Participants and Abstracts

Mauro Arrighi (Art Academy of Verona, Southampton Solent University)

Techno-Animism: Japanese Media Artists and their Buddhist and Shinto Legacy” 

Based on research for my book Japanese Spell in Electronic Art (2011), I suggest that animism functions as one the primary sources for the newly evolving mediascape of Japan, especially computer-aided performances and interactive installations. I will explore this hypothesis through a discussion of artworks that exemplify it from a practice-based perspective by the following artists: Shinto priest Tanahashi Nobuyuki, Haco (Mizoguchi Haruko), AEO Group (Jō Kazuhiro, Sawai Taeji and Yamatsuka Eye), Ogawa Hideaki, Mizutani Michihito, Tabei Masaru, Hisako Kroiden Yamakawa, Nakamura Rieko with Anzai Toshihiro, and Hayakawa Takahiro. My aim is to analyze the historical and theoretical frameworks that inform Media Japanese Art, focusing, in particular, on the influence of religion, folklore, manga, anime and otaku subculture on Japanese artists who experiment with the latest technologies (such as face-recognition, motion-recognition, and biofeedback sensors/systems able to trace the behavior of the observers/visitors). My assumption is that there is a relationship between Shinto and Japanese contemporary art; more radically, I argue that the artists I discuss represent the latest embodiment of Shinto belief and practices.


Andrea Castiglioni (UCSB)

Your name? Spiritual Criss-Crossing and Spatial Ambiguity in Contemporary Visual Culture

Kimi no na ha (Your Name) is a 2016 acclaimed animation movie directed by Shinkai Makoto. This movie presents a modern-day refashioning of the Tanabata myth in which female and male spirits freely come and go from their respective bodies, mysterious shooting stars streak across the sky from Tokyo to the small village of Itomori, and the indefinite light of the twilight (tasokare-doki) favors unexpected exchanges between this world and the other. In my presentation I examine various types of interactions between human spirits and divine entities, as depicted in Kimi no na ha. In addition, I analyze how Shinkai conceptualizes different spaces and times in which human and non-human spirits manifest their presence. In order to situate Shinkai’s work within the larger context of contemporary Japanese spirituality, I will compare Kimi no na ha‘s portrayal of invisible realms to those found in works of Moriyama Daidō, Araki Nobuyoshi, and Yamaguchi Akira.


 Jason Josephson-Storm (Williams College)

The Mystical “Occident” or the Vibrations of “Modernity” in the Mirror of Japanese Thought

Classical theories of modernization often presume that as a civilization gets more modern it exchanges belief in a vibrant cosmos of spirits and animating beings for a clockwork universe consisting in dead and insensate matter. Indeed, one of the common formations of Orientalism is to imagine an opposition between a mystical or spiritual Orient and a material or technological Occident. But when some Japanese thinkers (like Inoue Enryō and Natsume Sōseki) turned their attention to Euro-American civilization in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the “West” they saw was far from stripped of its belief in spirits, magic, and an animated nature. Indeed, Japanese thinkers were often struck by what seemed to be the resurgence of belief in ghosts and invisible forces in a civilization that portrayed itself as experiencing the progressive demystification of the supernatural. This talk will touch on Japanese portrayals of an enchanted Europe, before turning to early master theorists of European disenchantment (August Comte and E.B. Tylor). It will then provide a genealogy of European theorizing about fetishism and animism and turn the enterprise on its head to show how thinkers like Comte and Tylor were captured by their own theorizing. Put differently, it will show how in the process of theorizing “primitive” civilizations Europeans were really describing themselves.


 Fabio Rambelli (UCSB)

A Metaphysics of the Invisible Realm: Minakata Kumagusu on Spirits and the Cosmic Mandala

Minakata Kumagusu (1867-1941) was one of the leading Japanese intellectuals between the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. A veritable polymath, he studied and wrote influential essays on a wide range of subjects, from molds and mushrooms to Buddhist thought, from Japanese folklore to comparative religions. Among his astonishingly broad scholarly production, we encounter an attempt to outline a multilayered ontology of reality based on different epistemological systems—what has recently been defined “Minakata mandala.” In order to construct this ontology, Minakata brought together a serious understanding of classical Buddhist philosophy, deep scientific knowledge, and awareness of the Japanese folk tradition. In it, Minakata also tried to explain the existence of spirits and other ectoplasmic entities. This paper presents the “Minakata mandala” as one the most systematic attempts to outline an ontology of spirits in modern Japan.


