Tea Party

Last night, I went to a tea party. At least, that’s how the participants referred to it in English. Actually, I went to an extremely formal tea ceremony.

The name of the type of ceremony is “Akatsuki no Chaji”, which means “Dawn Tea Ceremony”. The name is descriptively accurate; dawn is an important part of the ceremony. When I say I went last night, I really mean the night part.

I was invited to the ceremony because one of my students has done quite a bit of research on the way of tea, and knew the head of a relatively small tea school. His school is part of the Sekishu tradition, which was a form of tea ceremony practised by samurai in the Edo period. Unlike the larger Sen schools, Sekishu schools allowed students to found their own schools when they reached a high enough level of ability, so these days there are quite a lot of Sekishu schools (at least compared to Sen schools, of which there are three). I don’t know the details, because it happened while I wasn’t there, but she mentioned me to him, and, as a result, I was invited to today’s Dawn Tea Ceremony.

The first thing I had to do was rent a man’s kimono, with the hakama trousers and an over-jacket. There wasn’t a lot of choice in my size, but there was something appropriate. The second thing I had to do was learn to put it on. Fortunately, this is easier than putting on a woman’s kimono, so Yuriko was able to teach me on Friday, and, after practising on Saturday, I was able to put it on by myself.

It was very important that I be able to put it on myself, because the tea ceremony started at 3am, so I was putting it on in a hotel at about 2am, ready to meet the other guests and take taxis to the tea house. I had to get up at 1am this morning, so forgive me if my English is a little less limpid than normal.

In any case, I managed to get myself to the hotel lobby, in a correctly-worn kimono, by 2:30am, and I think that may have been the part of the event I was most worried about. I travelled to the tea house with my student, who was able to give me a bit of last-minute advice. This was welcome, because while I do know a bit about the tea ceremony, this was the first time I had ever been to one, and I had no idea what to do.

The tea house was in a park-like setting, among paddy fields out in the suburbs of Tokyo, so we arrived in complete darkness. A paper lantern had been left at the entrance to mark it, and the path was lined with candles. We followed these up to the tea house, where we first gathered in a waiting room, and signed our names in the guest book. There were six of us; four men and two women. All of us were wearing kimono, which made me very glad that I had made the effort. I, at least, felt as thought I fitted in; I don’t know what they thought. Any tea ceremony has a principal guest, and today’s was a teacher of tea ceremony from the Oribe tradition, another samurai tradition, and one with links to the Sekishu tradition. (I don’t know the details, however.) The principal guest’s job is to talk to the host on behalf of the other guests, as well as make some formal responses. He also served as the person I watched to find out what I was supposed to do, on the grounds that he would certainly know.

After we had signed the book and had a drink (of amazake, which is a kind of sake, so I only tasted it), the ceremony proper started. At the entrance to the garden around the tea house there was a small waiting shelter, and we sat there for a few moments, before someone came out of the tea hut to welcome us in, carrying a candle. In the garden there was a stone water stoop, were we all washed our hands, one at a time.

The entrance to a tea house is very small, a crawl-door, so even Japanese people have to crouch to get through. Inside, the room is quite small, with tatami mats, and a pit in the floor for a charcoal fire, on which the water for the tea is boiled. The only lighting was from candles and an oil lamp, so it was a little dark, but extremely atmospheric. A piece of calligraphy was hanging in the alcove, chosen for the occasion.

There were three people directly involved in the ceremony. First, there was the head of the school. He is in his eighties now, so he was supervising and explaining things to us. Second, there was the man who actually made the tea. He was a former student of the head of the school, I think. It was never made clear, but I got the impression that he had “graduated”, or whatever the expression is, but was still associated with his former teacher, as is often the way of things in Japan. The third person was another member of the school, and she was helping with fetching and carrying. Obviously, all of them were also wearing kimono.

I did notice something interesting about the kimono. There are three grades of formal kimono. The most formal has the wearer’s house crest repeated five times; on each sleeve, on each breast, and on the back. The next has three (the breast crests are deleted), and the least formal has only one (on the back). The man performing the ceremony had five crests, the head of the school three, and the guests who knew what they were doing, one. I didn’t have any, at least partly because I had to rent the kimono.

The first part of the ceremony was the “before tea”. The tea was made, in front of us, following the formal ritual of the school. From what I could see, this is a careful formalisation of the actions you would normally use to make tea. Things were wiped, cups rinsed, and the tea whisked. But everything was done just so. Here was where I started to notice my lack of background; it was obvious that much of what he did was significant, but not obvious if anything wasn’t.

At least, that was the case until the next bit, where the charcoal in the hearth was changed. The live coals were put in a bowl, and passed round for us to warm our hands, while new ones were put in. The school head told us that, in the Sekishu tradition, there are no rules for the pattern of the charcoal. It is, however, part of the ritual, as is looking at the pattern of the charcoal. Incense is added to the charcoal, and then the water pot, filled with cold water, is placed on it. There is a second “tea” part of the ceremony later, but the water for it is brought to the boil during the ceremony.

