Semiotics of Japan's Mountain Ascetics

American Journal of Semiotics 29 (1-4):17-38 (2013)
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Abstract

This ethnographic research features Shugendō (mountain asceticism), Japan’s centuries-old, mystical tradition. I and approximately fifty other lay participants took part in a three-day Shugendō program for the secular. The program is physically demanding and takes secular trainees to three holy mountains in Yamagata, Japan, where they take part in the water purification and holy fire rituals in the mountain asceticism tradition. Using the theoretical framework of semiotics, I explicate the visual signifiers of this esoteric mysticism in the context of Shugendō teachings represented in twenty photographs taken during the training. The purpose of this article is to promote semiotics as an analytical standpoint alternative to other approaches to studying culture, in this case, a Japanese religion sourced in my fieldwork. I argue that, living in today’s global age and visual culture, college students can and should benefit from learning about semiotics and developing visual literacy for their future career opportunities.

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