Shrine Shinto Confronts Internationalisation, Part One

Last Sunday (February 21st, just in case this draft takes longer than anticipated and I forget to edit the beginning) I attended a small symposium at Kokugakuin University on the subject “Shrine Shinto Confronts Internationalisation”. I found out about it because Professor Havens, one of the participants, posted about it on the English-language Shinto mailing list I’m on, and since it was free, local, and very relevant to my interests, I got my wife’s permission to disappear for a day, and went along.

It was extremely interesting. Shrine Shinto as a whole has no unified approach to internationalisation, it would seem, which is hardly surprising, as individual shrines are very independent. However, the speakers told us about their experiences, activities, and research, which shed quite a lot of light on the question.

The first two speakers were the chief priests of shrines in Hawaii. These shrines were founded by Japanese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and both of the priests had been sent out from Japan to lead the shrines. One has since taken US citizenship, which requires him to renounce his Japanese citizenship according to the laws of both countries, so he is now a non-Japanese Shinto priest; an example of internationalisation all by himself.

The first one to speak was Revd Takizawa, the chief priest of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha – Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu. (I know it’s normally “jinja”, but the shrine spells it “jinsha” on their home page, and it’s their name.) He was born in Nagoya, but apparently worked in Hawaii for a while before training as a priest. He was sent back to Hawaii, to lead the shrine, in 1994.

At that time, very few of the third-generation Japanese Americans were attending the shrine, and the surrounding area was not good, with a lot of crime and drug problems. The shrine was holding three events per year, at New Year and the two main festivals, and about a thousand people attended on New Year’s.

He started work right away on raising the shrine’s profile. He got involved in local community activities, trying to address the local problems, so that people knew there was a shrine there. He also increased the number of events that the shrine held, so that people would be less likely to forget about it. A guiding idea behind this was the desire to introduce Japanese culture to people in Hawaii. Thus, they started serving o-zoni, traditional Japanese New Year food, at the New Year festival. They also got some children’s kimonos, and provided free kimono rental to children attending the seven-five-three festival in November. We saw some photographs of that, and some of the children were clearly not of Japanese descent. If I’m reading my notes correctly, about 400 people did 7-5-3 last year.

In August, to go with the start of the American academic year, the shrine holds a Back to School ceremony, which is appropriate for a Tenmangu, as those are shrines dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a kami of scholarship. In June, they hold the summer grand purification, but with a twist: they do purification for pets, as well. That seems to be very popular, judging from the photographs of the people attending.

As a result of this, he said that they now get about 10,000 people on New Year’s, although he also said that the core group of volunteers helping to run the shrine is only ten people. Mind you, that proportion sounds about right to me. He also has a second priest, also sent from Japan, working at the shrine, and training to take over when the Rev Takizawa retires. From the sounds of things, that shrine is thriving.

The second speaker was the chief priest of Hilo Daijingu, Rev Watanabe. He has naturalised as a US citizen, so he is now a non-Japanese Shinto priest. However, he was born in Niigata Prefecture and trained in Japan, and apparently spoke no English when he went over to Hawaii. Apparently, when he applied for his visa, the US immigration department pointed out that the shrine where he was working then and Hilo Daijingu enshrined different kami, and wondered whether he was really the same religion as the shrine he was supposed to work at. He got round that by having two lawyers, one an expert in immigration law and the other an expert on religious law (and one of them the son of the former chief priest of one of the Hawaiian shrines), who convinced immigration that Shinto isn’t divided by kami.

Although the shrine is called Hilo Great Shrine (Daijingu), it’s actually quite a small shrine, the same sort of scale as a neighbourhood shrine in Japan, and that’s the atmosphere that Revd Watanabe says that he aims for. It is, however, the only shrine on Hawaii’s Big Island, which is apparently about half the size of Shikoku, but with a much lower population. He said that, although people are very spread out, there’s a strong community in the sense that everyone knows everyone else, particularly within the Japanese-American community.

Hilo Daijingu gets about 4000 people at New Year’s, and holds Tsukinamisai twice a month, on the first and fifteenth. About 40 families attend on the first, about 10 on the fifteenth. Most of the attendees are older people, but the number hasn’t changed over the ten years he’s been there. Although some people have died, others have retired and started attending. About 90 families come to the Great Purifications, and he does about 20 to 30 petitions per month.

They have a garage sale in the shrine every year, which serves two purposes. First, it’s something for the organising committee to do, meaning that the meetings have more substance, and they get to know each other better. Second, it gives people who do not think of themselves as Shinto a reason to visit the shrine, and the feeling that they can enter the grounds. He also holds ceremonies on the US public holidays that aren’t specifically Christian, like Independence Day.

Revd Watanabe says that he tries to talk to anyone who comes into the shrine grounds, to make them feel welcome. Japanese tourists sometimes come, and it’s apparently often the first time they’ve spoken to a Shinto priest. He says that he wants to make people feel that they want to go back to a shrine, whether Hilo Daijingu or one nearer home back in Japan.

This shrine also seems to be doing quite well. However, it was noticeable from the photographs that most of the people seriously involved with the shrines looked to be of Japanese descent. Revd Watanabe explicitly mentioned that Japanese Americans form most of the attendees at ceremonies. These shrines seem to be good examples of religions that have travelled with immigrants, and while both sound like they are very healthy at the moment, I do wonder whether their appeal will spread beyond the Japanese American community, or even whether they want it to.

This has got quite long, so I’ll break here, and post about the other speakers later.

Posted in Kokugakuin.

3 Comments

  1. David,

    Thanks for putting down some of the meeting in writing. This is so interesting. I’m really impressed that all three of those priests made the trip from Hawaii. I hope you will post more.

  2. Glad you found it useful. I hope I will find time to write some more. Incidentally, there were only two priests from Hawaii; Revd Takizawa and Revd Watanabe.

  3. Pingback: Hawaii, revisited | Green Shinto

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