This course will examine the major religious traditions of Japan (Shinto, Buddhism and the so-called “New Religions”) with a particular focus on the harmonious co-existence of religious diversity from the ancient past to the contemporary period.

The breakdown of grades for the course is as follows:

10% Class Participation
60% Shinema Rebyuu: Best 3 of 4 “Cinema Review” Essays (3x20%)
20% Temple Visit Paper
10% Contemplative Event Paper

You final grade will ultimately depend on my assessment of your performance in each of the above areas, though the following descriptions should provide you with a rough idea of the defining characteristics of students within particular grade ranges:

APossesses a deep understanding of the major concepts and themes of the course. The “A” student is able to consistently identify and explain key ideas in the readings, develop genuine insights into the broader significance of these concepts, and demonstrate a high level of intellectual engagement in class discussions.
BDemonstrates a serious commitment to the course and a strong grasp of the major concepts and themes but with less depth and/or consistency than the “A” student.
CDemonstrates a reasonable effort to attend class and participate in discussions as well as a basic grasp of the course material.
DDemonstrates a minimal commitment to the course and a weak grasp of basic concepts and themes.
FFails to demonstrate an acceptable degree of effort in the course through low attendance, inability to discuss basic concepts and themes, missed assignments and/or plagiarized work.
Class Participation
The Class Participation mark will be based on your ability to demonstrate that you have made a sincere attempt to read and understand the assigned material. Although the quality of your comments will obviously be taken into consideration, all attempts to seriously engage the readings — from sharing your perspective on the material to simply asking a relevant question — will enhance your grade.

Writing Assignments
All written work should include appropriate references to academic/peer-reviewed sources using either MLA (brackets with author and page number) or Chicago Style (footnotes). Papers should be submitted online at Blackboard/Assignments by the specified due date, after which your grade will go down by one degree (e.g. B+ to B) for each day that the paper is late. Essays that contain significant instances of plagiarism will receive a 0 and be reported to the Office of Academic Affairs. All submitted work may be used for program assessment (with names removed).
Shinema Rebyuu (Cinema Review)
There is a writing assignment associated with each of the four movies that we will be watching over the course of the semester, though you will only be required to submit papers for three of them (I’ll drop the lowest grade if you turn in all four).

1. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
This 2001 masterpiece by director MIYAZAKI Hayao (which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and is the highest grossing film in Japanese history) follows the exploits of a ten-year-old girl who is “spirited away” (
kamikakushi) to the realm of the kami where she faces a variety of challenges before successfully saving her parents and returning to the human realm. For this Shinema Rebyuu you will explore the relationship between the human and kami realms. Some of the questions you may wish to consider include:
  • What is the relationship between humans and kami?
  • How do issues of “purity” affect this relationship?
  • What is the ideal relationship bewtween the two realms?
  • Can humans bridge the gap between the two realms ... and if so, how?
  • Does the film promote Shinto beliefs or should it be regarded as a work of fantasty? Or is this a question that only a gaijin (non-Japanese) would ask (i.e. the question and/or answer is inappropriate and/or irrelevant)?
Your paper should be at least 1500 words and must cite a minimum of four academic/peer-reviewed sources, including two that were assigned for the film and two that focus on Japanese religion (such as the required texts for the course).

2. Onmyoji II
One of the most constant themes in Japanese religious history has been the continuing emergence of dynamic, charismatically powerful and even apparently miracle-working religious figures … (Reader. 109)
At a deeper level, the current popularity of onmyoji creatures and characters may well reveal latent Japanese interests in religion and the supernatural that reflect in turn people’s existential anxieties about contemporary life and also their curiosity and interest in some form of afterlife. (Reider, Abstract).
YUMEMAKURA Baku’s Onmyoji is an extremely popular series in Japan, including novels, manga, tv shows and movies. The protagonist, Abe no Seimei, is in fact the most celebrated onmyoji in Japanese history, though Yumemakura breathes new life into his character by reimagining him (and the Heian period in general) for a modern audience. But have fictionalized narratives about religious figures like Abe no Seimei replaced people’s actual engagement with religious practice? Or do they open up new pathways to help contemporary Japanese connect with their religious heritage? For this Shinema Rebyuu you will explore the significance of the film Onmyoji II with regard to contemporary Japanese religion. Some of the questions you may wish to consider include:
  • How does Yumemakura breathe new life into the character of Abe noSeimei?
  • How does the film portray oni (goblins/demons)? Is this portrayal traditional, modern ... or both?
  • How does the film utilize the mythology of the Kojiki and Nihonshoki?
  • What does the film tell us about religion in the Heian era? How does the ancient tradition relate to contemporary religious practices?
  • Is there a religious dimension to Yumemakura’s Onmyoji or is it just a story? How does this compare with the way Japanese people engage with Miyazaki’s films, such as Spirited Away? How does it compare with the way Westerns engage with stories like Harry Potter?
  • Are Japanese religious practices “religious” or “cultural” ... or both?
Your paper should be at least 1500 words and must cite a minimum of four academic/peer-reviewed sources, including two that were assigned for the film and two that focus on Japanese religion (such as the required texts for the course).

