After the rather heavy topics of the last few posts, here’s something a bit lighter, albeit still significant.
A columnist wrote (in the November 9th issue of Jinja Shinpō) about his childhood in northern Kyushu, where his grandfather and grandmother served at the local Shinto jinja and Buddhist temple. They would take turns, so that while, for example, his grandfather was on the jinja committee, his grandmother would be on the women’s committee for the temple, and when their terms ended, they would swap. So far, so traditionally Japanese.
When he was a child, he went to a Catholic kindergarten, so his parents started going to the Catholic church as well, although they continued their support for the jinja and the temple, and still had a kamidana and butsudan (Buddhist ancestor shrine) in their home. They served at the church, despite never having been baptised, for about ten years. On top of all that, they had someone come round to purify the oven (to prevent fires in the home) at the end of every year.
When he was in junior high school, he remembers thinking that this was a bit strange, and asking his parents about it. They said that everyone in the area did the same sort of thing. He characterises this as being “very religious”, in the sense that they would happily perform the rites for any kami, Buddha, or god. He concludes that this is not at all uncommon in Japan. Indeed, he remembers doing two shichigosan ceremonies, one at a jinja, and one at the Catholic church. At the church, his chitosë amë (sticks of sugar candy, like British seaside rock, only thinner) came in a bag with a crucifix and the Virgin Mary drawn on. (He suspects that his parents came up with the design.)
When he went back to give a lecture in his hometown recently, he was surprised to discover that the church was still doing shichigosan, and still being supplied with chitosë amë.
“Born Shinto, Marry Christian, Die Buddhist” really does capture something important about the role of “religion” in Japanese life. It is not that it is just empty ceremonies, or just a form of entertainment, as one might be tempted to think from a western perspective. It has a significantly different social place in most people’s lives from the place it tends to have in Europe or the USA.
Since it is entirely normal for Japanese people to practise Shinto alongside other religions, it is clearly not sensible to criticise westerners who practise Shinto alongside, say, Wicca. You can certainly practise Shinto alongside other things. Looking at churches offering shichigosan, it is hard to find a good reason to say that people shouldn’t take bits of Shinto practice that they like and incorporate them into another religious tradition. On the other hand, that really isn’t Shinto any more — the priest at that church is not practising Shinto there.
It is not the case that just anything can be Shinto, even if the kami are involved. But it is very hard to say anything at all clear about what the boundaries are, or, indeed, why the boundaries are important. I do have the feeling that there are boundaries, and that they do matter — just don’t ask me to explain and justify that right at the moment.