Book Review: Michael Como, Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan. By Ross Bender.

PMJS Papers

Book Review

Published 13 December 2009

© 2009 Ross Bender

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

By Michael Como

University of Hawai’i 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 Como’s 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 1960’s 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 Taishi’s 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 Constantine’s 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, Hawai’i 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 Como’s 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