Once the incense had been added, the incense jar was passed around, so that we could all have a look at it. This is, apparently, a standard and important part of the tea ceremony. Even, no, especially when the incense jar is over four hundred years old and was owned by the founder of the whole Sekishu tradition. I was almost afraid to touch it, but it would have been impolite not to, and, in any case, when am I going to get that sort of chance again? I might be able to see similar things in a museum, but I won’t be able to pick them up. The same process was repeated for other utensils, later in the ceremony, and while some were the same age, others were much more recent, including one that the school head had decorated himself. (The principal guest guessed that correctly, and asked if that meant he could keep it. Alas not.)

After the water was put on to boil, it was time for dinner. There was a whole kaiseki meal, with many small dishes, and I had to keep an eye on the other guests, particularly the principal guest, to make sure I ate it correctly. The atmosphere was much more relaxed at this point, and I think that this was also an important part of the ceremony, when the guests and host have a chance to talk properly.

One of the other guests teaches tea ceremony at a girls’ high school, and she wanted to take a photograph at the end of the meal. This was because most people who practise the tea ceremony these days are women, and, naturally, everyone doing it at the high school is female, so she wanted to show them a picture of men attending a formal tea ceremony. Having a foreign man there as well might have been a bit of a bonus. I hope it proves to be a useful teaching aid.

After the meal, we all left the tea house for a while, as a sort of intermission. For some reason, the crawl entrance was stuck shut, so we had to go out of a different door, which made things a little easier. By this time, the sky was beginning to brighten, with the first signs of dawn.

I was very glad to get outside for bit. Strictly speaking, you should sit in seiza at a tea ceremony, the formal kneeling posture, with your feet flat on the floor and your weight resting on your heels. I practise this fairly often, and I can do half an hour without any trouble, but a three hour meal proved to be a bit too much for me, and they were good enough to bring a stool. It was a relief to see that, although I had the least endurance by a fair margin, some of the other guests were also having problems before the meal ended. By the end of the whole ceremony the only guests who had been able to stay in seiza for essentially the whole time were the two who teach tea ceremony. I guess they get lots of practice.

After enjoying the dawn, a gong summoned us back to the hut, and we washed our hands again before going in.

The decoration in the alcove had been changed to a winter flower arrangement, very austere, as is standard for the tea ceremony, and we took our places again. This part was much more ceremonial, and we were served thick tea, two kinds of Japanese sweets, and thin tea. The thick tea is really thick, more like a soup than what you would normally think of as tea, and thus quite bitter. The thin tea is the same flavour, but a more tea-like consistency. By this point, I really couldn’t stay in seiza for very long, so I just tried to do it while I was actually being served or drinking tea, but even so my calves kept cramping. I really need more practice if I’m going to be able to do it properly.

We left the tea house in full daylight, somewhat over four hours after the ceremony started.

This is, I believe, about as formal and full ceremony as tea ceremonies get; it is common to omit the meal, for example. It seems that the dawn ceremonies are particularly rare, not least because the people performing the ceremony have to stay up all night, as there are preparations that need to be done before the guests arrive. As a first experience of the tea ceremony, therefore, it was somewhat overwhelming. I’m absolutely sure that I don’t understand everything that was going on, but equally sure that there were things there to be understood. I fear, however, that deeper knowledge of the tea ceremony will fall victim to lack of time; while I’d love to know more about it, I have other things to study first.

I am really grateful to have been given this opportunity. Actual experience is really a very important part of understanding a culture, and the tea ceremony is an important part of Japanese culture. I think my friends are spoiling me.

The Colour of Traffic Lights

A notorious peculiarity in the Japanese language is that they think that the “go” light on traffic lights is blue. That is, the word that is normally translated as “blue” (ao) is used to describe the “go” light, rather than the word normally translated as “green” (midori). This is something that foreigners, particularly Western foreigners, are said to argue with Japanese people about. Indeed, on one site of “evidence you’ve been in Japan too long”, “you think the “go” light is blue” was listed as one of the signs.

On Monday, I took Mayuki to Ginza, one of the main shopping centres in Tokyo, because I had a couple of jobs to do there. When we were waiting to cross the road, I pointed at the pedestrian signal and asked, “What colour is that?”

“Red!” she replied, in Japanese. (She almost invariably speaks Japanese, even though I address her in English.)

Moments later, it changed, so I said we could go.

“Oh, it’s turned green!” Mayuki said, again in Japanese.

“Actually, in Japanese you say “blue”,” I told her.

“What? That’s green!” she retorted.

So there we have it. A neutral observer, at two years old, has declared in favour of the westerners.

The “go” light is green.

Visa Extension

I got my visa extension today. This is just another three years on the spousal visa; still no news on permanent residence. There wasn’t really much doubt that I’d get the extension, since I clearly meet the requirements, but it’s still nice to actually have the visa in my passport and the record on my gaijin card.

As normal, after waiting for over an hour in immigration, the actual process was over in about five minutes, including walking upstairs to buy the revenue stamps to pay the fees. The whole performance took a whole morning, though. I needed to go to the ward office to get another document, then from the ward office to immigration, then back to the ward office to record the change on my gaijin card. Quite a lot of the morning was spent in motion…

Still, one morning to get it all done is not at all bad. And, of course, it is now done.

Shinto Controversies Course — 10th Lecture

Today was the last of this year’s Shinto lectures at Kokugakuin. The theme was the origins of Yoshida Shinto, particularly the activities of Kanetomo Yoshida. (Kanetomo is his given name.)

