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  • Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain
  • John Nelson (bio)
Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain. By Ellen Schattschneider. Duke University Press, Durham, 2003. xiv, 268 pages. $64.95, cloth; $21.95, paper.

There are many points of access into Schattschneider's rich ethnographic account of one of Japan's most sacred mountains: agrarian family dynamics, Japanese women's roles, sexuality and childbearing obligations, new religions, labor practices dictated by twentieth-century economic realities, and so on. However, without the primacy of place leading the list—a volcanic sacred mountain in northwestern Tohoku (the periphery of Japan in ways geographic, economic, political, and demographic)—a very different set of conditions and configurations would rule how these topics listed above might come into play.

From a contemporary perspective, the region around Mt. Iwaki (the north face of which is called Akakura by those involved in the mountain's worship) remains one of the most isolated and economically challenged in all Japan. In order to maintain a household's landholdings and agricultural viability, some family members leave for part of the year to seek temporary employment at factories or construction sites near urban centers to the south. Women in particular are buffeted between economic realities and local [End Page 457] expectations and obligations about being wives, mothers, and partners in family-related undertakings.

We know that while economic pressures are influential, the momentum of history and myth also shapes the identity of a place and the people who live there. Mt. Iwaki/Akakura is said to be the site where the tide turned against the aboriginal peoples of Tohoku in the ninth century, leaving them conquered and displaced by Yamato civilization. Accordingly, the southern, "civilized" side of Mt. Iwaki resembles the smooth face of a beautiful woman gazing upon the great cities and regions of Japan's centers of power (p. 59). Buddhist and Shintō religious traditions—representing established imperial hegemony—long ago appropriated and absorbed local myths and deities into their ameliorating worldviews and ritual practices.

But this is true only for the southern side of the mountain. Schattschneider's study (based on extensive fieldwork in 1992-93) concerns the north side, called "Akakura." Still evident are the fissures, gorges, and crags of a massive eruption in 1783 that destroyed the region's crops and led to a famine and epidemic that killed over 80,000 people, one third of the population (p. 35). It was from the north side of the mountain that a local kamisama spirit medium of the 1920s had a powerful dream of a dragon bursting forth, piercing the dreamer's roof, and then changing into a woman who spoke to her about the need to climb the mountain. According to the shrine's members, this most decidedly was not a deity of popular devotion one might find elsewhere in Japan but a powerful expression of the autochthonous, indigenous spirits of the mountain.

According to Kawai Mariko, the shamanic founder of the Akakura Mountain shrine, this vision led to the pairing of a female divinity (onigamisama, the "demon queen," who is also Amaterasu) with the legendary conqueror of the region, Sakanoue Tamuramaro (p. 62). Like most aspects of this mountain-based religion, there are no easy resolutions between these powerful spiritual entities. Rituals encode and evoke their bigendered tensions throughout the year. For example, Akakura Daigongen, the term given to the mountain's spirit when manifest as a wild and hairy male figure, may be petitioned for strength and empowerment, but the mountain itself remains resolutely feminine and maternal, in ways nurturing and surprisingly temperamental. As we read repeatedly, however hard or long one might practice austerities and spend time climbing the mountain, spiritual advances are not guaranteed because the mountain's good and bad deities "walk together."

What kind of individuals seek out the mountain? Schattschneider focuses on the roughly 80 per cent of female shrine members whose lives, for one reason or another, have left them with a sense of unfulfilled obligations, personal loss, disappointment, or deep-seated anxiety. They come to the shrine seeking a transformation of self through the labor they must perform [End...


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