Worldly Ascetics: Managing Family, Status, and Territory in Early Modern Shugendō

Thumbnail Image
Degree type
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Graduate group
East Asian Languages & Civilizations
Dewa Sanzan
Asian History
Asian Studies
History of Religion
Grant number
Copyright date
Related resources

Definitions of Japan’s Shugendō tradition often emphasize how its adherents, known as yamabushi or shugenja, took as their primary goal the acquisition of supernatural power and enlightenment via ascetic practice in the mountains. While mountain austerities were central to the tradition, settled, spouse-keeping yamabushi organized into households constituted the majority of its members in the late medieval and early modern periods; the study of their economic, political, and social activities have been neglected. The Shugendō organization headquartered at Mt. Haguro, one of the Dewa Sanzan triad of sacred mountains within present-day Yamagata prefecture, administered yamabushi and miko priestesses based in communities throughout northern Japan. Using the Sanada Shichirōzaemon and Sanada Shikibu households, elite yamabushi families based in Tōge at the foot of Mt. Haguro, this study investigates the lives and activities of spouse-keeping shugenja within the Shugendō tradition during Japan’s early modern period (1600-1867). Existing in a liminal space between the seeming dichotomies of worldly and ascetic, lay and monastic, and folk and elite, the Sanadas and their peers navigated a complicated web of relationships to preserve their positions and fortunes. Working with documents from the previously unread Sanada Gyokuzōbō archive, this study argues for the centrality of the household unit within Japanese religious traditions. The privileges and obligations of the Sanada households, as well as their relationships with superiors and subordinates, both at Mt. Haguro and in its parishes, were based on the household rather than the individual, and were passed on from house head to house head. As local elites, the Sanada households enjoyed a hereditary place of honor within Haguro’s social, ritual, and political hierarchies. Documentation was a necessary strategy to maintain their customary privileges and duties both at the organization’s headquarters at Mt. Haguro and within its parishes across northern Japan. Networks that linked the Sanada families with superiors on Haguro’s summit and subordinates in parishes, as well as their lay patrons, the Nanbu family of daimyo, were defined and defended by documents exchanged within these networks.

Linda H. Chance
Date of degree
Date Range for Data Collection (Start Date)
Date Range for Data Collection (End Date)
Digital Object Identifier
Series name and number
Volume number
Issue number
Publisher DOI
Journal Issue
Recommended citation