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  • The Inflatable, Collapsible Kingdom of RetributionA Primer on Japanese Hell Imagery and Imagination
  • Caroline Hirasawa (bio)

Imaginations of hell appeared in Japanese literature, painting, and performance beginning in the classical period.1 Gruesome depictions and accounts of an infernal afterlife cautioned laymen to lead upstanding lives, promoted rites on behalf of sufferers, and exhorted monks to obey the precepts. Narrations of an infallibly fair process of judgment reassured and threatened that, whatever we may get away with in this world, mechanisms ensuring perfect justice await us in the next. Postulations that we determine our own misery in hell guaranteed redress; an experience of the pains we inflict on others in life rebounds in the afterlife.

Such explications ascribed management of the process of retribution to both external and internal forces. Numerous characterizations of damnation in the Buddhist canon set out threats combined with moral instruction; they describe [End Page 1] judgment and retribution as occurring in actual places, precisely located in Buddhist cosmologies, and the experience of punishment as physical. The same range of sources simultaneously describe hell as provisional. They explain that delusions arising from attachment, evil deeds, and the resultant karma cause us to hallucinate or fabricate an entire kingdom dedicated to the task of ascertaining and administering suitable punishment. We can appropriate or enlist the power to disassemble hell's foundations in our minds, thereby vanquishing the entire bloodcurdling apparatus. These visceral and transcendent conceptualizations coexisted and competed. As the most extreme example of the suffering incurred by existence, hell repeatedly was engineered and displayed in texts and images that attested to its concrete substantiality-and then was systematically eclipsed. Occupying a relative position within a larger system, hell was always tied to salvation, but its relationship to salvation shifted over time. This evolution was not linear. Old forms persisted, died out, and reappeared with new force.

In spite of this continual reconfiguration, consistent premises governed imaginations of this realm. Distinctions were made between what monks studied and what they taught to save others, but fundamentally clerics and commoners shared the same ambiguous paradigms. Hell's terrors were a standard component of the worldview of monastics, while, as hell increasingly passed into the public domain during the Edo period, dynamic, transcendent responses to hell ideology flourished in the print culture produced and avidly consumed by lay commoners. Hell's familiarity bred subversive uses of its structures and led to other spirited appropriations. Some popular reinventions even came to rival the sophisticated doctrinal and ritual formulations of generations of Buddhist intellectuals.


Originating in India, conceptions of hell picked up new attributes and finer delineation as they migrated across China and Korea. Although the chronological development of notions of hell in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist thought on the subcontinent is difficult to determine, the sparse descriptions in early texts clearly contain seeds of later elaborations.2 In Chinese translations of Indian sutras and commentaries that circulated widely in Japan, hell functioned as part of an immense cosmology. Its contours vary greatly from text to text; here we will concentrate on characterizations from the often-consulted fourth- to fifth-century Buddhist encyclopedia, Apidamo jushe lun (Jp. Abidatsuma kusha ron, hereafter Jushe lun).3

Seven rings of mountain ranges divided by seas surround an enormous mountain called Myōkōsen (a.k.a. Shumisen ). A vast ocean encompasses the outer, seventh range. This sea, bounded by an eighth rim of mountains called Tetsurin'isen (also Tetchisen ), contains four continents in the cardinal [End Page 2] directions around Myōkōsen. The southern continent is the world we live in, Senbushū . These water and land masses rest upon a golden disc that sits upon a water disc supported by a wind disc.4 Dozens of heavens occupy stages along Myōkōsen and float above the mountain at increasingly astronomical altitudes. Measurement of this universe is calculated in units called yuzenna(or yujun ).5 The seas are eighty thousand yuzenna deep, and Myōkōsen rises eighty thousand yuzenna above sea level. Eight great hells (hachi daijigoku) lie beneath Senbushū, listed from top to bottom as Tōkatsu jigoku (Hell of Revival), Kokujō jigoku (Hell of Black Ropes), Shugō jigoku...


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