The Illustrious Central Pillar of the Japanese World

By Nold Egenter

- Abstract -

The original Title was:

The phenomenon of 'sacred space' in Japan. Some notes in the framework of cultural anthropology.

Space - like time - is not only a basic category of human existence it is deeply interwoven with human world-views and plays an essential role in most scientific disciplines. In his two volumes >Space - History of its Problems in [European] Philosophy and the Sciences< Gosztonyi (1976) compiles two thousand years of discussions essentially dominated by the fascinosum of the larger spaces in the context of philosophy, particularly metaphysics, and religion, later mathematics, physics and astronomy. In contrary to this long process, questioning space the other way round, starting from the human experience, is a very modern development (phenomenology of space).

In this context, O. F. Bollnow's book 'Mensch und Raum' (>Man and Space<, 1963) is probably one of the most outstanding achievements of European philosophy of the second half of this century, in fact a phenomenologically structured 'anthropology of space'. Bollnow's basic thesis is: The human perception and conception of space represents a cultural evolution. In particular: 1) Space conception was originally closely related to the human settlement (Germ. 'Raum': from 'rŠumen', i.e. clearing part of the wild for dwelling). 2) Extended macrocosmic spaces are a late discovery (Europe: 14th century). 3) Space in the anthropological context is not homogenous but is perceived in polar categorial relations. 4) Polar spatial concepts are related to tectonically marked 'fixpoints' 5) Built form is considered as a semantic orientation system in the human experience of space. In this latter sense Bollnow outlines also an anthropology of built form or architecture. Many sources in the Euro-Mediterranean tradition speak in favour of Bollnow (cartography, etymology of 'cosmos' [see cosmetics]). Earliest Babylonian creation myths reveal their character as settlement foundations. Thus Bollnow implies not only a potential of 'implosion' in the humanities (similar to ecology in the natural sciences), he also suggests inductive methods into intensified settlement research.

Earlier Japanology was dominated by strictly historical approaches and often projected Eurocentric disciplinary outlooks on Japanese culture. New horizons were opened by cultural anthropological approaches. Japan's unique cultural geography was realised. Its island position, its relatively late entrance into history, factors like the absence of colonisation and substantial christianisation, allowed it to preserve a wealth of rural traditions that are, in addition, extremely well documented in Japanese folklore studies.

Essentially based on these materials this study deals ethno-historically with the phenomenon of >sacred space in Japan<. Following largely Harada's (1942, 1960) 'territorial' views of the early agrarian village (nameless ujigami/ historical deities; matsuri / sairei), it classifies Shinto into two distinct layers, a traditionally local and a centralised historical Shinto. Following Bollnow, it theoretically isolates the settlement and its sacred space from the conventional, metaphysical concept of religion, defines 'sacred' as highest emic value, surveys cult places (shrines) as 'sacred topography' and takes cultic behavior (not 'belief') as expression of highest local values. Focussing thus on a particular type of ujigami-cult still widespread in village Shinto, characterised by temporary fibroconstructive signs as 'seats of gods' (yorishiro) found in close relation to the ujigami-shrines, it reconstructs these semantic buildings as originally perennial prototypes of the wooden shrines. In this way a toposemantic continuum is uncovered which evidently has its origins in the foundation of prehistorical agrarian settlements. The detailed morphological survey of such 'fibroconstructive' cultmarkers in 100 villages in addition shows that these objects express aesthetic qualities, are the nucleus of a complex cognitive system (ontology of polar harmony) and offer a wealth of symbolic expression. In the age old dialogue with the environment, they accumulated high emic values (emic ontology).

A report of the Hitachi-Fudoki historically documents the assumption that such cult-signs played an important role at the foundation of a settlement, initiating a toposemantic complex which implies polar spatial layout of village, social hierarchy (founderline: its representative is local priest and chief), ritual structure (continuity of ujigami-cult by uji-ko) and essential content of rites ('matsuri' as initial institution and cyclic renewal of sign system). There was a vital interest to preserve the perishable document of the settlement foundation, which initially attributed the land to the founder line and its siblings (ujiko). Territorial and political power is implied in nuce.

Prototypes of wooden shrines play also an important role in three exemplaric historical shrines (Kasuga/Nara, Kamo/Kyoto, Naigž/Ise). This suggests that this toposemantic complex was in fact a general stratum, evidently prehistorical, purely traditional, a local constitution, which, by its general diffusion, had its formative impacts on early history in Japan.

Finally, Bollnow's fundamental thesis finds strong support. An autonomous evolutionary nucleus of agrarian culture appears closely interwoven with a vital and existential interest: the spatial safeguard of isolated early settlements. Since many characteristics found in this nucleus are important traits of Japanese history, we might have found a new approach to describe the origins of its culture from its agrarian prehistory.

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