Mar 142017

Jinja Shinpō has a weekly column called “Thoughts in the Forest”, written by a small group who take turns. Last week’s was by “Sunami Tomoto” (possibly), which I believe is a pseudonym. (Some of the authors have photographs, and others don’t, and my understanding is that the ones without photographs are pseudonymous. That understanding may, however, be wrong.) The title of the piece was “Looks Foreign”.

In the column, he reports that he was asked by some part of the mass media how many foreign Shinto priests there were, and wonders whether they would ask the same question about Catholic priests. He points out that Jinja Honchō does not ask about nationality when licensing priests, and and that if the person in question had taken Japanese citizenship, then they would be Japanese even if they didn’t look it, so it’s not actually a question he could answer. The final point of the column is that he hopes that Japanese society will stop thinking that people “look foreign”.

Obviously, on a personal level, it’s nice to see another affirmation that I am Japanese. I also suspect that most of the Shinto priests who read the column will nod in agreement, along the lines of “Yes, we really should stop doing that”.

I’ve been Japanese for almost a year now, and everyone assumes that I’m a foreigner. However, I have yet to encounter any resistance when I tell people that I am actually Japanese. They are often a bit surprised, but no-one has given me the sense that there was some sort of problem with the idea. I think that the “typical Japanese” appearance is a strong part of the stereotype of “Japanese”, but, at least for Japanese people, not part of the norms. In other words, you expect Japanese people to look like that, and expect people who don’t look like that not to be Japanese, but it’s not a problem when you discover that someone who looks different is Japanese; that’s unusual, not wrong. It’s like the stereotype that you go up steps to reach the entrance to a jinja. That is almost always the case, but a jinja like Ichi-no-Miya Nukisaki Jinja, in Gunma Prefecture, where you go down steps to the main sanctuary, is not wrong, it’s just very unusual, to the point that almost every time it gets mentioned, the fact that you go down the steps is also mentioned.

It’s very good that the Shinto world is aware of this issue. I suspect, however, that as long as foreign tourists outnumber foreign-looking Japanese by about a hundred to one, it’s going to be difficult to stop people thinking that I look foreign.

I am writing a series of essays about Shinto, funded through Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about the topic, please take a look.

Feb 152017

One of the associations that is very closely linked to Jinja Honchō is the Shinto Seiji Renmei. Its Japanese name means “Shinto Politics Association”, but the official English name is the “Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership”. The Shinto Seiji Renmei’s political position could be described as the conservative edge of the mainstream; it is a mainstream political group, but any group that is significantly more conservative or right-wing is on the fringes. Politically, I disagree fundamentally with a lot of their positions, and disagree about the importance they attach to most of the others.

The Shinto Seiji Renmei has affiliated associations for elected representatives at all levels, from local councils to the national Diet. The Diet Members’ association has 305 members, which is about 40% of the Diet. Most of its members come from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but not all (although I suspect that it has no Communist members).

One of the more important jinja in Tokyo is Hië Jinja, a branch jinja of Hiyoshi Taisha in Shiga Prefecture. (The kanji read as “yoshi” in “Hiyoshi Taisha” was, historically, also read “e”, although Hië Jinja now uses a different kanji.) Thanks to its location, it was the tutelary jinja for Edo Castle, the seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and its Grand Festival was one of the largest matsuri in Edo. When the Tennō moved to Edo, renaming it Tokyo, he moved into Edo Castle, and so Hië Jinja became the tutelary jinja for the Imperial Palace, thus ensuring its continued importance. The National Diet Building and Diet Members’ Offices were built within its “ujikokuiki”, the area that it is responsible for, and thus it is also the tutelary jinja for the National Diet.

Among its other regular matsuri, Hië Jinja holds matsuri on the 1st and 15th of each month. These include sacred dance (kagura), and the food offerings are formally placed before the kami by a number of priests working together. The chief priest of the jinja reads the norito, and everyone in attendance offers a tamagushi at the end. Anyone may attend, and there is no need to book in advance. If you turn up by about 8:45am on the appropriate day, dressed smartly and with at least ¥1,000 for an offering, you may participate. (Speaking Japanese would be a big help, but I suspect that it is not strictly necessary.)

