Sacralizing the Playful Secular: The Deity of Karuta-Gambling at the Nose Kannon Hall in Sannohe, Aomori
Focusing on the karuta zushi at the Nose Kannon Hall, this study shares my preliminary explorations into a dynamic decentering of the predominant discourse on the early modern into modern Japanese culture of play. I argue that the presence of karuta on the Nose Kannon Hall central shrine provokes a kind of double effect. On the one hand, the cards secularized the deities within; all the while, the cards themselves were sacralized through their physical contact with the sacred receptacle of the Buddhist deity and their presence within the Nose Kannon Hall sanctified site.
2. Prayer at the Nose Kannon Hall: A Brief History
3. Play at the Nose Kannon Hall: Karuta Playing Cards
The regionality of the kurofuda cards and the local history surrounding their use on the Nose Kannon zushi betrays the limitation of the present discourse on the playfulness of the Edo-period (or more generally Japanese) cultural production centered around the metropolises of Edo/Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The use of karuta at the Nose Kannon Hall was predicated upon the prevalence of a particular kind of chihōfuda around Iwate to the Aomori regions, and on the local communities’ engagement with and perception of karuta as an object and gameplay. In fact, the cultural and social associations karuta and card play cumulated in the early modern and modern periods differed in the metropolises and peripheries.
4. Sacralizing the Secular with Prayer and Play: Gokaichō at the Nose Kannon Hall
It is not clear when such a connection between the kakebotoke and kakegoto was formed at the Nose Kannon. However, considering that kakebotoke is a relatively familiar format of representing a kami-Buddhist icon in Japan, yet there are no other instances that I found so far where this sort of explicit connection to gambling is made, I believe we can still surmise that the presence of karuta played a key role in establishing this somewhat mischievous prayer–play connection at this site.
Recently, the belief in both a Bodhisattva and a localized deity of gambling is alive in this mountainous region distanced from the cultural and political center. Its cultivation and survival have depended on a diverse group of people who have visited the Nose Kannon for different purposes over the years. Before the twentieth century, communities based on the Nose Kannon Hall included Buddhists, pilgrims worshipping Kanno, and travelers along the artery road passing through the checkpoint. Although a more detailed account of the premodern history of the Nose Kannon Hall is needed, the presence of a deity with an ambiguous kami-Buddhist-folk belief may have helped the temple survive the Meiji-era susception of support toward Buddhist institutions in favor of elevating Shinto as a national religion in the 1870s.
To my knowledge, no other miniature shrine manifests the interesting oscillation between prayer and play like the karuta-decorated zushi at the Nose Kannon Hall. The remoteness of the location likely shielded the temple from the scrutiny of the political institutions at the urban centers, and the act of karuta playing and gambling gained a new, more positive meaning of luck, abundance, and prosperity.
For the periphery, the sense of prayer and play had more of a key existential importance because this makes it possible for the religious institution to draw people from afar to their remote place. In this sense, karuta sustained the community. After the Edo period, while the natural traffic from travelers stopped coming, the karuta zushi became an object that attracted visitors to the temple, where further devotion was shown. Although the old miniature shrine was burnt along with the hall during a fire in the 1930s, after the 1938 rebuild of the Nose Kannon Hall, the karuta zushi was also recreated, indicating a further degree of commitment to using karuta for decoration in the method of nailing: on the old zushi, each card was nailed onto the surface with one or two nails, but the new zushi attached five nails to every karuta. Such small details contribute to the overall striking effect of the zushi, whether it is closed or opened.
Such a commitment made the karuta zushi into a spectacle attracting visitors. The gokaichō has continued to this day to welcome both Buddhist believers devoted to Kannon and curious visitors revering the alleged kami of gambling. The aspect of play has been broadened in the modern time. The application of karuta has sacralized the cards themselves while transforming the hidden central deity into a more approachable “folk” deity with ties to the everyday leisure of the local devotees. Visitors come to this place today not only to pray for good luck in card games but also to wish for good fortune and prosperity such as in lotteries, dedicating objects from playing card decks to lottery tickets to Kannon Hall. The decennial public opening of the zushi celebrates the duality and ambiguity of the sacred and secular, continuing an Edo-esque manner that intertwines prayer and play.
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