Right at the beginning of the lecture, Professor Okada said that he didn’t generally like to criticise historical figures, because you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but when it came to Kanetomo, there were some things you just wanted to say. Thus, he was probably going to be a bit critical during the lecture. He reflected that this risked Kanetomo cursing him (as Kanetomo was enshrined as a kami after his death), and explained that he’d taken the opportunity of being in Kyoto to visit Yoshida Shrine and pay his respects at Kanetomo’s shrine, explaining what he was going to say and asking permission. With luck, that will have covered him, and hopefully it will also cover me reporting what he said.

So, what is Yoshida Shinto? Professor Okada didn’t go into detail, because he had gone into detail in previous years, and there are a lot of people who are taking the course for the fourth or fifth time. However, there are some new people, so he did give a quick overview. Essentially, it’s a version of Shinto that was created by Kanetomo in the late fifteenth century, and controlled most shrines throughout the Edo period. It lost all its power at the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, and the traditions have now largely died out, although some of the associated buildings still survive.

Anyone who knows Japanese history knows that the late fifteenth century is when the so-called warring states period begins, with the Onin War. The Onin War lasted for ten years, on and off, and was essentially fought in the capital, Kyoto. It did a lot to destroy central government, and virtually all of the imperial Shinto ceremonies were abandoned during this time; the imperial court was too busy trying to survive. This had an effect on Kanetomo.

The Yoshida family was a branch of the Urabe family, which had responsibility for divination from turtle shells in the classical period. By the Heian period they were the second in command at the Ministry of Divinities (Jingikan), and in the early Kamakura period they became known for their studies of the Nihonshoki. Two branches in Kyoto became the hereditary priests of the Hirano and Yoshida shrines, and the branch at Yoshida became known as the Yoshida Urabe. The Urabe reference is normally omitted, so that they are just called the Yoshida.

Thus, Kanetomo was born into a high-ranking priestly family, and until he was about 30 he had a conventional career for such a background, participating in imperial rituals, such as the last Daijosai of the middle ages, as well as presumably helping in the rituals at Yoshida Shrine. This all changed in the Onin era, when the war broke out.

In 1467, the first year of the Onin era, the Yoshida mansion was robbed and set on fire. In the following year, the Yoshida shrine was completely destroyed in a fire caused by a battle, and over a dozen of the people who lived in the area were killed. This seems to have have had a strong effect on Kanetomo, as can be imagined. The war had stopped all the imperial ceremonies, and his home, shrine, and friends had all been destroyed. Essentially, everything he had trained for was gone.

He does not, however, seem to have allowed this to keep him down for long. In 1470, we find what is probably the earliest document about Yoshida Shinto. This refers to it as Sogen Shinto, one of its formal names, and says that it is the orthodox transmission of the Urabe, passed down properly within the Yoshida family. It also says that the secrets should not be passed on to Shinto priests, at least normally, and certainly not to Buddhist monks. Both of these requirements were relaxed over the next two decades, but when we look at the people who were initiated into Yoshida Shinto in the early years, starting in 1471, they are all members of the Kyoto nobility, including the head of the Jingikan and a former regent for the emperor. It seems likely that Kanetomo initially conceived of Sogen Shinto as an aristocratic religion.

Another early activity concerns the Saijosho. This was, I think, originally the place in the palace where the Shinto rituals were performed. Kanetomo is mentioned as being in charge of it in a letter written by the shogun, Yoshimasa Ashikaga, to the Upper Shrine of Suwa Taisha in 1470. The letter is a formal petition to the kami, and was probably actually written by Kanetomo, who seems to have been in high favour with the shogun and his family, and responsible for many kinds of prayer. The reference is a little odd, because the imperial palace had been destroyed by the war, presumably including the Saijosho. Within a few years, Kanetomo had got the Saijosho re-established in the grounds of the Yoshida mansion, near the Yoshida shrine.

In order to achieve this, he forged an imperial decree purporting to be from a couple of hundred years earlier, and had it “reaffirmed” by the current emperor. This decree specified the form of the Saijosho, saying that all the kami, all eight million of them, and the 3132 kami listed in the Engi Shiki, all descended to that space every day. That is, all the kami of Japan were to be enshrined in this one place.

This is the point where Professor Okada particularly criticised Kanetomo. First, he forged public documents to create his religion. He also forged a lot of documents that he claimed had been passed down in the Urabe family for generations, but that’s less serious, as the only thing they didn’t have that they claimed was age. Official documents, however, claim to have the force of law, and they don’t.

The second point is more internal to Shinto. As I mentioned in my summaries of earlier lectures, Professor Okada thinks that, originally, each kami was worshipped only by the family claiming descent from it. Thus, only the emperor could worship Amaterasu, but the emperor could not worship Amenokoyane, because he was the ancestor of the Nakatomi. Even in the system of the Engi Shiki, the regional kami were not brought to the capital; instead, the emperor sent ambassadors to the shrines with offerings. Kanetomo, however, just enshrined all the kami in his own shrine.

The shrine was built properly in the 1480s. Kanetomo claimed to have had a dream in which he saw the emperor himself, dressed in ritual robes, worshipping in the shrine, while a woman served, and a monk sat off to the side. The monk introduced himself as Kukai, the founder of Shingon, and said that, in the current chaos, when the imperial house looked likely to fall, Amaterasu had decided to move to Kyoto, and specifically to Kanetomo’s shrine, to protect the emperor.

