity, ubusuna kami, or uji-gami, deities which have become important also in the historical context.

In other words, though classified as religious phenomena in the West, rural Shinto festivals are often more a cyclic renewal of a Neolithic type of territorial demarcation system in which 'border-signs' are not set up along a peripheral borderline, but are erected in the middle of the village, that is, between the human settlement with fields on one hand and the non accessible, sacred 'mountain and woods' part above the village (village shrine precinct). The definition of the territory is thus a projection of the bipolar structure of the fibro-constructive demarcation often made of reed and other local grass materials.

If one collects all the forms made in Japan with such ephemeral materials one can discover a surprising field of form-evolution and differentiation [s. Egenter 1980 (German), 1982 (German-English), 1994 (English)] which includes interesting aspects of an evolution of 'an autonomous type of aesthetics', 'perception of and copying natural form', 'differentiation of natural and cultural form'. This gains its impulses from the fact that villages must differentiate their own form within the regional cluster (See study of one region with artificial trees: Egenter 1981).

Thus these festivals might be of great value for the anthropologist, because they show a type of material culture which might have been of great importance in providing an elementary "aesthetic" model which could have had impacts on human cognition and harmonious philosophy (Asian Yin Yang concept), formal creation (objects of handicraft, building, clothes, social behavior etc.) local constitution, law and social hierarchy (local hegemony of village founder-house).

Note that Japan had practically no Christian influence for long periods of time and therefore could preserve its own autochthonous agrarian cult traditions, an important aspect which gives these rural cult festivals great value for the anthropologist interested in important aspects of cultural evolution. Note also that all these traditions are fantastically well studied and documented by Japanese ethnology (or folklore studies).

Note also that the Japanese archipelago in its relatively peripheral localisation was able to preserve its own traditional rural conditions with a comparatively unbroken continuity into its historical state conditions. It is an ideal place where anthropologists can construct macro-theoretical concepts of cultural evolution.
Egenter, Nold
1980 Bauform als Zeichen und Symbol. ETH Zürich
1982 Sacred Symbols of Reed and Bamboo. Swiss Asiatic studies Monographs, vol. 4 Zurich, Peter Lang Berne
1981 The sacred Trees around Goshonai, Japan. Asian Folklore Studies 40 (2), 191-212
1994 Architectural Anthropology - Semantic and Symbolic Architecture. Lausanne, Ed. Structura Mundi

Hi Eric

Do you live in Japan?

i've been translating an essays book by Takahata Isao on the "sato vs machi". I'm not an antropologist but a cultural project manager with a particular look at the role of antropology in the making of new society, thus new cultural projects such as arts, music, urban organisation, literature and so on.

Takahata is a famous animation director, teacher and colleague of Miyazaki, and he's considered an intellectual of animation, because of his many written studies on the traditional culture left in the modern Japan.

Meantime, even though it's not a piece of academic writing, I warmly suggest to watch his movies "Pompoko" and "Omoide poro poro".



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