I discovered these matsuri a few years ago, when I was working within Hië Jinja’s area, and thus it was, in a sense, one of my tutelary jinja. I attended them fairly often then, but now that I am not working there I can only go when I have time to get over to Nagatachō in the morning. My schedule meant that I was able to go today.

The Shinto Seiji Renmei Diet Members’ Association also attends those matsuri twice a year; a group of them (I think it depends on who has time) attend one of the matsuri soon after a session of the Diet begins. (This is usually reported in Jinja Shinpō.) The current Diet session began on January 20th, and the Diet Members’ Association attended today’s matsuri.

This is, in my opinion, an extremely appropriate thing for them to do. Hië Jinja is, after all, the tutelary jinja of the Diet, so attending matsuri there is something that Diet Members who officially affiliate themselves with Shinto almost should do. It is the sort of tradition that one might think dates back to the creation of the Diet in the Meiji Period, or at least to the foundation of the Shinto Seiji Renmei in 1969. However, it only goes back a couple of years.

One of my English students is a member of the Diet, and an officer of the Shinto Seiji Renmei Diet Members’ Association (I think he is currently the secretary, but I am not absolutely sure). After I had attended a few of the matsuri, I mentioned them to him, and asked whether he would be interested in attending. It took a while for him to find a day that was possible, but eventually he was able to attend one of them with me. According to him, he thought that it was a very good matsuri, and very appropriate for members of the association, so he suggested, to the association, that they formally attend. They also, it seems, thought that it was a good idea, and so they have now been doing it for a couple of years.

Thus, when I attended this morning, my student introduced me to all the other Diet Members present as a Japanese follower of Shinto, and the original stimulus for the Diet Members’ visits.

Matsuri are one of the topics I have already covered in my Patreon essays about Shinto, and tutelary jinja, and the Shinto Seiji Renmei, are likely to be covered in the future. If you are interested in reading more about Shinto, please take a look.

Feb 072017

The Hina dolls: a princess and prince on the top shelf, with three female attendants on the shelf below, and an ox-drawn carriage, palanquin, and treasure box on the bottom shelf. All the dolls are dressed for the Heian period.Today, we put up Mayuki’s Hina Matsuri dolls. These dolls are traditionally given to Japanese girls by their maternal grandmothers, and are displayed for the Hina Matsuri every year. The matsuri itself is on March 3rd, but you are supposed to put the dolls away on or around that date, so we put them up about a month in advance. We (with the help of Mayuki’s grandmother) bought them soon after Mayuki was born, and we have put them up every year, so that this was the tenth time.

Mayuki helped me to put them up, but when I told her that it was the tenth time, she drew her breath in sharply.

“That means there’s a curse! On the tenth, twentieth, and so on times that the dolls are displayed, they curse you.”

I have no idea where that idea comes from, but I had a solution. We would perform an oharai, a ritual purification, on the dolls. We borrowed a gohei (a wooden stick with two shidë, pieces of paper folded into lightning shapes) from the kamidana, and I recited the standard oharai norito while Mayuki waved the gohei to purify the dolls. She was satisfied that this would be sufficient to avert any curse.

“I wonder what it would have been?”

This is particularly interesting because the hina dolls have their origin in purification rituals. Originally, the owner’s ritual impurity was transferred to the dolls, and then the dolls were floated down a river or buried to take the impurity away. Although they are far too beautiful, and expensive, to throw away now, they are still believed to protect the girl in some way, and putting them away late is supposed to indicate that she will not get married early. (I don’t believe that sort of superstition, but still, there’s no hurry to tidy them up.)

I think I might well write an essay about purification rituals for the next essay on my Patreon. I have just released an essay about the Japanese Emperor, the Tennō, and his place in Shinto, so I need to think of the next theme.

