The January 29th issue of Jinja Shinpō included an article on “Tenjinsai in Romania”, an event held in Bucharest on the 4th and 5th of November last year. In March last year, Japan and Romania signed a strategic partnership, and the Romanian government declared November “Japanese Culture Month”, with a range of events, including this one.
Osaka Tenmangū, a large and important Tenjin jinja in Osaka (you could probably have guessed most of that), was responsible for it. The annual Tenjinsai is one of the larger matsuri in Osaka, and the aim was to give people in Romania a sense of what it was like. The presentation was held in full on both the 4th and 5th. Two of the associated dances were performed, a mikoshi was taken and carried, and a full Shinto ceremony was performed, praying for both countries and the relationship between them. The events were preceded by a reception attended by a government minister and a representative of the president, and the whole thing was hosted in the National Theatre, so this was obviously a very high-level event. Given how many people and items they took to Romania, it cannot have been cheap. Osaka Tenmangū is a wealthy jinja, however, so they may have borne much of the cost themselves.
I am writing about this for two reasons. One is “Look! Shinto event outside Japan!”.
The other is that the status of the event is interestingly ambiguous. It was held in the National Theatre, with some of the dances also performed outside the entrance so that people passing by could see them. The main event appears to have included a lecture, probably with visual support, on Shinto and Shinto ceremonies, as well as an actual shinji, before the mikoshi and dances.
Thus, from the Romanian side, it probably looked like an explanation and demonstration of traditional Japanese culture. From the Shinto side, however, it was a matsuri. Here again we see that the religious nature of Shinto is a bit blurred. For kabuki, for example, it is obvious that a demonstration performance is actually kabuki. It might only be part of a play, but it is still kabuki. On the other hand, if you go to see a performance of, say, Mozart’s Requiem at a concert hall, you are not attending a Christian service. It is a performance of an aspect of European culture with deep links to Christianity. It is possible to do the same for Shinto — kagura (sacred dance) can be performed by itself. However, it seems to be quite common not to. The inclusion of a matsuri, including calling on the kami to attend, is not unique to this event.
I would have to talk to the people involved in several such events to be sure, but my sense is that the Shinto psychology goes something like this. It is not appropriate to perform some sacred acts outside the context of a matsuri. However, there is absolutely no problem with holding a matsuri in a theatre, with lots of people present who do not practice Shinto and who are simply there to enjoy the performance.
This is yet another way in which Shinto is a poor fit for the Western concept of “religion”, but also clearly something in that general area.