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Shinto Overseas

Another question that came up on my Patreon after my post about the future of Shinto was the question of how I saw Shinto developing outside Japan. Obviously, I am directly involved in that, so I have rather more concrete goals than I do for the future of Jinja Shinto within Japan.

The first point to make this time is that very few people outside Japan have even heard of Shinto. Readers of this blog are members of an intellectual elite! The purpose of Mimusubi is to make it easier for people outside Japan to learn about Shinto, and to provide some guidance on practice if people are interested in that.

However, because I am not a priest and do not have a jinja, I cannot directly help with the main practical issues.

I would like to see a central website, curated by Jinja Honchō, that offers links to the English webpages of jinja, both large and small, across Japan that provide straightforward ways for foreign residents to make an appropriate offering and receive ofuda or omamori, without leaving their own countries.

I have raised this idea with Jinja Honchō, and so I know that they are not opposed in principle, but there are so many practical problems. Finding jinja that are interested in doing this (because it is extra work) and arranging English websites for them is a major issue. Sorting out a way for foreign residents to make offerings is also complex — as I have discussed before, there are legal issues with jinja taking credit cards in Japan. And then there is the issue of shipping the ofuda. There are practical issues, in terms of who packs it, and how, and what sort of shipping to do, and what to write on the customs declaration. There are also religious issues, in terms of, well, exactly the same questions, actually. (Just to take the customs declaration: in religious terms, an ofuda is not purchased, and therefore not a commercial item. Will customs accept that? Is it religiously permissible to classify the ofuda as commercial goods if they will not?)

I would also like to find a way for foreign residents to remotely participate in formal ceremonies, but that is even more complicated. “Virtual jinja visits” are almost universally agreed to be a bad idea, but if you live in New York, you do not really have realistic alternatives.

Of course, many of these problems would be sidestepped if there were more jinja outside Japan. At the moment, however, there is no sign of the necessary demand for jinja, or the necessary supply of priests who want to work overseas. I hope that Jinja Honchō will come to work more closely with the few foreign jinja that do exist, because that could lay the foundations for working with people who want to found one later. However, this is a very, very long term project, and one that is entirely dependent on people wanting to found and serve at an overseas jinja, and other people wanting to support that. I do not really expect to live long enough to see a significant change here.

The general low level of interest in Shinto outside Japan means that these problems are not urgent, and so Jinja Honchō will take its time sorting them out. If Shinto suddenly became massively popular overseas, that might change. But I am not holding my breath.

I have a Patreon, where people join as paid members to receive an in-depth essay on some aspect of Shinto every month, or as free members to receive notifications of updates to this blog. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

13 thoughts on “Shinto Overseas”

  1. I appreciate your efforts! My desire to practice and work in service of Shinto is how I found your page. I’d love to be able to serve at a jinja, so it’s unfortunate to hear how little interest is and how unlikely the possibility of that may be as a result. Still, I think it’s something worth working towards even if I never see the fruits of those efforts. I practice at home with my kamidana/ofuda, and share my thoughts on Shinto with people whom I find that are interested (making clear they are just my thoughts) and refer them to you and your work for better insight. So thank you so much for everything you do! It means a lot to me.

    1. I’m very glad to hear you find my work useful and supportive.

      It is definitely worth your while working towards serving at a jinja. A relatively small number of enthusiastic people in one area could make it possible, and there is no need for a major shift in the popularity of Shinto. Jinja do exist outside Japan, and one or two more would not be a “major change” from my perspective — but if you could serve at one of them, it might well be transformative for you.

  2. Dear Mr. Chart,

    I hope this finds you and your family well. I was a member of Tsubaki Grand Shrine America (I visited in 2009) and was a long distance member of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha.
    Reverend Takizawa blessed (via Zoom) my traditional Japanese jujutsu dojo when I opened it.

    I now get supplies from Japan via eBay. But I’d love to be a member of a shrine again.

    IMHO, using the templates created by the other shrines in the US, it is very possible to expand Shinto in the mainland. I’d be glad to help in whatever way I can.

    Thank you very much.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I think expansion is possible (decline may not be…), and I will continue to do what I can to support that.

  3. I very much appreciate your work and your blog, as it has helped me learn a lot about Shinto. Thank you. 🙂

    I have been to Hawai’i and visited Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha-Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu – and, I’m proud to say, paid my respects to the kami in the proper way, as I have learned from your videos and writing. (Incidentally, I was the only person there at the time – the middle of the day, on a weekday. They were offering ofuda on the honor system, on a table next to the offering box.)