Jan 282017

Hatsumōdë is the first visit to a jinja (or Buddhist temple, but normally jinja) of the New Year. In one use, it simply refers to a person’s first visit in a year, no matter when it happens. The most common use these days, however, is to refer to the custom of visiting a jinja in the first three days of the New Year (or maybe a few days later if you are away). This is an extremely popular custom; the estimates I have seen are that about 80% of Japanese people do it, and I find that plausible, or maybe even a bit low. A lot of people perform their hatsumōdë during the night, and even at small jinja people start queueing half an hour or so before midnight. It is common for jinja to mark midnight by striking a taiko (Japanese drum), and to open the prayer hall at that point so that people can pay their respects.

Meiji Jingū in Tokyo gets the highest number of visitors of any single institution, and this year it reported 3,180,000 visitors in the first three days of the year. The report in Jinja Shinpō also commented that the number of foreign visitors to Meiji Jingū has significantly increased in recent years, and that, at hatsumōdë this year, the number of foreigners wearing kimono was striking.

On the other hand Jingū, in Ise, reported 490,000 visitors. That may not sound so impressive, given that it is said to be the most important jinja in Japan; why does Meiji Jingū get so many more? The answer is that Meiji Jingū is in the centre of Tokyo, where 35 million people have easy access by public transport; there is a railway and metro station just outside the entrance. On the other hand, the total population of Ise city was, according to the city’s website, 128,800. Thus, while 10% of the population of Tokyo went to Meiji Jingū, which is impressive, the visitors to Jingū numbered four times the population of the city. The nearest large city, Nagoya, is over an hour by express train, so people who visited Jingū for hatsumōdë were making a real effort.

The custom of hatsumōdë has roots going back almost a thousand years, to a New Year jinja visit performed by the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo. It has, however, only become really popular in living memory. The older priests at my local jinja can remember when the night of New Year was very quiet, and now they have to hire security people to manage the crowds. As almost all the visitors make at least a small offering, and many make offerings for omamori or hamaya (lucky arrows), the hatumōdë visits have become very important to the financial stability of many jinja. I suspect that a lot of priests pray for good weather over the New Year.

Dec 272016

A commenter on my Japanese blog sent me a link to an interview with Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian-born Shinto priest (link is to the English translation). I’ve actually been mistaken for Revd Wiltschko, despite being a lot older, not blond, and not a Shinto priest. I agree with a lot of what he says in the interview, although in the end I come down on the side of thinking that it is more helpful to describe Shinto as a religion.

Revd Wiltschko is (to the best of my knowledge) unique in being a foreign Shinto priest who has been trained and authorised by The Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchō). There are a number of others, but they were all trained and licensed by different Shinto groups. Strictly speaking, there are other foreigners who have been licensed, but they are all of Japanese descent and running jinja in Hawai’i, and I think they were born Japanese, in Japan. (The specific examples I know of were, but I haven’t done a systematic survey.)

One interesting comment in the interview is the revelation that more senior priests said that it would be “very un-Japanese” to not allow foreigners to become priests. That fits with the attitudes that I’ve encountered, although I’ve never heard it expressed in so many words.

Dec 142016

Your Name is a Japanese animated feature film written and directed by Makoto Shinkai that is currently doing extremely well in Japan. It was released in August, and when I went to see it with my nine-year-old daughter on Sunday, the cinema was full. It is, apparently, the second-highest-grossing Japanese animation in Japan, behind Spirited Away, and as it is still showing it is possible that it could become top. It was shown briefly in Los Angeles earlier this month, in order to qualify for the Oscars, and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Animated Film.

So, the first reason for mentioning it is that both I and my daughter really enjoyed it, and it will have a US release next year, so you should go to see it.

