Heather Blair: "What Counts? Buddhism, Picturebooks, and Japanese Culture"
Jokes about hell, fake sutras that, though specious, exert miraculous effects, and stories about a bodhisattva who is as well loved for his failures as for his assistance. These and other playful engagements with Buddhist ideas and imagery pervade picturebooks from Japan’s secular mainstream. But do they count as Buddhist? Focusing on picturebooks published for children from the 1960s to the present, this talk asks what it might mean to be culturally—without necessarily being confessionally—Buddhist. It presents an argument that picturebooks foment a doublemindedness among both children and adults, thereby opening up a space for ironic engagement with religious ideas and imagery. As one way of simultaneously doing and not doing religion, this ironic mode suits the current Japanese context, where social belonging matters deeply but believing is not a priority, and where knowledge of religious figures and devotional practices contributes substantially to social competency and cultural literacy. Especially in light of recent academic work that has called attention to the attenuation of mainstream Buddhist institutions and traditional practices in Japan, consideration of the kind of diffuse, unmarked religiosity seen in picturebooks compels us to think carefully about what counts for the study of Buddhism—and how we account for it.
Heather Blair is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. A Japan specialist, she focuses primarily on lay religiosity and intersections between visual culture and religion, both in the Heian period and modern-to-contemporary times. Her publications include Real and Imagined: The Peak of Gold in Heian Japan (2015) and articles in venues such as Monumenta Nipponica, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, and Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. She is currently working on a monograph with the provisional title The Gods Make You Giggle: Finding Religion in Japanese Picturebooks.
Japanese Buddhism Lectures