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Reviewed by:
  • Secrecy in Japanese Arts: "Secret Transmission" as a Mode of Knowledge
  • Susan Blakeley Klein
Secrecy in Japanese Arts: "Secret Transmission" as a Mode of Knowledge. By Maki Morinaga. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 208 pages. Hardcover £42.50.

Secrecy in Japanese Arts is at heart a structural analysis of the hiden (secret transmission) system, the system that Japanese masters of various performative arts (including the military arts) used to transmit their technical artistic knowledge (geinō) to disciples within their "house" (ie). The system may have first developed within esoteric Buddhism, but by the beginning of the medieval period (understood here as the thirteenth century) it was already being used as a transmission system within the houses associated with court poetry (waka). From there it spread to other performative arts, including noh theater, garden construction, flower arranging, and swordsmanship. [End Page 184] Although Maki Morinaga evinces little interest in chronicling the historical development of the hiden system from its putative origins in esoteric Buddhism, she retains the term "esotericism" as a translation for what she calls the "epistemological web," the mode of knowledge assumed by "esotericists" (Morinaga's term) who both created and received hiden.

Morinaga notes that hiden is a "mesmerizing and yet highly clichéd" (p. 1) term that easily lends itself to mystification, whether in the form of nihonjinron or Orientalism. To avoid both pitfalls, she shifts the focus of her inquiry from trying to understand what was being transmitted within the hiden system to how the system worked. Although previous studies have examined specific premodern hiden (such as in the martial arts, noh theater, waka poetry, garden construction), this is the first monograph to attempt a comprehensive look at the system across fields. Morinaga focuses on three main questions: (1) the function of esoteric transmission practices generally, (2) how participants in the system make meaning of their practices, and (3) how the esoteric system of knowledge transmission fared in the modern period. Ultimately, she attempts to elucidate the logic of the hiden transmission system as a mode of knowledge from the late-medieval period onward, thereby demonstrating that the system followed rules that even an outsider can understand, and in this project she is largely successful.

In the opening introductory chapter, Morinaga outlines the periodization she follows, explains how she developed the critical methodology she uses to analyze the logic of hiden, and presents an overview of the organization of the book. Chapters 2 to 4 analyze the operation and logic of esotericism on three levels: (1) esoteric practices (how esotericists transmit techniques), (2) conceptualized esotericism (how esotericists conceptualize their own esoteric practices), and (3) underlying esotericism (the unstated, even unconscious, assumptions held by esotericists that give meaning to their esoteric transmission practices). Chapter 2 focuses on esoteric practices, using as an exemplary text Heihō kadensho (Family Transmission Book on Swordsmanship), written by Yagyū Munenori (1571–1646) in 1632. Chapters 3 and 4 analyze the logic of esotericism by exploring how practitioners such as Munenori and the noh actor Kanze Zeami (1363–1443) conceptualized their esoteric transmissions and what their unconscious assumptions were, with special attention to transmission (den) and secrecy (hi). Chapter 5 is an expansion of an earlier article in The Drama Review, "Osanai Kaoru's Dilemma: 'Amateurism by Professionals' in Modern Japanese Theater." Here Morinaga examines how the system of esotericism dealt with modernity, using as an example the writings of Osanai Kaoru (1881–1928), one of the founders of the shingeki ("new theater") movement in Japan.

Rather than trace the book's argument step by step, I will start with a theoretical overview and then focus on a couple of places where Morinaga's analysis is problematic and where it is particularly useful in clarifying the murky issues of secret transmission.

To begin with, Morinaga's translation of original primary sources is a model of clarity: literal without being awkward. Her command of modern Japanese scholarship on hiden and the iemoto system is formidable, and her analysis of the shortcomings and blind spots of said scholarship with regard to hiden is perceptive and persuasive. In her critical analysis she uses poststructuralist and deconstructive theory extensively and to good effect, but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 184-190
Launched on MUSE
2008-07-24
Open Access
No
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