Review by Mike Gleason
Dancing with Spirits: Festivals and Folklore of Japan by Denny Sargent © 2010
The religions of Japan are among the least understood by members of Western society. This happens for a number of reasons, most prominently because they are so much an organic part of the culture that even many Japanese don’t give them much thought. In fact, one often hears Japanese say that they are not religious, even as they are participating in some festival, or entering/leaving a shrine. The religions are simply a part of daily life, and thus not considered a separate religious aspect.
Generally, religion in Japan breaks down into one of two major types – Shinto or Buddhism – but that is as simplistic as saying religion in the West is either Christian or non-Christian; true to an an extent, but failing to capture the shear breadth of the religious experience. Each of the two groups has unique observances, yet commonalities exist.
It is, naturally, almost impossible for the visitor to the Land of the Rising Sun to fully experience either of these religions since they are coming from the outside, and do not have the same cultural references which natives have, and which form such an integral part of the observations and beliefs. Nonetheless, Mr. Sargent spent four years living in Japan, consumed with a desire to learn as much as he could. He went out of his way to experience what he could and share what he experienced with readers. This is not an academic approach, but rather more like a running commentary on those experiences.
While the majority of festivals contain at least a modicum of solemnity, the Kanamara festival throws solemnity to the side. After all, how serious and solemn can a festival be when the object of devotion is a seven-foot tall shocking pink penis? Carried off by transgendered individuals to make the circuit of the neighborhood? Naturally, there is a serious reason for this observance, even if no one is quite sure what it is, or when it actually made its way into the national consciousness.
There are rituals and observances which involve thousands, as well as those which are tailored for the family. There are festivals which are observed simultaneously across the breadth of the land, and those whose dates of observation are a matter of local custom. There are festivals and observances which are well-documented in their foundation and those which no one seems too sure about.
In addition to material on the festivals and observances, Mr. Sargent has included a section on the magical creatures, ranging from the various types of spirits, to assorted animals. This is a relatively short section, and could deserve a book of its own, in my opinion.
He completes this volume with a section on the Goddesses of Japan which, although short, is quite informative. I’m not sure how much appeal this little volume will have for the “average, Western Pagan”, but as a means of expanding our awareness of how others relate to the Otherworld it is almost invaluable. Personally, I am not all that interested in Japanese religious observances, but I still found myself thoroughly enjoying this book. Not only that, but I resented when I needed to stop reading to do other things, and there really aren’t many books that I can say that about.