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Moidan, Kamiyama, Utaki

The article about sacred forests in the April 4th issue of Jinja Shinpō was about sacred sites in the southern parts of Japan. They are not all sacred forests, but many of them are, and they are all connected to the natural landscape. One interesting feature of this article is that it starts in Kagoshima, in southern Kyushu, and then moves through the Amami islands to Okinawa. It is not clear whether the native religious traditions of Okinawa are best described as a variety of Shinto, while those of Kagoshima certainly are, but it is clear that drawing a sharp boundary is not possible.

“Moidan” are/were the guardian kami of villages in Kagoshima, and while there is normally no building, the kami is typically thought to be resident in an old tree. “Kamiyama” are found on the Amami islands, and refer to a (normally forested) mountain behind the village. A sacred path leads from the mountain to the sea, often with an area for rituals along the way. “Utaki” are the sacred sites of the native religious tradition of Okinawa, and often consist of a small wooded grove or spring, surrounded by a low stone wall.

All of these served as community centres, typically maintained by particular families in the village, often on a rota basis. They also had direct functions as “ecosystem infrastructure”. For example, treating the slopes behind the village as sacred ground restricts the removal of vegetation from them, which helps to prevent landslides and ensure that streams and springs continue to provide drinking water. Woodland near the coast serves as a windbreak, and can provide defences against storm surges or small tsunami.

Of course, the traditional social structures that maintained these locations have been undermined by depopulation as younger people have flowed to cities for work. The adaptations have varied by area. In some places, the traditional families are hanging on, and families who have moved to the village have almost nothing to do with the sacred space. In others, the management of the space has been effectively transferred from the traditional families to the village as a whole, including recent arrivals, and even former residents who have moved away retain a role, returning for important events.

The author wrote about these areas because these are the ones he has studied, but he notes that there are almost certainly similar sites in villages across Japan. I am sure he is right, and that I will learn more about them as I continue to read.

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