Rituals are organic, rooted in some deep human need. The forms they take evolve through time, and depend on the soil in which they grow—from isolated and thin, to lush and abundant. Ritual practices bloom in isolation or expand in collaborative fashion: self-comforting; family-nourishing; community-building; nation-protecting; even reflective of a longing among all of us on earth for calm and comfort. There is a deep psychological truth about rites and rituals. People need rhythm and structure that enables them to drive steadily through unpredictable lives; to keep their minds from fraying off into anxiety or even into the madness that can occur just from living in an unreliable world in unreliable conditions. This truism appears on all levels of the human spectrum, from those engaged in the grinding struggle to survive to those quite literally dying of affluent boredom.

Ritual in the final analysis is the behavior of women and men, and therefore without a doubt, one way or another, gender plays a role. As the centuries pass, learned gender behavior slithers and slides with fashion as cultures change. Some general gender differentiations, however, stand out. Wherever you look in history, in cultures, East or West, men were enamored of rituals with swords and imbued them with sacred powers. Women, kept out of sight, are harder to observe, but you can be sure it was not a woman who first conceived of the ritual of standing half-naked outside under the freezing assault of a pounding sacred waterfall viewed as purifying, no matter how convinced she had become by monks that inherently her female nature was polluted.

Ritual icons, too, sometimes clearly reflect the gender of their makers, even when totally unintended. Contrast the lively deities and Bodhisattvas in the thousands hacked from logs by the now famous seventeenth-century monk Enkū with the thousands of miniature Kannon statues molded by hand from fragrant, carefully dried, then powdered Japanese anise (shikimi) leaves on each of which seventeenth-century Abbess Shōzan Gen’yō had first calligraphed the name of the Bodhisattva Kannon. There are no examples yet found by which we could reverse this particular kind of observation.

Ritual objects are mono, material substance, corporeal objects that exist outside oneself. As accoutrements to rituals they are transformed by human behavior into objects of potency and efficacy, which are indispensably precious. They are the vehicles that transport into behavior itself the inherent powers that are the wonder of it all. In English, to describe something as an “object” is so very “objective,” as opposed to the unique intricacies of the “subjective.” Each ritual object, however, is imbued with imposed meanings that are subjective in the extreme.

Once we have become acquainted with the sutras, studied the pedantic writings of preachers who had an agenda, plowed through the diaries of officials who had opinions, and have enjoyed those marvelous wefts and warps of stories woven poetically into the tapestries of premodern Japanese fiction, we are still faced with the solid materiality of ritual objects, figures, paintings, housewares, tools, all manner of things that exist, inseparable, from culture and faith, and that constituted “life” as it was lived. It would be a miracle, even as we look at them with empathy, were our senses able to perceive today the same living spirits that took up residence in such objects when they belonged to their premodern users.

But I am a believer in miracles—especially those that result from unbiased effort. And who better to guide us deep into a sampling of just such rites and rituals than the art historian Karen Gerhart and her team of scholars, who have ventured, in this study, Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects in Premodern Japan, far beyond artist, artisan, and technique, and have plunged into the essential meanings attributed to the premodern Japanese material world itself and the cultural role of the women who reckoned with it. One thing is for sure. We can stop assuming the men were in charge of everything.

The history of academic culture influences greatly the research subjects that scholars choose to study (or avoid). We have to face the fact that there must always continue to be a rectification of past biases and errors of fact. Of timely importance right now is the challenge of transforming academic culture itself to include all genders as essential components of knowledge. Since the beginning of time it has been men studying men; history was the history of men. It has been largely the artists who broke ranks. In Japan, Lady Murasaki Shikibu used a rather uninteresting “hero,” Hikaru Genji, as a foil to reveal what Virginia Woolf, astounded to meet another major woman writer from a thousand years earlier, called Murasaki’s method: “the medium of women’s minds.” It is hardly the indisputable focus of the “male gaze” of the Heian courtier that is so fascinating. (What else is new?) It is how well Murasaki perceived the impact of that gaze on the women who were its object, and how profoundly she understood and could describe how each woman in her own way was physically and psychologically affected by it.

