Summits Where Souls Gather

Mountain Pilgrimage in Post-disaster Japan

In: Journal of Religion in Japan
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Rituals have played a vital role in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters that struck northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011 (subsequently referred to as “3.11”). Rituals have enabled survivors to differentiate social order from the immediate chaos of disaster, to mourn, to overcome grief, and to exorcise the spirits of the disaster dead. Yet, much remains to be learned about the transformative potential of ritual after 3.11. The significance of pilgrimage, for instance, which is a prominent aspect of religious practice in Japan, has received minimal attention. In this article, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Dewa Sanzan, a sacred mountain range in Yamagata Prefecture, to discuss mountain pilgrimage for post-disaster memorialization. I argue that the event of 3.11 expanded the ontological meaning of the summit of Gassan 月山 (Mount Moon), thought to be an axis between the world of the living and that of the ancestral dead. Pilgrimage to the peak of Gassan has become a path of remembrance and overcoming, a formula for posthumous care, and an act of hope in post-disaster Japan.

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