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“Looks Foreign”

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.

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