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From Coexistence to Living Together

The main article on the front page of the December 11th issue of Jinja Shinpō was about the annual National Edification Meeting. (What’s “edification” when it’s at home? It’s the translation of a Japanese term that means activities to promote the religious aspects of jinja, but as much in terms of engagement by people who are already there as in terms of finding more people, so it is difficult to translate into English. “Edification” is the term that Jinja Honchō uses in the English title of the department I’m attached to.)

The keynote speech was given by a Mr Okazaki, who has spent ten years as the secretary of the residents’ association of an apartment complex in Saitama Prefecture where the residents broadly split into two groups: elderly Japanese (who probably moved into the complex as young parents when it was new) and young Chinese. This has, as might be expected, created problems for community cohesion, because there is not only the cultural split between Japanese and foreign immigrants, but also the generational split.

Some of the points he raised were very familiar from my time on the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents (back when I was a foreign resident): foreigners arriving in Japan for work or study do not have much chance to learn about Japanese culture, and this inevitably leads to friction. The separation of rubbish is a major flash point. (Why? I suspect because it is visible, and causes problems for everyone, because the council will not take the unseparated rubbish away. If you are new to Japan, you are likely to get it wrong. Which is not to say that people born and raised in Japan always get it right — “This is not plastic rubbish. Not even if you put it inside a crisp packet”.) So he emphasised the importance of finding ways to explain Japanese culture in a way that foreign residents will understand — a translation of the Japanese is not usually enough.

He also emphasised the importance of the residents’ association in helping to create relationships between the two groups, by making sure that some of the members of the committee were foreigners, and getting input from the local council and universities. (I’m guessing that part of that was language support, although the article does not say.) He pointed out that if people never talk to their neighbours, you will not get a community, and that while “coexistence” is not as good as “living together”, it is a necessary first stage.

The relevance to this meeting came at the end, because he suggested that jinja could play a similar role to the residents’ association, serving as a location where new foreign residents and long-standing Japanese residents could get to know each other, and work on things (such as matsuri) together. He argued that anyone trying to do this needed to be trusted in the local area, and the jinja were really the only places that could do that.

I’m not sure that jinja are the only places, but they are a good choice, because they are supposed to be for all members of the local community, normally have a good established relationship with people who have been there a long time, and don’t demand more commitment than people want to offer. Getting involved in a matsuri is much less of a commitment than joining the residents’ association committee, for example.

I agree with Mr Okazaki. I think jinja have the potential to do a lot to help foreign residents integrate into the community, and, indeed, to help new Japanese residents of an area integrate with long-standing residents. I know that some jinja are already doing this, and I hope that Jinja Honchō will be able to encourage, and help, more to get started. The fact that it chose to make this the topic of the main annual event on this subject is a good sign.

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3 thoughts on “From Coexistence to Living Together”

  1. I would absolutely love to participate more with my local Jinja, and I’m REALLY happy to see Jinja Honcho addressing the topic of integrating foreign residents. I do see several barriers to the Jinja being a primary part of integration, mostly because a lot of foreign residents will take such a different view of the religious aspects of the Jinja. My Filipino friends might visit a Jinja and pray to God or “make a wish,” but participating in ceremonies or organizing matsuri might be a bridge too far, and considered too much of a contradiction with their Catholic upbringings. (I could be wrong though–I think I’ll ask next time I see them!) How much do you think Jinja Honcho is aware of the religious tension foreign residents might feel? Or what has been your experience with the matter David?

    As a data point, I’d say that for being here 18 months my all-American family has made real progress integrating. Our main entry points have been the children’s schools (they attend public schools), music (my husband plays several Japanese instruments), and Japanese lessons (our teacher has also taught us how to wear yukata etc.) We’re also fortunate to live in a city that’s well-know for being helpful and accommodating to foreigners. I actually have *good* experiences at City Hall if you can believe it. 😉 Shinto for me is a highly important, personal point of connection with Japanese culture, but it hasn’t served as part of the assimilation process.

    1. Jinja Honchō is aware of the religious tension, partly because I mention it to them. We explicitly consider how we can make it clear that we do not regard your religious beliefs, no matter what they are, as any barrier to respectful participation in Shinto ceremonies, while also making it clear that we understand if you feel that your religious beliefs are a barrier. Religious people do not necessarily draw the lines where you would expect — my mother, who is an ordained minister of a Christian church, had no problem participating in the Shinto ceremonies held around my wedding and my daughter’s birth and growth. Thus, we have to leave it up to them to draw the line, and make it clear that we will respect that. On the other hand, people can easily believe that we would not want someone with their beliefs participating, and so we have to make it clear that that is not the case.

      I agree that jinja could not take over primary responsibility for integration, but I do think there is a lot of potential there to do a lot more. I can see three big advantages. First, jinja are not demanding. There is no need for commitment unless you want to, and there are lots of people who do just participate casually once a year. Second, jinja are very Japanese, so you get the feeling of being integrated into a different culture. Third, there is no “ulterior motive”. You don’t get involved with the jinja to pay your taxes or learn Japanese — it is entirely about integration into the community.

      Right now, I do not think most jinja are doing this, but I think they could. This is another thing that I hope to be able to support…


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    From the Times article:

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