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Kami of Sport?

A couple of weeks ago, one of the regular opinion columns in Jinja Shinpō was extremely thought-provoking.

Japan has fifty or so jinja enshrining soldiers and other people associated with the military who have died on active service since the mid-nineteenth century. Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo is by far the most famous (and controversial), and I wrote a whole essay about it for my Patreon. However, almost every prefecture has its own jinja, called a Gokoku Jinja, “Country-Protecting Jinja”, enshrining the war dead from that prefecture. (Tokyo does not have one as far as I am aware, presumably because Yasukuni Jinja is there, and for historical reasons a few prefectures have more than one.)

These jinja all have a serious problem. It is almost 75 years since any member of the Japanese military (or even of the not-military-definitely-not-why-would-you-think-that Self Defense Forces) last died on active service. This means that the number of people who can remember any of the people enshrined there is very small, and shrinking rapidly. There are priests working at these jinja now who are likely to see the death of the last person who remembers anyone enshrined there, and will certainly do so unless Japan gets dragged into a war in the near future. Thus, the level of support for these jinja is also declining.

Obviously, this is a fantastic problem for a jinja for the war dead to have, but it is still a problem. From a religious perspective, simply ceasing to venerate the kami is not a viable option.

The column suggested a solution. The author remarked that he is occasionally asked about a suitable kami to pray to for success in sports, and he gets a bit stuck. Traditional Japanese martial arts are covered, and there are kami associated with victory in competitions, so that aspect can also be handled. And, of course, the Ujigami-sama can cover anything local. However, because sports in the modern sense were only introduced to Japan in the late nineteenth century, the traditional kami are not particularly associated with them.

On the other hand, a lot of the war dead were also sportsmen, because they were young Japanese men who had grown up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (There are some women enshrined, because military nurses were also enshrined, and so I suspect that there are also sportswomen among them.) This means that Yasukuni Jinja and the Gokoku Jinja enshrine kami with a direct association with sport. They could therefore become the kami of sports.

There is a very famous precedent for this sort of transformation. Tenjin-sama, Sugawara no Michizanë, was originally revered as a kami of storms and retribution, but because he was a famous scholar while he was alive, people gradually shifted to regarding him as a kami of scholarship, and today that is almost exclusively how he is seen.

I suspect that Yasukuni Jinja is too tied to other associations for such a transformation to happen in the near future, but the regional Gokoku Jinja are much less known, and much less controversial, so maybe it could happen there. I do not know whether it would be possible, but it is the most positive suggestion I have yet heard for how the Gokoku Jinja could survive for another 150 years.

11 thoughts on “Kami of Sport?”

  1. I find your article intriguing! Japan is a nation steeped in history and tradition, so I find it interesting that a nation that until recently was so fond of and proud of its warriors and warrior culture may find itself allowing shrines honoring fallen warriors to fall into disrepair and even allow them to become forgotten and neglected all together.
    I understand that Japan has become “modern”, but honoring the dead and those who fought in key battles that helped in forming the nation that it has become today is something that I believe Japanese traditions would frown upon.
    You suggest that making these heroes, likely sportsmen and women in their own right, the kami of sport might be able to save their shrines, but how would you propose publicizing this change. As I am unfamiliar with the process of how the deceased might go about becoming kami, I can only imagine a few ways, but it would seem to me that there is a relatively short time frame for these shrines to start bringing in patrons to support their daily operation costs.
    Would it be feasible to employ a popular writer to craft a story about a few of these sportsmen and/or women from each shrine in order to bring them and their stories to the public’s attention? Would it be more appropriate to hire a production team and perhaps produce a historical television drama or movie? I feel that neither of these would be great options as they would cheapen the kami, but they are the only ways I can imagine bringing these heroes back to life and making them somewhat more divine than they had been in life. I also know that in current popular culture the kami find themselves represented in all sorts of absurd manners.
    I do think that something needs to be done to save these shrines and that, seeing as there is already demand for a kami of modern sport, these heroes could be resurrected and given new life as divine beings that could revive their shrines and bring new patrons through the gates of their shrines. I just don’t know how exactly one would go about doing this.

