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In Japan, a country popularly perceived as highly secularized and technologically advanced, ontological assumptions about spirits (tama or tamashii) seem to be quite deeply...

In Japan, a country popularly perceived as highly secularized and technologically advanced, ontological assumptions about spirits (tama or tamashii) seem to be quite deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric. From ancestor cults to anime, spirits, ghosts, and other invisible dimensions of reality appear to be pervasive. In Spirits and Animism in Contemporary Japan (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), international scholars from various backgrounds consider together this “invisible empire” and highlight the “agency of the intangible.”

The contributors of this edited volume approach spirits and animism in contemporary Japan from diverse perspectives. Satō Hiroo opens the book with a chapter on the transformation in Japanese visions of the afterlife, the status of the dead, and regional traditions of memorialization. Andrea De Antoni looks further into the ontology of spirits via an investigation into recent cases of spirit possession (tsuki, hyōi) that is treated at the Kenmi Shrine in Shikoku.

Jason Josephson-Storm traces both the European and Japanese genealogies of theorizing “primitive” civilizations and their beliefs in spirits, magic, and an animated nature. In Fabio Rambelli’s chapter, a unique type of epistemological system for understanding the existence of spirits is introduced: Minataka Kumagusu’s “Minakata mandala,” which involves Buddhist philosophy, Western science, and an awareness of the Japanese folk tradition all at the same time.

In Ellen Van Goethem’s chapter, she explores how and why there were widespread assumptions about how the city of Kyoto was animated by invisible agencies such as guardian spirits and the flow of qi (Jp. Ki). Carina Roth continues the discussion on enchanted landscapes by drawing our attention to “power spots” (pawā supotto) and “healing” forests as recent developments in contemporary Japanese religiosity.

Focusing on the role of media in the public perceptions of new religious movements (NRMs) and their animistic positions, Ioannis Gaitanidis shows how the media paradoxically both helps to normalize animism as part of “traditional” Japanese culture while chastising animistic NRM’s egregious behaviors. Concerning spirits in modern Japanese fiction, another type of powerful media in contemporary Japanese society, Rebecca Suter identifies in her chapter a “fantastic hesitation” that authors take on, which opens doors to the “undecidability of reality” that seems to be a main gateway to the spirit world. Centering on the media arts scene in Japan, Mauro Arrighi in his chapter highlights how animism serves as one of the main creative sources for contemporary artists. Then, Jolyon Thomas turns our focus to anime and their depictions of humanity’s connection with nature. In doing so, he invites us to reflect on the term “animism” and how the spirits of anime are really rooted in late capitalist modernity with its attendant pleasures and woes. In the closing chapter, Andrea Castiglioni points out a growing tendency in recent Japanese films to focus on violent spirit entities (araburugami), rather than benign figures. He argues that this perhaps is related to the emergence of a new kind of national identity for Japan as a country that is uniquely able to control the unpredictability of nature and malignant invisible agencies.

In this podcast episode, I spoke with the editor of this edited volume, Dr. Fabio Rambelli.

Fabio Rambelli is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Daigengna Duoer is a PhD student at the Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation researches on transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.