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Jennifer Robertson
University of Michigan
Ema -gined Community
Votive Tablets ( ema ) and Strategic Ambivalence in Wartime Japan
Ema 絵馬 is the generic Japanese word for “votive tablet.” This article
explores the challenge of interpreting ema created and ofered during World
War Two, and argues that the meanings of an ema are multiple and layered.
Whether actualized or not, or only in part, the potential of votive tablets both
signiies the agency of popular consciousness and lies in transforming popular
consciousness. The legibility of a presented tablet is informed by a reader’s
symbolic literacy and structural relationship to the producer, subject, or ritual
context. The ambivalence and ambiguity of wartime ema resist impositions of
an oicial or true story, and their scarcity and ephemerality make moot inter-
pretive approaches premised on a large data base. Also addressed, therefore, is
the necessity of developing strategies for tapping the ethnographic, historical,
and cultural richness of ephemeral artifacts, such as votive tablets, that were
ubiquitous yesterday and scarce today.
keywords: ema —votive tablets—ritual—wartime—popular culture—
Asian Ethnology Volume 67 , N umber 1 2008, 43–77
© Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture
Those who gave their lives at Pearl Harbor and defended the country were
splendid, but looking at the black marketeers and the like on the homefront,
those who died look foolish. If people keep dying for the sake of the emperor,
there will be no Japanese people left. The emperor is the same human being [as
we], isn’t he?
then consider ways in which it can be read. The artifact in question is an ema
, the generic Japanese word for votive tablet. This particular ema (figures 1 and
2), one of only a dozen or so votive paintings remaining whose main image is a
uniformed soldier, was discovered by folklorist Ishiko Junzō 石子順造 in a temple,
Myōhōji 妙法寺 (in Suginami Ward 杉並 , Tokyo), built in the seventeenth century
and known for its “pox warding” eicacy. 2 The hand-painted tablet, about eigh-
teen inches square, was the only (remaining) “soldier ema ” among the dozens of
others clustered on a ledge along the side of the temple. A uniformed soldier is
represented standing and bowing, hat of, in a temple courtyard. Behind the ig-
ure are hills, traditional-style houses, and a pine tree, over which is superimposed
an opaque fan-like shape bearing the generic expression, hōnō 奉納 , or “ofering.”
An opaque rectangular shape in the lower left-hand corner contains a name, Katō
Shingorō 加藤新五郎 , and a partial address, Ōizumi Village 大泉村 (in Nerima 練馬
Ward, Tokyo). Ishiko explains that the tablet was ofered in “thanks for discharge
from military service” ( jotai orei 除隊御礼 ), although an inscription to that efect
does not appear on the tablet—perhaps on the reverse side along with a date?
Inscriptions are often found on the reverse side of votive tablets, detailing the
occasion for and date of the ofering, along with the name, age, and address of
either the person who ofers the ema or that of the person on behalf of whom the
ema is ofered. 3
Let us now venture into the realm of interpretation, for there are several ways
in which to read this particular ema. Although votive paintings may collectively
constitute a medium of “crisis resolution,” (cf. Lepovitz 1990), anthropologist
Kubota Yoshihiro 久保田芳広 (1978, 308) suggests that it is only individually, on a
case by case basis, that their precise critical meaning and signiicance can be com-
prehended. Moreover, because of the ambiguous meaning of the image itself, all
the more so when coupled with an inscription that is either clichéd or detailed yet
44 | Asian Ethnology Volume 67, Number 1 2008
(antiwar graito recorded in Tokkō geppō 特攻月報 , 1 May 1943, 27–28;
quoted in Dower 1993, 145)
I shall begin by describing an artifact of everyday life in wartime Japan and
robertson: e m a and thought in wartime japan | 45
figure 1. Ema (15.6 inches by 12.5 inches) of a bowing soldier. The name Katō
Shingorō is evident in the lower left-hand corner (Image from Ishiko 1974, 76).
figure 2. The ema in figure 1 shown in situ (right-hand side) at Myōhōji. (Image
from Ishiko 1974, 95.
ambivalent, any one ema may contain several readings and levels of signiicance.
Kubota, who is critical of ema scholars whose zeal to classify leads them to impose
singular deinitions on generic images, makes an example of a votive tablet from
Tsugaru 津軽 (western part of Aomori 青森 Prefecture) featuring the image of a
spotted cat biting a writhing snake. He takes issue with folklorist Matsuno Takeo
松野武雄 (1930) who explained that the cat-snake ema was ofered to placate the
possibly vengeful spirit of the snake, a sacred creature, killed by the supplicant’s
domestic cat. 4 How Matsuno arrived at this explanation is not clear—was it the
meaning supplied by the actual supplicant? By other local residents? Educated
guesswork? In the absence of any speciic ethnographic data, Kubota suggests an
alternative reading: the snake represents a hateful opponent that the spotted cat is
destroying. In other words, ofering such a votive tablet might also be a medium
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46 | Asian Ethnology 67/1 2008
for cursing an enemy (Kubota 1978, 308), or by the same token, for thanking
the addressee (usually a deity) for eliminating an opponent or obstacle. Or, to
continue, such a tablet might be a request for protection now and in the future
from such opponents or obstacles. Without knowledge of the alleged intentions
of the supplicant, even if the ema includes a written expression or account of the
occasion for its ofering, scholars can only make informed guesses about the likely
meaning or meanings of a generic motif. Such knowledge is neither always pos-
sible nor feasible to acquire, especially in the case of ema ofered by persons no
longer living or who are untraceable. Therefore, scholars who study such artifacts
should, at the very least, acknowledge their pictorial and narrative polysemy.