The reason for mentioning it here is that Shinto themes are quite important in the film. One of the central characters, Mitsuha Miyamizu, is the heir to the line of hereditary priests at a jinja, Miyamizu Jinja, and her service as a miko at the jinja, while only occupying a fairly small part of the film, is very important to the plot. Although the film is a fantasy, it is one in which there are a few elements of fantasy in a realistically drawn contemporary Japan (indeed, the windows of the office where I used to work appear briefly in one scene), and the portrayal of Mitsuha’s life in her hometown gives a good idea of how Shinto and jinja fit into normal Japanese society.

Another interesting point from my perspective is that there is an extended explanation of “musubi” as a central idea of Shinto, and of the film. “Musubi” is a term going back to the earliest recorded forms of Shinto, although it is thought that it was originally pronounced “musuhi”. It was the term for the power of creation and growth, and appears as an element in the names of several kami, including two of the first three kami to appear in the creation myth given in the Kojiki, the oldest account of Japanese myth. However, because it is homophonous with the word for “knot”, it is also used to refer to strong relationships between people; as I discussed in my Patreon essay about matsuri, “enmusubi” matsuri, at which people pray for good romantic relationships, are very popular these days.

Although I had heard of the film when my daughter said she wanted to see it, I wasn’t aware of the Shinto elements in advance, so that was a pleasant surprise. In addition, the animation and design are beautiful, the characters are interesting, and while the plot will not radically overturn the expectations you form from the trailer, it is solid and not completely predictable. As I said before, I highly recommend it.

Dec 072016

My Patreon has properly started: today, I sent the first paid essay, about the matsuri that are performed at jinja, to all my patrons. The topic was chosen by the higher-level patrons, because they were interested in hearing more about the practical things that priests did at jinja. Since matsuri are the main religious activity, that’s what I wrote about.

I’m currently talking to the higher-level patrons about what to do next, so if you are interested in joining that discussion and getting the resulting essay, please head over to my Patreon, and sign up to support it. Thank you!

Nov 292016

This will be a slightly unusual post, because I want to introduce an active Japanese artist, Mr Rei Torii. His surname is, indeed, “torii”, as in the gate to a jinja, and Shinto themes are very important in his art. Recently, he has completed a large number of works, and a number of large works, recording the great renewal at Jingu in Ise. The Association of Devotees of the Jingu at Ise has given out reproductions of his work as rewards for contributors, and a number of important jinja have paintings by him. He has also had solo exhibitions in Tallin and Berlin, and in fact the Berlin one is still open.

Although I can’t put any of his images here, because I don’t have permission, you can see quite a lot of them on his homepage, and in his online shop.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the reason I am writing about him is that I like his paintings a great deal, particularly the Ise series. They capture, I think, an important part of the spirit of Shinto.

On an unrelated point, if you are interested in my Patreon for Shinto essays, now is a good time to sign up, because the first paid essay will go out to all the patrons who are supporting the effort at the end of November.

Nov 082016

“Can I convert to Shinto?” This is a question I occasionally see online, or the variant “How can I convert to Shinto?”. They both seem like reasonable questions: to convert to Christianity you should be baptised and, according to my understanding, you cannot convert to Zoroastrianism, because the existing community will not accept you unless you are born a Zoroastrian. However, neither question really applies to Shinto.

Shinto is not an identity, it is a group of related activities. This may be why there is no word in English for someone who follows Shinto; there is no common word for it in Japanese, either. Some very approximate statistics from the UK and Japan also illustrate the difference well. About 60% of people in the UK identify as Christian, and about 3% actually go to church. On the other hand, about 3% of people in Japan identify as Shinto, and about 60% go to jinja.

About 10 years ago, Jinja Shinpōsha published a book, Shinto no Iroha, as a general introduction to Shinto. It is in a question-and-answer format, and one of the questions is “How do I convert from Buddhism to Shinto?” The answer starts by saying that Shinto doesn’t really do conversions. There are no ceremonies for it, and because it’s made up of traditional ceremonies and customs, there is nothing like Christianity or Buddhism where you are attached to a particular variety of Shinto.

In short, you cannot convert to Shinto, because Shinto is not something you are.

