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  • Whose Fuji?Religion, Region, and State in the Fight for a National Symbol
  • Andrew Bernstein (bio)

Who owns Fuji? Among the many unusual questions raised by SCAP's separation of church and state none were stranger than this one.

William P. Woodard (head of religious research unit for SCAP)

On 5 February 1953, commuters passing through the plaza at Tokyo's Shinbashi Station encountered an unusual sight: a portable shrine (mikoshi) shaped like Mt. Fuji that had been conveyed on a flatbed truck from Fujiyoshida , a town in Yamanashi prefecture at the mountain's northern base (see figure 1). A large crowd milled around it as politicians, pundits, and policymakers, speaking from a nearby stage, loudly condemned the "privatization" (shiyūka) of Fuji, "symbol of the Japanese people" (Nihon minzoku no [End Page 51] shinboru).1 Several months earlier, a committee of bureaucrats, clerics, and academics appointed by the Finance Ministry had determined the peak of Fuji to be the property of a Shinto shrine, Fujisan Hongū Sengen Jinja (hereafter referred to as Sengen shrine), located at the southwestern base of the mountain in Shizuoka prefecture.2 Protestors argued that the summit should be designated public, state-owned land instead.

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Figure 1.

The Fujiyoshida mikoshi transported to Tokyo on a flatbed truck. Courtesy of Yamanashi nichi nichi shinbun.

The committee's decision and the subsequent protest initiated a battle fought for the next twenty years in the Diet and the courts. On one level, this was the latest episode in a centuries-long territorial conflict between Sengen shrine and communities at the base of the mountain. But the battle over Fuji, a national symbol that had long been a destination for pilgrims and an inspiration to writers and artists, turned into far more than a regional spat. Nationwide groups ranging from the All Japan Tourism Association (Zen Nihon Kankō Renmei ) to the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchō ) joined the contest, [End Page 52] making this clash emblematic of a broader struggle to deal with the complicated and contested ramifications of the Allied Occupation's insistence that religion (i.e., Shinto) be separated from the state. As the following story shows, this struggle played out not only in the abstract realm of theoretical argument but also on the ground of material competition, where universal principles were touted (sincerely or not) to serve parochial goals and tactical considerations produced strange bedfellows. Throughout it all, Sengen shrine insisted that legal claims reaching back centuries trumped considerations more recent in origin. It is to the history of these claims, and the political and cultural contexts in which they developed, that we now turn.

Sengen Shrine and the Politics of Fuji Worship

Sengen shrine was established in the early ninth century near its current location at the southwestern base of Fuji to mollify the volcano's deity, alternately known as Sengen Daibosatsu or Asama Daimyōjin .3 (For the sites mentioned here and below, see figure 2.) Apparently the shrine did not live up to its promise of keeping the god appeased, because in 864 a severe eruption devastated the province of Kai (today's Yamanashi prefecture) to the north of the mountain. As a result, the governor of Kai founded another site for Sengen worship in his own jurisdiction.4 From the start, then, Sengen shrine did not monopolize worship of the volcano and its deity. Over the ensuing centuries, other institutions dedicated to worshiping Fuji's Sengen deity, but unbeholden to Sengen shrine, sprang up not only in the vicinity of the mountain but in other regions of Japan as well, eventually numbering over one thousand.5

In fact, it was not Sengen shrine but a ritual complex in nearby Murayama ( just further up the southwestern slope of Fuji), that hosted the first cult dedicated to climbing Fuji as a religious practice. There is no definitive record of anyone climbing Fuji before the twelfth century-perhaps this is related to the fact that Fuji erupted at least seven times between 781 and 10836-but in 1149, the Shugendō ascetic Matsudai Shōnin established a chapel to Dainichi (the "Great Sun" or "Cosmic" Buddha) on...


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