Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the Other World


Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) has been the subject of numerous studies that focus on his importance to nationalist politics and Japanese intellectual and social history. Although well known as an ideologue of Japanese National Learning (Kokugaku), Atsutane’s significance as a religious thinker has been largely overlooked. His prolific writings on supernatural subjects have never been thoroughly analyzed in English until now. In When Tengu Talk: Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the Other World, Wilburn Hansen focuses on Senkyo ibun (1822), a voluminous work centering on Atsutane’s interviews with a fourteen-year-old Edo street urchin named Kozo Torakichi who claimed to be an apprentice tengu, a supernatural creature of Japanese folklore. Hansen uncovers in detail how Atsutane employed a deliberate method of ethnographic inquiry that worked to manipulate and stimulate Torakichi’s surreal descriptions of everyday existence in a supernatural realm, what Atsutane termed the Other World. Hansen’s investigation and analysis of the process begins with the hypothesis that Atsutane’s project was an early attempt at ethnographic research, a new methodological approach in nineteenth-century Japan. Hansen posits that this “scientific” analysis was tainted by Atsutane’s desire to establish a discourse on Japan not limited by what he considered to be the unsatisfactory results of established Japanese philological methods.

September 2008 / ISBN 978-0-8248-3209-4 / $52.00 (CLOTH)