A few weeks ago, I reported on an article in Jinja Shinpō about how people were paying their respects at jinja. The author of that article had another one in the October 11th issue, looking further back, and starting from a line from a military song published during the Second World War, which refers to a mother visiting Yasukuni Jinja and kneeling to pay her respects and recite a Nenbutsu, which is a Buddhist prayer. According to the article, this was to emphasise her rustic background, as she did not even know the proper way to pay one’s respects at a jinja, but the reference to her kneeling, outside, is still interesting.
People kneeling outside to pay their respects can be found in a number of other images. Photographs of the ceremonies in which the war dead were enshrined at Yasukuni often show members of the families kneeling on the ground outside. Similarly, pictures of people praying for the recovery of Meiji Tennō during his last illness also show many of them kneeling on the ground outside the Imperial Palace. As I recall, photographs of people listening to Shōwa Tennō’s radio broadcast in which he announced Japan’s surrender also show many of them kneeling outside. However, as the author reports, photographs of people praying for Shōwa Tennō’s recovery outside the Imperial Palace do not show anyone kneeling. The author suggests that this custom has been lost.
It is true that I have never seen, as far as I can recall, an ordinary visitor to a jinja kneeling on the ground to pay their respects. (When matsuri are held outside, the priests sometimes do.) It is even unusual to kneel when attending a formal ceremony in the jinja’s prayer hall, although that is certainly not unheard of. When I first went to Koganëyama Jinja, we knelt during the ceremonies, but after a couple of years they had stools in the prayer hall — although I have seen people kneel on the floor rather than use them. At Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, people sit for most of the ceremony, but are often invited up onto the dais to kneel and formally pay their respects.
The author of the article went looking for older evidence, and found a number of illustrations from the seventeenth century of people kneeling on the ground outside jinja to pay their respects, with a fan open on the ground in front of them. It is very likely that paying one’s respects in this style would involve bowing so that one’s forehead touched the ground.
So, this is clearly a change in practice. It would seem that it was well underway by the mid twentieth century, because the mother visiting Yasukuni is portrayed as rustic and old-fashioned, but it has proceeded even further. One factor, no doubt, is the disappearance of kneeling on tatami from everyday life in Japan, so that most people have no practice in formal kneeling, and the ones who have are often too old to manage it any more.
An interesting thing about the disappearance of this tradition is that this article is the first time I have seen anyone in the Shinto world draw attention to it. It seems that, in this case, the disappearance of a tradition is not a cause for concern.