“Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan” By Michael Como University

Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan

Richard Bowring in Reference and Research Book News (2010)


Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan By Michael Como University of Hawaii Press, 2009 xxi,196 pp + glossary, notes ISBN 978-0-8248-2957-5 cloth

In Weaving and Binding, Michael Como continues his project, begun in the pages of Japanese Journal of Religious Studies and his book Shōtoku: Ethnicity, Ritual, and Violence in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition (Oxford, 2008), of parsing the continental folk religion components in ancient Japanese Buddhism and what used to be called Shintō. His premise is that Meiji-era, prewar and postwar Japanese scholars for various reasons constructed a picture of a Shintō nativism that in ancient times opposed the importation of the foreign religion Buddhism. But in Comos view many if not most elements in both native religion and ancient Japanese Buddhism can be traced to the numerous immigrant groups, particularly from the Korean peninsula, which brought new technologies and with them elements of Chinese folk religion. Of particular interest is his rejection of the views of Fukunaga, Shinkawa, Ooms and Bialock (pp. xiv-xv; 2) that this importation can be specifically characterized as Taoist influence. This whole idea is not exactly new. In the 1960s Joseph Kitagawa and J. H. Kamstra emphasized the folk religion elements, particularly shamanism, in the construction of ancient Japanese religion. Kamstra in particular emphasized the immigrant lineages like the Hata. He attributed great significance to the influence of Chinese and Korean shamanism and spoke of the Buddhism of the sixth century born of the contrasts between immigrants, shizoku, and emperors. (Encounter or Syncretism, Brill, 1967, pp. 283 ff) But Como and the Japanese scholars on whom he draws have brought a new sophistication to this task. Como is concerned to identify specific cults at specific loci and makes a major attempt to connect them with elements in the mythologies, fudoki, and setsuwa. The particular novelty of his approach is his emphasis on the importation of sericulture and the numerous elements of Chinese folk religion which accompanied it hence the weaving and female immortals of his title. Some of his suggestions are more convincing than others. In my opinion, his attempt to link the mysterious sheng ornament in the hairdress of the Queen Mother of the West with Shōtoku Taishis binding of an image of the Shitennō in his hair before the crucial battle with the Mononobe is an extreme stretch. (A more obvious religious-historical parallel here would be Constantines vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and his marking the sign of the cross on his shield.) It would certainly be difficult to prove that the Queen Mother of the West, such a distinctive figure in Chinese folk religion and Daoism, was ever a significant or even manifest, element of Japanese religion in the seventh and eighth centuries. Chapter 6, on Silkworms and Consorts is more solidly documented and persuasive. To propose Amaterasu as a silkworm goddess par excellence (Chapter 7) is an intriguing and challenging hypothesis. A major weakness of the book is the constant and irritating repetition of the phrase Chinese festival calendar, which Como throws around constantly without really specifying what precisely that calendar was and, if it ever existed as a discrete entity, how exactly it mapped onto the actual Japanese calendar of the seventh and eighth centuries. The author makes a great deal of the well-known Tanabata festival involving the Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden, which is associated with the seventh day of the seventh month, but other scattered references to popular rites on the 15th day of the first month, or the third day of the third month, or whatever, are merely confusing. Como also mentions an enormous number of place names, particularly the names of ancient provinces, but again in a scattershot fashion. Again, a map or chart would be helpful. Incidentally, his persistent identification of Hachiman as a deity from the ancient province of Chikuzen in Chapter One is bewildering, since the oldest Hachiman shrine was actually sited in Buzen, and this location is attested to by the Shoku Nihongi, other ancient documents, and modern scholar Nakano Hatayoshi. Still, despite its flaws, this is an enthusiastic, if somewhat breathless, piece of work. Certainly the investigation of ancient Shintō and Buddhism in Japan will need to proceed along these general lines, attempting to map a plethora of continental influences, the immigrant lineages, and local cult sites. However, as Hermann Ooms points out, Trying to differentiate between the various mainland practices statist, Daoist, and Buddhist to identify the cultural flow into Yamato or their reenactment there may ultimately be a futile exercise. (Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan, Hawaii 2009, p. 256). Particularly difficult will be trying to ascertain what exactly, if anything, documented in the mythologies and histories was in fact native Japanese practice. Certainly not all of the ancient Japanese tradition consisted of continental imports. But Comos emphasis that the royal cult in the capital both constructed and was constructed by an enormous and multivarious number of peripheral influences helps to point the direction for future studies. — Ross Bender http://rossbender.org

PMJS papers (2009)
To read another book review, see “Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan” by Thal, Sarah, Academic journal article from Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1
Description of book by the publishers:

“Among the most exciting developments in the study of Japanese religion over the past two decades has been the discovery of tens of thousands of ritual vessels, implements, and scapegoat dolls (hitogata) from the Nara (710-784) and early Heian (794-1185) periods. Because inscriptions on many of the items are clearly derived from Chinese rites of spirit pacification, it is now evident that previous scholarship has mischaracterized the role of Buddhism in early Japanese religion. Weaving and Binding makes a compelling argument that both the Japanese royal system and the Japanese Buddhist tradition owe much to continental rituals centered on the manipulation of yin and yang, animal sacrifice, and spirit quelling. Building on these recent archaeological discoveries, Michael Como charts an epochal transformation in the religious culture of the Japanese islands, tracing the transmission and development of fundamental paradigms of religious practice to immigrant lineages and deities from the Korean peninsula.
In addition to archaeological materials, Como makes extensive use of a wide range of textual sources from across Asia, including court chronicles, poetry collections, gazetteers, temple records, and divinatory texts. As he investigates the influence of myths, legends, and rites of the ancient Chinese festival calendar on religious practice across the Japanese islands, Como shows how the ability of immigrant lineages to propitiate hostile deities led to the creation of elaborate networks of temple-shrine complexes that shaped later sectarian Shinto as well as popular understandings of the relationship between the buddhas and the gods of Japan. For much of the book, this process is examined through rites and legends from the Chinese calendar that were related to weaving, sericulture, and medicine—technologies that to a large degree were controlled by lineages with roots in the Korean peninsula and that claimed female deities and weaving maidens as founding ancestors. Como’s examination of a series of ancient Japanese legends of female immortals, weaving maidens, and shamanesses reveals that female deities played a key role in the moving of technologies and ritual practices from peripheral regions in Kyushu and elsewhere into central Japan and the heart of the imperial cult. As a result, some of the most important building blocks of the purportedly native Shinto tradition were to a remarkable degree shaped by the ancestral cults of immigrant lineages and popular Korean and Chinese religious practices.

This is a provocative and innovative work that upsets the standard interpretation of early historical religion in Japan, revealing a complex picture of continental cultic practice both at court and in the countryside.”


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