Agents of World Renewal: The Rise of Yonaoshi Gods in Japan

Hardback: $80.00
ISBN-13: 9780824880378
Published: August 2019
Paperback: $28.00
ISBN-13: 9780824888350
Published: October 2020

Additional Information

246 pages | 5 b&w illustrations
  • About the Book
  • This volume examines a category of Japanese divinities that centered on the concept of “world renewal” (yonaoshi). In the latter half of the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), a number of entities, both natural and supernatural, came to be worshipped as “gods of world renewal.” These included disgruntled peasants who demanded their local governments repeal unfair taxation, government bureaucrats who implemented special fiscal measures to help the poor, and a giant subterranean catfish believed to cause earthquakes to punish the hoarding rich. In the modern period, yonaoshi gods took on more explicitly anti-authoritarian characteristics. During a major uprising in Saitama Prefecture in 1884, a yonaoshi god was invoked to deny the legitimacy of the Meiji regime, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the new religion Ōmoto predicted an apocalyptic end of the world presided over by a messianic yonaoshi god.

    Using a variety of local documents to analyze the veneration of yonaoshi gods, Takashi Miura looks beyond the traditional modality of research focused on religious professionals, their institutions, and their texts to illuminate the complexity of a lived religion as practiced in communities. He also problematizes the association frequently drawn between the concept of yonaoshi and millenarianism, demonstrating that yonaoshi gods served as divine rectifiers of specific economic injustices and only later, in the modern period and within the context of new religions such as Ōmoto, were fully millenarian interpretations developed. The scope of world renewal, in other words, changed over time.

    Agents of World Renewal approaches Japanese religion through the new analytical lens of yonaoshi gods and highlights the necessity of looking beyond the boundary often posited between the early modern and modern periods when researching religious discourses and concepts.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Takashi Miura, Author

      Takashi Miura is associate professor in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Arizona.
  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • Miura’s book—an insightful, carefully researched, and well-executed historical study of a class of Japanese divinities known as yonaoshi, or “world-renewing” gods—is unexpectedly resonant in these tumultuous times. . . . Agents of World Renewal provides a captivating account of a different kind of religion than that which is the focus of the vast majority of scholarly studies. Miura offers us a fascinating picture, analyzed with insight and nuance, of the world of nonelite and largely extra-institutional religion in Japan. . . . Miura's array of sources is truly impressive. Unbiased toward officially produced doctrinal documents that frequently guide religious histories, he is equally adept at analyzing artistic, literary, legal, and economic sources.
      —Jessica Starling, The Journal of Japanese Studies, 47:2 (Summer 2021)
    • I see [Agents of World Renewal] as a study in popular consciousness, one that students of both religion and history will find stimulating and important. . . . Miura delves deeply into local histories, diaries, and woodblock prints to craft a richly nuanced portrayal of dramatic changes in manifestations of world renewal from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. . . . Many historians of Japan, myself included, are now going to have to rethink conclusions we have long taken for granted.
      —Anne Walthall, University of California, Irvine, The Journal of Asian Studies, 79:2 (May 2020)
    • Miura examines yonaoshi gods through specific case studies that often occurred outside the authority of religious professionals, so the extant historical sources are scattered. Hence the book draws upon a wide range of sources, including government records, popular media materials, personal letters, diaries, memoirs, and local histories to examine phenomena that have not typically been studied in-depth because the cases existed on the margins. The strength of Miura’s study lies in his meticulous investigation of the various case studies and how he slowly builds detailed evidence into a compelling argument.
      —April D. Hughes, Boston University, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 47:2 (2020)
    • Miura offers a novel and insightful study of politics, activism, gods and deification, millenarianism, and world renewal. His research is rigorous and offers readers a plethora of colorful excerpts from important and interesting primary sources. . . . Miura’s methodology is clear and his writing lucid, making this book accessible and useful to both undergraduate and graduate students; to specialists in Japanese history and religion, political science, and millenarianism; and to general readers.
      —Gideon Fujiwara, University of Lethbridge, H-Japan, H-Net Reviews (February 2020)
    • Takashi Miura provides a long overdue corrective to earlier scholarly accounts that interpreted late-Tokugawa and Meiji reports of world-renewal gods mostly as indicators of incipient revolutionary activity or a generalized subversive mentality, with little regard for the religious vector in each case; his insistence that we attend to the emic use of “yonaoshi god” by historical actors in specific contexts is bracing. This well-researched book makes a critical contribution to our understanding of the role of popular religion in society during Japan’s long nineteenth century.
      —Janine Sawada, Brown University
    • Yonaoshi is one of those words that has taken on a life of its own in scholarly discourse—as an expression of an emerging social consciousness among the downtrodden in Marxist terms or of radical millenarian ideas in modern New Religions. This volume offers a number of well-chosen, meticulously researched case studies (ranging from the 1780s to the 1920s) that make it clear that yonaoshi has meant many different things to the people who actually used it and that their concerns rarely supported the agendas of the scholars who have invoked this term in the post-war period. Cutting across religious categories like Buddhism and Shinto and periodizations like Edo and Meiji, this book offers a refreshing perspective on popular religion “on the ground.” Highly recommended!
      —Mark Teeuwen, University of Oslo
    • Miura impressively marshals a plethora of historical sources to demonstrate the semantic and contextual scope of yonaoshi in the emic usage. . . . Miura provides us with a masterpiece of historical scholarship. The book belongs to the shelf of every scholar of Japanese religions and millenarianism.
      —Lukas Pokorny, Religious Studies Review, 47:1 (March 2021)
    • By focusing on case studies ranging between the 1780s and the 1920s, [Miura] breaks through the usual periodization chosen by his predecessors who generally ended their studies in the 1870s. Rather than lengthy discussions of theoretical issues, the author makes extensive use of a vast array of primary sources ignored in the past, like popular songs, private diaries, or satirical woodblock prints. . . . On the whole, this study offers refreshing insights on a debate that (wrongly) seemed to be over. It reminds us of the necessity to consider, in their diversity, direct accounts of the actors involved, instead of developing hermetic theoretical frameworks beforehand and trying to find evidence that fits in.
      —Martin Nogueira Ramos, École française d'Extrême-Orient, Japanese Religions, 44:1 & 2 (2020)
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