The Asiatic Society 
of Japan

 150th Anniversary Year

Next lecture (online): JST 2022.12.12 18:00
Dr. Halle O’Neal,
Co-Director of Edinburgh Buddhist Studies,
Edinburgh University  


JST 2022.12.12
Dr. Halle O’Neal,
Co-Director of Edinburgh Buddhist Studies at Edinburgh University
 “Coping with Death through the Creative Reuse of Handwritten Letters in Medieval Japan” 

Synopsis. In the crucible of loss, those left behind experience a need to touch, to hear, to see the departed. In medieval Japan, amongst the limited possessions remaining after death were handwritten letters, exchanged and retained over many years. Memoirs of the time are punctuated by poignant laments upon encountering the dead’s letters; and for one diarist, seeing the handwriting of her love summoned unbearable sorrow, and she committed the missives to the fire rather than live with their stark reminder of loss. This talk, therefore, explores the haptic dimension of paper, writing, and grief in Buddhist memorial palimpsests. These textually layered compositions were produced at cataclysmic moments: upon the death of a loved one, family members gathered the dead’s letters and ritually transformed them into embodied palimpsests through the transcription of sacred scripture as a new textual layer on the letter’s recto or verso. Overwritten and reinscribed, the somatic and haptic dimensions of these palimpsests depend on one another, and experiencing the texture of the letters is key to the grieving process and to accessing the presence of the dead. By focusing on the tactility of the letter, this talk elucidates the importance of feeling the materiality of these fragmented bits of paper through the analysis of extant examples and primary source records. 

Brief Biography. Dr. Halle O’Neal is a Reader in Japanese art and Co-Director of Edinburgh Buddhist Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her recent book, Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art published by Harvard University Asia Center (2018), explored the intersections of word and image and relics and reliquaries, as well as the performativity and objecthood of Buddhist texts. She is currently on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, in which she is working on her book, “Writing against Death: Reuse and Recycling in Japanese Buddhist Manuscripts.” This project explores the materiality of mourning, the visualisation of memory, and the haptic experience of Japanese palimpsests. She sits on the editorial boards of Art Bulletin and Art in Translation.

Online Lecture Programme for 2023  

JST 2023.1.30
Ms Erika Colon de Ishikawa
“The White Hands Chorus, breaking social barriers through music”

JST 2023.2.20
Dr. Sara Park,
Department of Cultures, Faculty of Arts,  University of Helsinki
"Making and managing the border: travel and trades around Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s"

JST 2023.3.27
Annual General Meeting & Special Lecture by the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Japan, H. E. Mr. Pawel Milewski
“The origins and impact of the Polish minority in East Asia and Japan”

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