Michael Foster: "Seeing Monsters: Ritual, Tourism, and the Power of Vision"
This talk explores the dynamic of seeing/being seen with regard to the construction of the monstrous, the performance of ritual, and the advent of local tourism in Japan. Beginning with a brief overview of how eyes and seeing are part of the construction of monsters (yôkai) historically, I then focus specifically on Toshidon, a New Year’s Eve ritual performed on the island of Shimo-Koshikijima in Kagoshima Prefecture. As a “disciplinary” tradition in which masked demon-deities frighten children, Toshidon is based on an asymmetrical structure of vision; children believe they are being watched all year long but cannot see the monsters that are watching them. After recently being recognized by UNESCO, the Toshidon ritual is now attracting increased attention from tourists; questions of the visible/invisible inform island discussions on how to contend with outside visitors. Both the ritual itself and the island discourse on tourism implicitly revolve around questions of the gaze and of seeing/being seen. These issues in turn suggest a profound relationship between the power of vision and the fear of the monstrous.
Michael Foster is a professor at the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Before that he taught at the Department of Comparative Literature & Foreign Languages at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses on folklore, literature, film and popular culture, primarily in Japan. His first book, Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yôkai, traces how notions of the mysterious and monstrous are articulated both in academic discourses and popular practices from the seventeenth century through the present. He focuses on conceptions of the "supernatural" to explore representations of the weird (both corporeal and otherwise), the transcendence of normative classification systems, and the many modes by which humans attempt to articulate the inexpressible. He is currently working on a new project, titled Visiting Strangers: Tourists, Ethnographers, and Gods, in which he explores the relationship of tourism, ethnography and festival/ritual in Japan.