Throughout premodern Japan, the seas south of Japan were the repository of a host of imaginary islands. Many of these peripheric spaces were associated with an ambivalent category of the feminine, with characteristics ranging from the demonic to the erotic and the paradisiacal. As in other cultures, feminine figures were often located at the interface between the domain of everyday existence and “the otherworld.” By investigating the spatial mechanisms of male fantasies about women, this chapter enables a reconsideration of the social and cultural constructions of gender in the visual culture of premodern Japan. It shows how both visual sources and ideas of femininity were characterized by a semiotic oscillation that determined their shape-shifting configurations. On one hand, they were able to transcend the dominant discourse and disclose suppressed phantasms and anxieties. On the other hand, they could equally reinforce the same dominant discourse. The category of the feminine resisted closure. Women were vehicles of alterity, metaphors of spatial and identitary displacement. The feminine stood in for the Other, the transmogrified self that emerged out of the encounter with alterity.
This chapter centers on the late 1230s through the 1240s and examines the early activities of Eison and his most famous disciple, Ninshō. The two monks met in 1239, when Ninshō discussed with Eison his plans to compose seven Mañjuśrī images and enshrine them at seven outcast communities as a memorial to his deceased mother. The introduction of the Mañjuśrī cult and social welfare practices to the Saidaiji order’s activities is directly tied to this meeting. Yet despite the master-disciple relationship and close collaboration between the two monks from this time, contrasts in their monastic and cultic orientations deserve greater recognition. This chapter addresses the contrasts in their involvement in the Mañjuśrī cult, the closely connected cult of the itinerant saint Gyōki (668-749), and social welfare activities. I argue that while Ninshō’s social welfare activities show close emulation of Gyōki, Eison’s literary and ritual efforts point toward a simultaneous emulation of the deity (Mañjuśrī) and “erasure” of the saint believed to have incarnated that deity (Gyōki).