In academia, however, there has been another kind of “male gaze;” one which focuses on what male scholars considered worth looking at. Their gaze has been largely on a “canon” of male achievements, long since established by others of their own gender. Contrary to its elite and elegant reputation, a “canon” is an intimidating force employed not as an invitation but as a warning—it renders a pioneering mentality unnecessary. There is pressure to keep one’s coloring within the lines. Canonical work becomes increasingly lapidary; the byproduct is a pruning that maims.

The erasure of the celebrated singer Otomae (1086–1169) from our Western textbooks is a case in point. I could not believe my eyes when the brand-new Cambridge History of Japanese Literature excised her name in its description of the remarkable anthology of her songs, the Ryōjin hishō, and explicitly expressed doubt about her very existence. This, despite the fact that she has been known since the 1940s, and recently a dozen or more scholarly studies by Wakita Haruko, Ueki Tomoko, Okimoto Yukiko, and others have researched the life of this remarkable woman. Her repertoire of more than five-hundred revelatory songs, runs from secular party songs to liturgical songs for shrine and temple occasions. This young girl who, it was written, had a voice like an angel, was adopted into a sisterhood of female kugutsume from Aohaka, proud of their vocal lineage and repertories. Ultimately Otomae became a famed imayō singer in the capital, a woman whose remarkable style made Retired Emperor Goshirakawa, a passionate practitioner of vocal arts since childhood, commit to re-learning his entire repertoire of songs under her by-then elderly tutelage.

The greatly revered (and rightly so) Japanese literary historian Konishi Jin’ichi (1915–2007) was one of the few scholars of Otomae’s songs back in the 1940s and 1950s, and one of the rare scholars translated into English. For that purpose, however, he greatly pruned his source base and his syllabic analysis, which others now simply copy, propagating an erroneous understanding of Otomae’s songs. He also propagated the usual male condemnation of “female morals.”

Today, before our very eyes, the male gaze of Western scholars is now reverting to the man who loved her songs and wrote them down. It is all about Retired Emperor Goshirakawa. Vigilance watching for this kind of genderized switching and backsliding is the only thing I can recommend. We have surely passed that stage where the superb quality of the Tale of Genji made men doubt Murasaki Shikibu could have written it. It must have been her father or the great Michinaga!

The impulse to just pass on predecessors’ opinions is also a serious problem in academia. Kugutsu is a classification of great mystery about which no one has ever, for centuries now, been able to (or bothered to) clarify. Somewhere in the murky past it may have meant “puppeteer.” There is not a shred of evidence, however, that the kugutsume, Otomae, the esteemed imayō singer of Ryōjin hishō fame, was ever a puppeteer. Yet that word kugutsu, and the female form kugutsume are left wide open to “assume” as one will. Distressingly, to this very day, “puppeteer” is the label copied by Western college professors, and it is not the only term to be locked into an outdated, or inaccurate, meaning by centuries of uncritical use.

No matter how you finesse it, there is no way one can interpret the English word “prostitute” in a favorable way. Yet thanks to men like Ōe no Masafusa, who penned his interest in the sexual activities of women entertainers in his various late eleventh-century opinion pieces, unattached women, meaning not under a man’s care but independently employed, have all been labeled “prostitutes.” Such male opinion has permeated the records of a thousand years and still gives off that same characteristic male aroma. Even in our twenty-first century all such unattached self-employed premodern Japanese women in the performing arts of music, dance, and so on are labeled prostitutes. Yūjo = prostitute; asobi = prostitute; miko = prostitute; kugutsume = prostitute; shirabyōshi = prostitute. Until very recently in our own day, the word prostitute was only of the female gender. Zeami, a focus of a monumental amount of scholarly attention, although likewise sexually involved with his male patrons, has, for example, never been labeled with the “p” word in the pursuit of his art.

