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Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) has been the subject of numerous
studies that focus on his importance to nationalist politics and
Japanese intellectual and social history. Although well known as an
ideologue of Japanese National Learning (Kokugaku), Atsutane’s
significance as a religious thinker has been largely overlooked. His
prolific writings on supernatural subjects have never been thoroughly
analyzed in English until now. In When Tengu Talk, Wilburn Hansen
focuses on Senkyo ibun (1822), a voluminous work centering on
Atsutane’s interviews with a fourteen-year-old Edo street urchin named
Kozo Torakichi who claimed to be an apprentice tengu, a supernatural
creature of Japanese folklore. Hansen uncovers in detail how Atsutane
employed a deliberate method of ethnographic inquiry that worked to
manipulate and stimulate Torakichi’s surreal descriptions of everyday
existence in a supernatural realm, what Atsutane termed the Other World.
Hansen’s investigation and analysis of the process begins with the
hypothesis that Atsutane’s project was an early attempt at ethnographic
research, a new methodological approach in nineteenth-century Japan.
Hansen posits that this "scientific" analysis was tainted by Atsutane’s
desire to establish a discourse on Japan not limited by what he
considered to be the unsatisfactory results of established Japanese
A rough sketch of the milieu of 1820s Edo
Japan and Atsutane’s position within it provides the backdrop against
which the drama of Senkyo ibun unfolds. There follow chapters
explaining the relationship between the implied author and the outside
narrator, the Other World that Atsutane helped Torakichi describe, and
Atsutane’s nativist discourse concerning Torakichi’s fantastic claims of
a newly discovered Shinto holy man called the sanjin.
Sanjin were partly defined by supernatural abilities similar (but
ultimately more effective and thus superior) to those of the Buddhist
bodhisattva and the Daoist immortal. They were seen as holders of secret
and powerful technologies previously thought to have come from or been
perfected in the West, such as geography, astronomy, and military
technology. Atsutane sought to deemphasize the impact of Western
technology by claiming these powers had come from Japan’s Other World.
In doing so, he creates a new Shinto hero and, by association, asserts
the superiority of native Japanese tradition. In the final portion of
his book, Hansen addresses Atsutane’s contribution to the construction
of modern Japanese identity. By the late Tokugawa, many intellectuals
had grown uncomfortable with continued cultural dependence on
Neo-Confucianism, and the Buddhist establishment was under fire from
positivist historiographers who had begun to question the many
contradictions found in Buddhist texts. With these traditional
discourses in disarray and Western rationalism and materialism gaining
public acceptance, Hansen depicts Atsutane’s creation of a new spiritual
identity for the Japanese people as one creative response to the
pressures of modernity.
When Tengu Talk adds to the small
body of work in English on National Learning. It moreover fills a void
in the area of historical religious studies, which is dominated by
studies of Buddhist monks and priests, by offering a glimpse of a Shinto
religious figure. Finally, it counters the image of Atsutane as a
forerunner of the ultra-nationalism that ultimately was deployed in the
service of empire. Lucid and accessible, it will find an appreciative
audience among scholars of Shinto and Japanese and world religion. In
addition to religion specialists, it will be of considerable interest to
anthropologists and historians of Japan.
Feb 18, 2014CHAPTER 2--
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