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The Power of Words

I have had a very short piece published in this week’s Jinja Shinpō.

On February 11th, which is National Foundation Day, Shinto-related organisations hold events around the country to celebrate it. This national holiday was invented by the Meiji government, and these events are fairly representative of the right-wing and nationalist activities to which jinja are connected. Many of these events are reported, in some detail, in Jinja Shinpō.

At one of the meetings, they made a formal declaration, including the phrase “with profound gratitude for being born in Japan, we should deepen our pride and bonds as Japanese people”.

So, I wrote a short piece pointing out that not all Japanese people were born in Japan, and that the phrasing chosen appears to exclude us. I also emphasised that I have never felt excluded at a jinja, and that jinja do live up to their claim to be very tolerant and welcoming. The words were, I am sure, chosen as part of polishing the phrases elegantly praising nationalism, and were not deliberately chosen to exclude people like me. However, they are evidence that there is a subconscious assumption about Japanese people, that they were born in Japan, that is not universally true. I concluded by exhorting people to put a bit more care into their choice of words for important things, such as the formal declarations of large gatherings.

Jinja Shinpō chose to publish it; it is the third article by me that they have printed, from five submissions, so they do not always print what I send them. That is promising, because every Shinto priest gets the newspaper, and although fairly solid rumour suggests that they do not all read it, it is likely that someone involved in these events next year will have seen it, and may raise the issue.

But, in the end, how much does it matter that many people associated with jinja have an unspoken assumption that all Japanese people were born in Japan? The overwhelming majority were, of course. Most of the time, I do not think it does matter. Most Japanese people have no trouble with the idea of a Japanese person who was not born in Japan, and treat them like any other Japanese person. However, there are some cases where forgetting about us can lead to problems, and other cases where remembering that we do exist would make things better. That makes it worth taking a bit more care.

Incidentally, the section of Jinja Shinpō in which my piece was printed is called “kotodama”, the term for the supernatural power of words. That strikes me as very appropriate.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Words”

  1. This campaign must be connected with that infamous “nihonjin de umarete yokatta” poster that went up in Kyoto. The spirit of civic pride is correct but the approach is totally wrong.

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