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Oliver Statler

Oliver Statler’s brilliant book “Japanese Pilgrimage” about the Ohenro was influential in introducing the pilgrimage to a Western audience.

Oliver Statler

Name In Japanese : オリバー・スタットラー 
Pronunciation : oliba sutatora
Period : 1915 to 2002

Oliver Hadley Statler was born in 1915, in the small dairy community of Huntley, Illinois. After graduating from high school where he showed his talents in English, Statler continued his education at the University of Chicago, an institution with which he was to have a life-long relationship.

During World War II, he was stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines but was home on leave when the war ended. He requested return to his unit for duty in the Occupation of Japan but was discharged. So he took a civil service position with the Army and arrived in Yokohama in April 1947, staying for several years and writing books including “Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn” and “Japanese Inn”.

As a visiting professor in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii in 1977, he taught a seminar on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. In Statler’s own words;

“My interest in the Pilgrimage to the Eighty-eight Sacred Places of Shikoku dates from my first visit to Shikoku, in 1961. I first performed the 1,000-mile circular pilgrimage in 1968. From 1969-1971 I lived on Shikoku in the city of Matsuyama in order to study and perform the pilgrimage, and in 1971 made the entire pilgrimage again. In 1973 I was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which permitted me to undertake a book about the pilgrimage. “Japanese Pilgrimage” was published in May 1983.

During 1980-81, I was a visiting professor at Kobe College. During this year in Japan I worked with a Matsuyama film maker, Ueda Masakazu, to make an 8-mm film about the pilgrimage; the film was first shown at the 1983 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in San Francisco.”

“Japanese Pilgrimage” is a tour de force of scholarship and imagination. Its outline follows the course of his own pilgrimage with a Japanese companion, a narrative which is handled in an engaging documentary style. This is interspersed with stories about Kobo Daishi and other historical pilgrims with unforgettable vividness. How an American who didn’t actually speak Japanese could get so far into the skin of the characters he depicts is something of a mystery. Statler was initially contemptuous of those who ‘cheated’ by using public transport on the pilgrimage, but ultimately, he came to understand the merits himself.

After publishing “Japanese Pilgrimage”, Statler taught further courses on the pilgrimage and travelled all over the U.S. promoting his book, thereby bringing the pilgrimage to the notice of many Americans. In the 1980s he led groups of university students on pilgrimage trips.

Statler died in February 2002.

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