On the other hand, anyone can participate in Shinto rituals. If a foreign tourist goes to a large jinja in a tourist centre (such as Tokyo or Kyoto) and asks for a ceremony, the miko will probably briefly panic, before bringing the person who has the most confidence in their English to sort out what the tourist wants. (If the tourist does not speak English, further panic will ensue.) If the same tourist goes to a small jinja, or one outside tourist areas, the panic may last a bit longer, but the only problem is the communication problem. If a foreign tourist wants to receive an ofuda so that she can pay her respects to the kami in her own home, or an omamori for some specific benefit, then that is also no problem.

It is true that there are some ceremonies you can only participate in if you are descended from the correct family, but there is a different family for each ceremony. I could never be the chief priest of Izumo Taisha, in Shimane prefecture, because that priest must be the descendant of a line that goes back 1,500 years. However, members of that family could never be the chief priest of Aso Jinja, in Kumamoto prefecture, because the family line there goes back to the same period. On the other hand, there is nothing other than distance preventing me from participating in many of the ceremonies at those jinja.

Shinto is something you do, and one of the fundamental principles of the tradition is that anyone can do those things.

Oct 302016

Today, I went to my local jinja to pay my respects, and the precincts were positively overflowing with families in suits and small children in kimono. It’s Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) season.

Shichi-Go-San is a rite-of-passage festival for children, held at age 3 for both boys and girls, and again at age 5 for boys, and age 7 for girls, hence the name. Traditionally, these ages were Japanese “counted years” ages, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. Thus, you are born at age 1, because you have been alive in one year, and become 2 on the following January 1st. This age is therefore always one or two years higher than your actual age. All of the age-related Shinto ceremonies are traditionally linked to this age, but these days many people do them according to “full years” age, where you are born at age 0, and become 1 year old on your birthday the following year. This is particularly the case for the first of the Shichi-Go-San ceremonies, because one or two-year-old children would not be up to it.

These days, a family celebrates Shichi-Go-San by renting a very fancy kimono for their child, then taking the whole family to a jinja, where the priests perform a standard ceremony, giving thanks for the child’s good health so far, and praying that it might continue into the future. The children typically receive a small gift from the jinja, which normally includes “chitose amë”, “thousand-year sweets”, which is very similar to a stick of rock. Families may visit their local jinja for this ceremony, or go to a large and famous one. In either case, you do not normally need to make a reservation if you are going on a weekend or national holiday during the season, and you can expect to share the ceremony with a number of other families; otherwise it would be impossible for the jinja to get through everyone. My daughter had both of her ceremonies on a weekday, so that we could book and have a slightly less crowded environment.

The tradition has its roots in the Heian period, around a thousand years ago, but at that period only the nobility followed the tradition, and it has been thoroughly transformed. A similar form, linked to the 15th day of the 11th month, was already popular at the end of the seventeenth century, although at that point the three ages did not all have the ceremonies on the same date.

As mentioned above, the traditional date for Shichi-Go-San in November 15th, and the number of families visiting jinja for the ceremony peaks around then. However, in urban areas, the ceremonies spread out for a month or more to either side, and even back into September. One reason for this is that the shops that rent out the children’s kimono give a discount for rental outside the season; another is that the jinja just get really crowded.

Data from ten years ago suggest that about a quarter of Japanese people go to Shichi-Go-San. I suspect that this is out of date, in the low direction; my (limited) conversations with priests suggest that numbers have been going up over the last few years. This is far more than the number who would describe themselves as “Shinto”. So, why do they do it?

A major reason is surely that the children look extremely cute in their kimono, and you get some lovely photographs. Indeed, the screen on my smartphone is still a photograph from my daughter’s seven-year-old ceremony. It is a nice traditional celebration

Is there more to it than that? In some cases, almost certainly. I’ve been asked to talk about why people ask for ceremonies at jinja, and what sorts of ceremonies, in the essays I am writing for my Patreon, so if you are interested in learning more, please check that out.

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