Professor Okada thinks it is possible that Kanetomo actually had this dream, although he seemed less sure that it was actually a divine message. In any case, the three important points are the need to protect the emperor, the transfer of the Ise shrines, and the presence of Kukai, a Buddhist monk. The first two points are fairly obviously connected to Kanetomo’s desire to establish Yoshida Shinto, but what about the monk? Kukai’s presence is odd, particularly considering that the first document written said that monks should not be initiated into Yoshida Shinto.

Professor Okada speculated that the reason was that Buddhism was still far more powerful than Shinto at this point, so that Kanetomo was trying to get Buddhist support for his new religion. Certainly, he started initiating monks from about this period.

The Saijosho that Kanetomo built is very interesting. At the centre is an octagonal building, the Daigenkyu, which enshrines Kunitokotachi, the first kami mentioned in the Nihonshoki. Octagonal buildings are very rare in Shinto, but apparently they represent circles, and thus universality. In covered walkways around the Daigenkyu, Kanetomo enshrined all of the kami mentioned in the Engi Shiki, while behind it he enshrined the Inner and Outer Shrines of Ise. He didn’t have permission from Ise to do this, and the priests there were definitely not pleased with what he had done, but Kanetomo was in Kyoto and had the ear of the shogun, so there was little they could do about it.

Kanetomo had a Shinto funeral, and while the details are not known, this may have been the first “modern” Shinto funeral. Certainly, Edo-period Shinto funerals were derived from the Yoshida version. As mentioned above, Kanetomo is enshrined within the precincts of Yoshida Shrine. He is also buried underneath his shrine; that is very unusual, since Shinto normally avoids any association with death or corpses.

Overall, Professor Okada said that Yoshida Shinto was genuinely new, created by Kanetomo from many elements, including the earlier traditions of Shinto, but also including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Onmyodo. Indeed, while Professor Okada finds the origins of Shinto around the beginning of the Nara period, some people say that it began as a religion with Kanetomo. He was the first person to give Shinto a set of doctrines, a central place of worship, and a centralised organisation. His influence can be seen today, as Jinja Honcho has a similar relationship to other shrines to that created by Kanetomo. It isn’t, on the other hand, much like that of the Jingikan.

Yoshida Shinto is interesting because it seems to have been completely destroyed after the Meiji Restoration, despite its supreme importance during the Edo period. As far as Professor Okada knows, and this is one of his specialised fields, there is no-one alive who knows how to perform the Yoshida rituals, and even reconstructing their ritual implements is difficult. It also seems to lack much of a modern constituency, unlike Onmyodo and Shugendo. Why did it vanish so completely? I don’t know.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Okada told us what he is planning to do next year. He wants to cover the cults of the top ten kami by number of shrines, starting with number ten, the Kasuga kami, and finishing with Hachiman, the most widespread kami in Japan. That sounds like a really interesting topic to me, so I’m looking forward to it. I’d better start saving up.

Shinto Controversies Course — 9th Lecture

Today was the ninth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University. Today’s topic was Ise Shinto, a variety of Shinto developed at the Grand Shrines of Ise, as you might have guessed. However, it was mainly promoted and developed by the priests of the Outer Shrine, not those of the Inner Shrine. The Inner Shrine enshrines Amaterasu, while the Outer Shrine enshrines Toyoukehime, a food kami, and the kami responsible for Amaterasu’s meals. Ise Shinto dates from the middle ages, at which time the priests of the Inner and Outer Shrines came from different families. The Inner Shrine was served by the Arakida family, while the Outer Shrine was served by the Watarai family. Because the Watarai family were largely responsible for the development of Ise Shinto, it is also known as Watarai Shinto.

Central to Ise Shinto are five texts known collectively as Shinto Gobusho (Shinto Five Texts). These texts all claim to date from the Nara period (eighth century) or even earlier, but they were all written in the medieval period; no-one dates any of them earlier than the twelfth century. I’m not sure whether it’s really accurate to call them “forgeries”; they are just lying about their age.

The oldest of the five texts is probably the Hokihongi, which seems to have been written in the early thirteenth century. This one may have been written by priests at the Inner Shrine, because two thirds of it is concerned with the details of the Shikinen Sengu, the rebuilding of the shrines carried out every twenty years, and it does not privilege the Outer Shrine in any way. However, it does show the influence of Ryobu Shinto, in that it puts the Inner and Outer Shrines on the same level. Each is assigned an Onmyodo correspondence, for example, but the two (fire for the Inner Shrine and water for the Outer) are not superior or inferior to each other.

This text contains a significant amount of information about the Shin no Mihasira, the most sacred point of the Grand Shrines. This is a wooden pillar, about fifteen centimetres in diameter, under the floor of the main shrine building. The floor of the building is raised about two metres off the floor, and the Shin no Mihashira is roughly in the centre (judging from the diagrams). It is permanently covered by a small wooden shed. Indeed, even when the shrine is not on one of its two sites, the Shin no Mihashira site is still covered; if you see aerial photographs of the Ise Shrines, you can see a small shed on the empty site. This is what it is covering.

