Observations on the Blurring of the Religious and the Secular in a Japanese Urban Setting

in Journal of Religion in Japan
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This paper presents some observations on how the borders between the religious and the secular are perceived, blurred and reinterpreted at the community level in Kyoto. These reflections are based mainly on my extended fieldwork in the city, where I participated in and took note of the activities of two chōnaikai (neighborhood associations). I also observed and examined events related to the Gion matsuri, which takes place in July and is one of the three main festivals in Japan. The neighborhood associations play a pivotal role in Kyoto’s community life, and the boundaries between the religious and the secular very often remain indistinct due to the ambiguous character of the chōnaikai. In this context, I analyze some of the religious activities within the chōnai, such as taking care of the small votive shrine dedicated to the bodhisattva Jizō, and events related to Shintō. With regard to local festivals, I explore religious and secular aspects of the Gion matsuri, an event that attracts crowds of visitors from all over Japan and abroad, which offers the opportunity to investigate the intermingling of religion and business, local government, culture and tourism.

Observations on the Blurring of the Religious and the Secular in a Japanese Urban Setting

in Journal of Religion in Japan



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In this regard see also Reader (1991) and the issue of whether or not inscribing ema is a religious activity. Moreover phenomena such as praying before the Jizō-dō or taking care of the votive shrine may make sense within the interpretative framework offered by Jan Platvoet who defines religion as a communication process between the “believers as empirical persons and putative ‘unseen beings’ whom the believers accept as real persons” (Platvoet 1999: 262). He speaks in this regard of “beings whose existence and activity cannot be verified or falsified but whom the believers believe to exist and to be active directly or indirectly in their lives and environment” (Platvoet 1990: 195). In this regard see for instance the suffix -san/-sama added to Jizō or Kannon which makes such “unseen beings” to some extent ‘real.’ In addition I would avoid speculating whether people actually think they are acting religiously when they ring the bell of a temple or a shrine or offer coins in order for us to decide whether or not these acts are religious. This approach is not only unnecessary for our analysis of religious phenomena in my view but also is not suitable to the work of scholars of religions who should investigate the observable world and not assess “non-perceptible realm(s)” (Platvoet 1990: 185).


For example in 2011during the first three days in January the Meiji Jingū in Tokyo was visited by 3.2 million people (see Umemoto 2011: 30). In Kyoto the most visited shrine is Fushimi Inari Taisha in the southern part of the city. These visits seem to involve in particular major shrines and do not necessarily mean that Shintō institutions are flourishing as Reader has also underlined (in this issue).


  • View in gallery
    Buddhist priest holding a religious function during Jizōbon in Kyoto (photo by author).
  • View in gallery
    The Yasaka Jinja o-tabisho on Shijō Street (photo by author).

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