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Sacred and Sacred

The jinja visit after the Japan-Iran dialogue raised an interesting question about the relationship between Shinto’s view of the sacred, and that of other religions.

Contemporary Jinja Shinto does not see any need to claim superiority over or incompatibility with any other religion. (There are and have been varieties of Shinto that did one or both, but they are not currently mainstream. It is, perhaps, important to note that pre-war State Shinto was not one of them — it was as accepting of other traditions as contemporary Jinja Shinto.) However, some other religions certainly do see an incompatibility between their religious practice and paying respects at a jinja. (This was the pre-war problem, because State Shinto ceremonies were effectively compulsory, and some people felt that participation was incompatible with their religion.)

These days, of course, people can simply choose not to participate in Shinto ceremonies if they feel that their religion does not allow them to, but I think it does sometimes present a problem for the Shinto world. They do not really understand why people might have a problem with participation.

Obviously, they understand that they sometimes do. (They are not stupid.) But they are not always able to work out how best to respond to the problem. For example, early versions of the illustrations in the Jinja: Heart of Japan booklet included a woman in a headscarf paying her respects. This was altered in the final version, because of concern that Muslims would be offended. Of course, this decision meant that there was no longer an illustration of a clearly Muslim woman in the booklet.

Now, my feeling on this is that very few Muslims would be offended by the image, even ones who would not personally pay their respects at a jinja. A handful of extremely conservative Muslims might be, but there are cultural Muslims, just like there are cultural Christians and cultural Jews, and some of those women wear a headscarf, but might well be perfectly happy to pay their respects at a jinja while on holiday in Japan. Indeed, the head of an official Muslim delegation from Iran was happy to do so. I think it is more important to indicate that the Shinto side of the relationship does not mind that, than to worry about whether some people on the other side do.

This issue also occurs when inviting people to visit jinja. What sort of arrangements should be made so that people who do have religious qualms can attend and feel welcome? This really is difficult, because we want them to feel comfortable excluding themselves from certain parts, but also feel that they are excluding themselves, rather than being excluded.

Even though I have personal experience of being a devout and fundamentalist Christian, I don’t always have good answers to these questions. I am only one person, after all, and only followed one variety of one exclusivist religion. It is, however, confusing to a lot of Shinto priests, because they cannot see why a Christian would object to offering a tamagushi, any more than they would object to taking communion. (And the fact that they are not allowed to is also sometimes puzzling.)

Issues like this do make me wonder whether we need a way of talking about Shinto that doesn’t call it a religion. The English label is unhelpful in almost as many ways as it is useful.

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1 thought on “Sacred and Sacred”

  1. Perhaps note a matter of faith, which one has no proof of and has to work with as a matter of usually tenuous belief, or, an individual having a personal religious practice, which one does and thus has direct experience of, where one does not have to then try and rely on some stated belief.

    This does note that in English, the idea of a “religious faith” is itself completely contradictory, given religion and faith being completely different and basically opposing concepts.

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