Provided I understood him correctly, Professor Okada said that Ise Jingu will not let people look at the section about Shin no Mihashira in their copy of the Hokihongi, although you can read it in the copies in other libraries, because it tells too much. Until the Meiji Restoration, the offerings at the shrines were made under the buildings, in front of the Shin no Mihashira, and it is said that the column shows cracks and damage when there is a major threat to the state. Of course, as virtually no-one is allowed to see it, it’s a bit hard to confirm such stories.

Anyway, returning to the Gobusho, the second one was the Yamato Hime no Mikoto Seiki, which is thought to have been written around the middle of the thirteenth century, and the final three, known collectively as Jingu Sanbusho were probably written in the late thirteenth century.

The Jingu Sanbusho were almost certainly written by Watarai Yukitada, a priest of the Outer Shrine. He was a major figure in the development of Ise Shinto, and the first person to talk about these texts. In addition, a late-thirteenth century copy owned by Shinpukuji, a temple in Nagoya, has proved to have been signed by Yukitada on the scroll stick. Given the dates, there is a strong possibility that this is the original fair copy of the book, although it is, of course, impossible to be certain. Professor Okada was involved in the project to study this document, and others held by the same temple, over the last five years, and by tracing its likely route to Shinpukuji we can say that it was probably written in Kyoto, and from its content it was completed shortly after one of the secondary shrines at Ise was destroyed in a storm, in January 1287. This is a period when Yukitada is known to have been in Kyoto, and other known dates narrow the likely dates of composition of the work to between April and July 1287.

The Jingu Sanbusho have warnings on them that they are not to be read by anyone under the age of sixty. Remarkably, Yukitada seems to have written them just as he was turning sixty. I suspect this wasn’t actually to give himself special privileges; it was to provide him with an explanation for why he’d never mentioned these supposedly ancient documents before. Obviously, if he’d only just been allowed to see them, he couldn’t have talked about them earlier. (And, equally obviously, he could hardly talk about them before he’d finished writing them.)

So, what about the content of the texts? There are a few significant features of them, particularly of the later four, the ones most closely associated with the Outer Shrine.

First, the kami of the Outer Shrine is said to be the same as the first kami mentioned in the Kojiki, Amenominakanushinomikoto, or the first mentioned in the Nihonshoki, Kunitokotachinomikoto. Thus, the Outer Shrine enshrines a more ancient kami than Amaterasu. Further, there was a secret pact between Amaterasu and the Outer Shrine kami, before the beginning of the world, to jointly support the Japanese emperors and state. Thus, the Outer Shrine is just as much an imperial ancestral shrine as the Inner Shrine, and should be called an imperial shrine.

This is significant because, just about the time the books were written, the Inner and Outer Shrines were engaged in a debate over whether the Outer Shrine should use the character meaning “Imperial” in the shrine name. One reason for producing these texts, then, was to argue that it should.

The second point is an emphasis on Shinto’s support for the state and the emperor. Japan was not terribly stable in the thirteenth century; the central government was weak, and the Mongols tried to invade towards the end of it. (They were prevented by the Divine Wind, Kamikaze, a storm that scattered the invasion fleet.) Thus, these books made a point of Japan being the country of the kami, and that the kami would protect the state if the state properly honoured the kami. This is the period where the concept of Japan as the country of the kami first emerged, possibly within Ise Shinto.

A third point is a distancing of Shinto from Buddhism. The Gobusho say that Buddhist theories should be avoided or hidden when expounding Shinto. Obviously, there are still many visible influences from Ryobu Shinto, and thus Buddhism, but at this point Shinto priests started trying to put some clear distance between the two religions.

Finally, the texts from Yamato Hime no Mikoto Seiki onwards emphasise purity and honesty of heart, saying that this is what the kami truly value, more so than the rituals. The idea of revering the kami and honouring the ancestors is made explicit in them, as is the importance of continuing to do things as they were originally done, going back to the source. All of these ideas were very influential in later versions of Shinto, including current Shrine Shinto.

In fact, apart from the parochial debates between the Outer and Inner Shrines, all of the main ideas of Ise Shinto were extremely influential on later Shinto. Thus, it could be (and has been) argued that what we know as modern Shinto started in the thirteenth century, with Ise Shinto. I still tend to think that it’s better to see Ise Shinto as another important transformation of a living tradition, but its importance certainly cannot be denied.

Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis

The author of this book on Shinto is primarily a philosopher of religion, not a historian, and thus he approaches Shinto from a philosophical perspective. One result is that this book is not really a very good introduction to Shinto. It is easy to read, and assumes no background knowledge (as far as I can tell), but it is concerned with interpreting and analysing Shinto, not laying out the basics. However, once you know a bit about Shinto, I think it is a very interesting book, one I found insightful and thought-provoking.

The book starts and finishes with a discussion of contemporary Shinto practice, something that is often skimped and that makes it a valuable supplement to a more standard introductory text. In between, there is a philosophical history of Shinto; that is, a history that concentrates on its development as seen through the categories Kasulis is using.

Kasulis argues that Shinto, as currently practised by tens of millions of Japanese who claim to have no religion, is not concerned with explanations or doctrine, but with a sense of belonging, and a sense of contentment with mystery and wonder. The main distinction he develops, however, is between what he calls “essentialist Shinto” and “existentialist Shinto”.