As Mary Beard has written in her Women and Power (2017), “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” She speaks out of her own expertise in the world of ancient Greece and Rome where the mechanism men used most widely against women was “to dismiss them,” and “to refuse to take them seriously.” Young Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to be quiet and go to her room. He’ll do the talking. Why is it, I ask myself, do I find the same mechanism not only among the men who were the citizens of premodern Japan, but alive and well in the technique of far too many male Japanese studies academics writing in English yesterday and today?

Mary Beard also documents a method used in the ancient Western world to mute women where rapers would cut out the tongue of the woman raped so as to avoid the “she said” part. Today this is much on our minds. We have, however, “more civilized,” non-disclosure clauses and bank checks to achieve the muting effect. In the Heian period we do not really know how the muting was achieved, but to “refuse to take the women seriously” was clearly a method in use. There is a glorious scene, however, in the late Muromachi story, Kachō Fūgetsu, when shamaness Fūgetsu goes into a trance and is possessed by the spirit of Suetsumuhana; and that lady, who had been ill-used by Genji, is given voice to have her full say. It is a marvelous episode of exposure and venting.

We must not deceive ourselves. Scholarship very much belongs to the date it was written and packaged. We tend to think it has no expiration date. But it certainly does. Early historians, almost to a man, displayed undisguised contempt for Japanese “primitive superstitions” as manifest in their rites and rituals, which defied the scholars’ then-held supreme standard of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Ivan Morris in the 1960s in his brilliant classic World of the Shining Prince aimed at countering such bias by trying to filter Japanese beliefs into separate chapters, so as to better validate Japanese “religion” and soften the take on “superstitions,” but in the end his two chapters displayed a certain fusion and he could not escape his heritage. He states, however, that far more than Confucian thought, it was the vast complex of beliefs related to yin-yang and the five elements that most impacted Heian daily life. But it never would have occurred to him that women would have agency therein.

For context and perspective, I offer here some views from what seems just yesterday, but is a heritage of which we must always remain conscious. With this little bit of “modern” history may the reader better appreciate how revolutionary the present book is, and gain a sense of what the challenge means that faces us all as we strive to remodel the culture of academia to the point where all genders are rendered natural, obvious, and worthy subjects of historical study.

The year was 1986. The place was Kyoto. With the firm backing of Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and the Ministry of Education an unprecedented new cultural research center was soon to be launched once building construction had been completed. Having been invited to consult and if possible suggest a menu of new research initiatives, I found myself in their temporary headquarters seated at a large seminar table with other Japanese academics and some scholars from abroad. At a time when educational institutions all too often retained disciplinary walls and moats as isolating as medieval fiefs, the very “idea” of this new research center—the kind so often found in the sciences—promised a critical mass of multinational, multidisciplinary collaborators whose insights could make breathtaking breakthroughs possible. When it was my turn, I suggested “Imperial Buddhist Convents, ignored and untouched for centuries, most of which are right here in Kyoto, would be a perfect fit. The storehouses of these abbess and nuns are filled with unstudied documents, letters, daily records, literary works, imperial gifts of paintings, sculptures, textiles, and so on. They are ideally situated to become the focus of a research initiative, and your Center is ideally conceptualized to undertake such a project.” An awkward silence reigned. Eyes were averted, and lips pursed.

The point of this story, and its relevance to this superb book by Karen Gerhart and her chosen collaborators, is what happened next. At day’s end, in the van taking a dozen or so of us to the station, a Japanese gentleman scholar seated next to me leaned over and said quietly into my ear, “You see, you have to understand, men are embarrassed (hazukashii, he said) to study about women.”

