In the medieval period, the term jishū, literally the ‘people of the time,’ referred to those who chanted the name of Amida Buddha (the nembutsu chant). The group performing the chant and the individuals in the group, male or female, were known as jishū. In other words, jishū was a term that referred to a congregation of people (religious or lay) who gathered together for a special or provisional occasion to chant the nembutsu without interruption. It is not until later that the term jishū came to represent a specific religious order.
The religious group known as jishū today derives from the Yugyō-ha (Itinerant School, Yugyō school). They were one of the most prominent jishū groups of the medieval period. Under the seventeenth century Tokugawa religious reforms the various jishū groups were consolidated into one sect, and the Yugyō school was made head of this new Ji-sect, called Jishū, the Time Sect. (The individuals and groups known as jishū in the medieval era used the characters time 時and congregation衆. The Time Sect Jishū used the characters time時 and sect宗).
Jishū, in the form of the Ji-sect, continues to exist today as a relatively small sect with about four hundred temples throughout Japan. The head temple is Shōjōkōji (or Yugyōji) in Fujisawa, Kanagawa prefecture.
The founder of the Yugyō school is attributed to Ippen Chishin (1239-1289) the charismatic itinerant holy man. Ippen’s life and teaching are recorded in the splendid pictorial scroll Ippen hijiri e (Illustrated life of the holy-man Ippen. Also known as Ippen shōnin eden).
This scroll, surviving from 1299, offers images of Ippen and his fellowship of jishū traveling by foot throughout Japan and is a wonderful window into the life of medieval Japan. The jishū who traveled with Ippen included both men and women. This co-participation men and women continued to be a part of the Yugyō school well into the seventeenth century.
An important document surviving from the Yugyō school is the death registry, Kakochō.
This Kakochō was used by the leaders of the Yugyō school starting from 1281 to write down the names of the deceased members (and eventual patrons). The religious name, their date of death, and occasionally the location of death, or their position (or occupation) was noted down. These metadata are helpful in identifying the community that surrounded the Yugyō school.
Identifications attached to members such as yugyō (itinerant group), bōzu (leader of a practice hall), shoku dokoro (food place), sōsahi-sho (mending place), offers us an idea of the type of specialization that occurred in the group. Also, professionals, such as nenju-ya (rosary shop), ishidaiku (stone constructor), giba (healers using Chinese medicine) and interestingly, kaizoku (pirates) all inform us of the community that supported the Yugyō school. Of further interest are the noted roles of miko (shaman) and bikuni (nun), reflecting an open community that accepted other teachings and practices.
While the Yugyō school was a mixed gendered community, this did not equate to equality. Yet, the opportunities available to the female members of the school were numerous, including important duties such as leadership of practice halls, dōjō.
Joining the Yugyō school meant a life of travel, uncertainty, separation from loved ones as well as discipline and obedience to the leader. Being a jishū did not require a secluded life, but rather an active life. The purpose of their practice was not isolation for one’s own liberation, but to show the path of salvation to as many as possible.
Our first example of a female jishū is Chin’ichibō, while technically not a Yugyō school jishū, she was a leader of a prominent dōjō which converted to the Yugyō school after her death.