The Sea and the Sacred in Japan

Aspects of Maritime Religion

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Fabio Rambelli
Bloomsbury Shinto Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , July
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Fabio Rambelli’s edited volume The Sea and the Sacred in Japan is divided into four parts and comprises fifteen articles, in addition to a general introduction by Rambelli and a preface by Allan G. Grapard. Both pieces, the introduction “The Sea in the History of Japanese Religions” (xii–xxiv) and the preface “Cults and Culture of the Sea: Historical and Geographical Perspectives” (xxv–xxix), situate a few topics that are central in this volume. The authors of the articles belong to various academic disciplines specializing in religion, history, literature, culture and folklore, anthropology, and (ethno)musicology.

The four chapters in the first part discuss aspects of ancient sea myths and traditions and the way they changed over time. Mark Teeuwen looks at maritime topics and how they influenced an enthronement ritual (daijōsai) in imperial times (3–13). Satō Masato emphasizes the centrality of marine products in consumable offerings (shinsen) to the deities (15–22). In her contribution on Japanese border islands, Jane Alaszewska argues that historical court rituals resemble present-day healing rituals on Aogashima (23–37). Finally, Lindsey E. DeWitt draws attention to the taboos and mysteries of Okinoshima (39–50).

Part 2 introduces sea deities and sea cults that are, according to Rambelli, “little known, even in Japan” (xxi). ōuchi Fumi portrays Ebisu, a music loving sea-god granting prosperity, to whom countless musical instruments are donated (53–63). Emily B. Simpson introduces Empress Jingū’s relationship with and marriage to sea deities (65–78). Highlighting the dynamics of medieval transcultural relations, Sujung Kim focuses on the deity Shinra Myōjin (79–87). The contribution by Bernhard Scheid focuses on the religious practices of medieval pirates (wakō) (89–100). Gaynor Sekimori portrays the interconnection of Shugendō and its mountain temples with the sea, highlighting a continuum between land and sea (101–115).

In the next part, three authors portray the relationship between Buddhism and the sea. Abe Yasurō opens this section with his discussion of temple narratives (engi) that mythologize how Buddhism came to Japan (119–29). In his contribution, Itō Satoshi shows the validation of Japan’s supremacy, preeminence, and uniqueness through myths and narratives in the medieval and early modern periods (131–38). D. Max Moerman highlights that “flows of knowledge between Japan and the West” (151) are more complex than scholars have assumed previously (139–52).

Finally, three authors analyze the thoughts of indigenous philosophers and theologians about the sea. Kanazawa Hideyuki analyzes the first chapter of the Ruijū jingi hongen about the origin of heaven and earth and its reinterpretations (155–65). Subsequently, Saitō Hideki reinterprets Orikuchi Shinobu’s work, particularly his study of the marebito and Musubi no kami (167–80). Fabio Rambelli concludes with a contribution that discusses a purification ritual, treasure ships, and boat spirits all of which are connected to the sea (181–99).

In the following, I will discuss three contributions that stand out in this collection. First, with the colorful beginning of her article, “Island of Many Names, Island of No Name: Taboo and the Mysteries of Okinoshima,” DeWitt immediately draws us into her narrative. In the course of the piece, we learn three different names of Okinoshima, a tiny island on which no one ever lived: “Island where Gods Dwell,” “Shōsōin Treasury of the Sea,” and “Island of Mystery.” These names mirror different aspects of the island. While the first name points to the mythological dwelling of goddess Tagorihime, the second one highlights the treasures associated with the island. The last name is at the center of DeWitt’s analysis and emphasizes the taboos associated with the island: treasures shall remain on the island, visitors have to undergo purification rites, the inner shrine cannot be entered without permission, certain words may not be uttered, Okinoshima shall not be spoken of, and women can never enter the island. This last taboo is discussed at length since it is the only one that is “rigidly, perhaps disproportionately, enforced” (49), before DeWitt beautifully ends her article as she began it.

Scheid’s contribution, “Hachiman Worship Among Japanese Pirates (wakō) of the Medieval Period: A Preliminary Survey,” intrigues with its title—romanticized in popular culture, piracy is a ubiquitous topic. His work also engagingly introduces the reader to the wakō who are not always Japanese pirates: as Scheid argues many Chinese were among them. Most wakō were merchants whose trade was considered piracy in China and Korea. In Japan today, the wakō “are sometimes imbued with romantic heroism and patriotic pride, while in Korea and China the term still raises negative stereotypes associated with Japanese military aggression” (90). He continues to discuss the position of Hachiman among the wakō. Drawing on banners and oaths, he shows that Hachiman did have a central position for wakō, but was usually accompanied by local deities. Hachiman shrines and legends reveal that Empress Jingū is central to Hachiman worship. He concludes that “if Japanese pirates indeed favored Hachiman in the wakō period, it seems likely that they worshiped a female Hachiman” (99).

In “Lands and People Drifting Ashore: Distorted Conceptions of Japan’s Place in the World According to Medieval and Early Modern Japanese Myths,” Satoshi portrays the Japanese’s struggle with their “consciousness of their own country’s importance and yet subordinate position vis-à-vis the Chinese cultural sphere” (131) and their “self-understanding of remoteness joined with ideas of both inferiority and antagonism towards Chinese civilization” (132). He discusses how sacred places are physically transferred to Japan or Japan itself is depicted as a part of India, the origin country of Buddhism. Other narratives frame Japan/Mount Fuji as Mount Penglai, the Chinese land of the immortals, or the Japanese as being related to the Chinese. Itō concludes that, while the Japanese still struggle to highlight their uniqueness, Western influences are now added to the Chinese ones.

As Rambelli highlights, “we know very little about Japanese conceptualizations of the sea” (xiv). This edited volume tries to close this gap with its broad range of topics and approaches. And although there is still a lot of work to do as some of the authors indicate, the volume successfully highlights the multifaceted “ideas and practices regarding the sea” (xv). Overall, The Sea and the Sacred in Japan makes a valuable contribution to the field of Japanese maritime religion that will grant important insights to scholars and graduate students of Japanese religion, history, and literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cora Gaebel is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Cologne.

Date of Review: 
January 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fabio Rambelli is Professor of Japanese Religions and Cultural History and ISF Endowed Chair in Shinto Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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