Essentialist Shinto claims that there is a necessary core to Shinto, that it is a well-defined religion in distinction to other religions. Someone who subscribes to essentialist Shinto does things because he (or she) is Shinto. Existentialist Shinto, on the other hand, looks at practices, and says that someone is Shinto if they do certain things. The definition is very vague, and there is no necessary incompatibility between Shinto and other religions. Existentialist Shinto would see no problem with someone being both Shinto and Christian, although the Christian side might be less happy.

The main version of essentialist Shinto, Kasulis argues, is the nationalistic religion of emperor worship that dominated Japan from the Meiji period to the end of the second world war. We can find elements of it earlier in Shinto’s history, and, in so far as there is an essentialist version of Shinto, it seems to be the only one. Kasulis believes that the existentialist version of Shinto was dominant throughout most of history, up to the nineteenth century, and it is also clear that he favours the existentialist version. Indeed, in the final chapter he considers how existentialist Shinto could reclaim Shinto practice from the remnants of the essentialist version. His conclusion is that you need a neo-essentialist Shinto, with something like a sense of the kami as the essential element.

This is where I think he goes wrong. He argues that a completely undefined existentialist Shinto cannot stand up against an essentialist version, because an existentialist version has nothing to argue with. It is so fluid and tolerant that it cannot say that the essentialist Shinto is wrong, and thus cannot try to move away from it.

However, I think that it is possible to formulate an existentialist Shinto that can oppose certain elements of essentialist Shinto.

Let’s take a step back. The core difference between essentialist Shinto and existentialist Shinto is that the former requires something of anyone who is Shinto, while the latter doesn’t. On an essentialist conception of Shinto, if you know that someone is Shinto you can make some definite statements about them; they believe that Japan is the land of the kami, they revere the emperor as the descendent and representative of Amaterasu, they visit shrines on certain days, and so on. On an existentialist conception, however, two people who are Shinto might have nothing at all in common. However, an existentialist Shinto is not supposed to be a completely empty idea, applying to everyone. The Pope is not Shinto, not even existentialist Shinto. True, you could come up with a definition of Shinto that included the Pope, but it wouldn’t be very useful.

So, what would an existentialist conception of Shinto actually be? I want to suggest that it should be a collection of actions and beliefs that are Shinto. So, visiting a shrine, having a kamidana, having a Shinto wedding, believing the Kiki myths, revering the emperor as the descendent and representative of Amaterasu, and feeling the presence of something wonderful in nature might all be on the list. When deciding whether someone is Shinto, you look at what they do, and compare it to the list. The Pope does none of them, so he isn’t Shinto. Hillary Clinton might have visited Meiji Jingu, but that’s it, and that doesn’t make her Shinto. A priest at a Shinto shrine, on the other hand, does lots of them, so he is. The borderline cases might be difficult, and in those cases you can rely on what the person says. (You can’t always do that; “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Even if it claims to be a wolf.” People are not authoritative about their identities, even when honest. Simply saying “I’m not racist” does not guarantee that you are not, even if you believe it.)

However, nothing on the list is necessary. Thus, you could be Shinto without ever visiting a shrine. Suppose you live in Tennessee. Visiting a shrine is going to be rather difficult, because the closest one is in Washington State. However, you might have a kamidana, and engage in ritual purification derived from various Shinto beliefs. That might be enough to make you Shinto. Similarly, you could be Shinto without believing that the kami exist. If you have a kamidana, visit shrines frequently, and have Shinto rituals performed to mark life transitions (Shinto wedding, Hatsumiyamairi, and so on), then you are still Shinto, even if you think the kami are made up.

Another feature of the list is that doing something that is not on it is not directly relevant to whether you are Shinto. The practices of other religions are not on the list. There might be a couple of things on the list that are inconsistent with other religions, but they aren’t necessary. Thus, you could be Shinto while still counting as a follower of another religion, such as Buddhism. This means that this form of Shinto has the inclusivity that Kasulis identifies as a feature of existentialist Shinto.

A final feature is that we don’t have to approve of everything on the list. Because we can be Shinto without doing or believing everything on the list, we can think that some things on the list are false or evil, while still acknowledging that they belong on the list, because they have been an important part of Shinto in the past, at least. An example might be “believing that the myths in the Kojiki are literally true”. I’m sure they’re not, and the Shinto priests at Kokugakuin seem to agree, but it would be very strange to deny that someone who did believe them was Shinto. Motoori Norinaga was Shinto, after all, and he believed them.

So, how can this existentialist Shinto stand up to the imperialist essentialist Shinto? First, it cannot deny that people who follow this religion are Shinto. They do lots of things that are on the list, and self-identify as Shinto. This is, I think, the right answer. We might want to disapprove of this form of Shinto, but I think it is unreasonable to deny that it is a form of Shinto. However, this existentialist Shinto can take a strong stand against the claims of exclusivity. Revering the emperor might be on the list, but you don’t have to do that to be Shinto. Being Japanese might be on the list, but you don’t have to be Japanese to be Shinto. This account of Shinto allows us to say that imperialist Shinto is not the only form of Shinto, and frees us to criticise it.

Shinto Controversies Course — 8th Lecture

The eighth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University was held on Wednesday. This time, Professor Okada started by saying that it wasn’t a very interesting subject, and there were more than the normal number of digressions in the course of the lecture. Clearly, this is a topic that is somewhat outside Professor Okada’s main field.

