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This projects aimed at reconstructing the development of Japanese afterlife concepts and corresponding practices from ancient times through the Edo period. Emphasis was put on Buddhist afterlife notions, especially on its concepts of Hell. Despite a growing wealth of newly uncovered or rediscovered materials that point to the importance of this aspect in the history of Japanese religions and mentalities, very little scholarly attention had been paid to the topic, especially in the West. There are several reasons for this scholarly neglect. A general emphasis, usually more programmatic than empirically grounded, on the "this-worldliness" of Japanese culture and religion as a whole and of Shinto in particular tends to obstruct the view of Japanese "afterlife speculations." When the discussion comes to afterlife concepts, the focus has been on the seeming ease with which Japanese Buddhism grants the believer’s hope for rebirth in the Pure Land; this seeming ease, then, is considered to be a major factor in the spread of Buddhism from the Kamakura period onwards, which was indeed a time of this-worldly struggles and pain. What is being overlooked in this view, however, is the fact that these conceptions and beliefs make sense only with the background of a general fear of karmic retribution. As a corollary, the concepts of Hell that developed at the same time have usually been denigrated as an all too simple means used by the Buddhist clergy  to take advantage of people’s fear of death, and as one which, moreover, within the conceptual framework of Japan as a culture of shame in contrast to Western cultures of sin, would seem to be only very superficially rooted in Japanese mentality. They however also contributed to the spread of Buddhism, in that they, within the framework of belief in the Ten Kings (juo), provided larger segments of the population with a field of meaningful religious activity, much in the same way as Stephen Teiser (The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism, 1994) has shown for medieval China. The sheer richness and variety of Japanese notions of Hell, revealed amply in both texts and religious practices, thus points at their being the field of a many-layered, lively discourse within which both the religious elites and the lay adherents formulated their respective answers to important religious questions; a discourse that was shaped by, and in turn contributed to the shaping of contemporary attitudes towards important problems of life, such as questions of good and evil, primordial social relationships, ideal life courses and so forth. The long-term aim of the project lies in reconstructing the historical development of this discourse within its socio-political context.

Hitherto, research focused on the documentation of those afterlife concepts that spread in the context of popular religious practices, such as the edificatory explanation of religious pictures (etoki) or pilgrimage to religious sites thought to represent the other world, as well as on the analysis of the uses of Paradise-and-Hell metaphors in the secularized genre of Edo-period trivial literature.

In 1999, the institute hosted an international conference on “Popular Japanese Views of the Afterlife”, gathering scholars engaged in research on similar topics spanning from the pre-Buddhist era to modern day Japan. A corresponding proceedings volume was published.


Susanne Formanek, William LaFleur (eds.), 2004
Practicing the Afterlife: Perspectives from Japan. (BKGA 42.) Wien: VÖAW, 2004 (order online).

Project Data