3. The Great Yokai War (Yokai Daisenso)
The underlying theme of the movie focuses on “a fiery spirit called Yomotsumono: a creature composed of the resentment carried by the multitudinous things mankind has discarded” (Wikipedia/The Great Yokai War). While it may be difficult for Westerners to imagine inanimate objects resenting those who discarded them, this is not so uncommon in Japan, where “rites of separation are performed not only for human beings and animals, but also for inanimate objects” (Mortuary Rites for Inanimate Objects). For this Shinema Rebyuu you will explore the religious significance of abandoned objects in The Great Yokai War. Some of the questions you may wish to consider include:
  • Why do Japanese people have mortuary rites (kuyo 供養) for inanimate objects?
  • How is it even possible for inanimate objects to become yokai?
  • What is the relationship bertween kami and yokai ... and how does this help to explain why the yokai in the film feel abandoned? Hint: Michael Dylan Foster notes that “the line between demon and deity is a fuzzy one” (Yokai) and Komatsu Kazuhiko further suggests that “yokai are ‘unworshipped’ kami and kami are ‘worshipped’ yokai” (The Book of Yokai, 21).
  • What does the film’s emphasis on the “abandoned objects” theme suggest about “modernity”? Do you see similar critiques in Miyazaki films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke? How might the Japanese audience be expected to respond to such social critiques?
  • It seems unlikely that the average viewer (Japanese or otherwise) would literally believe in the existence of the yokai depicted in the film, but is this type of “belief” required for the film to convey a “religious” message? If a “religious” message is possible, what might that message be?
Your paper should be at least 1500 words and must cite a minimum of four academic/peer-reviewed sources, including two that were assigned for the film and two that focus on Japanese religion (such as the required texts for the course).

4. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
DOGEN Zenji (1200-1253), founder of the Soto school of Zen, establishes the close relationship between Zen and cooking in his Instructions for the Tenzo, which begins with the following words:
Zen monasteries have traditionally had six officers who are all Buddha’s disciples and all share buddha activities. Among them, the tenzo is responsible for preparing meals for the monks…. Since ancient times this position has been held by accomplished monks who have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment. This is so because the position required wholehearted practice. Those without way-seeking mind will not have good results, in spite of their efforts. (Tricycle)
ONO Jiro, owner of a 10-seat Michelin three-star restaurant located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station, is not a tenzo, but his daily routine (apart from the non-vegetarian nature of his cooking) bears a striking resemblance to the meditative attention to detail described by Dogen. For this Shinema Rebyuu you will explore the “wordless” nature of Zen practice, which is to say that Zen is ultimately concerned with focusing on the present moment and not with conceptual ideas, religious or otherwise. Some of the questions you may wish to consider include:
  • Why is the tenzo such a revered figure in the Zen tradition?
  • What is the connection between cooking and the martial arts?
  • Can a man who has no formal Zen training be a Zen master?
  • Can someone with no formal religious affiliation or explicit religious beliefs be engaged in religious practice? If so, how does this help us understand Japanese religiosity?
Your paper should be at least 1500 words and must cite a minimum of four academic/peer-reviewed sources, including two that were assigned for the film and two that focus on Japanese religion (such as the required texts for the course).

Temple Visit Paper: Due Friday, February 28
In order to help you gain a deeper perspective on the practice of Japanese religion, we will attend a service at the Nichiren Temple in Bartlett (approximately 20 minutes from campus), tentatively scheduled for Sunday, February 23. (If you cannot attend this service or would like to attend a service at a different Japanese temple, let me know so that I can help you make alternate arrangements.) After the temple visit, you will write a 1500-word reflection on your experience and how it relates to the material that we’ve studied in the course. Your paper should include a general summary of the service as well as a detailed description of a specific ritual (or other element of the service) that you found particularly interesting. You should then explore the significance of your chosen ritual/element through references to at least four academic/peer-reviewed sources. Your conclusion should explain how the temple visit and additional research helped you develop a deeper understanding of Nichiren Buddhism and/or Japanese religious practice more generally.

Contemplative Event Paper: Due One Week After the Event
Each semester, the Department of Religious Studies hosts a number of “contemplative events,” each of which features a brief talk by an experienced practitioner of a particular tradition (religious or secular), followed by a meditative exercise and open discussion. During the semester, you will attend at least one of these events and then write a 750-word paper based on the experience. In addition to describing the event, your paper should explore the significance of the contemplative exercise with regard to one of the meditation traditions that we are studying in this course, such as the Buddha’s practice of mindfulness meditation, Tendai Buddhism’s “one-practice samadhi,” Pure Land Buddhism’s “nembutsu samadhi,” or Dogen Zenji’s shikantaza (just sitting). Since there is a Buddhist meditation taking place on March 10—just after we complete the section on Zen—this would be the ideal event to attend, though you may attend another event if this one is inconvenient. Although you may use “first person” to discuss your subjective experiences at the contemplative event, your exploration of a meditation tradition should follow the more formal conventions associated with academic writing, including references to at least two “academic/peer-reviewed” sources.

Required Texts

  • de Bary, Wm. Theodore, et al. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Second Edition, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • Ellwood, Robert. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Kasulis, Thomas P. Shinto: The Way Home. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.
  • Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.
  • Miyamoto Musashi. The Book of Five Rings: A Graphic Novel. Adapted by Sean Michael Wilson based on the translation by William Schott Wilson and illustrated by Chie Kutsuwada. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2012.

Office, Etc.
225 North Loomis Road, Room 23
3-5  ~  Wednesday: 4-5  ~  Thursday: 3-5  ~  Friday (Tea/Talk): 4-5
Phone: 630-637-5619
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