Sarah Thal Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods is a superb microhistory of religion and politics in Japan from 1573 to the first quarter of the 20th century: taking a shrine at Mount Zozu (now Mount Kotohira) in Shikoku as a case study, Thal provides us with further elements to discuss whether religion can be separated from culture (the way we conceptualized the “economy” as a separate realm from society before spring break) and to question Western assumptions and cathegories when historians deal with non-Western religious phenomena. Religion in Japan is representative of this problem, for there are so many “intellectual and ritual frameworks – esoteric Buddhism, shugendo, kami worhship, Suika Shinto, and folk practices” (Thal 129) that demand an intensive intellectual preparation from both the historian and her readers. In so doing, Thal also reminds the historical contingency and human agency behind the production of devotional and cultural spaces: thus, the landscape and the gods have a changing identity and a non-static biography, as we have read in Davis’s Lives of Indian Images.
Thal’s analysis of the concept of “gods” in the introduction is pertinent for other types of historical craft, as we can find that most concepts, beliefs and practices are particular and spatially located, changing frequently in meaning and scope, and coexisting in association with other powerful concepts. Thus, the challenge of the historian is to be cautious not to misleadingly apply her own concepts and assumptions to particular phenomena of the time and place she studies. In Thal’s book, the religious sphere is a variable that embeds political, social and cultural changes, thus making the case for studying several historical actors, for it is “not only priests but also politicians, pilgrims, entrepreneurs and officials” (p. 9) that intervened in the belief and symbolic systems and the identities of gods in the shrine at Mount Zozu. However, studying religious figures such as the holy man in the Eastern Roman Empire might in itself be fruitful, for as Brown says “in studying both the most admired and the most detested figures in any society, we can see, as seldom through other evidence, the nature of the average man’s expectations and hopes for himself” (Brown 81).
Thal is not afraid of exploring the material aspects of the relative success of the Konpira cult: she explores how priests acted to gain the favor of rulers, sponsors and the broad public. Thus, the shrine and the temple appear as economic institutions, a god would “become both resource and benefactor” (Thal 73) and priests behaved as a special kind of entrepreneurs, not only mediating the experience of the powerful and the laymen with the sacred, but also searching for the material means that allowed the perpetuation and expansion of power of their own organizations. An example of this can be seen with the change in dedication of the sanctuary from Konpira to Kotohira, to better accommodate the expectations of the Nativist movement during the Meiji restoration: hence, Thal shows the tensions, the dislocations and conflicts of interest that do not appear in other narratives of the period centered on the economic development of late 19th century Japan.
Henceforth, to study the spread of religions through time, a historian must also explore the “reputation of the new religion[s] for effective support of the ruler[s]” (Thal 42), this is, the political bargaining process through which members of a cult broadened their followers’ base or ultimately sought the survival of their belief systems and institutions. Members of a cult are powerful, arbitrating and mediating social conflicts in “small, fissile communities” (Brown 89) where other political figures are absent or distant or where the “majesty of community” has not asserted its preeminence over the individual that can claim an immediate relationship with the divine.