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.

Oct 182016

I have a subscription to Jinja Shinpō, which is effectively the house newspaper of Jinja Shinto. The priests of the 80,000 jinja affiliated to Jinja Honchō (The Association of Shinto Shrines) all have subscriptions, and almost nobody else does; most articles assume that the readers are Shinto priests. This provides an interesting window on what is important to Jinja Honchō, and a less direct view of what is important to Shinto priests in general.

In the October 17 2016 issue, there is a long interview with Tsunekiyo Tanaka. He is the effective head of Jinja Honchō (there are a couple of people who formally outrank him, but their roles are primarily ceremonial), and he has recently been reappointed for a third three-year term. It is common for people to serve two terms in this position, but three is unusual. Obviously, this is a very friendly interview, but that means we can assume that what he says in the interview is what he wants to say; no-one is tricking him into revealing secrets.

The first thing he talks about, in the part of the interview that is printed on the front page of the paper (it continues inside), is the need for Jinja Honchō to talk to priests from around the country, listen to them, and work together to create effective policies to deal with the serious problems facing many jinja, particularly in rural areas. Most notably, depopulation, and the ageing of the people who remain, means that many rural jinja are being maintained by the efforts of a handful of people over 70, and there is no-one younger to take over when they die. A significant number of rural jinja are not being maintained at all. He explicitly notes that Jinja Honchō’s previous attempts could be described as one-sided and top-down, and that although he is the chief priest of a jinja (Iwashimizu Hachimangū, arguably the second most important jinja in Japan for several centuries in the medieval period) many of the staff at Jinja Honchō are not, and thus may not understand the situation on the ground.

One very interesting point he made was a brief discussion of the new disciplinary regulations that Jinja Honchō has just introduced. Some priests worried that this was a sign that Jinja Honchō wanted to start interfering with their activities. However, Revd Tanaka’s explanation was that a number of jinja had faced internal staff problems (often part-time staff acting in ways inconsistent with the dignity of the shrine, such as by playing frisbee with the sacred mirror — although not that exactly, because those mirrors are made of metal, and heavy), but had no disciplinary regulations. However, those jinja that used the Jinja Honchō recommended regulations, which is most of them, have a clause saying that, for anything not covered separately, they use Jinja Honchō’s regulations, so the new disciplinary regulations have been written primarily for the use of local jinja. Similarly, there has been a change to the regulations about the qualifications of acting chief priests, because the old ones were being ignored wholesale. That produced a concern that a lot of acting chief priests would be fired, but, again, the intent is supposed to be to provide more realistic support for them. This is good evidence for Revd Tanaka’s claim that Jinja Honchō has been a bit top-down in the past.

In the interview, he also officially acknowledges that some priests do not see why they need to put so much effort into supporting Jingū at Ise, when it receives millions of visitors, including the G7 heads of state, and supports around 100 priests, and their jinja are barely surviving. Unfortunately, the only answer he has in the interview is that this is what Jinja Honchō was founded to do, 70 years ago. That is true, but I suspect it won’t be enough to convince those priests.

Overall, the interview suggested that he was very interested in talking to priests across the country to find out what the problems are, devise practical solutions, and then actually put them into practice, modified as appropriate for particular regions. He even said that some past efforts had failed to get beyond the stage of talking about things. I think that this is exactly right, and I’m not really surprised; I’ve formed a very good impression of Revd Tanaka over the last few years. I hope he does manage to put this into effect, because Jinja Shinto is facing a major crisis over the next decade.

I’m writing a series of in-depth essays on Shinto, supported by Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto, I invite you to have a look, and consider becoming a patron.

Oct 012016

My Patreon for essays describing Shinto as objectively and accurately as I can manage is now live. Please take a look.

Posts on this site will be more about my personal opinions or individual approach to Shinto, while the Patreon essays will be about facts that, in theory, anyone who studied the subject could agree on. I hope you find them interesting.

Sep 282016

I am going to formally launch the new project, to write essays introducing Shinto supported through Patreon, on Saturday this week. That day is the anniversary of my arrival in Japan, which I think makes it a suitably significant day on which to begin a new venture.

Ahead of the launch, I went to my local jinja today to have a ceremony asking the kami to support the project. I took along a printout of the first essay, the one that all patrons will get free when they sign up, and the priest took it into the area around the sanctuary to leave it in front of the kami, until the project is finished. That’s not entirely usual, most of the offerings are left in the prayer hall, and taken down fairly soon. Here’s hoping it has a positive influence.

If you don’t know what the sanctuary and prayer hall are at a jinja, well, the free essay explains them both, so you can sign up on Saturday to find out.

