Don's Diary

February 21, 1997


Kyushu, Southern Japan. The earthquake hits at 7.30am. Five point eight on the Richter scale with the epicentre in a nearby town. My hotel room jerks and sways violently like an Inter-City 125 at full tilt. I wonder, pointlessly, if I would be safer on the ground floor with the hotel above me than up here on the ninth floor with a long way to fall. I seek refuge in the bathroom.

Later, taking advantage of the nine-hour time difference and using mystic powers nourished by years of intensive training in remote mountain monasteries, I beam myself back to England and spend three hours picketing the college gates in solidarity with my colleagues. The sweatband round my head signifies determination and bears in Japanese the punchy slogan reigai o tadasu ("rectify the anomaly"). I return to Japan in time for bed. I do not remember doing any of this, but the management have docked my pay for strike action while I am away doing research, so it must be so.


Kyoto. A bookseller puts me on to an antique dealer who sends me to a scroll specialist who, unusually, knows about the scroll I am researching and even offers me a 250-year-old version inscribed by a Buddhist monk. I am tempted to buy, but it would cost all my remaining grant so I photograph the scroll and make excuses. I am looking for examples of a religious hanging scroll that has existed in Japan from the 14th century to the present day. Every new contact leads sooner or later to a different version.


Tokyo. A day spent searching through the bookshop quarter reveals nothing in print about my scroll and not much more on Shinto iconography. No Japanese (or foreign) scholar seems to have written about this scroll since 1940. This is surprising but encouraging, since it means there is a good chance of something new emerging from the research. A huge grey statue of Michael Jackson has temporarily appeared near Shinjuku station. I am inspired, like the poet Basho, to write a commemorative stanza, but I take a commemorative photo instead.


Tokyo again. I spend several hours at the HQ of the Shinto Shrines network. We exhaust the topic of scrolls and move on to more general issues such as Shinto identity today. There is not very much difference between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and no difference at all in the people who attend them since most Japanese follow both Buddhist and Shinto rites at appropriate times. Since 1868, however, Shinto and Buddhism have been institutionally separate. Nowadays the official emphasis is on Shinto's reverence for nature. A small shrine I spotted in a factory yard the other day was enclosed in a square of conifers, reflecting this theme.


Nagoya. A conversation with a helpful museum curator with fond memories of the Ashmolean reveals yet another version of the scroll, this one inscribed by a member of the Tokugawa family, shogunal rulers of Japan throughout the Edo period (1600-1868). The curator also unearths an article about my scroll written five years ago. It is by an elderly professor, updating after 51 years of further reflection an article he wrote in 1940. I wonder, fleetingly, whether perhaps the Japanese have a research assessment exercise at the end of every 60-year zodiacal cycle.


My English colleague, who teaches in a university in Nagoya, has a graduate student whose family owns a nearby Zen temple. We are invited to a matsuri (festival) which turns out to be a fire-walking rite with a 450-year history. Though set in a Buddhist temple, the ritual incorporates many Shinto elements and involves 16 Shinto priests from neighbouring shrines. Once the huge brushwood blaze has settled down and the power of the fire has been ritually subdued, a line of priests walks across, followed one by one by what seems to be the entire local community, from senior citizens to unaccompanied children and mothers carrying babies. Even a couple of foreigners brave the hot ashes.


Tokyo yet again. I am due to give a "free talk" seminar to graduates at one of the city's better Buddhist universities. It transpires that my class includes one of Japan's most distinguished Buddhologists. I take the plunge and run the seminar in full British student-centred mode, dividing the "students" randomly into groups and setting them to compare different versions of my scroll. We come up with some useful ideas on Shinto and Buddhist iconography.

Later there is a restaurant reunion with students and colleagues from the national university I taught in 15 years ago. We agree that teaching about religions should be introduced into schools. This would both reduce religious naivety (Aum Shinrikyo and the Tokyo gas attack spring to mind) and provide more jobs for excellent religious studies graduates. We have a lot in common.

Brian Bocking, Head of the study of religions department at Bath College of Higher Education.

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