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The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship

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The deity Inari has been worshipped in Japan since at least the early eighth century and today is a revered presence in such varied venues as Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, factories, theaters, private households, restaurants, beauty shops, and rice fields. Although at first glance and to its many devotees Inari worship may seem to be a unified phenomenon, it is in fact The deity Inari has been worshipped in Japan since at least the early eighth century and today is a revered presence in such varied venues as Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, factories, theaters, private households, restaurants, beauty shops, and rice fields. Although at first glance and to its many devotees Inari worship may seem to be a unified phenomenon, it is in fact exceedingly multiple, noncodified, and noncentralized. No single regulating institution, dogma, scripture, or myth centers the practice. In this exceptionally insightful study, the author explores the worship of Inari in the context of homogeneity and diversity in Japan. The shape-shifting fox and the wish-fulfilling jewel, the main symbols of Inari, serve as interpretive metaphors to describe the simultaneously shared yet infinitely diverse meanings that cluster around the deity. That such diversity exists without the apparent knowledge of Inari worshippers is explained by the use of several communicative strategies that minimize the exchange of substantive information. Shared generalized meanings (tatemae) are articulated while private meanings and complexities (honne) are left unspoken. The appearance of unity is reinforced by a set of symbols representing fertility, change, and growth in ways that can be interpreted and understood by many individuals of various ages and occupations. The Fox and the Jewel describes the rich complexity of Inari worship in contemporary Japan. It explores questions of institutional and popular power in religion, demonstrates the ways people make religious figures personally meaningful, and documents the kinds of communicative styles that preserve the appearance of homogeneity in the face of astonishing factionalism.


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The deity Inari has been worshipped in Japan since at least the early eighth century and today is a revered presence in such varied venues as Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, factories, theaters, private households, restaurants, beauty shops, and rice fields. Although at first glance and to its many devotees Inari worship may seem to be a unified phenomenon, it is in fact The deity Inari has been worshipped in Japan since at least the early eighth century and today is a revered presence in such varied venues as Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, factories, theaters, private households, restaurants, beauty shops, and rice fields. Although at first glance and to its many devotees Inari worship may seem to be a unified phenomenon, it is in fact exceedingly multiple, noncodified, and noncentralized. No single regulating institution, dogma, scripture, or myth centers the practice. In this exceptionally insightful study, the author explores the worship of Inari in the context of homogeneity and diversity in Japan. The shape-shifting fox and the wish-fulfilling jewel, the main symbols of Inari, serve as interpretive metaphors to describe the simultaneously shared yet infinitely diverse meanings that cluster around the deity. That such diversity exists without the apparent knowledge of Inari worshippers is explained by the use of several communicative strategies that minimize the exchange of substantive information. Shared generalized meanings (tatemae) are articulated while private meanings and complexities (honne) are left unspoken. The appearance of unity is reinforced by a set of symbols representing fertility, change, and growth in ways that can be interpreted and understood by many individuals of various ages and occupations. The Fox and the Jewel describes the rich complexity of Inari worship in contemporary Japan. It explores questions of institutional and popular power in religion, demonstrates the ways people make religious figures personally meaningful, and documents the kinds of communicative styles that preserve the appearance of homogeneity in the face of astonishing factionalism.