Sep 212016

I have decided to change the focus of this website, to be on Shinto more generally. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that the game development has moved to doing the School of Magic game first, and that has nothing to do with Shinto. When I have working rules and come back to doing Kannagara, I will almost certainly start talking about it here.

The second is that I am going to launch a Patreon for essays about real-world Shinto in the near future, and I will use this site as the website for that project. The supported essays will only be available to patrons, and will be as objective as I can make them. Posts to this site will be about Shinto, but they will have a much more personal focus. That is, I will say what I think about very topics, rather than simply describing what is going on, or what was the historical situation. Obviously, the line between description and opinion is blurry. I think it is legitimate to describe Meiji religious policy as a persecution of Shinto, but that is not the conventional view. I am going to put that sort of thing on the objective side of the line, and argue for the conclusions, so posts on this site will be for personal experiences, whether I like things, and what I think should be done about various problems faced by Shinto in the present day.

Oct 022014

I’ve been occupied with other work for a while (editing Ars Magica, for example), but now I can start this project moving again. This time, I want to address the question of whether I am qualified to write Kannagara, by writing about the Jinja Kentei, or the Shinto Culture Exam.

Jinja Kentei was started three years ago, and is run by the Foundation for Promoting Japanese Culture, which is extremely closely associated with Association of Shinto Shrines. (I suspect that there are legal reasons, to do with the regulations for religious corporations and secular foundations, for having two organisations, but I don’t know.) The Association of Shinto Shrines is overseeing the examination, with the goal of spreading accurate knowledge about Shinto and jinja.

The examination for Jinja Kentei is, of course, held only in Japanese, and is based on Japanese texts. Each examination is 100 multiple-choice questions, taken over the course of a little less than two hours. The examination now has three levels: Level 3, the easiest, Level 2, and Level 1, the hardest. Level 3 was first held in 2012, Level 2 in 2013, and Level 1 this year. In order to take Level 1, you must first pass Level 2, but you may take Level 2 without passing Level 3, and may take Levels 2 and 3 in the same year.

The fact that the examination and its texts are only available in Japanese is further evidence of a fact about the current situation: no-one can really get to know and understand Shinto unless they speak and read Japanese well. This is why my first recommendation for people with a serious interest in Shinto is that they start learning Japanese. It will take a long time to get to the necessary level, so you should start learning Japanese first, and look further into what material is available in English once you have that in progress.

Incidentally, if you read Japanese well, the official textbooks for the examination (six volumes so far) make up an extremely good introduction to Shinto. The most basic volume covers the real basics, then there is a volume of history, a book about the legends, a book about various matsuri held across Japan, a book about sengū, the ceremonies in which shrines are rebuilt or repaired, and the kami moved to the new structure, with a particular emphasis on Jingū at Ise. The Level 1 textbook goes into quite a lot of academic detail about important concepts, people, and organisations in Shinto, both now and historically, and is a good way to get more depth. The plan is to issue another Level 1 textbook next year, and there may be a new textbook for Level 2, as well, as Level 3 got a new text this year.

To return to the examination itself, I took each exam in the first year it was offered, and passed all of them. In total, 164 people passed Level 1 this year, a pass rate of 27.1%. Because the foundation publishes the distribution of the scores, giving the number of people with each total score, I also know that 145 of the people who passed did so with a lower score than I achieved. (12 had a higher score, with 3 people on the highest score of 90; there were a total of 7 people with my score of 85.)

In other words, not only do I know a lot about Shinto, I know more about it than almost all Japanese people, including almost all of those who have an interest in it. According to an article in Jinja Shinpō, the newspaper of the Association of Shinto Shrines, Level 3 is roughly equivalent to the information gained in the first year of the four-year course for training Shinto priests. (The practical skills are, of course, not covered in the exam.) I don’t know where Level 1 matches up to, however.

I believe that this means that I am qualified, in terms of background knowledge, to write a game with a Shinto setting.

Apr 122014

Development of Kannagara is on hiatus at the moment, while I try to clear up some projects with deadlines (or, in one case, finish a project that has been underway for more than seven years). To fill in the space, I want to introduce some of the topics that Shinto priests and practitioners are actively concerned with.

To do that, I’m going to provide extremely short summaries of all the articles in one issue of Jinja Shinpo. Jinja Shinpo is a weekly newspaper, published by a company that is effectively controlled by the Association of Shinto Shrines. It is not exactly the house journal, but it is close. This is not the only approach to Shinto found in Japan, but it is arguably the most important.

The issue I’m going to summarise is the one for March 17th, because that’s the most recent one that I have finished reading. I’m a bit behind. It has six pages, which is the normal length. While all issues are different, as would be expected in a newspaper, this one is fairly typical. I’m not going to comment on the contents in this article; I may respond in the comments.