The soldier ema in figure 1 is more ambiguous or equivocal than Ishiko’s sim-
ple explanation would suggest. Ambiguity and ambivalence insure that readings
are kept in constant luctuation. This does not mean that the meanings of an ema
are ininite—they are not—but rather, as I argue, that they are multiple and lay-
ered. In the case of figure 1, many scenarios are possible: a) the votive tablet was
ofered by Katō’s mother (possibly a war widow) in anticipation of his conscription
or shortly after he was conscripted in an efort to mobilize the deities to intervene
and spare her son 5 and thus to help insure the integrity of the household; or b) the
mother could have ofered it in gratitude for her son’s safe return and discharge;
or c) Katō himself ofered it for one of these reasons. Other scenarios are not
likely, for example, that someone ofered the ema either to memorialize Katō’s
death in battle or to request a glorious battle death. It seems quite certain that
the majority of votive paintings in Japan, like those in Catholic Europe, Mexico,
and Latin America, were not used for either funereal purposes or to mark a death
anniversary. Rather, votive paintings and objects in general seem to constitute a
technique or mode of problem solving, crisis resolution, and/or thanks-giving. 6
The few exceptions in Japan are mizuko ema 水子絵馬 ofered to acknowledge
a miscarriage or abortion, mabiki ema 間引き絵馬 that address infanticide, and
mukasari ema ムカサリ絵馬 utilized as a vehicle for transacting “marriages of dead
souls” ( shirei kekkon 死霊結婚 ) a practice apparently limited to northeastern Japan
and Okinawa (Arakaki 1993; Makabe 1979; Matsuzaki 1993a–c; Sakurai 1993;
Takamatsu 1993; see also Schattschneider 2001). Thus, if Katō had hailed
from the northeast—he did not—and had died an unmarried man, an ema repre-
senting him with a bride may have been ofered to both commemorate his death
and to ofer him marital solace in the other world. I will return to these dead soul-
related ema further on.
World War Two 7 presented a major crisis for the Japanese people even as it
fostered a spirit of patriotism and heady nationalism, especially before 1942, when
the Allies began to irebomb the archipelago. The military machine necessary to
secure and maintain Japan’s Asian and Paciic colonies was also deployed domesti-
cally, unreservedly from the mid-1930s onward, through patriotic societies, neigh-
borhood organizations, and the police, all of which enforced “proper thinking”
(Mitchell 1976, 21). Although, and because, the state forbade public expres-
sions of dissent from the outset of the war, such took the form of both communist
robertson: e m a and thought in wartime japan | 47
and anti-military graiti (refer to the epigraph), gossip and rumor-mongering,
and the circulation of money and election ballots on which were scribbled anti-
war slogans or feelings of disgruntlement and anxiety (Dower 1993, 123 & 131). 8
I include votive tablets and paintings among these ephemeral media through
which “improper thinking” was expressed, often obliquely and through meta-
phor. 9 Although theoretically any type of ema could serve as a means of com-
municating improper ideas, I will limit my analytical focus to the class of soldier
ema , sometimes referred to more generally as gunkoku ema 軍国絵馬 , or “military
nation” ema , made and ofered in connection to wartime exigencies. They are
singular among votive tablets in featuring ordinary uniformed soldiers as picto-
rial subjects—as opposed to famous samurai, generals, or other historical igures,
such as Nichiren 日蓮 . 10 Soldier ema are semiotically and semantically ambiguous,
as I have already suggested, and represent both explicit and subtextual statements
about sentiments and experiences which may appear to contradict each other.
At this juncture, a brief review of the history of the ema genre followed by a
discussion of the ritual practices and processes involved in ofering a votive tablet
will help to contextualize my thesis.
The genre
Ema literally means “horse pictures,” which the earliest, eighth-century
ones ostensibly were. 11 The term itself is said to have irst appeared in an early
eleventh-century text (Ishiko 1974, 159), and ema appear in several scroll paint-
ings from the early thirteenth century (for example, Tengu zōshi emaki 天狗草紙
絵巻 ) (see K awada 1974). By the seventeenth-century, votive motifs and themes
were as numerous as the number of supplicants, and continue to be so today.
Most Japanese scholars of ema posit practical economy as the motive spurring the
invention of the votive tablets. The images allegedly substituted for the live horses
donated in ancient Shinto ceremonies held to commemorate departed leaders and
also to beseech the deities ( kami ) 12 for, among other things, favorable weather
(Iwai 1976, 3–28; Ishiko 1974, 154–57; Meshida 1967, 18–21). 13
Ema motifs other than horses seem to have been ofshoots of the eighth-cen-
tury Buddhist prayer-papers. These were printed with the portrait, name, and
symbol or mantra of a particular deity, and distributed to diferent households
by itinerant Buddhist personnel. The prayer-papers were regarded as protective
charms believed to guarantee relief from illness, poverty, and other profound, sec-
ular concerns. As the Shinto and Buddhist epistemologies came to overlap and
fuse, so did the use of horse images and prayer-papers, forming the ema genre as
we recognize it today.
Sheer numbers aside, the growing popularity of votive paintings from the sev-
enteenth century onward occasioned the use of multiple media and the creation
of various tablet shapes. While rectangular and pentagonal ema continue to be
the most prevalent, some of the more novel shapes invented include fan-, torii
- (gateway), and wreath-like images. They are variously decorated with colorful
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