Hope that sustains : revisiting New Year’s divination at Suwa Taisha

Robertson, Stephen

This paper details the “cylinder-gruel rite” (tsutsugayu shinji) observed annually on 15 January at Suwa Taisha, a Shintō shrine complex in Nagano Prefecture. The oracular ritual is an instance of the Japanese tradition of New Year’s divination (toshiura), and involves the boiling of hollow reeds or bamboo in rice gruel to augur crop yields and economic prospects for the coming year. Whereas Japan’s modernization and shift away from an agricultural economy has rendered such observances archaic, their continued practice cannot be explained solely by their heritage value as survivals of pre-modern tradition. Careful analysis of the Suwa oracle’s formal structure within the frame of Shintō practice reveals that the ritual works to intimate a transcendent sociality, an infallible source of divinatory revelation that provides a sustaining source of hopeful momentum. Consideration of the documentary history of the ritual further suggests the ways that the ritual has been leveraged by various actors throughout history to support imagined aspirational trajectories. Following Zigon’s anthropological critique that hope does not obviate human agency but necessitates and sustains it, this paper discusses the possible implications of these generative/sustaining and imagined/instrumental modes for an anthropological engagement with hope.

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