30 review for The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship

  1. 5 out of 5

    Andre

    When reading this book I would recommend seeing it as what the author refers it to: a study and nothing more. Sure the book is very good when it comes to the topic of Inari, foxes and their roles in Japan of the 1990s. However it is by no means an encyclopedia and I would always recommend reading other books and articles (real ones, not many of those websites who seem to basically feed each other) to complement your knowledge. This book has a lot of information and the author apparently travelled When reading this book I would recommend seeing it as what the author refers it to: a study and nothing more. Sure the book is very good when it comes to the topic of Inari, foxes and their roles in Japan of the 1990s. However it is by no means an encyclopedia and I would always recommend reading other books and articles (real ones, not many of those websites who seem to basically feed each other) to complement your knowledge. This book has a lot of information and the author apparently travelled for a while and did her best to collect and organize her information, so you will learn a lot when reading this. It was interesting in how many ways Inari is identified by different people and how many shapes s/he has. Similar with the fox and its powers. She did an especially good job showing the diversity of the Inari belief, or better beliefs, despite or maybe because it is not one of the kami seen in the "official" stories about Japanese deities. She argues that Inari devotees are not merely interpreting the traditions in subjective ways but, are quite actively changing them. Because of the considerable shamanic component new traditions easily come into being as direct commands of Inari, it allows Inari to develop in almost infinitely diverse ways, as people worship their own individualized or personalized version of the kami. Also the shapeshifting nature of the fox and the association of Inari with it, as well as Inari's original role of a rice deity, seems to help as well as it allows the kami to adopt in ever new ways. So when it comes to acquiring knowledge it is very good, definitely recommendable when it comes to the topic of Inari and foxes in Japanese folklore. However I cannot give this book more than 3 stars as it has some serious flaws in some areas that make me wonder how deep the author actually went, respectively whether she was able to avoid herself what she criticized in other authors: her "Western" view point. That there is a problem here is most evident by three points: 1) She constantly makes a distinction between "spirit foxes" (the ones with all the supernatural powers) and "real foxes" and only says once that apparently the two are not always separate (she even regards it as strange that the "spirit" can be killed). However in that case she seems to not have grasped what is most essential about the topic: the two are the same. In Japanese folklore "kitsune" means just that, fox, and the difference is knowledge. The fox's magical abilities are learned, they are not something essentially different from other foxes without magic, they simply were able to develop into that direction. And as everyone knowledgeable about the topic of Yokai knows, this is very common in Japanese folklore, e.g. they have inanimate objects come to life simply due to age and long-lasting usage and like wizards in the West Japanese people in folklore can also achieve magical status through learning. This is especially puzzling as she acknowledges the fluidity of Inari worship, but when it comes to magical animals she always puts "spirit" in front of the term even when it's clear that the accounts given speak of corporeal beings (like with that one snake) and she only does it with them, she never referred to dragons as such even when she had a report of a person allegedly possessed by one. And such a thing is even not unusual in European folklore, especially not for tricksters, which foxes are. She even regards them as boundary crossers so why is this so "surprising" for her that it does not adhere to some sort of material/spiritual separation? 2) She translates the word "tanuki" with "badger." And I refuse to believe this mistake could not have been avoided. At the time this book was published my language already had a name for them, "Marderhund," and the English language did not have "raccoon dog" already? Seriously, that is a pretty easily avoidable mistake simply by looking at a picture. After all, do these two look alike? Tanuki/Raccoon dog: Anaguma/bagder: 3) She states that foxes being in children's literature has robbed them of power and infantilized them. To which the best response is: look at Disney's Lion King or the Hunchback of Notre Dame and tell me again that children's stories have no power or are always infantile. Also why would such an integral and widespread motif like the fox disappear in less than a century? So I think in essence she doesn't romanticize or excoticize the beliefs about Inari and foxes but rather presses them into her own beliefs without question. Seriously it sometimes reads as if she doesn't acknowledge what she wrote herself. The most obvious case of her not getting the flaw in her reasoning is the story of Tamamo-no-Mae where she wrote that she was forced into a rock in Nasuno. Ok, either: a) A version of that fox's story is like that (aka the stone is not her transformed spirit after she was killed) and the author did not mention these different versions OR b) The author is ignorant of the popular story where she gets killed. Either option does not make me trust the author. There is also one other problem: Her information on red foxes is incredibly flawed. Not only does she claim the red fox to be the most widespread carnivore, which is incorrect since that would be the domestic dog and cat (no matter whether you consider them part of their wild relatives of not) but despite saying how adaptable red foxes are she has very absolutist statements about them: they don't like being touched, are solitary animals and possibly shying away from people and urban centers. To which I say: This is in the center of Berlin (behind it is the Korean cultural center of the South Korean embassy and the Canadian embassy is on the other side of the street) and I can guarantee you I saw several myself, even ones with a rabbit in its mouth like here, one is practically living next door and is so tame that I could photograph it from less than 1 m away. Well when it was sitting on a wall, when on the ground it keeps a distance of about 3 meters when it has no cover, like bushes. Not to mention that one passage of hers seems to suggest that she considered it possible that a London fox had caused a small combustion. Also she states that unlike in western imagination the fox in Japanese is canny and sly, but also cautious and intelligent, uncanny and eerie, but also sacred and beyond rational knowledge. Apart from sacred and beyond rational knowledge, isn't this how they are perceived in the western world as well? This looks as if she does slightly excoticize Japanese beliefs after all or makes a distinction that is not there. So, I am not saying the book is bad, but in some areas it has some serious flaws, especially in the author's own basis assumptions and so I think several of her conclusions are wrong. It doesn't make it a bad book, just one with flaws that the author should not have made and that should be kept in mind when reading it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    While this book is targeted at more academic readers, I found it to be fascinating and highly relevant to my research. Smyers explores the nature of Inari within Japanese culture: how Inari is regarded in different ways by specific temples of Buddhism, Shintoism, and by different approaches of shamanism; how Inari is depicted as male or female, old or young, and as foxes as literal or as messengers; how and why Inari is worshiped as a figurehead of rice, money, fertility, and many other needs; t While this book is targeted at more academic readers, I found it to be fascinating and highly relevant to my research. Smyers explores the nature of Inari within Japanese culture: how Inari is regarded in different ways by specific temples of Buddhism, Shintoism, and by different approaches of shamanism; how Inari is depicted as male or female, old or young, and as foxes as literal or as messengers; how and why Inari is worshiped as a figurehead of rice, money, fertility, and many other needs; the symbolism of Inari's jewel, etc. In particular, I was seeking details about kitsune as the spirit fox shown in mythology. Smyers cited some sources I had already read but also brought in new tidbits about dog sorcery as anti-fox and how foxes are integrated into Japanese culture. I made many notes so I can return to sections in the future The read is somewhat dry at times, especially at the start as it delves into the difference between temples, but I found it a quick read once it went into more mythological aspects about foxes and jewels. This was a book I had on my wish list for a long time because of the cost (about $30) and I am very glad I bought it and will keep it as a reference source. If you have any interest in Japanese mythology, Inari, and kitsune, I highly recommend it.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    One of my most favourite non fiction books. Incredibly informative and a must read for anyone interested in shinto or for establishing a relationship with Inari Okami-Sama. I wish there were more books on the subject. Absolutely brilliant.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Indra

