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  • Female Pilgrims and Mt. FujiChanging Perspectives on the Exclusion of Women
  • Miyazaki Fumiko (bio)

Before 1872 women were excluded from most of Japan's sacred mountains, the sanctuaries of many Buddhist temples, and the inner precincts of Shinto shrines. Women were not the only ones to confront such limitations. Various customary rules restricted those in mourning or otherwise deemed unqualified from approaching certain religious sites and sacred places. But only women were subject to a blanket disqualification on the basis of their gender. This situation was one of the most notable features of the gender differences observable in the religious activities of those who lived in premodern Japan.1 What circumstances underlay this prohibition? How were women kept away from the sites in question? How did they respond to such rules?

There is no simple answer to such questions. The attitudes towards female pilgrims of those who managed sacred places and those who visited them were inevitably influenced by a variety of social, economic, political, and cultural developments. Attitudes further changed over time. This article seeks to explore just such an interplay of factors in a particular case: the establishment and breakdown in the course of the Tokugawa period of the exclusion of women from Mt. Fuji.

In the Tokugawa period, Mt. Fuji, which had been known as a mysterious mountain since ancient times, developed into a popular pilgrimage site. Its popularity can be seen from the fact that in the early nineteenth century more than ten thousand pilgrims visited Mt. Fuji during the few months of the summer climbing season.2 In other seasons, when it was dangerous to climb the [End Page 339] mountain, people worshiped it from afar. People held the main deities presiding over the mountain to be female. These were Sengen , the deity of the volcano; Sengen Daibosatsu (the Great Bodhisattva of Sengen), the Buddhist form of the volcano deity; and Konohana no Sakuya Hime , the Shinto counterpart of Sengen Daibosatsu.3 Ironically, however, human women were prohibited from climbing the mountain.

People rarely challenged the exclusion of women from sacred places prior to 1872, when the Meiji government issued an order abolishing the practice.4 Mt. Fuji, however, was exceptional in this regard. Throughout the latter half of the Tokugawa period female pilgrims tried to climb as high up the mountain as they could whenever the opportunity presented itself. Some leaders of the association of lay believers in the cult of the mountain criticized the custom of not allowing women access to it and encouraged women to ignore the prohibition. Various groups with divergent interests in pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji fought over the treatment of female pilgrims. Finally, in 1860, twelve years before the Meiji government banned the exclusion of women, the summit of Mt. Fuji was temporarily opened to both sexes. By considering the activities and motives of those who objected to the exclusion of women from Mt. Fuji, those who tried to modify the practice, and those who tried to maintain it, as well as the efforts of the women who wanted to climb the mountain, we can gain a fuller view of the actual situation regarding the exclusion of women at a popular pilgrimage site in the latter half of the Tokugawa period.

Exclusion and Gender Hierarchy in Japanese Religion

The exclusion of women was termed nyonin kinsei or nyonin kekkai(the latter term also indicated the act of designating the area women were not to enter). Although the terms became widespread from the Tokugawa period, the origin of the exclusion of women from sacred mountains is unclear. Some scholars surmise that it originated in ancient folk beliefs. One of the first researchers to address this topic was Yanagita Kunio . He tried to find clues to the origins of nyonin kinsei in legends and folk tales about female religious figures who were transformed into rocks as a result of their intrusion into sacred mountains. Such tales, he concluded, emerged out of ancient folk practices in which priestesses conducted religious rites in the lower reaches of mountains. He conjectured that the sites where the priestesses had performed these rituals came to demarcate a border beyond which women should not go.5...


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pp. 339-391
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