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Multiply Religious

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.

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.

9 thoughts on “Multiply Religious”

  1. Olivia Bernkastel

    Dear Mr. Chart,

    I usually enjoy your articles and your retellings of interesting information especially from Jinja Honcho. However, regarding the following statement,

    “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.”

    I would like to clarify to readers of the blog that Shichigosan is not a particularly Shinto religious festival or ceremony – it is not like Niinamesai or the Spring and Autumn Taisai (Grand Ceremonies) where the primary function of such rituals is specifically towards giving thanks to the Kami.

    Shichigosan is a celebration that originated among nobles and then later down to the common people as a way to celebrate their child growing through stages of life that were particularly prone to illness. Shichigosan is ultimately a celebration for the child’s growing up and praying for their continued health, happiness, and longevity. Where one prays can be anywhere – whether it is a Shinto shrine, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church – and so on.

    Therefore, despite the Christian church offering Shichigosan, that is not particularly a Shinto ceremony but more a cultural one and thus there is no contradiction, nor is the Church taking a ritual from Shinto and incorporating it into their rites and ceremonies.

    This being said, while it’s fine for one to practice Shinto side-by-side with another religion(s), it’s improper to take bits of Shinto and incorporate them into another religious tradition as that is simply appropriating Shinto practice. Many point to Shinbutsu Shugo as a reasoning to do so in the modern age, but that was a natural connection over a 1300 year history and on a large cultural scale than one individual mixing practices, and usually doing so not understanding the meaning of the things they are taking from or how often they are not entirely compatible. I feel it is very important to respect the traditions, rites, and culture of Shinto and not appropriate them.

    I also think it would be worthwhile to consider more about the last statement on considering what are the boundaries and why they are important. There is certainly cores of Shinto that define it – and meanings behind every symbol, ritual, sacred items, and so on, especially being tied with Japanese culture. In this, I feel it is important to respect these and treasure them, especially to pass onto future generations.

    Rev. Olivia Bernkastel

    1. Dear Rev. Bernkastel,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m glad that you are generally finding the blog interesting. This appears to be a point on which we disagree, so I will say a bit more to clarify why I take the position I do. I can’t say all of it; I have written a whole essay about part of this problem for the Patreon, although it is not currently available as a back issue. (Maybe next month, if things go to plan.)

      First, shichigosan is presented by jinja as a Shinto ceremony, and the columnist found something a little odd about a Catholic church doing it, which suggests that most people here would not see it as equally appropriate at any religious institution. It is true that it is probably not a core Shinto ceremony (although it may be the ceremony that serves as the archetype of a Shinto ceremony for most people here), but I would say, and the columnist would agree, that performing it in a church feels like taking something from one religious context and putting it in another one.

      The second point is that the distinction between “Shinto ceremony” and “cultural ceremony” is really not clear, and that mainstream Shinto often actively works to blur the line. In fact, the Japanese Supreme Court has ruled that a jichinsai is not a religious ceremony, but only a cultural one. (This was the Tsu case.) The Shinto establishment regards this decision as a very important victory for their side. Now, the jichinsai is a full matsuri, so if borrowing from cultural ceremonies is OK, and the jichinsai is a cultural ceremony, then people can borrow pretty much anything from “generic” Shinto. (The specific practices of individual jinja might still be out of bounds.) I suspect that you do not agree with the Shinto establishment on this definition of “cultural ceremony”, in part because I don’t, but neither of us really has the authority to over-rule them. (I might be able to persuade them that it is not a helpful way to frame the issue in English, but I might not. I do not always win those arguments.)

      Historically, while the various forms of shinbutsushūgō are important, they are not the only cases where other traditions have, arguably, taken over elements of Shinto. The Kokugaku figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw shinbutsushūgō, Yoshida Shinto, Suika Shinto, shugendō, and, in some cases, the varieties of sect Shinto (including Konkōkyō, which I believe is the one in which you are ordained, right?) as illegitimate uses of Shinto beliefs and practices within a different religion. Yoshida Kanetomo was quite strident in his claims to be practising the only real form of Shinto, and in his criticism of the people who were appropriating it for their own purposes, like Jingū, all the way back in the fifteenth century. I would place all of those practices firmly within the Shinto tradition, but they were all new ideas appropriating traditional practices at some point. I do not think we can say “this is OK because it is old; that is not because it is new”.

