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Coming to Shinto

One question I am often asked, and indeed was recently asked by one of my patrons on Patreon, is “What first prompted your interest in Shinto?”. This is a reasonable question. After all, when I was growing up in England, there was not much Shinto around. And, oddly, it is not that easy to answer.

I have been interested in Japan for as long as I can remember. Indeed, I was interested in Japan before I knew I was interested in Japan, because two of my favourite TV shows when I was young were dubbed versions of Japanese series (Gatchaman and Saiyūki, or Battle of the Planets and Monkey). My first encounter with the kami was in the supplement Deities & Demigods for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where Amaterasu was cool because she was Lawful good and had scores of 25 in all characteristics, making her a good choice for the deity of a Japanese paladin.

At this point, my knowledge of Shinto was not, shall we say, particularly deep.

In fact, my knowledge of Shinto was still fairly superficial when I first came to Japan, in 2003. I knew a bit more than I had in my early teens, and I was at least clear that there was a difference between jinja and Buddhist temples, but my interest in Shinto was still really just a part of my interest in Japanese culture more broadly. I did have a bit more interest in that area than many others, enough to prompt me to find an introductory book on the subject in Japanese fairly soon after my Japanese reached a level that let me read it. When I moved to Tokyo in 2005, I actively went looking for the local jinja, and did the same after moving to Kawasaki later the same year.

My interest grew from there. I got hold of more books about Shinto, and started attending a course at Kokugakuin Daigaku. I visited my local jinja more frequently, which led to a good relationship with the priests there. I started reading Jinja Shinpō in late 2010, so by the time I was introduced to Jinja Honchō, around 2015, I knew enough to impress them, and eventually start working with them.

To a great extent, my interest has been self-reinforcing. The more I know about Shinto, and the more I do in that context, the easier and more natural it is to do other things in a Shinto context. For example, I typically support disaster-struck areas of Japan through their jinja, both through donations and through visits to have matsuri performed for recovery. Similarly, when I travel in Japan, I normally visit jinja in the area.

Thus, it is very hard to answer the specific question I was asked. I can’t point to anything that first prompted my interest in Shinto. Since I have been in Japan, it has felt very natural to me to study it, and practise it, and so I have — even if that puzzles nearly everyone else.

I have a Patreon, where people subscribe to receive in-depth essays on various aspects of Shinto, about once per month. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

6 thoughts on “Coming to Shinto”

  1. That is very interesting to read. I knew basically nothing about Shinto before my first visit in 1988, but then gradually built up some knowledge. However, it took about two decades to get into closer contact to Shinto and experience the ceremonies first-hand, due to the 7-5-3 of my children and the purification ceremony for our own parcel of land. And one more decade further on, and I was head of our local neighbourhood association (chonaikai) and performed some ceremonies myself.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It sounds as though your local jinja is one where the head of the chonaikai is ex officio in charge of some of the ceremonies; is that right? I know that’s not an uncommon pattern.

  2. Yes, that is basically correct. Our chonaikai is quite large, covering about 2,100 households, while its area is exactly the same as the original village (mura) in our area, which existed until 1889. It has since gone through several mergers and is part of a city, but the village borders, although invisible, still exist in the chonaikai. Our chonaikai is subdivided into eight regional groups, and one of these groups must nominate the “ujiko-sodai”, who is something like a lay preacher and the guardian or our shrine for a year. The ujiko-sodai rotates each year between the eight groups. He is in charge of organizing our two main festivals (spring and autumn) and three smaller ceremonies (niiname-sai, chinowa and new year), however for all these we ‘hire’ a priest from a larger shrine to perfom the main ceremonies. I am not sure if there are smaller ceremonies the ujiko-sodai performs on his own, but the five mentioned are all conducted by the ‘hired’ professional priest, and all (or some) heads of the regional chonaikai groups also attend, so there can be up to 30 people attending the ceremonies.
    The eight regional groups of our chonaikai each have one or more hokora (miniature shrines) to look after, where the heads of these regional groups are performing the ceremonies. There is an illustrated handbook how to do these correctly.

    1. Interesting, thank you. I wonder whether the “hired” priest is technically the chief priest of the jinja; if it is a religious corporation, it needs to have one, and if it is affiliated with Jinja Honchō, the chief priest needs to be a licensed priest. There are cases where a jinja is technically “inactive”, because it has no chief priest, and thus legally is doing nothing, but the local ujiko get very indignant when the Jinjachō sends someone to deal with the problem, because all the matsuri are happening as they always have. It is a problem, though, because legally the corporation should be wound up, which means that if it isn’t fixed, the state will seize the jinja and the precincts, and all the other property, and it then cannot be returned to a religious use without someone paying full market value for it.

  3. I am sorry that I do not know who is the chief priest of our jinja, or if we have one at all. Neither do I not know if it is a religious corporation. A few years ago during a matsuri I had raised the question who owns the plot where our shrine is located (this plot is about 3,000 square metres), but nobody could answer that.

    1. I’m not really surprised that you don’t know. If the jinja has that much land, then it is almost certainly a religious corporation, and the religious corporation owns the land (because of how land was given back to jinja after the war), but it is very common for the people in the area to be unclear on the legal situation. This causes problems from time to time, for example if they assume that “the community” owns the land and thus can decide what to do with it; legally, that is almost never the case. However, as long as the matsuri are happening, there is no problem from the religious or cultural perspectives.

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