Shinto Afterlife

I have said before that Shinto has much less to say about what happens after we die than a Westerner is likely to expect of a religion. On the other hand, Shinto is not completely silent on the subject. There is, after all, the myth of Izanaki’s descent to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife (a trip that certainly does not go according to plan — I mean, he literally goes down to hell to rescue her, and she demands a divorce?). However, that myth has very little connection to any other Shinto practices concerning death, so little that some scholars think that it may have been borrowed from a different tradition and added in because it was a good story.

An article in the September 13th issue of Jinja Shinpō is more in line with what seems to be the common thinking. It was written by Takahashi Miyuki (assuming she reads the characters of her name the standard way), who is a theological adviser to Jinja Honchō. The article is about recent changes in society, their impact on funeral practices, and what jinja can, and should, do about it. One point of interest is that there is much less lamenting of the changes than normal. Rather, the article takes the approach that this is happening, and that Shinto needs to work out how to respond within its tradition.

A significant part of the article is taken up with describing what Takahashi sees as the “traditional”, and Shinto, view of the afterlife. This can be summed up by saying that we don’t go anywhere after we die: we stay around the living, in the region where we lived, or around the people close to us, or possibly back in our hometowns. (I think the choice depends on where the spirit feels most connected, but that point was not explicitly addressed.) The spirits of the dead would then be cared for by the living through ceremonies and offerings.

The problem that Takahashi sees is that the increase in the number of people dying alone, and the weakening of the ties of local community, means that too many people are dying without connections or anyone to look after them, and so their spirits are just wandering, lost, around Japan. It is quite clear from the article that this is not a metaphor. She concludes by discussing what local jinja can do, and frames the problem as follows:

However, the current situation is that there are many spirits of the dead that are not venerated, and it is a fact that some among them want to return to their ancestral home and be with the spirits of their ancestors. We cannot close our eyes to this reality.

Takahashi Miyuki

Her proposal was that local jinja should establish practices to pray for and venerate the spirits of the dead, possibly by setting up a “soreisha”, a jinja for the spirits of the dead, in the grounds of each local jinja, or by setting a shared soreisha on a hill overlooking the area, so that the dead can go there and look at their home while being venerated.

I do not think that this is the universal Shinto belief about what happens after death, but I do think that it is a particularly widespread belief, and this article made it more explicit than most treatments I have seen. In many cases, Shinto focuses on this world because its practitioners believe that this is the only world there is.

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