      The final statement is one that I have considered in considerable depth, and I have written an essay about it. I do not think that there is a core that defines Shinto. I think you can find common elements in a lot of Shinto practice, but I don’t think you can find anything that is necessary, or sufficient, for something to be Shinto. I know that there are priests who do not believe that the kami exist. Jinja do not need to have any of the standard physical accoutrements. Matsuri do not have to be conducted according to the liturgies set out by Jinja Honchō. Performing a ceremony in honour of the kami does not make something Shinto, because there are elements of Buddhist practice that do that. I really cannot find anything that serves as a common core and unifies “Shinto” in an interesting way, and I have looked quite hard. That said, I am sure that the individual practice of every Shinto practitioner has such a core (mine does), and I would be astonished if Konkōkyō, for example, did not have a core, but I do not think that those cores are shared with all, or even most, practitioners.

      People certainly do things with Shinto elements that I do not like, and that make me uncomfortable. Creating a jinja in Animal Crossing and encouraging people to pay reverence there would be an example, but that’s me against the oldest jinja in Tokyo, so I really don’t think I can use my discomfort to argue that they are doing something wrong. Neo-pagan mashups have the same sort of effect on me, but maybe some of them will be the start of a Shinto tradition; I don’t know. At this point, I would say that they are not Shinto, but even that point is harder to justify than I would like.

      In positive terms, I would like to encourage people who want to practise Shinto to actually practise Shinto, rather than some sort of neo-pagan mashup, and I have written essays to provide specific instructions on how one can do that. But those are not the only ways to practise Shinto, and I do not think that anyone has the authority to tell people what they can and cannot do with the Shinto tradition.

      It’s a difficult issue, and it only gets more complex the more I look into it.

      Thank you again for the comment.


      1. Olivia Bernkastel

        Dear Mr. Chart,

        Thank you as well for your well-written and detailed response. I really appreciate the time you took to write back to me and clarify some of the concerns and questions I had just from reading the initial article. It clarifies a lot for me.

        I agree with you and the columnist, that Shichigosan is generally seen as a Shinto ceremony and tied to Jinja. And, it’s not something you would likely see at a temple or church. However, what I wanted to express was that, based on it’s historical origins within the Heian court, it did not particularly originate from rites to the Kami which would undoubtedly be connected to Shinto in and of itself.

        Now, my initial point is a different issue of whether something is “religious” or “cultural” Shinto.
        Of course, the line is blurred in Shinto, and I don’t think they can be split. Shinto is intertwined with Japanese culture, and vice versa. They are one set, basically. When I came to Japan for priestess training, I remember being surprised my visa type was ”Cultural Studies” and not a Religious one!

        I do not mean to say that borrowing carelessly from cultural ceremonies is okay – because it is important to respect those as well undoubtedly.
        You see, my stance is, whether the ceremony is deemed “cultural” or “religious” for Shinto isn’t where my point comes from.

        Jichinsai, while deemed cultural, is still a ceremony with it’s roots in giving thanks and requests to the kami of the specific land that one is building on. It would not be appropriate for a Christian or Buddhist priest to perform this ceremony, especially as the priest would not have the proper training or knowledge to perform the rites or proper etiquette to the land kami.

        And while Shichigosan might be seen as more tied to Shinto and even religious, the origin of the practice itself was in the court and not specifically customs towards the Kami in particular, but involving praying for the growth of their children. This is all I mean why it’s not necessarily a Christian church taking a “Shinto ritual” – it’s not a matter of religious or cultural Shinto, but the actual ritual and it’s roots itself in practice.

        I don’t mind how it’s defined as religious or cultural because they are absolutely intertwined. However, of course as Jichinsai is regarding the kami of the land, that is, the spirit of the land, I would say it leans into religious as well. But I try not to get too caught up in if it is cultural or religious label because to me, Shinto is both at the same time.

        I do find it troubling if all religious aspects are erased, because I feel, personally, then a spirit of Shinto is lost. But I do not think that priests or shrines need to follow the same theological beliefs on that note.

        About Kokugaku, I don’t think that was quite so relevant to my original point at hand. Kokugaku was more of a reformation and reconstructionist movement to reach for a “pure” Shinto. Even if they believed the practices present at the time were not pure Shinto, it doesn’t change the fact that they were practices that naturally evolved within a Japanese cultural understanding and context.

        Like you feel as well, I also think regardless of what Kokugaku scholars in that era spoke about, the practices you mentioned are within Shinto. Practices that evolve naturally from within Japanese culture and religious and spiritual beliefs (and even had formal approvals, as Konko faith for example was approved by the Shirakawa school of Shinto).

        I am not saying one is okay because it’s older, and the other isn’t okay because it’s newer. What I’m trying to say is that, for example, when a religion so far removed from Japanese culture, like Wicca, then suddenly takes from Shinto, often the cultural nuance and understandings of both sides is lost.
        Whereas for example, Ryoubu Shinto, developed from Buddhism and Shinto that had been deeply understood and present in Japan for hundreds of years.