    1. Thanks for all your comments. It looks as though you have found this site interesting; I hope you continue to do so.

      I don’t think that the Gokoku Jinja are facing an immediate crisis, although quite a few of them have launched major appeals to mark their 150th anniversaries, in part to get major maintenance and rebuilding projects done before there is a crisis. Thus, they have some time.

      This sort of shift in the way a kami is regarded tends to happen informally, by word of mouth. If the jinja wanted to do this, they might start offering sports omamori, or listing sports as one of the particular areas for requests on their website. They could draw attention to particular enshrined individuals who had notable sporting histories, or who were just enthusiastic amateurs. One of the pro baseball teams in Japan already goes to their local Gokoku Jinja to pray for success. (I think it is the Hiroshima Carps, but I’m not absolutely sure.) Then one person would tell another, and the idea would get around. If it became popular at one Gokoku Jinja, others might well follow suit. Priests would be unlikely to commission active advertising for this, but if someone wrote a sports manga where the team went to their prefectural Gokoku Jinja before heading off to the national championships, and that manga was a hit, it could well make the difference. And that is more likely to happen if the priests move in that direction.

      At the moment, though, this is just a suggestion made in the Shinto newspaper by someone who does not work at a Gokoku Jinja, so who knows what will happen.

      1. Thank you for clearing all of that up. I didn’t think that a priest would actually commission such advertisements, but to me (in a society where these ideas wouldn’t be too absurd to entertain) they seemed to be some of the first and only things to come to mind. In fact when I thought of them, the ideas were totally absurd in the context we are speaking of them! I can see how what you are suggesting would make much more sense and, while I understand what you are saying about these jinja not being in immediate crisis, I still find it shocking that they are struggling the way they are now.
        Thank you for writing such interesting articles! I look forward to all that you might write in the future. I am an American college student pursuing anthropological research focused on Shinto which lead me to your website and I have found your articles not only insightful but very entertaining to read.

        1. The cultural position of the Gokoku Jinja is very complicated; Japanese attitudes to the military, and to past wars, are very different from those in the USA. I wrote an essay on Patreon about Yasukuni jinja that goes into the issue in a bit more detail, but with a focus on Yasukuni. The Gokoku Jinja are different again.

          I’m glad you have found the essays informative and entertaining, as that was certainly my goal. Good luck with your research!

  2. I like this idea! Is it likely to still be reasonably easy to find out whether or not any of the enshrined war dead were also sportspeople? Or is it potentially actually enough that they were young, active people, without necessarily any specific connection to a particular sport? (not that old people can’t be sportspeople too, of course! But hopefully you understand my thinking?)

    1. Oh yes, in many cases it’s easy. Some of them were Olympic medallists, for example. Yasukuni Jinja had an exhibition about the sporting achievements of the Eirei on when I visited, for example. There are bound to be some cases where it is harder, but I’m confident that there will be written records in enough cases to support this.

  3. It has been a while since I read through this post, and I am just as intrigued by it as the first time I read it. Is there any information out there that talks about the gokoku jinja in more depth? I am interested in reading more about the subject.

    1. I am not aware of anything in English, and, to be honest, I’ve not come across much in Japanese, either. At least, not much that’s organised and systematic; particular Gokoku Jinja are mentioned fairly often in Jinja Shinpō. Maybe I should write another blog post about them. What would you like to know? I can’t guarantee that I will know the answers to your questions, alas.

      1. Thank you for your response. I kind of guessed there wouldn’t be much written on Gokoku Jinja seeing as it is pretty niche. I would love to read another post on the subject. I don’t know if I have really specific questions, but I would like to know a bit more about the history of them, like how they came about and what they “stand for”. Any additional information you can provide would be wonderful as I am very interested in the subject.

        Thank you again.

  4. Pingback: Kami of Sport – Mimusubi

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