Secularizing “Traditional Culture” or Sacralizing “Popular Culture”?: Charisma, Community, and Commodification in Contemporary Subcultural Pilgrimage Practices

Friday, July 18, 2014: 3:45 PM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Isaac GAGNE , Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan

As religious institutions and practices continue to decline in Japan, a number of young men and women have begun traveling long distances to gather at shrines, temples, and other holy sites. In groups or alone, these pilgrims pay respects at holy altars and purchase votive tablets, protective charms, and other religious paraphernalia that have long marked religious consumption practices in Japan. At first glance this seems to be a reversal of the processes of secularization that have intensified around the world under the forces of modernization and late capitalism. However, what draws these individuals is not the charisma of the gods enshrined at these sites, but rather the charisma of fictional characters who inhabit the fantasy worlds of particular manga and anime stories which take these actual holy sites as their settings. These subcultural pilgrims are part of a community of fans who pursue a multi-dimensional connection with two-dimensional, fictional storyworlds. While some scholars view this as the further commercialization and secularization of “traditional” religio-cultural practices, these practices reveal how both “traditional” and “modern” cultural forms—i.e., religion and the popular culture forms of anime/manga—in fact share overlapping cultural idioms of individual effort, charismatic devotion, practical reciprocity, and contingent sociality. In this paper, I analyze the kinds of personal attraction and interpersonal relations formed through participation in subcultural pilgrimages. I suggest that “anime pilgrimage” reveals how religious and secular practices in Japan are neither mutually distinct in a Kantian sense nor dialectically progressive in a Hegelian sense, but rather reciprocally shaped through cultural modes of both ethical sociality and self-advancement. This further calls into question conventional views of distinctions between “traditional” and “popular” cultural forms by revealing how new technologies and pop culture media can be reshaped into augmenting and intensifying previous cultural practices of pilgrimage, self-advancement, and sociality.