 Carina Roth Al Eid (University of Geneva, UCSB)

Essays in Vagueness: Aspects of Diffuse Religiosity in Japan

In Japan, “Power spots,” “forest therapy,” and references to a generic world invisible to the eyes have become established features of a seemingly unchallenged mainstream discourse. As in other parts of the world, a kind of globalized “re-enchantment of the world,” often linked to ecological concerns, is accompanied by a distancing from clearly defined religious references. This paper will discuss how aspects of what some scholars term “diffuse religiosity” in Western countries find their place in Japan.


Rebecca Suter (University of Sydney)

The Spirit(s) of Modern Japanese Fiction

One of the most thought-provoking, and most elusive, features of modern Japanese fiction is its portrayal of the realm of the uncanny, and its use of the fantastic mode. This of course is not unique to Japan. In Fantasy: A Literature of Subversion, Rosemary Jackson famously described the fantastic genre as a product of the secularization of Europe, noting that the inexplicable, which in premodern cultures pertains to the realm of the sacred, shifts into the sphere of the fantastic when a culture becomes secularized. Jackson sees this uncanny dimension as the main element that makes fantasy a “literature of subversion”: while a religious explanation provides a form of reassurance, she argues, fantasy, resting on an unresolved contradiction and hesitation between rational and supernatural explanations of events, has a much stronger unsettling effect on its readers, which enhances its critical potential. This is even more evident in modern Japanese fantasy, where, as Susan Napier has noted, horror elements of traditional fantastic tales are used to reflect on cultural identity/Otherness and on society’s conception of what is “normal.” Whether they are phantasms from the past that keep haunting the present, or liminal monsters that exist simultaneously inside and outside “our world,” the spirits that populate Japanese literature, film, manga, and anime offer a unique standpoint from which to reflect on contemporary Japan. By focusing on select case studies ranging from the centrality of the “metaphysical realm” in the novels of Murakami Haruki, to the modern rewriting of traditional mythological creatures in manga and anime such as Mushishi (2006), this paper will look at how literary appearances of spirits function as a critical lens on Japanese culture and society.


Jolyon Thomas (University of Pennsylvania)

Spirits as Mediums in Animated Media

Japanese anime are replete with spirits. Shades populate the other world and specters haunt the living. Spirit mediums deliver oracles and shamans traverse the boundaries between life and death. But perhaps more importantly, in several prominent anime of the last two decades spirits have served as mediums through which humans find connections with themselves, with each other, and with the natural world. This paper briefly examines the characteristics of the anime medium that lend themselves to the portrayal of eerie phenomena before examining spirits as mediums for social connection and reconciliation in some recent anime, including the 2016 smash hit Your Name (Kimi no na wa). Whereas many professional observers of Japan prefer to view anime as a repository of Japan’s “animistic” heritage, I argue that the putative connection between the spirits of anime and autochthonous Japanese kami veneration is tenuous. The spirits that appear in anime are more closely linked with the circumstances of Japan’s precarious present than with a romanticized animistic past.


Ellen Van Goethem (Kyushu University)

Animated City: Life Force, Guardians, and Contemporary Architecture in Kyoto

In this paper I will explore the conviction that Kyoto is a city animated by a number of invisible agencies and how this notion has influenced the city’s contemporary architecture. Inspired by the belief that the city was designed and built according to the core principles of site divination (popularly known as fengshui or fūsui), it is generally assumed that Kyoto is vitalized by the invisible flow of qi and protected by the guardians of the four directions. Starting in the 1990s, when a fengshui boom gripped Japan, a number of architectural projects in Kyoto were conceived with explicit reference to fengshui-related elements either because of the architect’s personal beliefs, a particular client’s request, or to convince the general public of the project’s suitability to the city.