I was speechless. I wondered if there was something wrong with me that I had never been embarrassed to study about men. It certainly gave me pause. At university in premodern Japanese studies, I realized, there was nothing at that time to study BUT men! Emperors; aristocratic power manipulators; warriors; religious men who studied Chinese Buddhism and invented their own brands of it; Confucian thinkers; courtier poets and painters. Clearly the genius of women writers such as Murasaki Shikibu and cohorts could not be, and was not ignored, but what they wrote was essentially “niched.” It was for pleasure; it was “wild words and fancy phrases.” Men could take pleasure in it and become connoisseurs for the fun of it. But the women in it were praised for their knowledge of a male-recognized canon of Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Kyoto in 1986 was not an anomaly. Another revelatory comment entered my ears in 1989. The place was Columbia University, New York City. It was at one of those rash “if I don’t do it, no one will” sort of events. With lots of help, I held the first ever Workshop on Women and Buddhism in Japanese Culture open to scholars from anywhere at all in any field at all, and I was surprised by how many came, even from Japan. I invited my most senior colleague in Asian thought to offer opening words. I froze when he did so by scoffing at the trivial, unnecessary topic at hand. Two women scholars stood up and walked out on him. On that occasion one of today’s foremost scholars of Buddhism, who of course was then still very young, took me aside and told me how risky it was in America to study nuns; a “career-killer” was the term he used. He told me that he (and several others he knew) had been warned that Women and Buddhism in a university was a specialty no one felt necessary or wanted, and that if he was hoping for an academic post in America in religion, he should choose anything but women. I was prepared for his comment to end in a reprimand as well. Instead, with liquid-filled eyes, he expressed effusively his thankfulness for this public validation of the worthiness of the topic.

Context is everything. Its relevance for scholarship is monumental. Newer generations cannot conceive of the fact that in my era as a student there was not a single woman professor in the field of premodern Japanese literature, nor in Buddhism. The students around me were all male. And in art, the only women I knew of were collector-connoisseurs. In the 1950s and 1960s in graduate school, where, thanks to the Ford Foundation, I was one of the fortunate ones to get a crème-de-la-crème graduate education, my mentors were all highly revered men, the specialists of that era, on literary “canon”; on Chinese and Japanese Buddhism; on Confucianism; and on “masterpieces” of art. They lectured with assuredness and confidence in the wholeness, the completeness of the knowledge they dispensed. As a result, after entering the fold myself, to my shame, I spent years trying to do the same.

After years of teaching, my shock at discovering the stunningly powerful thirteenth-century chinsō statue of a likewise stunningly powerful Zen Abbess named Mugai Nyodai is hard to convey in this present day and age where such women are now taken for granted. I had never once read or heard the word “nun” in seminars on China and Japan no matter the discipline. In literature, nuns appeared simply as women no longer edible, fallen from the tree of this life—hoping for something better in the next. The lectures I heard were the “processed food” of academia dispensed in the 1950s–1960s, and I was the hungry fool gulping it all down. Now, out in the real world, after the hard work of learning, what must I unlearn, I thought? Abbess Mugai Nyodai’s inlaid crystal eyes refused to release my own.

“Unheeded Voices, Winked at Lives”—that is the chapter title that long ago in the 1980s I gave my contribution to a Venice, Italy conference book, Rethinking Japan. I liked it because it sounded colloquial, not pompously academic. The words, however, really did reflect my assessment of premodern Japanese women as they appeared (or were absent) in the scholarly writing of the time. I used it again in The Cambridge History of Japan. Truth be told, I did not like to repeat myself. Redundancy is for the unimaginative, I believed. A good male friend, however, whom I respect, had written to me saying, “The men won’t ever really hear you the first time. It’s not what they expect. They don’t have a file folder for it in their brains, so it doesn’t register. The second time around it will seem they’ve somehow heard it before, and they may (or may not) bookmark it to think about later. It’s not their accustomed take on things, because they just don’t think seriously about women one way or the other. It usually takes a third time, or a fourth, before it penetrates enough to have an illuminating effect. You just have to keep repeating.”

