Logo image for Sea Religion in Japan Conference

The symbolic system underlying Japanese religions presupposes a cultural environment that is largely “continental,” landlocked, and centered on agriculture and mountains. For instance, the ritual calendar of most Shinto shrines is based on the agricultural cycle of rice cultivation, and rice itself is in Japan a powerful cultural symbol directly related to the emperor. The leading Shinto deities (Amaterasu, Susanoo, Hachiman, and Inari) are generally understood today as unrelated to the sea, and the same is true for mainstream Buddhism (Buddhist temples are normally not built near the sea, an aspect that itself requires clarification). In contrast, much has been written on mountain temples, mountain symbolism and cults (Shugendō), in which mountains are sacred lands, abodes of the gods and portals to the other world.

Historian Amino Yoshihiko among others began to question the long-held standard image of Japanese culture as based on rice-centered agriculture. These scholars also pointed to the importance of sea trade routes, both within and without the borders of premodern Japan. Unfortunately, Amino and his school did not pay enough attention to the religious aspects related to the sea.

However, we can gather an idea of the importance of the sea in premodern Japanese religion from a number of materials. Many sources over the centuries deal with sea dragons and their subterranean palace, with an elusive paradisiacal land situated beyond the sea known as Tokoyo, and divine figures (gods or human emissaries?) visiting Japan from there called marebito. Interestingly, many sacred mountains are also related in different ways to the coastal communities they overlook, in terms of deities, rituals, and symbolism; some even claim to be directly related to the sea by secret passages. Furthermore, many important religious centers are located by the sea: Sumiyoshi, Munakata, Usa, Izumo, Kashima, Itsukushima, Konpira, Kumano, Hachiman shrines, even Ise.  They all worship sea deities or draw a significant part of their functions and symbolism from the sea.

It is therefore surprising that Japanese religious studies has chosen to downplay (if not completely ignore) the role of the sea, also despite the wealth of scholarship by folklorists and anthropologists (on the god Ebisu and whaling, takarabune and their “cargo-cult” aspects, etc.). This conference aims at redressing this situation of the field by focusing on the sea and its significance for various aspects of Japanese religious history. It brings together leading experts on Japanese religious history and emerging scholars from several countries. By shedding new light on well-known aspects and by opening up entirely new areas of inquiry, this conference aims at a novel understanding of Japanese religion and culture in general.


Given the numerous elements of Japanese religion that are related to the sea but are generally downplayed or ignored, one wonders what happens when we recenter the study of Japanese religions by focusing not on received continental, landlocked self-understanding (and its related mountains and rice), but turned our attention, instead, to those coastal peripheries? Those endless beaches, intricate sea routes, and the ocean’s abyss and its gifts, its dangers, and its mysteries. Such reorientation of the study of Japanese religious history is the goal of this conference. Some of the topics to be addressed include:

(1) Decentered nature of sea religion, related to local cultic sites (Sumiyoshi, Munakata, Hachiman, etc.); (2) Networks of shrines, deities, and cults dedicated to sea deities, in Japan and across East Asia; (3) Sea deities (Sumiyoshi, Sukunabikona, Awashima.etc.): legends, cults, and rituals, and their transformations in time and place; (4) Religious systems and ritual calendar of fishing communities in Japan; (5) Critical evaluations of past scholarship on sea religion; in particular, Orikuchi Shinobu’s concept of marebito (visiting deities) and Gorai Shigeru’s umi no shugen (mountain ascetics with special interest in the sea); (6) cosmology of sea-based religion (structured horizontally, in contrast with received vertical representations of the divine world), and religious elaborations on sea symbolism (as both receptacle of ritual pollution and source of wealth); (7) Role of the sea and its imagination in Japanese culture (as a space of mediation between the familiar and the foreign, this world and the other world).

These topics are normally not addressed by Japanese religious studies. They suggest the existence of a parallel, sea-based religious paradigm, which at times intersects and at times conflicts with dominant religious formations. An important feature of the sea-based religious paradigm is its fluid and decentered nature, as related to networks of shape-shifting deities, moving from one place to another; the state and the emperor as such do not seem to play in it as central a role as in standard forms of land-based religiosity. Indeed, sea-based religiosity points to a dimension in which the emperor and state-centered social hierarchies and power relations are no longer dominant; this amounts to a dramatic reconfiguration of the received understanding of Japanese religions. In particular, we expect that this conference will contribute to delineate a different shape of the Shinto tradition, away from its received focus on the emperor and its hierarchical, centralized worldview.

We plan to publish a selection of papers from the conference in a collective volume. This book, because of its interdisciplinary nature and the novelty of topics and approaches, will contribute to a better knowledge of the role of the sea in Japanese religion and to promote further study on these subjects.