Front Page

  • The ceremony marking the end of the distribution of shrine plaques from the inner shrine of the Grand Shrines of Ise (Jingu).
  • A meeting discussing new strategies to increase the number of Jingu shrine plaques distributed, from the current level of about 8,750,000.
  • The importance of Shinto involvement in defending Japan’s rights to all disputed territories, and overcoming negative depictions of Japan’s war record.
  • A meeting for talks on the importance of maintaining Japan’s rights to all disputed territories, having pride in the beautiful Japanese spirit, and taking action again anti-Japanese propaganda in global media.

Page 2

  • The importance of the Japanese Emperor in Shinto.
  • Revising the festival to mark the start of distribution of Jingu shrine plaques.
  • Thefts of Komainu in Kyushu.
  • Preparations for major matsuri at Yasukuni Jinja and the local jinja to war dead to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
  • Discussion of how to deal with people who fall ill or become infectious during training sessions. (Perfect attendance is normally required to pass, which encourages people who are ill to turn up anyway, and give flu to everyone else.)
  • A training session for Jichinsai, the matsuri performed before work begins on a new building.
  • Appointments and Obituaries of Shinto priests.

Page 3

  • The transfer of the kami to a temporary building in preparation for major repairs on the honden of Ohkunitama Jinja in Aichi Prefecture.
  • A matsuri to mark a sumo tournament at Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, a jinja with a long association with sumo, attended by both the then-current Yokozuna.
  • A fortune-telling ceremony to predict the price of somen noodles, at Ohmiwa Jinja.
  • A ceremony to honour old and broken sewing needles, at Osaka Tenmangu.
  • The importance of a grateful heart.

Page 4

  • Four articles describing local activities to mark the accession of Jinmu Tenno (in 660BC), in Hokkaido, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Iwate.
  • Two articles describing the dissolution of prefectural associations to support the Shikinen Sengu at Jingu, in Yamagata and Yamaguchi.
  • A meeting to discuss ways to preserve kagura (sacred dance) in Miyazaki Prefecture, in particular getting people to form the next generation of dancers.
  • The current special exhibition at the Jingu Art Gallery.

Page 5

  • Unveiling an engraved stone expressing thanks for the activities of the Japan Self Defence Forces, the police, the fire service, and the coast guard, at the Nagasaki shrine to the war dead.
  • Performing a matsuri in memory of kamikaze pilots at one of their former bases.
  • A training session at Yasukuni Jinja on the importance of honouring the war dead.
  • The long connection between a jinja and the local elementary school, which was originally built on the jinja grounds, and where the priests taught.
  • A description of Watatsumi Jinja on Tsushima island.
  • It is good that traditional Japanese dress is still something people wear as clothes, not just as a costume.

Page 6

  • Book Review: A book about the White Stone Ceremony at Jingu in Ise.
  • Book Review: A book about Ikuta Jinja and Kobe
  • The importance of Shinto priests taking a stand in favour of whaling and against animal rights.
Dec 272013

This post is not directly concerned with Kannagara, but it is concerned with a very important aspect of contemporary Shinto — its connection with the ultranationalism and militarism of Japan in the Second World War. This is an aspect that, as least to start with, I plan to avoid in the game, but it is something that anyone interested in Shinto needs to be aware of.

You may have gathered from the news that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Jinja on December 26th. (See the Guardian, the BBC, Foreign Policy, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Mirror.)

Yasukuni Jinja was founded in 1869 (as Tokyo Shokonsha) to enshrine the spirits of those who had died fighting on the side of the Meiji Emperor in the civil war that brought him to power. In many ways, it serves the same function as a war memorial in Britain; it is not a cemetery, and the war dead enshrined there generally have graves elsewhere. Although the war dead as venerated as Shinto kami, that does not mean that they are worshipped, nor that they are necessarily thought of as particularly virtuous. They are honoured because they laid down their lives for their country, just like soldiers at a war memorial.

However, as Japan became increasingly fascist and militarist in the 1930s, Yasukuni Jinja came to occupy a central place in the ideology. Unlike most jinja, which were under the control of the Home Ministry, Yasukuni Jinja was controlled by the Army and Navy Ministry. This history means that it was one of the very few shrines that the US occupying forces seriously considered closing, and also means that it was an important symbol for people who still believed the ideology they had been brought up with.

In 1978, the chief priest enshrined a group of convicted war criminals in the jinja. The Japanese emperor, who had frequently visited the jinja before that, did not visit afterwards. His son, the current emperor, has also not visited since then. This is the point that most often causes trouble overseas, as China and South Korea accuse the jinja of worshipping war criminals. Obviously, this is not true, as that is just not what Shinto jinja do, but the close connection of the jinja to militarist ideology and the inclusion of war criminals among the enshrined spirits means that it is a very charged symbol. The museum run by the jinja that is said to valorise Japan’s role in WWII does nothing to help. (I haven’t actually seen the museum, but I trust the sources that say it is distorted.)

