Fujiwara on Miura, 'Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan'

Takashi Miura
Gideon Fujiwara

Takashi Miura. Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawaii Press, 2019. vii + 235 pp. $68.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-8037-8.

Reviewed by Gideon Fujiwara Published on H-Japan (February, 2020) Commissioned by Jessica Starling (Lewis & Clark College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54531

In Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan, Takashi Miura presents a highly original examination of Japanese religious, political, and economic developments from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. He does so by using the fresh lens of yonaoshi gods as an alternative to conventional approaches framed predominantly around religious institutions, the Meiji Restoration, yonaoshi or “world renewal,” millenarianism, and class struggle.

Past scholarship, observes Miura, used yonaoshi “as a highly malleable historiographical category” to emphasize “subversive and antiauthoritarian qualities” of various events as a Marxist class struggle or quest for liberation (p. 7). Yonaoshi became a “blanket term” applied broadly to many movements, and scholars have not made a clear distinction between yonaoshi as a “native,” emic concept and a “scholarly,” etic category.

Miura defines yonaoshi gods as “superhuman entities whom historical actors venerated as divine agents of world renewal” (p. 8). He selects several cases from the late Tokugawa to early Meiji period to show that yonaoshi gods typically functioned to rectify economic problems specific to a certain locale and that, contrary to interpretations to date, they did not usher in “apocalyptic, millenarian transformation of the world” (p. 9). Miura argues it was not until later in the Meiji period that messages of world renewal were expressed in bolder terms via yonaoshi gods. Miura offers a persuasive argument that adds conceptual clarity to our understandings of key subjects such as yonaoshi, world renewal, millenariansim, activism, and gods and deifications from late eighteenth- to early twentieth-century Japan.  

In chapter 1, Miura outlines the rise of a yonaoshi god. In 1784, low-ranking samurai Sano Masakoto (1757-84) was sentenced to death by seppuku (self-disembowelment) for killing the elite Junior Elder Tanuma Okimoto (1749-84), which resulted in the former’s deification by Edo’s townspeople. This marked the emergence of the first yonaoshi god, according to Miura, as Masakoto was revered by people who struggled economically and who envisioned him as a punisher to the Tanuma regime, thus contributing to the end of that administration and a change in policy.

In chapter 2, drawing on Norman Cohn’s definition of millenarianism, which he summarizes “as collective, terrestrial, imminent, total, and miraculous salvation" (p. 43), Miura argues it is inaccurate to characterize yonaoshi gods as millenarian. Instead, he asserts that these deities emerged within the specific context of Tokugawa society and that they “focused on revitalizing individual communities” (p. 43). Miura documents cases of peasant uprisings across Japan from 1797 through 1868 in which individuals demonstrated as self-empowered agents of renewal. Their followers deified such individuals as yonaoshi gods, which gave further meaning to their protests. These protests, explains Miura, sought to revitalize local economies and societies, but were limited in scope compared to the massive uprisings in nineteenth-century China such as the Taiping Rebellion, which truly were millenarian.  

In chapter 3, Miura presents a wide variety of examples, pointing to the cases of two bakufu officials, Egawa Hidetatsu (1801-55) of Nirayama and Suzuki Chikara (1814-56) of Fukui, who were deified as yonaoshi gods by their constituents for providing economic relief, reducing financial burden, and emphasizing frugality and economic scrupulousness. Both were examples of virtuous rulers deified as living gods for improving economic conditions in local communities. In chapter 4, Miura also describes the spread of catfish prints (namazu-e) following the 1855 Edo earthquake, identifying the catfish as an animal yonaoshi god, perhaps the only such example in Japanese history. According to a print called Peaceful World of Ansei, People Prospering, the catfish was on a mission “to rectify the imbalance between prosperity and poverty in the world” (pp. 105-6), helping to revitalize the economy by forcing the rich to circulate their money and giving work to carpenters in the post-earthquake rebuilding efforts. Humor and satire helped fuel the wide spread of these catfish prints.

In chapter 5, Miura reexamines the Ee ja nai ka communal dances and parades of 1867 carried out in villages and towns, characterizing them not as spontaneous and subversive acts of class struggle or mass resistance against the Tokugawa regime, but as planned religious festivities, following examples of Okage mairi pilgrimages to Ise Shrine. While acknowledging that some cases of Ee ja nai ka expressed support for anti-Tokugawa bakufu forces and world renewal, Miura argues this does not represent the entirety of this phenomena; instead, he finds an emphasis on economic improvement of conditions in many communities. He quotes a “counting song” (kazoeuta) from Matsuura Kōzō’s diary that celebrates the descent of gods, discovery of talismans, free food and drink, and an “unprecedented” bumper harvest in 1867, while displaying no expressions of anti-Tokugawa sentiment (pp. 125-6).

In contrast, in chapter 6 Miura distinguishes the Chichibu Incident of 1884 as markedly different from previous uprisings in the Tokugawa period, for being overtly antiauthoritarian. He highlights that one group of participants truly followed the Jiyūtō or Liberal Party’s radical ideology, while the biggest group sought economic relief for Chichibu, and a third group was coerced to participate. Freedom and People’s Rights Movement leader Itagaki Taisuke (1837-1919) was deified as a god of world renewal, but unfortunately for Chichibu residents he was unsympathetic to their cause, and the rioters were quickly suppressed by imperial troops. Miura specifies that the Chichibu Incident was an example of revolutionary rebellion, but not of millenarianism.  

In chapter 7, the final case, that of the new religion Ōmoto and its yonaoshi god Ushitora no Konjin (Golden God of the Northeast), is presented as truly millenarian, unlike its predecessors. Leaders Deguchi Nao (1837-1918) and Deguchi Onisaburō (1871-1948) prophesied the end of the current world and the “Rebuilding and Renewal of the World,” in which renewal would begin with Japan as prototype (hinagata) and extend to the other continents of the world. This paralleled Japan’s international expansion as an imperial power from the 1890s through the 1920s.

Although much of Miura’s argument is clear and compelling, this reader desired further elaboration on questions that arose in the closing chapter. Ōmoto’s visions of Japan as “prototype” of the world and its islands corresponding to other nations are fascinating and Miura provides balanced readings of the primary sources of Ōmoto’s views on Japan’s international mission in the world. While Miura outlines the doctrines of Ushitora no Konjin, Nao, and Onisaburō, and relates these to the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars and Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, it would be interesting to read in greater detail how these leaders and their followers understood Japan’s military victories and subsequent colonial expansion, even as Ōmoto collaborated with other religious organizations across the Asian continent. Miura describes the paradox that Ōmoto’s Imperial Way ideology and reverence of an idealized emperor did not prevent the Japanese state from regarding this religion as deviant and persecuting it in 1921. Presumably the answers are not simple, but further discussions on these matters would make for another much-anticipated read.

This suggestion notwithstanding, Miura offers a novel and insightful study of politics, activism, gods and deification, millenarianism, and world renewal. His research is rigorous and offers readers a plethora of colorful excerpts from important and interesting primary sources: official documents, print media, poems, songs, diaries, letters, paper standards, and prophecies. The satire and humor in many of these writings give glimpses into the daily situations of communities across Japan. Miura’s methodology is clear and his writing lucid, making this book accessible and useful to both undergraduate and graduate students; to specialists in Japanese history and religion, political science, and millenarianism; and to general readers.

Citation: Gideon Fujiwara. Review of Miura, Takashi, Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54531

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