Interview with Anna Andreeva, author of Assembling Shinto

Shinto is an indigenous Japanese religion, premised on ritual devotion to kami, deities, or spirits concerned with human affairs and closely connected to the landscape or forces of nature. Whereas modern histories of Shinto often characterize it as a monolithic tradition, in Assembling Shinto: Buddhist Approaches to Kami Worship in Medieval Japan, Anna Andreeva shows that what we now know as Shinto is actually the product of complex negotiations between—or an “assemblage” of—medieval interactions between kami worship and esoteric Buddhism in Japan. On November 19th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Andreeva to discuss her recent book.  –Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: What is the number one thing you would like scholars of religion to understand about the relationship between Buddhism and Shinto in Japan?

AA: I think my primary purpose in writing this book was to show how non-elite practitioners of esoteric Buddhism in medieval Japan were actively involved in forming official and unofficial networks with established esoteric scholarly lineages, and that part of their exchanges of ritual and doctrinal knowledge was dedicated to Japanese local deities, kami. These non-elite practitioners often traveled freely between different temples and sacred sites; they used the knowledge that they acquired from more established locations for their own ends. This resulted in an emergence of a plethora of esoteric theories about kami dwelling at various local sacred sites in medieval Japan. Such theories were transmitted within the Buddhist temple milieu as part of local lore or ritual texts dealing with the histories of local sacred sites. However, the authorship of these surviving written texts is often very uncertain, precisely for the reason that it’s very difficult to trace non-elite practitioners, who are almost invisible in the historical sources. But that was precisely the task that I wanted to accomplish. I really hope that this book can show that we can dig deeply enough to recover these esoteric exchange networks. We can show very concrete evidence of how non-elite practitioners were using esoteric Buddhist ideas to conceptualize their understanding of religious landscapes in medieval Japan, including local Japanese gods. 

KB: Are there any interesting differences between how Japanese scholars think about Shinto and how North American scholars conceptualize it?

AA: I think that there is a very productive, very fruitful exchange of methodologies, opinions, and academic trends in the study of medieval Japanese religions, with very active points of exchange between scholars that are based in Japan and those who are working in North America and Europe. It’s a very vibrant field, not in the least because new, previously unstudied historical sources casting light on different historical forms of kami worship as well as modern Shinto are constantly being discovered at temple archives and private collections in Japan, both by teams of Japanese and Western researchers and individual scholars. We should expect many more thought-provoking and engaging works to derive from this field.

KB: Why is “assemblage” a useful concept for you in understanding Shinto in Japan? Do you think this is a useful way of thinking about all religions?

AA: I wonder to what extent “assemblage” would be a useful concept for other religious movements. Of course, I would like to hope that it is. But it definitely fits the case of so-called “medieval Shinto.” Although the first mentions of “Shinto” appeared in Japan during the fourteenth and fifteenth century, to follow the recent scholarly consensus, I try to use the term Shinto mostly in relation to the modern forms of kami worship, such as State Shinto. Japan’s medieval non-elite practitioners of esoteric Buddhism were assembling their religious ideas and practices from pre-existing elements, and then forming new rituals, icons, and ideas of how to incorporate kami into the ritual technologies of achieving enlightenment—which is a primary goal for esoteric Buddhists. You could think of this as an assemblage of rituals, and also of the local landscape, practitioners’ bodies, the esoteric ideas that they learned somewhere, with the use of local deities as channels or connecting links to the more distant divinities of esoteric Buddhism. That, in a nutshell, is what I was hoping to show.

My main incentive for producing this work was to respond to a single phrase written by Bruno Latour in Re-Assembling the Social [Oxford University Press, 2005, 12], where he says that one has to “catch up with the often wild innovations” of the actual agents who are involved in the process of doing something. Taking this approach and focusing on non-elite practitioners’ hopes and aspirations, it seems that medieval Japanese religiosity was socially produced in this way, as an assemblage by these particular agents. I think it may apply as well to other case studies of religion in different eras and geographical areas.

KB: How do you see your book contributing to how religions in Japan are studied? 

AA: That's an interesting question. It's difficult to know, but I hope that this case study demonstrates that even though sometimes we end up dealing with mini gaps in the historical sources, by using maps, images, and all the pieces of evidence that we can recover from a particular historical period, and by fusing them together, it's still possible to develop a case study that shows something new, that casts light on the “invisible” practitioners and their ideas and practices that have not been previously studied in much detail.