Imagining Exile in Heian Japan

Banishment in Law, Literature, and Cult

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Jonathan Stockdale
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , February
     179 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Because of its broad thematic orientation, Jonathan Stockdale’s new study of exile—as a punitive practice, literary trope, and social dynamic—reveals new ways of thinking both about banishment and about Japan’s Heian period (794–1185 CE). In addition to appealing to specialists in Japanese religious history, it should be of interest to anyone working on religion and punishment, as well as religion and literature or East Asian cultural history. Indeed, those who do not work on the Heian period will find this as convivial as any research monograph is ever likely to be to non-specialists: it is a model of clear argumentation and readable academic prose.

Each of the book’s four substantive chapters, which are appropriately bookended by an introduction and a conclusion, takes up the theme of exile in a particular cultural sphere. In the second chapter, Stockdale focuses on classical myth and delivers a stinging—and perfectly justified—critique of Orikuchi Shinobu’s theory of the exile of the young nobleman (the kishu ryūritan motif) as a key trope in a shared Japanese heritage. Rather, Stockdale argues, we should take the myths of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, and narratives about the exiled god Susano-o in particular, as a carefully-crafted public transcript, meant to justify and sustain the political dominance of a particular group (the kings of Yamato) over and against their political and regional rivals. Stockdale’s reading fits with recent historical scholarship, and in this respect it is not exactly creative, but it is historiographically responsible and lays a solid foundation for his consideration of exile as a crucible for premodern Japan’s cultural politics.

The third chapter presents a lucid and rewarding reading of Taketori monogatari (Tale of the bamboo cutter), in which Stockdale makes a compelling case that this narrative uses the trope of exile to marginalize the world of the capital. By comparing Taketori to the “Picture Contest” (“E awase”) chapter in The Tale of Genji, Stockdale is able to show that both tales imagine a profound inversion of the court’s social, spatial, and moral norms, such that “figures of exile and estrangement from the court are held up as exemplars of virtue” (61).

The following chapter, which focuses on the exile, death, and apotheosis of the statesman-turned-deity Sugawara no Michizane, provides a good foil to the preceding examination of alienation and protest in fiction. Stockdale takes the logical step of treating Michizane’s apotheosis as an example of the broader category of goryō cults, which emerged in the ninth century and centered on the worship of the spirits of nobles and royals who had been exiled or executed, and therefore had reason to seek revenge upon the state. More gratifying is Stockdale’s refusal to give a reductive reading of goryō cults. He rejects two oversimplifications—that they signaled a “win” for popular political resistance, or conversely, that they really only cloaked the ongoing hegemony of the ruling classes (82). Rather, Stockdale concludes that goryō cults were a little of each and something more: a way for both commoners and the influential Fujiwara family to “gain some measure of control over the all-too-prevalent forces of pollution, disorder, and death” (84).

The fifth chapter examines exile as a punishment stipulated by the statutory ritsuryō law codes, which were promulgated in the eighth century. The central question here is why for the nearly 350 years between 810 CE and 1156 CE the death penalty was regularly commuted to a sentence of exile, thereby making banishment “the paramount legal sanction in the land” (112). Facing a lack of evidence, historians have extrapolated a number of answers, through which Stockdale walks his readers before presenting his own. He suggests (and his rhetoric is notably, and I think unfortunately, unassertive on this point) that goryō cults, which emerged just before the cessation of execution, created a powerful disincentive for capital sentences: anyone who died badly, with a grudge toward the state, might return as a vengeful spirit. In support of this thesis, Stockdale shows that when capital punishment was reinstated in the wake of the 1156 Hōgen Disturbance, a new goryō cult emerged, focused on Emperor Sutoku and Fujiwara no Yorinaga, who had respectively died in exile and been beheaded after the Disturbance. Although I find Stockdale’s argument quite compelling, he draws much of his supporting evidence from Hōgen monogatari (Tale of the Hōgen era), which was composed around the turn into the thirteenth century. He is aware of the problems inherent in using later narratives to interpret earlier events (108–9), but I would have been happier had he framed his argument that the reinstatement of capital punishment brought “shock and dismay” as a conclusion about the memory of that reinstatement. My own historical punctilio notwithstanding, I found the juxtaposition of the Hōgen monogatari and the ritsuryō codes unexpected and wonderfully thought-provoking.

Within the field of Heian studies, projects like Stockdale’s, in which an author works across multiple cultural domains, are quite rare. In part, this is because the source material is difficult: we tend to focus on what we are trained to read. By examining representations of exile in myth, literature, religious cult, and law, Stockdale pushes us to think more broadly about social dynamics, particularly the construction of centers and margins through the practice of banishment, and the ironic tendency of exile to feed from alienation into chaos, even as it is used to impose order. His work is both bold and admirable.

In conclusion, the book is appropriate for the upper-level undergraduate classroom due to its straightforward structure and clear prose. Those who teach courses on Japanese Religions are likely to find the chapters on myth and goryō cults particularly useful because they focus on two very important figures—Susano-o and Michizane—about whom we have, to date, lacked cogent English-language treatments in Religious Studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Heather Blair is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. 

Date of Review: 
July 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Stockdale is associate professor of Japanese religion at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.



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