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Formal Prayers

A few days ago I was talking to the chief priest of Asakusa Jinja about the guide to Shinto through Tokyo jinja that I am currently writing for my Patreon. (I was there because I am volunteering for Natsumoude again, and I will write about that when I have finished volunteering for this year — so probably next week.)

While we were talking, he mentioned that he, and other priests, would not want people asking for formal prayers (gokitō) just to see something unusual and Japanese. They are prayers, after all, not performances. I think this is obviously right, because they are prayers, but it does raise a number of tricky questions.

The obvious one is “how can you tell why someone is asking for it?”. People could just say that they wanted to offer a prayer in order to see what is done during the ceremony. However, there is nothing that I can do about this, or that priests can do about it. They have to take people at their word. So we don’t need to worry about this one.

There are questions about how jinja should promote formal prayers to Japanese people, but I, personally, don’t need to worry about those, at least not at the moment. It’s not inconceivable that I might be in a position to do so at some point, but right now I am not.

The questions I need to worry about concern the presentation of formal prayers to non-Japanese visitors, both general tourists and people with a particular interest in Shinto.

People who already see themselves as practising Shinto are not an issue. They only need practical guidance on how to go about having a gokitō performed while they are in Japan, because they will be requesting it as a Shinto prayer. (We are talking about attitudes to gokitō, and gokitō at a jinja in Japan are definitely Shinto, so it does not matter whether anyone else would recognise their normal practice as Shinto. They are still asking for, and getting, a Shinto prayer.)

It is tempting to say “so both of you are fine”, but I know there are more than two such people. There are probably more than two thousand such people. I might even risk another order of magnitude. But they are a tiny proportion of the 25 million foreign tourists who visited Japan last year, so I need to think about the other people.

In general terms, you can ask for a gokitō even if you do not see yourself as practising Shinto, because that is the situation of most Japanese people doing so. It is enough to be intending to practise Shinto at the gokitō. And that, I think, may be the way to approach it. (Yes, I am literally working out my approach to this problem as I write this blog post. I find writing helpful for this sort of thing.)

A gokitō is a formal Shinto prayer. Shinto does not require you to believe anything particular about the kami, and does not care whether you have any other religion. However, in order to ask for a gokitō respectfully, you must be planning to practise Shinto during the gokitō. It is respectful to do this in order to find out what practising Shinto is like, even if you have no intention of practising Shinto again in the future. Maybe the experience will change your mind, maybe not, but either way, you will have practised Shinto. This means that if you feel that your religious or atheist commitments forbid you to practise Shinto, even briefly, you should not ask for a gokitō. If you cannot bring yourself to take it seriously, even briefly, you should not ask for a gokitō.

In order to practise Shinto, you need to follow the etiquette and conventions. This includes dressing appropriately, and abiding by the restrictions (no talking, typically no photographs or videos — although that can be slightly negotiable in some cases, no watching YouTube during the gokitō you philistine). It also includes making the offering as an offering, and not thinking about value-for-money. (And certainly not trying to haggle the price down…)

I think this feels right to me. I should write it up properly, and run it past Jinja Honchō (with a Japanese translation — although fortunately there is now someone in the department with pretty good English). If they think it is reasonable, I can use it when talking to foreign visitors, and it might even be worth them turning it into an official Jinja Honchō position, although that takes a lot of effort and meetings. Once that was done, however, the result could be distributed to all jinja, and provide a good baseline.

In the end, of course, the jinja has to rely on the visitor being honest. But as I said at the beginning, there is nothing the priests can do about that problem — best to leave it to the kami.

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1 thought on “Formal Prayers”

  1. “Yes, I am literally working out my approach to this problem as I write this blog post. I find writing helpful for this sort of thing.”

    Yay! I’m not the only person who does that. 🙂

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