Ofuda: The Material Culture of Japanese Religious Practice
Gaynor Sekimori, SOAS
In raising the topic of “ofuda”, printed religious images for popular consumption, I am deliberately stretching the boundaries of “Japanese arts” in order to stress the importance of a broad understanding of Edo period visual images outside the usual criteria of art historians and to make a plea for such visual media to be taken seriously as a means both to cast light on Edo period popular religious culture (in terms of their role in a particular context of time and place) and to provide direct confirmation of the iconographical changes that transformed the religious worlds of Japan following the policy to “clarify” Buddhism and Shinto after 1868. Thus I will consider the concept of passage as well, as modes of decipherment moved into the new socio-political worlds of the Bakumatsu and Restoration eras.
I would like to take this opportunity to introduce as the primary reference material a collection of around 350 pictorial “ofuda” pasted into five folding albums now in the collection of the British library, that I identified and catalogued in 2012. The books came into the BL’s possession from the British Museum, which purchased these “Japanese documents” for ten guineas from the Egypt Exploration Fund in May 1894. Who made the collection, or when, is unknown. However, as I will confirm, internal evidence based on iconography and inscription dates the collection in the main to the late Edo period. I will analyse the provenance and subjects of the “ofuda” and show how they can be used, in conjunction with literary sources such as Saitō Gesshin’s works and artistic sources such as Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Views of Edo”, to illustrate the thriving popular religious culture of the mid-nineteenth century. I will conclude by comparing certain items with their post-Meiji equivalents to show how such material can be used to demonstrate the consequences of the shinbutsu bunri policy.