The subject was Ryobu Shinto. Ryobu Shinto is, broadly, the form of Shinto developed within Japanese esoteric Buddhism (Shingon and Tendai) in the medieval period. As a result, it has not been studied as much as might be ideal. From the Meiji Restoration in the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an emphasis on separating Shinto and Buddhism into two clearly distinct religions, and that’s simply not possible with Ryobu Shinto. From the sounds of things, separating the Shinto from the Buddhism is as hard as the reverse, so I suspect that Buddhist scholars have also not given it a great deal of attention. As a result, a great deal about Ryobu Shinto is still unclear.

The name, which means “both parts”, comes from Shingon esotericism, and the narrow use of the term is to refer to the versions of Shinto associated with Shingon Buddhism. Shingon esotericism has two worlds, the Kongo and Taizo worlds (Diamond World and Womb World, perhaps; I don’t know what the standard translations are), which correspond to different aspects of Dainichi Nyorai, the universal Buddha. Ryobu Shinto linked these two worlds to the Inner and Outer Shrines at Ise. The Inner Shrine corresponded to Taizo, the Outer to Kongo. The Grand Shrines of Ise were very important in Ryobu Shinto, and it appears to have had a strong influence on Ise Shinto.

This raises the controversy. When did Ryobu Shinto appear? Earlier scholars had placed it in the fourteenth century, but Professor Okada believes it appeared some time earlier, at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. This belief is based on the dates of works that were central to Ryobu Shinto, but also, I think, on the signs of mutual influence between Ryobu Shinto and Ise Shinto. Ise Shinto can be dated fairly firmly, because it was developed by identifiable priests of the Outer Shrine at Ise, and it started developing in the thirteenth century. While Professor Okada believes that the influence went both ways, he also thinks that the first influence was from Ryobu Shinto.

One reason for this is that, in earlier periods, Shinto had a strong tradition of not explaining things, of not putting things into words. Words had power (the so-called kotodama), and so should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Buddhism, however, had a strong tradition of sermons and explanations, and thus the first systematic explanations of Shinto came from the Buddhist side.

A central text of Shinto is the Nakatomi Harai, an ancient purification prayer that is still used today. It includes a version of important Japanese myths, a version that doesn’t quite match that in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki, and thus is ideal material for interpretation. The earliest (I think) surviving interpretation is the Nakatomi Harae Kungeh, which was written by a Buddhist monk, and interprets the prayer in Buddhist terms. It provides esoteric Buddhist interpretations of the main shrines at Ise, but also of the lesser shrines associated with them. This interpretation was central to Ryobu Shinto, and seems to date from the thirteenth century (again, I think; Professor Okada wasn’t entirely clear on this point).

In any case, Ryobu Shinto continued to develop, with several versions appearing, including Sanno Shinto, Miwaryu Shinto, and Goryu Shinto. Professor Okada said that when he visited Mt. Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, earlier this year, he found that Goryu Shinto was still practised there, so Ryobu Shinto is not a purely historical tradition. The protecting kami of the mountain, Niu, apparently receives the same sort of reverence as Kukai, the monk who founded the sect.

Ryobu Shinto was also closely connected, through Onjoji, a very important Tendai temple, with Shugendo and the Kumano shrines. It also gave rise to the Shinto Kanjo, esoteric initiations based on Shinto symbolism rather than Buddhist. Professor Okada didn’t go into detail on these, I suspect, again, because research on them is not as advanced as it could be.

The overall impression I got from the lecture was that Ryobu Shinto is still poorly understood. People know it was important, but not really enough about it. It looks like a fertile area for research for someone with an interest in both Buddhism and Shinto. Since my interest is primarily in Shinto, it’s not going to be me.

Shinto Controversies Course — 7th Lecture

Today, the Kokugakuin Shinto controversies course restarted after the summer break. Today’s lecture had two main parts, and an introduction.

The introduction was Professor Okada telling us about his summer holidays. One of the things he did was visit an archaeological dig in Hamamatsu (I think), where a number of festival-related items had been unearthed. One was an an, a rectangular table with eight legs, four in a line along each of the short sides. It was all but identical to the ones used in virtually all shrines in Japan today.

It dated to the fifth century.

This raises one feature of contemporary Shinto: its emphasis on the importance of following and preserving traditions, of continuing the rituals in the same way as they have always been done. Professor Okada said that this was the standard approach of most people in Shinto today.

However, other discoveries from the same dig made him, he said, think a bit differently about it. A number of iron implements were discovered among the items offered to the kami. In fifth century Japan, iron implements were the height of advanced technology, imported from the continent. The modern equivalent might be a liquid crystal television. He reflected a bit on the need for Shinto to adapt to changing times, or die. It sounded as if this visit had brought home to him the fact that even the most ancient tradition was an innovation once. This is one of those facts that’s obvious once stated, but which can be remarkably easy to forget.

The two main topics of the lecture were Shinbutsu Shugo (Shinto-Buddhist syncretism) and Toshio Kuroda’s view of Shinto.

The last four lectures of the course will look at the medieval and later periods, which means that Shinto-Buddhist syncretism is central to understanding what is going on. From the eighth century to the nineteenth, Shinto and Buddhism in Japan were deeply enmeshed with one another, and neither existed fully independently. However, Professor Okada insisted that they had always been conceptually separate; Shinto priests and Buddhist monks had different roles, even when they participated in the same rituals, and people could distinguish the two in general terms.

