William Fleming

“Images of the Shugenja in Early Modern Japanese Literature”


This paper explores the image of the shugenja, or yamabushi, as it emerges in Japanese popular literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Shugenja appear not infrequently in early modern fiction and drama, and they are encountered in a variety of guises: as seers possessed of privileged access to truth and underlying reality, as sorcerers capable of remarkable feats of magic, and as protectors of the vulnerable and downtrodden. The examples discussed in this paper are taken from short stories, historical fiction, and plays by diverse writers including Tsuga Teishō 都賀庭鐘 (1718-ca. 1794), Hiraga Gennai 平賀源内 (1728-1780), Ueda Akinari 上田秋成 (1734-1809), Morishima Chūryō 森島中良 (1756-1810), Santō Kyōden 山東京伝 (1761-1816), and Jippensha Ikku 十返舎一九 (1765-1831). Particular attention is devoted to the ways in which the image of the shugenja is informed by these works’ intertextual relationships with earlier texts in both the Japanese and Chinese traditions. Adaptation is a favored technique of Edo narrative fiction, and in the case of cross-cultural adaptation from Chinese sources a number of questions naturally arise: Given shugendō’s absence in the continental cultural context, what types of characters are reimagined as shugenja in Japanese tales? What does the process of cross-cultural translation reveal about the image of the shugenja in Japanese popular culture? And how does adaptation in turn transform and impart new meanings on the existing image?