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  • Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects in Premodern Japan ed. by Karen M. Gerhart
  • Heather Blair (bio)
Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects in Premodern Japan. Edited by Karen M. Gerhart. Brill, Leiden, 2018. xxiv, 411 pages. €132.00.

This collection of ten chapters written by a mix of established and emerging scholars stems from a 2016 conference held at the University of Pittsburgh. The studies range widely in terms of source material and period; nevertheless, the volume's clear thematic focus yields a greater degree of cohesion than one often sees in an edited volume. In fact, reading the essays together, as one would a monograph, produces a powerful effect: the chapters reflect and refract each other in subtly provocative ways, such that the entire book enacts a kind of historicist scintillation.

Let me explain. In keeping with the general investments of both the field (premodern Japan studies) and the publisher (Brill), the individual chapters are powerfully documentary. These studies reconstruct the historical practice of specific rites, describe the cultural context of particular objects, and make arguments about what actually happened—and what did not. Theoretical [End Page 459] interventions are minimal, and methodological reflections, though certainly present, tend to play an ancillary role. As readers, then, we are not presented so much with radical construals or alternative modes of analysis but rather with interpretations that qualify as distinctive by virtue of their focus on real and represented women. At the same time, the organization of the volume juxtaposes topics such as childbirth rites, popular devotion, and the literal warp and weft of women's Dharma robes. As a consequence, the chapters collectively highlight the complexity of women's history and the horizons of possibility afforded, and also foreclosed, by extant sources, both textual and visual. Clearly, the imperative to write women's history drives the volume; just as clearly, that history is polyform, uneven, sometimes over- but also sometimes underdetermined.

This matters, much more than our habituation into the state of Japan studies might lull us into thinking. The closest comparandum for Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects, namely Barbara Ruch's edited volume Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan (University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 2001), was published nearly two decades ago. Since then English-language scholarship on women's participation in visual and religious culture prior to the Meiji period has grown through a steady trickle of monographs by scholars in religious studies and art history. Here we can point to the work of Barbara Ambros, Gina Cogan, Karen Gerhart, Caitlin Griffiths, Patricia Fister, Christina Laffin, and Lori Meeks, not to mention the interventions of historians such as Hitomi Tonomura and Anne Walthall. Nevertheless, with the exception of Heian literary studies, where women's writing has long been accorded pride of place, Anglophone scholarship on premodern Japan continues to distribute our collective attention in ways that are separate and unequal when it comes to gender. Moreover, as the list of contributors for this volume shows, women's history itself is acutely gendered as a field of inquiry: only one of the contributors to Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects is a man. We will have arrived at a more significant degree of historical equity when women's history is no longer seen as a women's issue about which only—or predominantly—women write.

Karen Gerhart, the editor of Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects, has divided the volume into four sections, each comprised of two or three articles. Although this rubric is thematic, it also involves an implicit periodization, such that the chapters on household life and childbirth in part 1 constellate around the Heian period, whereas part 4, which focuses on patronage, includes one piece on a fourteenth-century handscroll and another on a seventeenth-century painting. Historical segregation of this sort is unfortunate. After all, Nara-period women acted as patrons and Muromachi-period women gave birth. Given the constraints of scale and scholarly specialization, however, it was likely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid this sort of uneven historical distribution. [End Page 460]

As its title indicates, part 1, "Rituals Related to the Household and Childbirth," centers on the ritualization of social...


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