Skip to content

Which Spirits are Consoled?

This will be my final post about the articles in issue 269 of the Journal of Shinto Studies, although the combined issue 270/271 has just arrived, and may contain material of interest. The article I am writing about today is “Disasters, Contagion, and the Consolation of Spirits: What is Needed for Consolation?” by Nomura Makoto.

This article is also a summary of a presentation at the annual conference, but unlike most of the others it does not give many details about the argument, so I can only give the overall structure.

In summer 2021, the “Earthquake Recovery Olympic Games” were held, with reference to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. During the games, the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic passed that from the earthquake and tsunami.

However, while the national and local governments held memorial ceremonies for the earthquake dead on the first anniversary, and many monuments were constructed, no ceremony has been held for the pandemic dead, and there have been few monuments. This contrasts with a number of foreign countries, including the UK, where memorial services were held.

The question of the article is: Why?

Unfortunately, the summary does not give Nomura’s answer to that question.

One possibility is hinted at above. It took 18 months for the pandemic in Japan to reach the death toll that the Great East Japan Earthquake inflicted in a matter of hours, and the economic impact was also far smaller. Japan’s response to the pandemic was astonishingly effective: no mask mandate, no vaccine mandate, no lockdowns — and no excess deaths. The immediate reason for this is that virtually everyone wore masks, got vaccinated, and stayed home without legal compulsion, and the reasons for that are worth further investigation. In any case, in comparison to the other disasters that strike Japan, the pandemic was not that bad. So maybe there was no felt need for memorial services and monuments.

On the other hand, it did ultimately kill more people than the Great East Japan Earthquake, so that cannot be the whole answer.

We might wonder whether Japanese culture is less concerned about epidemics, and Nomura reports that there were very few monuments to the victims of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, which might support that. However, prayers for deliverance from sickness are a central part of the Shinto tradition, and the original motivation for one of the largest festivals in Japan, the Kyoto Gion Matsuri. That connection was mentioned during the pandemic, and there were a significant number of ceremonies praying for an end to the pandemic. Thus, things cannot be that simple.

Another possibility is connected to the goryō traditions, which aimed to pacify the spirits of people who had died deaths that might leave them resentful. That would certainly apply to people suddenly killed by an earthquake, and also to people killed in war (memorials to and services for the war dead are very common). However, during the pandemic people died more “normally”. This is a bit speculative, but it may be that the absence of legally enforced lockdowns meant that more people were able to be with dying relatives, and hold small, but traditional, funerals. (My only direct experience of that was later in the pandemic, when restrictions were being loosened because of vaccination, but it may also have been true earlier.) So, perhaps, the dead were not regarded as needing particular consolation, because they received the same consolation as people who died of other causes at other times.

This last hypothesis strikes me as worth investigating. If services for the dead, in the Japanese tradition, are seen as trying to calm spirits who might be angry with the living, then a perception that people who died during the pandemic did so with the support of their loved ones, just as at any other time, could remove the feeling that anything additional needed to be done to console them.

In any case, the absence of rituals to console the pandemic dead does need an explanation, given the performance of rituals to console the dead in other natural disasters, and to ward the pandemic off. It is possible that a more detailed report on this research will appear in a later issue of the journal, and if it does, I will most likely report back.

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.

2 thoughts on “Which Spirits are Consoled?”

  1. Considering how often onryou (怨霊) are mentioned in Japanese folklore, I think you hit the nail on the head. A death by disease allows time for reconciliations, thank yous, time to forgive and mourn, and buying Buddhist names.

    People who died suddenly or away from home might still want those things and return until they get them. An exception would be Tenjin-no-kami who died peacefully in his bed but still returned for revenge.

    1. Well, Tenjin-no-kami did die in exile, still raging against the injustice of being framed and cast out of the court. But that was a special case.

      Thanks for the comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.