Invisible Empire:
Spirits and Animism in
Contemporary Japan

International Conference
UC Santa Barbara
February 25-26, 2017
Social Sciences and Media Studies Building
2F Conference Room 2135

          A striking aspect of contemporary Japanese culture is the pervasive presence of discussions and representations of “spirits” (tama or tamashii), generally rooted in vaguely articulated discourses on “animism” (animizumu) that often exist separately from explicit religious forms. Indeed, to many Japanese, their country has a split ontological outlook: on the one hand, there is Japan as the concrete place of their everyday lives; on the other, an invisible realm populated by all kinds of presences: ghosts, spirits, ancestors, gods… In addition to the fact that ancestors’ cults (predicated upon the continuing presence, in ectoplasmic form, of deceased family members) have played a central role in Japanese culture and religion, new phenomena also have a great relevance in contemporary Japan. The study of spirits (yōkai) is a flourishing academic field and a successful publishing genre; numerous religious organizations focus their teachings and ritual systems on interactions with and control of ghosts; for about two decades now the mass media have been presenting a growing number of places (power spots) where people can have some kind of spiritual experience; moreover, ghosts, spirits, and more in general the invisible dimension of reality occupy an important place in literature, the arts, and popular culture (cinema, games, manga comics, etc.).
          Many scholars, especially in the west, tend to explain away this interest in spiritual beings as metaphors for tradition, cultural identity, social and personal anxiety, and so forth; while this is certainly a viable interpretive key, it ignores the important fact that spirits are typically treated as real (or at least potentially real) presences in reality by many Japanese. Whereas not many Japanese would perhaps subscribe to hard beliefs on the objective existence of these spiritual entities, many would be reluctant to simply discard the possibility of their existence.
          This set of ontological assumptions about reality, especially surprising in a country known for its high degree of secularization, its technological advancement, and social development, is so deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric that is almost always taken for granted as a typically Japanese form of animism rooted in the most ancient past. Thus, very few systematic and comprehensive studies exist on the nature of this ontology of spirits—its metaphysical foundations, theological implications, historical roots, and connections with present cultural formations and concerns. The term animism (animizumu) itself is rarely problematized and discussed in its theoretical and practical implications. This pervasive presence of animistic and spirit-related themes in Japanese contemporary mass culture (also and especially outside of strictly religious discourses) is often taken for granted as an obvious feature of Japanese culture and spirituality, but very little is articulated about the nature of spirits and the characteristics of animism that gives them shape.
          This conference will attempt to map the field of Japanese animism by addressing various instances in which it is evoked—in popular religion, mass culture (films, literature), visual arts and architecture, and even science and technology.
          This conference is an attempt to take seriously the metaphysical implications of the contemporary Japanese culture of spirits. Presentations will analyze various modes of representation of spirits (in contemporary art, architecture, visual culture, cinema, diffuse spirituality) and at the same time addressing their underlying intellectual and religious assumptions which, in the case of a few important authors, were made explicit as part of larger philosophical endeavors. The papers will analyze specific cases of “animistic attitudes” in which the presence of “spirits” and spiritual forces is alleged, attempt to trace cultural genealogies of those attitudes, and produce conceptual maps of current animistic ideas about spirits.

Organized by Fabio Rambelli, ISF Chair of Shinto Studies


UC Santa Barbara’s departments of: East Asian Languages and Cultural StudiesReligious Studies, History of Art and ArchitectureEnglishFilm and Media StudiesComparative LiteratureInterdisciplinary Humanities Center and East Asia Center.

UCSB Shinto Studies