        It’s not really the age of the practice, but the cultural context and understanding, and the natural evolution of the mixing that is important and distinguishes it from cultural appropriation which is just mixing and matching with no real understanding of the original roots of what one is taking from. (Akin to Jack trying to understand Christmas at first in Nightmare Before Christmas. He had some idea, but didn’t understand it on a deep level.)

        And I understand! I am a little surprised to hear you say so though. But allow me to clarify as I understand my wording might have not been the best. You must also know what I mean with the following. What I am talking about is not a set of theological dogma or rigid “cores”. Yes, you won’t find that in Shinto. And one of Shinto’s beauties is that there is vast variation in both theological beliefs in individuals, priests and laypeople, and the way Jinja appear, and rules regarding matsuri and so on.

        The elements of Buddhist practice you speak about too, are a remnant from the Shinbutsu cultural history which spans across Japanese history. And again on that point, Japanese culture and Shinto is so intertwined. But only Shinto priests now know exactly how to perform rites and etiquette to kami, so this is why it’s moreso a Shinto ritual than a Christian or Buddhist one.

        And of course there are individual cores and beliefs people build up in their Shinto practice. No one is a hivemind in Shinto, and the fact we can have such variation is wonderful. Konko, also being within Shinto, is not dogmatic, and my views and beliefs will differ from many other priests in the faith as well as how our shrines appear. We don’t have any strict written “cores”.

        What I’m speaking about is the “cores” that tie all of Shinto together as a practice and way of living. These concepts we actively strive to embody and understand in our day to day lives. Concepts such as Magokoro (Sincerity, Sincere Heart), Kansha (Gratitude), En Musubi/Goen, Ooharae/Kegare – that is, keeping a clear and refreshed heart, not holding in negativity; a sense of caring for our community and regarding others, honouring the kami – the kami of the land but also mitama no kami of those who passed away as evident in our funeral rites..and so on.

        All of Shinto, no matter the shrine, or faith, or Kyoha, etc. honours these “cores” at the center of their practice and rites. They are not things that are written down or things we really can understand with our head alone, but something we have to understand practicing Shinto in and of itself continuously each day, and try to embody it.

        And I understand what you mean. It’s not easy to say one or the other. But I think at least for mashups with other religions, I believe firmly it has to be done in a way that the other religion is genuinely understanding and respecting Shinto practice in and of itself and not simply taking things for aesthetic value and divorcing it from it’s cultural meaning.

        I’m glad you do so! I deeply appreciate that too. Because I don’t want the roots of Shinto to be lost as it spreads globally. While no one has an ultimate authority what someone can or cannot do, it is a duty of priests to help guide people to the aforementioned values of Shinto and help people understand the meaning behind every rite, symbol, sacred item, and their uses, as well as etiquette towards the kami. I cannot control what people do, but I do have a duty to properly transmit and explain what Shinto is so it’s meanings are not lost. And I feel when practices are divorced from their cultural context and meaning, it can be a slippery slope.

        Thank you for your reply as well! And deeper clarification. I hope my comment as well clarifies some things about my point of view as well. Please continue to take care.

        Rev. Olivia Bernkastel

        1. Dear Rev Bernkastel,

          Thank you for your thoughtful further response.

          I agree with a lot of what you say, and I think there is a lot more to say about all of these topics. While I would like to talk about all of them, I think I had better restrict myself to two points that I think are most pertinent.

          The first is to do with respect and appropriation. I agree with you that elements from Shinto should only be adopted with respect and understanding, but I do not think that the practical application of that principle is at all straightforward, especially when talking about the practices of others. I’d like to use an example from within Japan first. When I was writing my essay on Shinto in Anime and Manga a few years ago (that one is now available on Gumroad) I read several pornographic sex-with-miko manga. One of them was written by someone who thought that a miko’s vestments were basically a blouse and skirt, and appeared to know nothing at all about Shinto. Despite being a Japanese person writing about their own culture, I would not describe that as either respectful or based on understanding. Another was still a sex comedy, but was based on aspects of Japanese/Shinto belief about the supernatural, and had the protagonists engaged in serious work to deal with spirit possession (by having sex — it was a pornographic manga, after all). What about that one? I, personally, would say that it was respectful, and based on an adequate understanding, although I am sure that many priests would disagree.

