John Breen (Kyoto)

City of the Gods
Re-inventing Ise in Meiji Japan

  • Time: Mi., 15. April 2015, 17:30 (s.t.)
  • Venue: Institut für Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte Asiens,
    Seminarraum 1
  • Organisation: Bernhard Scheid


In 1869, the year after the Meiji Revolution, the Japanese emperor made a historic pilgrimage to the Ise shrines. The shrines, located in the Shima Peninsular in modern-day Mie Prefecture, had been the most important of many pilgrimage sites in early modern Japan. Some 400,000 Japanese visited the shrines every year, and in the first decades of the 19th century that number soared on occasion to several millions. People came to worship Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Toyouke, an agricultural deity, to give thanks for abundant harvests and other blessings received, and to seek miracles. But never before 1869, in the 1200 years of the shrines’ history, had the shrines been graced with a visit from an emperor.

In this talk, I reflect on the legacy of this imperial pilgrimage. In its wake, the Meiji state appropriated Ise and transformed it from a site of popular pilgrimage into an imperial mausoleum for the emperor’s veneration of his great ancestor. In the process, the state dislocated the site from the towns that had flourished at its gates and severed its links with the Ise parishes scattered across Japan. Here I explore the physical reimagining of Ise, the site’s semantic transformations, and the implications of all this change for pilgrims and their experience of Ise in the 19th century. What, after all, were the modern fortunes of Japan’s City of the Gods?

NB: This talk is related to Prof. Breen's talk The Sun Goddess’s Progress: Yearning for the Past in Postwar Ise, on April 16.


John Breen is Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. He has published widely on issues of state and religion in modern Japan. Recent publications include A new history of Shinto (with Mark Teeuwen) 2011, and Girei to kenryoku: tennō no Meiji ishin (Ritual and power: the emperor and the Meiji restoration) 2011. Recent articles include “The nation’s shrine: conflict and commemoration at Yasukuni,” in Tsang and Woods (ed.), The cultural politics of nationalism and nation-building, Routledge 2014, and “Shinto monogatari: Meiji-ki no Ise” (Tales of a sacred city: Meiji period Ise) in Takagi (ed.), Kindai Nihon no rekishi toshi, 2013.