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MC3.1 Economies of the Sacred

Economies of the Sacred: Merging Esoteric Buddhism and Kami Worship in Medieval Japan

Coordination: Anna Andreeva


Uhō Dōji (Amaterasu), with the Dragon King and Buddhist monk. Hanging scroll (kakejiku). Private collection.

Uhō Dōji (Amaterasu), with the Dragon King and Buddhist monk. Hanging scroll (kakejiku). Private collection.

(Project duration: July 2013–June 2016)

The glorification of Shinto as Japan’s state religion in the first half of the 20th century led to the emergence of a master narrative describing Japan’s cultural and religious identity as based on homogeneous, unbroken, and monolithic native tradition of worship. However, transcultural processes, especially those facilitated by Buddhism, have played a major role in the formation of constantly shifting dynamics that made up and operated within the religious milieu of pre-1900 Japan. Seen in this light, the Buddhist concepts, institutions, practices, ritual formats, deities, and doctrines that traversed diverse cultural and historical contexts in India, China, and Korea before they reached Japan, appear as vital and dynamic. This is particularly obvious in the case of medieval period, roughly between the late 12th to 16th centuries. Some of the religious configurations that emerged during that time lasted until 1868, when the sweeping policies of the Meiji Restoration forcibly separated the syncretic worship of Buddhas and Japanese deities (kami).

This project is based on an investigation of previously overlooked Buddhist manuscripts and other historical materials. It challenges the 20th-century master narrative by studying how and why groups of non-elite religious practitioners affiliated with different cultic sites, religious facilities, or political factions created the heterogeneous economic, symbolic, and ritual systems that operated successfully according to their own needs. In particular, this project concentrates on the interaction between the transcultural forces represented by the dynamic and culturally unstable texture of esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism, the worship of Japanese deities, mountain religion, and other forms of religiosity.

Most of recent academic scholarship in this field has focused on the cultic sites and sacred areas located in central and eastern parts of Japan’s main island, Honshū. While making its own contribution to this already established trend (see Andreeva’s forthcoming monograph and other publications), this project also aims to transcend it. As one of its research foci, MC 3.1 investigates the relationships between local divinities and buddhas that developed within the Ryūkyū Islands (modern Okinawa). During the medieval and early modern periods, this island polity was conceived as a center of social, political, and cultural networks, in which the maritime links with Korea, Japan, Taiwan, coastal China, and other ocean-based polities played prominent roles. In 2013, MC 3.1 established a new research collaboration in order to analyze the previously overlooked historical sources that cast light on the maritime dimensions of the religious economies in late medieval and early modern East Asia.


Project Results



The project results in several publications. Anna Andreeva’s monograph Assembling Shinto: Buddhist Approaches to Kami Worship in Medieval Japan is forthcoming from Harvard Asia Center Publications Program in 2016. She has also co-edited a volume Transforming the Void: Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions (with Dominic Steavu, USCB), published by Brill in 2015.

Together with Erica Couto-Ferreira and Susanne Töpfer (projects C1 and C14), Anna Andreeva has co-edited a special journal issue “Childbirth and Women’s Healthcare Across Cultures,” published by Dynamis in 2014 (see project C11). 

Currently, Anna Andreeva and the MC 3.1 project collaborator Dr. Chiara Ghidini (University of Napoli) work on an annotated translation and study of the early 17th century collection Ryūkyū Shintōki 琉球神道記 (Records of Ryūkyū Shinto, ca. 1603), written by a Japanese Buddhist monk Taichū Shōnin 袋中上人 (1552-1639). 


Research workshops and activities

February 2016

The Materiality of the Sacred in Medieval Japan and Europe: Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity

Joint conference, Heidelberg and Nagoya Universities, February 29 – March 2, 2016


August 2015

Panel “Defining Religious Minorities in a Global World”

MC 3.1 presents new results at the XXI World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) in Erfurt, August 2015.

Translation workshop “Ryukyu Shintoki II,” Heidelberg
With Dr. Chiara Ghidini (University of Naples)


May 2015

Workshop “Combinatory Religious Practices in Japanese History”
In collaboration with the Cluster project MC 07 “Political Legitimation” and Jōbodai’in Kaken group (Japan)


September 2014

Workshop “Reading Premodern Japanese Texts”

With Professor Kuramoto Kazuhiro (International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto). This three-day workshop was open to the postgraduate students and early career researchers in Japanese and East Asian Studies and attended by participants from Germany, Spain, UK, Italy, and US.

June 2014

Translation Workshop “Ryukyu Shintoki I”

With Dr. Chiara Ghidini (University of Naples) 

May 2014

Workshop “Transcultural talismans and the economies of the sacred”

Together with the Cluster project MC 10.1 “The Magic of Transculturality” and A03 “Materiality and Sigils Between Antiquity and the Middle Ages” (SFB 933, Material Text Cultures)

February 2014

Workshop “Dreams, Oracles, and Sacred Sites in Asia and Europe”

November 2012–June 2013

Anna Andreeva was awarded a visiting research fellowship at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichinbunken) in Kyoto. Before that, she has directed the Cluster research project C11 “Medicine and Religion in Premodern East Asia”.

Cooperation partner

Dr. Chiara Luna Ghidini (University of Naples)



Anna Andreeva

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