Buddhist pilgrimage inventions, promotions and exhibitions in contemporary Japan

To start I will outline examples of  four recent Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage events from 2007-8 that are representative of key themes related to Buddhism today in Japan. I will then discuss how these seemingly separate examples are connected, and what they tell us about the issues facing Japanese Buddhism today.

Four pilgrimage innovations

My first example is that in August 2008 three prominent regional Buddhist pilgrimages - Sasaguri, Chita Hantō and Shōdoshima, all of which are shorter models of  the famed Shikoku pilgrimage and have 88 sites - put on an exhibition of their pilgrimages in the shopping mall of Centrair international airport near Nagoya. These pilgrimages have been losing support in recent times and the event was designed to publicise the pilgrimage and attract new visitors. The exhibition involved statues and sachets of soil from each site lined up to make miniature replications of the pilgrimages, while priests performed rituals to encourage visitors who ‘walked’ the pilgrimage to visit the real sites.

The second example relates to a series of  promotional events by the Saikoku Reijōkai (the pilgrimage temples association of the 33 Saikoku pilgrimage temples) in 2008. These included a PR campaign with Japan Rail (in which they offered special tickets and souvenirs to get people to use JR trains to do the pilgrimage), and a kaichō event from September 2008 until May 2010 in which normally hidden icons (some that had not been seen for over a century) at the temples were publicly displayed as a way to attract pilgrims. This latter event (a widely used Buddhist practice) was accompanied by several exhibitions of Saikoku art treasures at various museums, that were sponsored by the temples and by national media organisations.

The third example is the 2008 founding of a new pilgrimage - the Juzu Junrei ‘Rosary Pilgrimage’ - around Kyoto. At each temple the pilgrims purchase a bead embossed with that temple’s name, and by visiting all the temples one can collect sets of beads to be made into rosaries and bracelets  according to one’s wishes.

The fourth was the campaign by the Shikoku Reijōkai (the association of the 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage), in conjunction with regional government and tourist offices and various local commercial interests, to get the Shikoku pilgrimage nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. The application for nomination was submitted by the temples and regional agencies in Shikoku in December 2007 and is part of an extended campaign - including exhibitions and much else - designed by the temples to heighten the image and further popularise what is now Japan’s best-known pilgrimage.

Common themes of decline and fear

Underlying all these cases are the fears Buddhist temples have of decline- a theme I have discussed before in Oslo. The three pilgrimages featured  in the Centrair mall event have all suffered greatly from falling pilgrim numbers (reasons why will be discussed in the lecture) and priests are fearful that their temples, reliant on pilgrims for their long-term viability, will disappear unless steps are taken. The same concerns now are faced by the Saikoku temples - the most popular Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan until the 1980s but now eclipsed by Shikoku, whose astute promotional campaigns have made it the main pilgrimage of choice for urban Japanese in the past two decades. Saikoku pilgrim numbers have fallen sharply and the temples’ engagement with the promotional activities mentioned above is a response to this.

The invention of the new pilgrimage (not the only one so invented  in 2008) was a response by other temples in the same region to concerns about falling support levels. The Shikoku case on the surface appears different in that this is a currently successful well-known pilgrimage that gets plenty of publicity and is often featured in the mass media. Yet priests in Shikoku are aware of the broader trends of decline facing Buddhist temples and pilgrimages, and concerned that their current pre-eminent position could (like that of Saikoku) be eroded in future. Thus they are  attempting to capitalise now on their position of [prominence and - aware that acquiring UNESCO World Heritage status has boosted the popularity and international profile of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Spain - have sought to copy that pilgrimage by seeking similar status as a strategy to ensure their longer-term future.

Traditional strategies or something new?

Japanese Buddhist temples have long used pilgrimage as a means of popularising themselves and attracting visitors. Stories of how temples in earlier ages revived themselves by creating miracle tales and setting up pilgrimages are common. Likewise kaichō displays of normally hidden icons are a long-standing strategy that have been used for centuries by temples to raise funds for rebuilding and to encourage pilgrims. Linked to this are the practice (degaichō) of putting on displays of temple statuary and setting up replica models of pilgrimage routes elsewhere as a means of promoting temples and pilgrimages. These displays commonly took place in major cities and usually until modern times at particular temples within them, such as the temple Ekōin in Edo (Tokyo), commonly the setting for such displays put on by regional and distant temples in the Tokugawa period. In recent times such events have continued but often in more ‘secular’ locations such as department stores and now, as with the above example, even in airport malls. The idea is to ‘take the pilgrimage’ to where people gather in order to entice them to go to the pilgrimage sites.

