A Japanese proverb states that “it is dark at the base of a candlestick” (tōdai moto kurashi). This proverb, which expresses a tendency to overlook the obvious, might have been used before the mid-1990s to explain why religious secrecy, despite its ubiquity, received so little academic attention. Fortunately, the situation has changed. Since 1994, much needed light on the nature of secrecy in religion has been shed by the works of Hugh Urban, Paul Johnson, Ian Keen, Elliot Wolfson, Hans Kippenberg, and G. Stroumsa, as well as the June 2006 special issue of this journal. It is to this recent scholarship that The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion makes a significant contribution. Although secrecy in the rhetoric and practices of religions in Japanese history was common, scholarly analysis of it was not. A chapter in Jacqueline Stone’s Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (1999) on “the culture of secret transmission” in Tendai was one of the few insightful studies we had dealing with the topic in English. Now, with the book under review here, we have many more. It is the best book in English on the diverse history of secrecy in Japan and will serve as a starting point for anyone interested in its subject for many years to come.
The book has two basic aims: first, “to investigate the development, the scope, and the decline of Japan’s culture of secrecy” and second, “to make the Japanese case available to the more general comparative study of secrecy” (2). To achieve these aims, the book is divided into three parts: part one (chapters 2 through 4) on secrecy in religion outside Japan; part two (chapters 5 through 12) on secrecy in Japanese religions and culture, primarily between the eleventh and sixteenth century; and part three (chapters 13 through 15) on the decline of secrecy during the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). The three parts are framed by Mark Teeuwen’s introduction, which is the best chapter for achieving the second aim of the book. Teeuwen deftly outlines the scholarship on secrecy in religion and shows how secrecy in Japan relates to Confucian and particularly Buddhist discourses. He then argues, before summarizing the other chapters, that it was not doctrinal interpretations but rather social historical dynamics that most influenced secrecy in Japan.
The three chapters following the introduction in part one are intended to offer “some necessary preliminaries for discussing the Japanese case” (24). They deal with secrecy in ancient Mediterranean religions (De Jong), and Tantric Buddhism in India (Davidson) and in China during the Tang period (Lehnert). Among the preliminaries offered here is Albert de Jong’s discussion of secrecy in relation to privacy, esotericism, mystery, and other restrictions. His distinction between social secrecy, which is based on two or more people intentionally hiding something from others, and esotericism, in which a deity is the primary “owner” of a secret, is helpful when analyzing the complexities of secrecy in Japanese esoteric Buddhism. The next two essays provide interesting material that might be productively compared to secrecy in Japan. Davidson’s [End Page 707] argument that the development of secrecy in Indian Tantric Buddhism was closely related to sectarian strife and growing militarization can help us gain new insight into the situation in Japan where secrecy grew while the imperial court was losing power to military families. Lehnert’s point that “the masters of the ‘secret teachings’ at the Tang-court presented themselves as mediators of sacrality, tying together Buddhist soteriology and imperial order in ritual performance” (96) is also one that calls for comparison with Japan. Unfortunately, however, none of the authors in this part give much consideration to how their studies relate to secrecy in Japan or the other essays in the book.
The essays in part two examine cases of secrecy, and particularly esotericism, in a variety of medieval contexts: the education of Shingon monks (Rambelli); interpretations of the Lotus Sūtra (Dolce) and of Noh commentaries (Klein); an enthronement unction (Teeuwen); transmissions of the Nihon shoki (Scheid...