At first I thought I was really going to love this book. During the mid-1990's I lived in a small coastal town just a short train ride away from the three Kumano Shrines, and I spent many a pleasant weekend visiting these fascinating religious institutions. It became increasingly clear to me that their role in Japanese religion, literature, and history was quite significant, too, and for years I've felt that the lack of any real substantial discussion of the Kumano Shrines and the Kumano Pilgrimage in English publications was a seriously regrettable lacunae. And then "Localizing Paradise" came along. Finally, I exclaimed.
Then, as I was reading the introduction, I started thinking that I was really going to hate this book. Only on page two and already Michel Foucault is invoked, with the unquestioned assumption that some 20th-century French intellectual's armchair anthropology and crypto-Marxist philosophy has universal relevance and validity. As if we can't truly understand Kumano Pilgrimage without the blessing of his "insights" framing the study. Then on page three, Moerman assures the reader that this is not an institutional history of Kumano. Why not? I think we definitely need a good, solid, objective institutional history of this religious phenomenon as a basis before we start getting into fancy theoretical interpretations of specific issues. Deconstructing something not yet constructed is really putting the cart before the horse. Insult is added to injury when a footnote informs the reader that Kumano's institutional history is a subject well represented in the Japanese scholarship. Good, but so what? The assumption here seems to be that the reader can blaze through scholarly Japanese with fluency and can just hop over to the university library and get the sources mentioned, but for many potential readers this is simply not the case at all, and they are being cut off, basically. Moerman and a handful of his peers are having a conversation here, and the interested generalist is not invited.
In all fairness, such problems are typical symptoms nowadays of a general malaise infecting academic titles more generally, and it would be unfair to blame Moerman and this book for being a perfect case in point. Early in the first pages, though, I kept running into another thing that quite simply drove me up the wall with annoyance, something in fact more specific to this particular book. The author continually refers to the Kumano Shrines in the past tense: Kumano was this, it represented that, it consisted of these and was the destination of those. Anyone who didn't know better would think that we're talking about some kind of archaeological dig. All three of the shrines are still in existence and are still functioning, even thriving, as religious institutions, however--the author presumably did research at these places, too, and so should be aware of this, so I'm not sure why he insists on relegating them to some fuzzy but foreclosed premodern past. It's possible to limit one's focus to a certain time frame without giving this impression. I'm also not sure why he wishes to relegate Kumano to "the geographic margins of society" on page four. Whose margins? The priests and monks resident in the shrines? The people living in the towns wherein these shrines are located? The administrators of Kii Province? The sailors plying the trade routes along the Kii Peninsula? Okay, probably he means the courtiers in the capital (present-day Kyoto), but why privilege their perspective?
By now you're probably thinking that I did indeed end up hating this book. Not so. Everything I've just been ranting about at length (maybe ad nauseum) does certainly continue to haunt the book throughout, but the main chapters of the book do actually have some significant strong points as well. First of all, the focus on a single religious institution anchors such a study nicely, and it's a fruitful approach we need to see more of (handled imperfectly here, but okay, still...). Moerman's manner of framing his main chapters with a general descriptive tour of a Kumano Pilgrimage Mandala and then focusing on little significant details from this mandala to kick off each chapter is interesting, clever, creative, and apt. The illustrations in this book are also very good, with lots of fascinating and relevant black and white figures throughout and ten lovely and intriguing color prints. To some degree he takes away a standard institutional history with one hand and then with another gives the reader something pretty dang close in chapter two--insufficient, still, but a decent overview nonetheless of Kumano's history and of its depictions in writings and literature over the (premodern) centuries. Then in the main chapters he deals with specific issues: mortuary ritual and funeral symbolism, the role of Kumano Pilgrimage in court politics, and the complicated and ambivalent gender dynamics at the Kumano shrines. Cart before the horse or no, these are interesting topics, and Moerman utilizes a lot of fine, careful, and painstaking research in tough primary sources to carry his analysis along. Granted, chapter three is badly and almost irrevocably damaged by his all but totally uncritical use of 16th-century Jesuit letters as a source for describing Japanese Buddhist ritual practices--yeah right, the pagan heathens are all committing suicide for their beastly idols--I can't imagine a more unreliable source. But still, as a whole, the book is okay. Not superb, not wretched, but okay in a "better than nothing" sort of way.