          So, what if we look overseas? I am inclined to think that no-one who incorporates elements of Shinto into their religious practice is intending to be disrespectful to Shinto, or at least that they should be given the benefit of the doubt. They are worshipping or revering the kami, after all, and that is hardly a sign of disrespect. What about understanding? Anyone in the west who knows enough about Shinto to incorporate elements into their religious practice has made a real effort to learn something; it’s not like the Japanese pornographer, whose research appears to have involved walking past some jinja occasionally. What if they have made a mistake? They almost certainly have misunderstood some things, and if they don’t speak Japanese there are most certainly things that they do not know. But that is true of almost every Japanese practitioner of Shinto as well. Some Japanese practitioners have beliefs that are really a long way outside the Shinto mainstream. (Pretty much the whole “power spot” thing is about as far outside the Shinto mainstream as Wicca, for example.) So how much study can we demand?

          It is true that Shinto has particular rites for honouring the kami, but historically the kami have been honoured in Japan with Shinto, Buddhist, and Daoist rites. If they haven’t been honoured with Wiccan rites in Japan, the only reason is, quite plausibly, that there haven’t been any Wiccans in Japan. I think it does matter, quite profoundly, if people are not in Japan, but I think that matters to whether their practices can be described as Shinto. (Personally, I think it makes it quite clear that they cannot — I talk about this in more detail in my essay on Shinto for non-Japanese.) I am not at all sure that it makes their practices illegitimate as religious practices directed to the kami — it just means that they are practising a version of Wicca, not Shinto. (Although I know some Wiccans would argue that such practices were no longer Wicca, either.)

          Now, there are some people who intend to be disrespectful. A lot of Westerners are very disrespectful in their treatment of Yasukuni Jinja, for example, but that’s because they think it is an evil institution, and not deserving of respect. People who want to criticise or mock Shinto are not going to care that practitioners do not like what they are doing. Indeed, if practitioners do like what they are doing, they will feel that they have failed. The only people who are going to care about what we say are the people who want to be respectful and informed. And I am not sure that we have legitimate grounds to criticise them. We can offer advice and observations, but if they listen and decide that they want to create their own practices, I really don’t think we (or, indeed, Shinto priests in general) are in a position to tell them that they are wrong to do so.

          The second point is to do with my own position. My primary goal on this blog and in the Patreon essays is to provide an accurate window, in English, onto Shinto practice. My opinions intrude to some extent, because that is unavoidable, but I am trying, primarily, to inform. I am, therefore, very reluctant to tell people what they must do to practice Shinto. My compromise in the essays on practising Shinto for non-Japanese is to say “most priests are clearly happy for you to do this, and if you do this it is clearly Shinto”. When I talk about things that are not, in my opinion, Shinto, I want to make it very clear that this is just my opinion. Thus, I am trying to avoid saying anything like “you must do X” or “you must not do Y”.

          I will link back to this post, because I think readers of the blog might be interested to read the exchange; it would be valuable for them to see your perspective as well.

          Thank you again for the considered comments.


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  3. This is quite an interesting topic to me, so I was interested to read both Rev. Bernkastel and Mr. Chart’s responses. However, it doesn’t seem clear to me what the main argument this blog post is aiming to make now. Is the argument that Japanese people tend to be “multiply religious” (ie: the participate in all three of Japan’s religions–Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity–with equal dedication)? Or is it about whether or not it is cultural appropriation to adopt Shinto elements into another tradition (in other words, who has the authority/legitimacy to determine what is legitimate Shinto or not)?
    I looked up the original Japanese article (教会で七五三) and it seems to be making the point about being multiply religious rather than being exclusively dedicated to one religion (ie: the difference Ueno draws between 信心深い and 信仰深い), but the discussion about Wicca seems to talk more about issues of cultural appropriation and legitimacy, which I would generally consider as a separate issue. Reading this responses, I have become uncertain about what the topic actually being addressed here is.

    1. Your confusion is understandable, because there are two topics here. The blog post is mostly about being multiply religious in Japan, based on the original article, but the comment discussion has been mostly about the implications I drew at the end for the use of Shinto elements in different religious practices outside Japan. So yes, two topics, but I think they are related in important ways.

      1. Oh, okay. In that case, do you think there are differences between how multiply religious societies and more exclusive religious societies deal with mixing religious practices? If so, I am wondering if there should be different standards for mixing religious practices depending on the society, rather than a universal standard?

        1. I strongly suspect that there are differences, and that there should be different standards for different societies. At the very least, standards developed to address specific situations in the USA should not be taken to be universal without very careful thought. Of course, in this case “different standards for different societies” is not straightforward: which standards apply to someone in Idaho practising Shinto, the US standards or the Japanese ones? It might be that, in the end, only universal standards are coherent, because the nature of the problem is such that there is never a well-defined single culture that applies to the situation. (It is only controversial when someone from one culture is taking religious practices from another, after all.)

          Obviously, as an immigrant I find this question very interesting, but the general discussion is not directly relevant to Shinto. My essay on Shinto for Non-Japanese goes into a lot more detail on what I think we can say about Shinto specifically in this context.

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