    I would next like to visit Japan (for the first time) and visit some key jinja. I would not limit myself to Tokyo, and in fact would probably prefer to get out of Tokyo and into the countryside or smaller cities. Maybe this is a larger question than can fit in a comment box (and maybe a better topic for a larger blog post?) but could you recommend 3-5 jinja that a westerner, new to Shinto, should visit in Japan to get a better understanding? If someone were to only make one (or, at most, a few) trips to Japan in a lifetime, which jinja would you suggest they visit?

    1. You’re welcome! It’s nice to hear that the honour system works in Hawai’i as well as Japan — that is quite common at smaller, unstaffed jinja. Mind you, omamori are a bit special in this respect. If you don’t believe there is anything supernatural, why would you steal them? And if you do, why would you think stealing them was in any way a sensible idea?

      Recommending jinja is definitely too big an issue for a comment box. I am thinking about doing a couple of Patreon essays on “A Shinto Day in Tokyo”, recommending a day trip around five or so jinja in Tokyo that would introduce various aspects of Shinto, along with explanations of what you are looking at. The follow-up to that would be something similar for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, where the jinja recommended also take you to important and interesting tourist sites. But I haven’t done any more than think about those yet. (One problem is that I probably wouldn’t be able to include many photographs — that would need permission from the jinja, which is not always easy to get, even for me.)

  4. On the one hand, you run into the theological/philosophical question of why someone who a) doesn’t live in Japan and b) doesn’t speak Japanese should want to practice Shinto anyway…

    On the other, it’s fairly well accepted in the larger animist/polytheist world that “the gods call who they call,” and that what makes sense on a fate+deities level may not always be obvious to those of us “on the ground.”

    Of course you’ll run into questions of cultural appropriation, but since I believe Jinja Honcho has made it clear that anybody can participate in basic Shinto practices so long as they observe them correctly, that helps mitigate the issue. (Do correct me I’m wrong!) And practically speaking, the more widely Shinto is practiced, the more likely it is to survive and thrive.

    Not that Shinto’s survival is necessarily a pressing issue imo, since Shinto has outlasted so many other animist traditions in other parts of the world. Even compared to the indigenous traditions of Korea for example, Shinto is far more prominent and flourishing. That, I believe, is part of its greater worldwide value: as interest in “alternative” spiritualities grows, Shinto serves as an example of how a highly localized, (reasonably) continuous, living animist tradition operates. It undermines so many of the basic assumptions Americans and others make about what religion is and how it operates… which is one of the reasons I like Shinto so much, and would love to see it popularized, in a responsible way, outside of Japan.

    I think your blog is the epitome of a responsible and well-considered approach to Shinto, by the way. I feel incredibly lucky to have found it.

    I’d absolutely love to help with this project at some point. Since NIhongo ga heta desu, I’m not sure how, aside from helping write the copy of those English websites. Persuading jinja to make them in the first place is probably still up to you!

    1. Thank you for the kind words.

      Yes, Jinja Honchō, and all the individual priests I have talked to about the topic, are positively enthusiastic about anyone participating Shinto practice (and generally very cautious about saying anything is “correct” or “incorrect”).

      I also do not see any risk of Shinto disappearing in the foreseeable future (my lifetime, at least), as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Changing, yes, but not disappearing. As you say, it has survived with remarkable vigour compared to similar traditions in other areas. I agree with you that it undermines a lot of basic assumptions — on the monotheist side, about what a religion looks like at all, and on the animist/polytheist side, about what a state with a goddess-centred, nature-worshipping, animist practice as its “state religion” would look like. (Scare quotes, because Shinto does not seem to have been thought of as a state religion by anyone Japanese at the time.)

      If the project reaches a point at which people can effectively help, I will post about it on this blog. I can’t think of a better way to recruit… We aren’t there yet, however.

      1. Haha, yes, very good point about the goddess-centered nature-worshipping state religion. Not quite the anticipated utopia, is it? Still, I think it sets up human beings for a healthier, more functional relationship with their environment than many monotheistic religions do. I’m very happy to be raising my kids here, with Shinto and Buddhism as the cultural background. My daughter loves jinja as much as I do…a future miko, perhaps!

        1. We have to be cautious about generalisations about any culture, but I do agree with you that the Shinto/Buddhist cultural background makes Japan different from Western society, and I also prefer the society here. I had reasons for choosing to stay and naturalise, after all.

  5. Pingback: Jinja Kō – Mimusubi

  6. In regards to shipping religious items, something that might be worth looking into is how the Catholic church ships relics: Catholic priests can (sometimes) request relics from certain larger pieces and these are often shipped by post. These cannot be purchased, and would therefore run into the same issues with customs as the Shinto items mentioned.
    It might be worth asking a Catholic priest on how their relics are shipped, or asking an institution sending relics (An example would be the Casa Generalizia dei Carmelitani Scalzi, website postocd dot org) how they do it.

    1. That is a good idea, thank you. Jinja Honchō has good relations with the Catholic church, so I will suggest consulting them.

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