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A Mountain Set Apart: Female Exclusion, Buddhism, and Tradition at Modern Ōminesan, Japan

  • Author(s): DEWITT, LINDSEY E.
  • Advisor(s): Bodiford, William M
  • et al.

Religious tradition has long dictated the exclusion of women from Sanjōgatake, a sacred peak in the Ōminesan 大峰山 range, southern Nara 奈良Prefecture. Today, Ōminesan is a place where activities ranging from tourism to religious austerities all recognize, implicitly or explicitly, a “1300-year-old tradition” of female exclusion (nyonin kinsei 女人禁制, nyonin kekkai 女人結界) from the mountain. At the heart of this study is a constructed tradition—a narrative body of beliefs and practices that often belie or confuse historical and practical substantiation—and the people whose lives interact with that tradition in modern times.

The dissertation features what may be understood as the “afterlives” of ancient histories and legends in the modern life of the mountain’s religious practitioners, residents, and patrons. It examines a diverse range of factors as windows to understanding how the tradition of female exclusion is deployed, challenged, and circumvented. These factors include law and female exclusion (the Meiji government’s legal abolishment of female exclusion in 1872), the process of conferring National Park (1936) and UNESCO World Heritage (2004) status on the peak and its effects, local religious and community management of the peak, individual and collective attempts to contest the ban, precepts and present-day religious practice, and economic and cultural benefits to the region.

The first half of the study scrutinizes different aspects of female exclusion at Sanjōgatake through investigations into boundary lines, state ideologies and goals, cultural imagination (and thus, “imaginings”), and the institutional and administrative configurations that distinguish it specifically as a sacred site off-limits to women. Shifting focus outside the widely accepted dichotomy of male inclusion and female exclusion, the second half of the study considers challenges to the ban by both men and women and explores alternative religious practices, lifestyles, and economies—new realities engendered by exclusion.

Previous studies that mention female exclusion highlight its underlying symbolics and traditional literary accounts within an imaginary and yet self-replicating culture of barring women from certain “traditional” practices and sites. This study grounds such exclusion and its afterlives in a specific place, at specific times, and as affected by specific actors. By evaluating strategies surrounding exclusion and inclusion, highlighting how historical tensions play out, and emphasizing context and agency, I am able to elucidate local epistemologies that produce and maintain a socio-religious environment defined by gender. In doing so, I hope to offer a unique contribution to the study of Japanese religions and a new methodology for understanding the complex relationships between gender and sacred space in Japan.

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