    Fascinating read! I've been looking for academic sources of Shinto studies for a while. This study is obviously limited to Inari worship, but the referenced works are extensive and many seem interesting as well. Interesting insights into the methods of an anthropologist in Japan as well. Fascinating read! I've been looking for academic sources of Shinto studies for a while. This study is obviously limited to Inari worship, but the referenced works are extensive and many seem interesting as well. Interesting insights into the methods of an anthropologist in Japan as well.

  5. 5 out of 5

    machinaheart

    I enjoyed reading about the very interesting topic of Inari worship in Japan. Karen Smyers emphasises the diversity of a seemingly unified phenomenon in a very interesting manner. She mixes historical facts, legends, folklore and literature with her own experiences and anecdotes she was told during her field research. This mixture is makes the book an enjoyable read :) [A big plus is that Smyers included explanations features of Japanese religiosity that differ from the notions most Westerners en I enjoyed reading about the very interesting topic of Inari worship in Japan. Karen Smyers emphasises the diversity of a seemingly unified phenomenon in a very interesting manner. She mixes historical facts, legends, folklore and literature with her own experiences and anecdotes she was told during her field research. This mixture is makes the book an enjoyable read :) [A big plus is that Smyers included explanations features of Japanese religiosity that differ from the notions most Westerners entertain about religion.]

  6. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Not only is this a great study of the many varying forms and traditions of modern Inari worship and its history, but its also a great book on fox folklore in Japan. Easily readable, and very informative.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ivan

    Gives a detailed account on differences and peculiarities of an omnipresent worship and most amalgamated figure in Japanese kami pantheon - the Inari.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Rift Vegan

    This is an academic book, but it is such an interesting joy to read!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alicia

    Excellent resource! Well-researched introduction to the deity and his/her symbols.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Huligan

  11. 5 out of 5

    Claudia Spotti

  12. 4 out of 5

    Frankie X

  13. 4 out of 5

    Brandy

  14. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Mitchell

  16. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

  17. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jared Eastman

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rodrigo

  20. 4 out of 5

    Chandra

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sharlene Townsend

  22. 5 out of 5

    Simone

  23. 5 out of 5

    Phoenix Noah

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Jacub Wilkin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Aobozu

  26. 5 out of 5

    Matthew O'Connell

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maren

  28. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  29. 5 out of 5

    alex

  30. 5 out of 5

    Maggie

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