Yet while I discuss how the events described earlier have their roots in traditional promotional strategies used by Buddhist temples over the centuries. I also ask whether the recent promotional  events represent something more radical that indicates an increasing secularisation and transformation of temples and pilgrimages. The confluence of so many events aimed at promoting different pilgrimages and temples is not just an indication of increasing competition in Japan for decreasing pilgrimage markets (a knock-on effect of the success of Shikoku has, as many priests have told me, been a fall in pilgrim numbers on other routes), but evidence of an increasing need to conduct promotional activities on an increasingly intense scale. Kaichō events have, for example, been used for centuries but the traditional notion of a hidden icon is that it should only be displayed at set and often very extended intervals.

The Saikoku kaichō  of 2008 broke this pattern for many of its temples (just as did a similar kaichō event also in 2008 by the Chichibu pilgrimage temples) by changing the preordained space between public displays. Done because of the necessity to stem falling numbers, this raises the question of whether, in a few years time, another such event might be necessary - and whether the supposed power of  hidden icons might be diminished as they are increasingly opened to the public. In other words, beliefs and notions that underpin the concepts of power that are intrinsic to the notion of pilgrimages, might be undermined because of the need of temples to publicise those very pilgrimages. Similarly, I will raise the question of whether using consumerist marketing notions (such as the new pilgrimage’s emphasis on how, through doing the pilgrimage pilgrims can acquire commodities such as bracelets, or the souvenirs offered to those who engage in the Saikoku-Japan Rail cooperative pilgrimage promotion) represents an increasing tendency towards the commodification and secularisation of pilgrimage - a theme that also emerges in my examination of the case of Shikoku and its campaign to acquire Heritage status.

Legal secularism

What is striking about this later case is that it has involved a substantial degree of cooperation between the temples and secular agencies. As I will discuss, this pattern of engagement has been an important factor in Shikoku’s rise to prominence as Japan’s leading pilgrimage (a rise aided by various positive documentaries about the pilgrimage produced (in cooperation with the temples) by media agencies such as NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. The ‘heritage campaign’ takes this cooperation to a new level, and in so doing appears to eradicate many of the elements (religion, faith, concepts of miracle) that had traditionally been associated with the pilgrimage. The need to avoid speaking of ‘religion’ is essential for the regional government agencies involved in the campaign (because Japanese law prevents secular state agencies promoting ‘religion’) - yet these agencies also want to encourage visitors to and promote tourism in Shikoku as a means of trying to help its declining economy.

World Heritage status is seen as a way of doing this - a point recognised by the temples. The result has been that an application for such status that has been submitted by secular government authorities in Shikoku in conjunction with the temples - an application and statement of the pilgrimage’s nature and ambiance that largely evades mention of faith, religion and other such issues but instead represents the pilgrimage as a cultural phenomenon and as a manifestation of island culture and tradition dissociated from issues of faith.

The heritage campaign has been accompanied by a series of measures (including the removal of old symbols of miraculous cures and the banning of the  traditional pilgrimage practice of begging at the temples) that suggest that the temples are cooperating with this re-imaging of the pilgrimage and are trying to reorient the pilgrimage away from its earlier dynamics while seeking to make it conform to the contours and images desired by the tourist and  heritage industry. This, I suggest, is leading to a sanitisation and transformation of the pilgrimage into a heritage-oriented tourist and consumer event.

New dynamic or commodified spectacle?

By examining the cases together as representative of major patterns in Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage today I want to raise a number of questions about whether these  represent a new dynamic within Buddhism in which a much-used strategic tool- pilgrimage- is being called on yet again to help revitalize a fading tradition and struggling temples. Or do they represent something more  radical, such as an erosion of the religious orientations of pilgrimage,  and its transformation into little more than a public commodified spectacle, an exhibition, a heritage tour and a museum piece?

My view is that this latter pattern (heritage and commodification) is what is going on, and that this is not something just associated with Japan so much as it is a recurrent trajectory within pilgrimages  in general. In Japan, I would suggest, this process is another sign of Buddhism’s problems, while the cultural transformation of pilgrimage evident in the events, exhibitions and heritage campaigns mentioned here, suggests that strategies for reviving and popularizing Buddhism are simultaneously processes potentially liable to weaken the tradition,   detach it further from its bases in faith and religious engagement, and make it more and more into a form  of heritage and cultural history exhibit.   


Ian Reader is Professor of Japanese Studies at Manchester University

By Ian Reader
Published Feb. 21, 2012 10:58 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:47 PM