The phrase first floated into my head after an incident in the 1970s. I had become excited to discover the existence of a profession of itinerant medieval women known as Kumano bikuni, for whom there was an abundance of primary source materials: their ritual objects of small portable hanging scrolls containing a rich array of painted images; their feather-tipped pointers (some still preserved) used in their ritual performances of etoki in homes and on the roadside; and the paper talismans they distributed. Also, there were multiple paintings showing them in action. These Kumano bikuni were mentioned everywhere in premodern Japanese sources, yet in those days, no manner of talk or text about them interested Western male scholars, who were then focused wholly on male leaders in the monasteries and in the court—the male history of a predominantly male Japan. One day a revered and supportive historian friend greeted me saying, “Hello there, Barbara, how are your Kumano bikinis coming along?” No, that’s not a typo. It was well-meant male humor using an image I think no woman would ever have thought up. I knew he was an ally and not being dismissive of me; but he was revealing one of those male verbal winks at a research subject about women who were neither politically nor economically significant and therefore were merely amusing.

So much has changed in these recent decades. Japanese male scholars are no longer “embarrassed” to study—well, maybe still not women—but are at least not hesitant to study nuns and empresses and female deities. Western male scholars no longer fear for their tenure or future careers if choosing research on subjects related to the female side of Japanese history. Yet it seems just yesterday that a Buddhologist at a major Ivy League university refused to allow Mugai Nyodai and the Five Mountain Zen Convent Association to be the subject of a doctoral dissertation because “probably there are no primary sources on such nuns.” Really? What is the scholarly term for “probably”?! Dear Reader, you will have the pleasure of meeting Abbess Mugai Nyodai in this book in two wonderful chapters by Monica Bethe and Patricia Fister. Deep as their studies are, they represent only a fraction of what there is to know about this woman and her extraordinary influences.

If my spotlight here has been largely on the traditional male-made culture of academia, I cannot exonerate the women who took pride in being a product of it and ended up colluding with it. An eminent woman sociologist whose personal (and moral) dislike of privileged and isolated Japanese aristocratic women, who were her research subjects, let her aversion to that “social class” cast a veil of contempt over her writing that covered en masse even the most wonderful of living people. There were occasionally other blips. In the late 1990s, nearing retirement from teaching, I once suggested passing on to a younger female Japanese literature colleague a pair of substantially wide-open graduate seminars I had been teaching on Major Japanese Women Writers (premodern; then modern). I was surprised by the unexpected response. “I don’t do women. I do theory.” On what planet, I wondered.

Not a historian of art or religion myself, for a half a century and more I have embraced Japanese literature and cultural history and found that by default I could not do my work without delving as much as possible into beliefs and faiths that energized premodern writers and calligraphers who made the books and scrolls I studied, and seeking to understand the intent of their illustrators, whose brushes ranged from those of dazzling professionals to the dabbles of amateurs at play. So migrating back and forth among the separate territories of literature, painting, folklore, history, religion, performing arts, craftsmen and preachers, I learned amazing things. I learned that books and scrolls can be powerful ritual objects without ever being read. Some were dipped in water, which was then drunk so as to absorb the book’s power. With my own eyes I saw a huge set of scrolls depicting the life of Shōtoku Taishi encased in a box as large as a coffin brought in yearly ritual procession from within a temple storehouse to a spot outside where the container was held aloft by each end so that devout believers could walk single-file under it to receive into their bodies the radiating power of the concealed scrolls. These were functions of books and scrolls beyond anything I was ever taught or imagined.

