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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Localities of symbolic expression and meaning : temples and shrines of Kyoto, Japan Laninga, Emily Ann Teresa


Cultural practices are maintained by passing knowledge down throughout the generations, yet they also are simultaneously in a process of transition. Influenced by societal requirements, specific aspects of culture are taught and learned. Over time, some qualities are altered, adapted, dismissed, or are auxiliary to the creation of new practices. A prime example of this process is Japanese culture and its symbolic meanings in relation to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; milieus which are sacred spaces that contain polysemic modes of symbolic expression. In this thesis, I examine a variety of customs where localities of temples and shrines act as multifaceted outlets of symbolic expression and meaning for the people who visit them. In particular, I am interested in exploring how people use objects and view actions that occur within the context of shrines and temples. Objects are physical, material artifacts that are representative of something, some examples of objects being architecture, artwork, statues and monuments, or a talisman. Actions take place as a physical means of representation, acted out in order to initiate a desired effect; such actions include ritual behaviors, ceremony, dance and offerings. By analyzing objects and actions, this thesis shows how people’s interactions within shrines and temples not only mark these locations as meaningful places, but reveal how people’s understandings of the meanings of symbolic forms within these sites are changing in contemporary times. This thesis is shaped from data collected using participant observation, open-ended interviews, questionnaires, and photo journaling during a four month period of fieldwork (Mid-September 2011 until early January 2012) in the city of Kyoto, Japan. My research suggests that, as Japanese society continues to change, contemporary Japanese youth are losing some traditional knowledge of symbolic representations found at shrine and temple sites, signifying a general gap in traditional knowledge between generations. This indicates that symbolic forms are either changing, or possibly that the youth of today are not learning about current or past symbolic meanings in the first place. Moreover, the reasons for visiting temple and shrines are increasingly due to specifically non-religious purposes such as tourism or entertainment.

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