A Social History of the Ise Shrines

Divine Capital

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Mark Teeuwen, John Breen
Bloomsbury Shinto Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mark Teeuwen and John Breen's A Social History of the Ise Shrines: Divine Capital is a survey-style history of the Ise Shrines that begins in the 7th century and stretches to the present day. Proposing their own periodization scheme, the authors break their narrative of premodern and early modern Ise into chapters, each covering two to three centuries of history. With the last three chapters of the book focused on the late-19th and 20th centuries, the modern period is covered in detail.

The work is a social history rather than an intellectual one. Teeuwen and Breen have focused on agents who shaped Ise’s development, including priests, patrons, pilgrims, and the state. The authors outline how authority over the Ise shrines changed hands many times over the course of their history, asking “when, how and why new groups of agents gained influence over the shrines, often reshaping conceptions of Ise and its meaning radically in the process” (8).

In taking this approach, Teeuwen and Breen are challenging assumptions held both inside and outside specialist circles regarding the Ise Shrines. The authors illustrate that Ise has never been static. They argue that Ise has not existed since time immemorial, instead being created in the 7th century, and then retroactively inserted into court chronicles detailing the history of previous periods. Furthermore, Ise was not always an imperial institution; it has changed hands multiple times, and has historically served different functions. For example, the shrine priests of Ise (Arakida and Watarai lineages) were not always the most influential agents shaping the course of the shrines. Court officials directed the shrines for much of the Heian period (794-1185), and though the Arakida and Watarai—through the patronage of Kantō warriors—regained control in the Kamakura period, they were soon overshadowed by entrepreneurs capitalizing on the pilgrimage boom of the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Teeuwen and Breen’s account of Ise emphasizes radical change, in contrast to the more common narratives that depict Ise as an unchanging bastion of Japanese religiosity.

Crucially, Teeuwen and Breen’s work is situated within a larger discourse regarding the identity of the tradition now referred to as “Shinto.” Following the work of Kuroda Toshio, many scholars of Japanese religion now reject the notion that Shinto existed continuously throughout the premodern period. However, there is less consensus regarding when and how Shinto came to be; there has been an effort in recent scholarship to define and set boundaries for premodern Shinto. Teeuwen and Breen’s survey is in many ways similar to Helen Hardacre’s recent work Shinto: A History (Oxford University Press, 2016), which also presents a survey history of kami worship in Japan from the ancient period to the present day. However, the two books define the beginning of Shinto in different ways. Whereas Hardacre cites the founding of the jingikan, or “Department of Divinities,” in the 7th century as the beginning of a lasting and coherent tradition deserving of the name “Shinto,” Teeuwen and Breen argue that the first meaningful reference to the term “Shinto” appears in 13th century esoteric transmissions of the Watarai priestly lineage at Ise. Furthermore, Teeuwen and Breen argue that “the naming of such transmissions as ‘Shinto’ did not mark the birth of a new religion, or the revival of an old one, but was an attempt to create a new label for this closed Ise lineage” (75). The Watarai lineage of esoteric transmission was broken in the 14th century, and the use of the term “Shinto” does not reappear until the mid-17th century. Ise priests of the early Edo period (1603-1868) crafted a novel concept of “Shinto,” in which the term “constituted a new ideal that had to be realized by restoring an age-old ‘national law’ that had been utterly lost” (133). Teeuwen and Breen argue that Ise does not become a site of Shinto until this moment in the mid-17th century. The lack of scholarly consensus regarding the identity and boundaries of premodern Shinto speaks to the complexity of the problem, and it remains an exciting and rapidly developing field of study.

Teeuwen and Breen present the history of Ise as strata—layered narratives that have been deployed at various points in history for various purposes. They explain that “Ise’s landscape has been constantly modified over the centuries to conform to new narratives, while the most obvious traces of older narratives have been erased or forgotten” (235). The agents in control of Ise today emphasize some of these narrative layers, such as Ise’s connections to national identity and personal religiosity, while obscuring others, including the medieval equation of the deity of Ise with the Buddha Mahāvairocana and Ise’s involvement with wartime ideology. Teeuwen and Breen present the narrative strata that make up Ise’s historical identity and recount a dynamic history in which the Ise shrines have been transformed many times over the centuries. The result of their thorough research is a fascinating and eye-opening book, an excellent resource for both researchers and teachers in the field of Japanese religions. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander Sogo is a doctoral student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Teeuwen is professor of Japanese studies at Oslo University, Norway. He has published widely on the history of Japanese religious, with a special focus on Shinto. His books include A New History of Shinto (2010), co-authored by John Breen, and Buddhism and Nativism: Framing Identity Discourse in Buddhist Environments(2013), co-edited by Henk Blezer.

John Breen is professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Japan, and editor of Japan Review. He has published widely on the imperial institution and issues of religion and stage in modern Japan. His books include A New History of Shinto (2010), co-authored by Mark Teeuwen, and Shinto monogatari: Ise no kindaishi (2015).



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