And now from this very book you hold in your hands I learned amazing new things. Too many to list: revelations that indicate how bent by bias our academic world is. Truth to tell, can you think of a male scholar, prior to our very recent decades, willing to take up research on curtains, as Elizabeth Morrissey does, in her exploration of the profoundly significant patronage and process of Higashisanjō-in’s handling of her donation of curtains to enclose the most sacred icon of Ishiyamadera—a central feature of one of Japan’s great treasures, Ishiyamadera engi, that no one had ever touched on before? Or to produce work illuminating the actions that women took on behalf of their own salvation, as Sherry Fowler and Elizabeth Self, in their respective examinations of women’s pilgrimage activities and patronage of portraiture, do? Can you think of an early male scholar who would devote his studies to meticulously reconstructing childbirth rituals, as Naoko Gunji has, or to exploring burial rites for women, as Hank Glassman has, or to elucidating the cultic practices surrounding important female deities like Kariteimo and Kichijōten, as Anna Andreeva and Chari Pradel have done.

Karen Gerhart’s revolutionary look into the role of women’s involvement in the yin-yang world view of Heian Japan is eye-opening. For the past one hundred years and more, not once has a scholar ever perceived their importance in such a topic. For me personally, it is mirrors that now have me in thrall since reading this book. Karen Gerhart has discovered that when moving to a new residence in the early eleventh century, the principal wife rode in an ox cart through the front gate holding a bronze mirror facing outward in front of her chest to ward off polluting powers. This opens up a topic of great significance regarding women’s roles in yin-yang for all of us in Japanese studies, but specifically it impels me, as it should, to take another look at mirrors.

A glittering reflective mirror lured Amaterasu Ōmikami out of hiding according to earliest sources, and of course it is one of the three imperial regalia along with sword and jewel. But mirrors remain a great mystery. Endlessly intriguing, mirrors took on different nuances than they originally held in China and, of course, were so much more than objects for personal grooming. They were potent symbols of power and could house the gods. They amaze, as Sei Shōnagon tells it, when a lady facing inward at her grooming mirror sees a dog outside in the garden behind her, though wholly out of her line of vision. How could that be possible? And Genji, departing to Suma, assures Murasaki no Ue that, though parted, they will be able to see each other’s faces whenever they look in their mirrors since their respective images somehow remain contained in the mirrors’ surface where they were once reflected.

Casper Henderson in his book, A New Map of Wonders, tells of medieval European pilgrims who would hold up mirrors to holy relics in distant lands and then, home again, would show off the mirrors believing that, even if the images had vanished, the mirrors had absorbed the relics’ powers. I cannot help but see psychological continuity in our own century as tourists gather selfie images in their smartphones in front of cultural “icons,” buildings, and even dinner plates.

In the 1960s the influential Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō discussed bells that do not sound (dōtaku), spears that cannot serve as weapons (dōhoko), and mirrors (kagami) that do not reflect. Some mirrors reflect light. Some instead absorb it. Those that absorb house deities.

Did I not see at the very end of the Ishiyamadera scrolls a mirror standing alone in a vast empty residential room right next to a man busy writing his petitions to the deities? Why in the world is it the only piece of furniture in the whole room? The mirror in the late medieval story Kachō Fūgetsu, mentioned above, about two shamanesses who gave the story its title, is of great and intriguing significance. We learn from the mouths of the women themselves that they use their divining mirror only to resolve the most important problems; for lesser tasks they summon spirits simply by twanging their summoning bows. The mirror that they bring with them contains great accumulated powers due to their long experience using it, they explain, and “its powers are without limit and can call up humans living or dead, gods, or even animals.” A mirror appears in Otomae’s songs, as well as in the name of a Zen convent in Kyoto, related to Abbess Mugai Nyodai. Mirrors are everywhere. Their ubiquitous nature is perhaps the reason why we have taken them so for granted and then passed on without examining their context, myriad functions, and unique ritual powers in premodern Japan, well before the Edo period fascination with “magic mirrors.”

One of the outstanding aspects of this pathbreaking book is the way it cherishes the complexity of human beliefs and the daily life objects that are a part of it all. For the reader there will surely be something profound that resonates with you—unforgettable—and that you will carry away with you—new light on your own path.

Barbara Ruch

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