Geographical Review of Japan
Online ISSN : 2185-1727
Print ISSN : 1347-9555
ISSN-L : 1347-9555
Reviving Nationalism by Articulation of the Priest Kobo-Daishi and Japanese Culture in 1934 Exhibitions
Masato MORI
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2005 Volume 78 Issue 1 Pages 1-27


After a cultural turn, many cultural theorists, including geographers, examine the problems of representation and power. In studies of exhibitions, geographers note the ways in which boundaries are represented using special materials and their arrangement. The messages thus encoded are not perceived directly by the audience but are decoded differently based on the positionality of the individual.
In this paper, the author attempts to explain how the patron saint of the Shingon-shu Buddhist sect, Kobo-Daishi (also known as Kukai), was articulated with Japanese culture through exhibitions and represented as a national hero. The concept of articulation as developed in cultural studies is used to analyze the exhibitions presented in 1934. Because those exhibitions were both organized and reported by the mass media, the concept of a “media event” is also borrowed from media studies.
Because the then Japanese government had oppressed Buddhism as a seditious religion, the memorial event (goonki) for Kobo-Daishi in 1884 was not very successful. The Shingon-shu sect therefore made elaborate preparations for the subsequent goonki scheduled for 1934 and undertook several projects. The most significant goonki project was a historical study of Kobo-Daishi to place him within the context of Japanese culture. In the 1920s and 1930s in Japan, a new bourgeoisie appeared in urban areas, along with “modern culture, ” e. g., department stores, mass-market magazines, the custom of window shopping, etc. After the Japanese invasion of China, Japan increasingly embraced fascism and most major organizations supported it. The Asahi News based in Osaka also concurred with national policies.
The Asahi News presented Kobo-Daishi as a symbol of Japanese culture and, in cooperation with the Shingon-shu sect, established an association called the Kobo-Daishi Bunka Sen'yokai to publicize his contributions to Japanese history, spirit, and culture. The highest-ranking officers in this association were all employed by the Asahi News. The main project of the association was arranging exhibitions showing the relationship between Kobo-Daishi and Japanese culture. The exhibits were selected mainly from among cultural property classified and certified by the Imperial Household Agency in 1888. Therefore the exhibits emphasized imperialism while showing the connection between Kobo-Daishi and the national ideology.
The Kobo-Daishi Bunka Sen'yokai held exhibitions entitled Kobo-Daishi Bunka Tenrankai in four locations; one was at the Asahi Building and the others were in department stores. On one hand, the Asahi Building was regarded as an edifice of contemporary Japanese culture; on the other, department stores were locations visited for pleasure by urban dwellers starting in the late 1920s. It can be assumed, therefore, that these two types of location were an attempt to attract a mass audience.
The different exhibition sites involved different methods of display. At the Asahi Building, cultural features associated with empire were emphasized with the cultural contributions of Kobo-Daishi on the periphery. This arrangement reflected the relationship of Kobo-Daishi to the national ideology. However, in the department stores this concept had to be easy for a mass audience to understand, and therefore panoramic exhibit technology, which was popularized in Japan by department stores, was adopted. Because such panoramic exhibits depend on the specificity of place, the territoriality of the nation-state was reinforced. The viewers were not simply subjects under the national ideology, however, but individuals who could circumvent the intentions of the exhibitions by decoding their meanings. In that periods, numerous treasures from temples were displayed at department stores and it was possible for the mass audience to regard them as objects of amusement.

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