JJRS 48/2 Constructing Identities through the Shikoku Pilgrimage

Ian Reader

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The Shikoku pilgrimage has, until very recently, seen significant growth in pilgrim numbers and appears, as such, to provide a counter-example to the general trend evident in surveys and studies of declining engagement in religious practices in Japan. However, two caveats are needed here: numbers have started to fall in the last decade, and those doing the pilgrimage have often in recent times viewed their pilgrimages as journeys of self-discovery in which identity is paramount and faith is irrelevant or explicitly denied. In addition, the pilgrimage has been promoted by secular authorities as a signifier of regional and national cultural identity in order to develop Shikoku as a tourist destination, and boost the local economy. In this article, I explore these issues, drawing on fieldwork in Shikoku between 1984 and 2019 and on interviews with people—from pilgrims on foot to temple priests to regional government officials—involved in various ways with the pilgrimage. In discussing how identity construction is both a major factor in the motives of pilgrims and an aim of secular agencies seeking to promote the pilgrimage for nonreligious reasons, I examine what this means for studies of religion today through highlighting recent Japanese theoretical examinations of religion, pilgrimage, and tourism while discussing how the Shikoku example both fits with and provides critical counterarguments to their studies.