‘The Fox and the Jewel’ by Karen A. Smyers US: Univ. of Hawaii, 1999 271 pages, medium size. ISBN 0-8248-2102-5
The book is subtitled ‘shared and private meanings in contemporary Japanese Inari worship’, though in a sense the book is more a study of two Inari centres: Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, and Toyokawa Inari in Aichi prefecture. The former is a well-known Shinto shrine, the latter a Soto Zen temple. The author is an anthropologist who has written on various aspects of Japanese religion, and here she explores in detailed but accessible manner various aspects of Inari. Together with Hachiman and Tenjin, the deity is among the most popular of kami and closely associated with rice and business success. Sometimes pictured as a young woman and sometimes as an old man, Inari is accompanied by foxes who act as the deity’s messengers. Worship bridges Shinto and Buddhist traditions in the form of Dakiniten, and Smyers unpacks aspects of the cult in systematic manner. She provides a history and examination of the origins, as well as investigative probes into the priestly structures at the shrine and temple. She also spends much time investigating why the places are so popular for pilgrimage and what kind of activities are carried out. There are several case studies drawn from lay worship groups, and distinction is drawn between the male priestly rituals and informal female shamans who draw on direct experience. Though they coexist, there is also friction between them.
Two of the chapters deal with the titular attributes, the fox and the jewel. The fox is rich in folklore, and the author speculates about the liminal nature of the creature, moving in and out of the darkness as if between worlds. Different people see different facets in the fox, and from China came a strong association with sorcery. Traditionally fox possession was seen as resulting in severe illness. The statues of foxes that stand before Inari shrines invariably have a wishing-jewel, which can facilitate the fruition of potential and may also be related to the creature’s shape-shifting. There is much too in these chapters of the phallic and sexual implications, with the yin-yang interaction energising the fertility fostered by the deity.
One of the most interesting sections for those like myself familiar with Fushimi Inari was that about the ‘otsuka’ or rock altars. These were a spontaneous development at the end of the Edo period which was originally opposed by priests. There are now some 10,000 of these rock altars, which are inscribed with individualised names of deities covering a wide range. And this plurality and flexibility is what emerges most clearly at the end of the book, for Inari worship more than most consists of personal response and individual imagination. As the author herself concludes, ‘The deity Inari has a number of forms, variable gender, and a variety of specialities that have changed as Japanese society has developed… Because there is no central myth, dogma, or scripture that accompanies the symbols, there is no fixed orthodoxy governing them. Their significance is not tied to a set of verbal meanings’.