Theses Doctoral

The culture of healing in early medieval Japan: a microhistorical study in premodern epistemology

Poletto, Alessandro

This dissertation is a cultural and social history of healing in Japan from the tenth to the thirteenth century. In particular, in this work I examine the connection between Buddhism and healing, and the interactions between Buddhist healers and other technicians involved in the treatment of illness, such as onmyōji and court physicians. This direction of research is informed by historical anthropology and microhistory, and constitutes and attempt towards an ethnography of early medieval Japan, an era in which Buddhism constituted the most pervasive cultural force. The study of Buddhism in its therapeutic dimension among the court elites thus doubles as a study of Buddhism in its everyday dimensions, and of its contributions to the understanding of the forces that shaped everyday life, with an emphasis on facets that are often overlooked in Japanese and western Buddhology, including the interpretation and treatment of illness, discourses on etiology, spirit possession and iatromancy (divination on disease).While generally treated as discrete entities, Buddhism, onmyōdō, kami cults, and court physicians and their therapeutic technologies existed side by side and intersected in complicated ways when seen in the daily life of court aristocrats. Through an analysis of the journals that these figures have left behind, I aim to complicate the boundaries separating these cultic realms by arguing that while distinct at the level of professional practitioners, Buddhism, onmyōdō and other spheres of specialized knowledge all functionally contributed to the culture of everyday life of court aristocracy.

Focusing on practices and discourses that blur the boundaries between ritual and physical endeavors, and dealing with themes that range from spirit possession and its political implications to the relationship between kami and buddhas, from the ritual implications of an expanded access to the levers of power to the transformation of a foundational Buddhist ritual into a therapeutic practice, I criticize the tendency displayed by scholars to partition the activities of Buddhist monks, onmyōji and court physicians in epistemic terms, so that while court physicians would be concerned with the physical body, the others — and Buddhist monks in particular — would not. This distinction, which clearly echoes the modern differentiation between “medicine” and “religion,” is however inadequate to account for the complexity of the therapeutic arena of early medieval Japan. Through an examination of various practitioners of healing from the tenth to the thirteenth century, I will argue for the need to rethink neat taxonomies and sanitized epistemological spaces; rediscover the centrality of practice and redefine its relationship with normative texts and theorizations; and explore, on the ground, the complexity of daily life and its processes.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Poletto_columbia_0054_16251.pdf Poletto_columbia_0054_16251.pdf application/pdf 2.82 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Moerman, Max D.
Como, Michael I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 19, 2020