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When Tengu Talk

Hirata Atsutane's Ethnography of the Other World

Wilburn Hansen

Publication Year: 2008

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 philological methods. 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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. v

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p. vii

This book is the culmination of work first conceived in my master’s program more than a decade ago at the University of Colorado. As such I need to start my acknowledgments by giving thanks to Edmund Gilday, who encouraged me then and continues to support my efforts. Because of that start I was able to continue my studies at Stanford University under ...

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Introduction: A New Medium for an Old Message

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pp. 1-15

The Japanese religious academician Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly studies undertaken by Japanese intellectuals of varying types beginning not long after his death and continuing into the twenty-first century. Atsutane’s prodigious output of written text and transcribed lectures still leaves room for, in fact begs for, new ...

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CHAPTER 1 Constructing Japanese Identity: Senkyō ibun

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pp. 17-41

Carmen Blacker’s translation of Senkyō ibun is “Strange Tidings from the Realm of Immortals.” The word “immortals” is one standard translation for the Chinese character sen commonly found in combination in Japanese as sennin.1 The tradition of the so-called immortal comes from classical Daoism. In its most general sense, it refers to a man who may or may ...

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CHAPTER 2 The Medium Finds a Promoter: Torakichi and Atsutane

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pp. 42-73

Although Atsutane placed himself in a genealogy of nativist scholars whose scholarship depended on philological method, he claimed to dislike learning that focused on the organized study of classics. Clearly, by his choice of method in Senkyō ibun, Atsutane had begun to experiment with an alternative he hoped would be a superior means of acquiring knowledge and, not coincidentally, ...

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CHAPTER 3 Manipulating the Medium: Separating the Sanjin from the Tengu

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pp. 74-102

Senkyō ibun opens with a conversation between Atsutane and his elder confidant and friend, Yashiro Hirokata, in which the existence of a mysterious and supernatural Other World is a premise accepted by both parties. As explained earlier, for Atsutane, the Other World had the meaning of the normally invisible half of a universe made up of two worlds, one seen and one unseen.

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CHAPTER 4 The Critique of China and Defense of Native Culture

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pp. 103-139

Atsutane’s overall objective in his research was to rediscover what was originally Japanese and to rid Japanese culture of all foreign influences so that native culture could be revalued and understood as superior to other cultures. However, in pursuing this objective he had a habit of appropriating his so-called original and native Japanese ideas from foreign cultures.

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CHAPTER 5 The Critique of Buddhism and Defense of Native Religion

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pp. 140-168

Senkyō ibun is filled with anti-Buddhist rhetoric, as are many of Atsutane’s writings. The usual way Atsutane countered Buddhist discourse was by direct criticism and slander of Buddhist beliefs and practices as well as the believers and practitioners. The new method of attacking Buddhism in Senkyō ibun was the creation of an alternative religious virtuoso that equaled or surpassed the champions of Buddhism.

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CHAPTER 6 The Critique of the West and Defense of Native Knowledge and Ability

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pp. 169-193

Atsutane’s attitude toward Western knowledge was one of respect, but he was also compelled to remind his audience that no matter how fine Western knowledge was, the Westerner’s character and habits were bestial at best and they were therefore not to be admired or emulated. Nevertheless, he felt that Western knowledge and technology could and should be appropriated ...

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Conclusion: The Medium Is the Message

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pp. 195-212

I chose the Marshall McLuhan reference in the title of this chapter to emphasize the focus of this particular study, which is the importance of the medium in Atsutane’s message.1 That message in Senkyō ibun is ultimately no different than Atsutane’s standard offering, which he usually delivered through a textual medium. Its import was, of course, that the Japanese ...


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pp. 213-241


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pp. 243-257


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pp. 259-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865597
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832094

Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 647433457
MUSE Marc Record: Download for When Tengu Talk

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Subject Headings

  • Hirata, Atsutane, 1776-1843.
  • Kokugaku.
  • Mediums -- Japan.
  • Hirata, Atsutane, 1776-1843. Senkyō hibun.
  • Japan -- Religion.
  • Takayama, Torakichi, b. 1806.
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