On the other hand, Yasukuni Jinja has been the place Japan enshrines its war dead since 1869. It predates aggressive militarism by at least 30 years, and postdates it by about 70. Yasukuni Jinja is the place that, for most Japanese, memorialises the war dead. Some people venerate it for that, and others despise it, but it really isn’t possible to just substitute some other location. There is another place, Chidorigafuchi cemetery, but I don’t think many Japanese are even aware that that exists.

However, Yasukuni Jinja is not the only jinja in the precincts. There are also two subsidiary jinja. One of these is Chinreisha. Chinreisha was established in 1965, and enshrines everyone, of any nationality, who died in war, with the exception of those people enshrined in Yasukuni Jinja itself. In other words, Chinreisha enshrines the Japanese civilians who died in the air raids on Tokyo, and in the atomic bombings, and also enshrines the Chinese soldiers and civilians killed by the Japanese during the Rape of Nanking, and the prisoners of war who were worked to death on the Burma railroad. Chinreisha is not very well known in Japan. It was not even open to the public until 2006, and it is very small, hidden off to one side of the main shrine. It is quite possible to visit Yasukuni Jinja many times and not even be aware that Chinreisha exists. (I know someone who has done so.)

That is the necessary background to understand why I think that Abe’s visit has been very badly reported in the western media. At the press conference he held after his visit, Abe described what he had done. He had visited Yasukuni Jinja, and put his hands together to honour those who had sacrificed their lives for their country. Then he had visited Chinreisha, and put his hands together to swear that Japan would never wage war again, and would work to create a world in which there were no more wars. (He made sure to explain what Chinreisha was at the press conference, for the benefit of everyone in the audience who had never heard of it.) (Daily Yomiuri has his remarks at the press conference online.)

I have not seen any western media reports that even mention his visit to Chinreisha. As far as I am aware, it is completely unprecedented. I don’t think any previous prime ministers visited, nor do I think that any of the visits by parliamentarians have included Chinreisha. Given how reluctant Japanese people are to do unprecedented things in general, and how conservative Abe is generally reputed to be, this means that he must have made a deliberate decision to visit Chinreisha and make his vow. It was not an afterthought, or conventional. His visit to Yasukuni, on the other hand, was conventional; he used the standard phrase to describe the spirits enshrined there.

If, then, we follow the normal rule that we should attach more significance to the things that people do outside convention than to the things they do within it, Abe’s visit to Chinreisha was more important than his visit to Yasukuni. His choice to swear to the victims of Japanese militarism, both Japanese and foreign, than Japan would never wage war again should, therefore, be taken seriously.

The date on which he chose to visit is also significant. December 26th was the first anniversary of his taking office as prime minister. One purpose of his visit was to report to the war dead on his leadership of the country. However, December 26th is not a significant date in the history of the war, nor was it a significant date when Yasukuni Jinja was a central part of State Shinto. Previous prime ministerial visits have generally been on the date marking the end of WWII, August 15th. Thus, once again Abe broke precedent, to visit on a day that was personally significant to him as prime minister, but which had no significance for the militarist regime responsible for the war. While news reports have mentioned the date (naturally), I have seen very little discussion of its significance.

Taking these factors together, Abe seems to have taken real steps to dissociate his visit to Yasukuni Jinja from militarism. Just to re-emphasise:

He swore to the victims of Japan’s war to renounce war.

Of course, it didn’t work. It is possible that he was counting on the media carefully and accurately reporting his visit, or at least picking up on the visit to Chinreisha after he repeatedly stressed it at the press conference. I find it a bit hard to believe that someone with so much experience in politics could be so naive about the media, though. Given that he must have expected it to make little impact, that leaves the option that he was actually sincere.

Even so, I don’t think he should have gone. The visit has annoyed the Chinese, true, but they were just looking for an excuse. It has also annoyed the South Koreans, who had just asked the Japanese Self Defence Forces for military aid (a supply of bullets) in the UN peace-keeping operation in South Sudan. There, I think it may have closed down a real chance for repairing damaged relations. This was completely predictable in advance. I think that Abe’s personal conviction that he ought to visit Yasukuni over-rode those concerns, and so he turned his attention to making the visit into as obvious a prayer for peace as he could manage. The failure of that strategy was also, I fear, obvious in advance.

I think, then, that Abe made a mistake in visiting Yasukuni Jinja, but I think that the evidence is that his claim that he visited it to swear to avoid war and work to make it unnecessary should be taken seriously. I think he was sincere.

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