There were, according to Professor Okada, two basic forms of syncretism.

The first was syncretism for the sake of the kami. This took the form of reading Buddhist sutras to the kami, or founding temples at shrines to pray for the kami. He argued that this was, essentially, an extension of the way that the kami had always been worshipped; the new rituals that had come from the continent were used in an attempt to calm angry kami, or to increase their power. Certainly, the evidence suggests that the very first reaction to Buddhism was to treat it as just another foreign kami; there are some foreign kami that are now a standard part of Shinto.

The second was syncretism for the sake of the buddhas. The most prominent form of this was the founding of shrines to protect temple complexes. The most famous example is probably the Hachiman shrine that protects Todaiji in Nara (the one with the giant Buddha), but virtually every major temple from the ninth century on seems to have had an associated shrine. One reason for the popularity of Inari is that Fushimi Inari was closely associated with Toji in Kyoto, an important Shingon temple, and so Inari shrines were often founded as the guardian shrines for Shingon temples.

An important difference between the two forms, apparently, is that in the second case Shinto priests were not involved. The shrines were entirely managed by the Buddhist monks. Indeed, although monks going to shrines to read sutras for the kami was common, the reverse, Shinto priests going to temples to read norito, was unheard of. To the best of Professor Okada’s knowledge, the first historical example happened in May this year, on Mount Koya. His comment was along the lines of “Well, Shinto has to change with the times, so I suppose it might be OK. But from a historical perspective, it’s really odd”. However, in the early period Shinto priests performed no rituals outside their own shrines. Personal rituals at homes were performed by onmyoji, or shugenja, or esoteric Buddhist monks. This started to change in the medieval period, with the onshi from Ise, but I don’t think this change was fully established until the Meiji Revolution, when onmyoji and shugenja were abolished. Thus, the fact that the priests did not go to temples may not tell us much about the relationship between Shinto and Buddhism, as it may be due to reasons internal to Shinto.

This syncretism was developed by a number of Buddhist monks, and this is where the Honji Suijaku theory comes in. That, I think, will be touched on rather more next time.

The other theme was Toshio Kuroda’s theory on Shinto. Kuroda was a scholar of Buddhism, and his Kenmitsu Taisei theory, proposed in 1975, revolutionised studies of medieval Japanese Buddhism. Essentially, he claimed that the esoteric sects of Buddhism, Shingon and Tendai, remained the dominant sects throughout the medieval period, despite the appearance of so-called Kamakura Buddhism, which had previously been seen as more important. He also argued that Shingon and Tendai temples were major centres of political power.

In Buddhist studies, his theory was highly influential, and is the current orthodoxy. Outside Japan, Professor Okada estimated that 99% of scholars accept it in broad outline.

So, what did he have to say about Shinto? Essentially, he denied it existed. He said that there was no independent religion called Shinto in this period, and that it just indicated a special tradition of Buddhist rituals unique to Japan.

Shinto scholars did not react to this with unalloyed delight. Professor Okada was a young scholar at the time, and he remembers feeling that this matter had to be sorted out, but also that he could not oppose Kuroda directly, because Kuroda was far too important and influential.

Thirty four years later, a number of criticisms of Kuroda’s position have been gathered.

First, he was a historian of Buddhism, not Shinto. He didn’t do any research into shrines or Shinto practice. If he had been right, this wouldn’t have been a problem, because Shinto would have been entirely contained within Buddhism. However, it wasn’t, and so Kuroda’s research missed the evidence that his theory of Shinto was inaccurate.

Second, he was working with a narrow definition of religion, one that saw universal religions like Buddhism as superior, and the ideal form of religion, and that believed that a religion had to have doctrines and scriptures of some sort. On that definition, the first form of Shinto that is a religion independent of (although influenced by) Buddhism is Yoshida Shinto in the fifteenth century, and this was the date that Kuroda gave for the appearance of Shinto.

However, that’s an unnecessarily restrictive definition. In particular, it doesn’t apply to Shinto as currently practised. Ironically, Professor Okada explicitly said that it did apply to State Shinto, as formulated in the Meiji period, which is the period when Shinto was explicitly claiming not to be a religion. I think he’s right. Contemporary Shinto, however, is once again without doctrines or scriptures, for the most part, and is mainly practised as a set of rituals. If you take that definition, you have to say that Shinto does not exist now, and that’s clearly not a useful way to talk.

If you extend the definition of Shinto, it becomes clear that it existed much earlier. Professor Okada’s favoured date for the establishment of Shinto is the late seventh/early eighth century, the reigns of Tenmu and Jito and the immediate sequel. This is when the Daijosai started, and when the 20-year cycle of reconstructions of the Grand Shrines of Ise began. It’s also when the Jingiryo, which set the central court rituals, was promulgated. Another candidate is the fifth century, when we first see evidence of rituals that have continuity with Shinto as defined by Tenmu and Jito. At the moment, I actually incline to the fifth century date as being more useful, but I’m hardly an expert, and it does seem that such features as shrine buildings and organised rituals date from Tenmu and Jito. At the very least, that’s when Shinto was organised.

So, to return to Kuroda, while there was a form of Shinto that existed purely within esoteric Buddhism in the middle ages, this was not the only form of Shinto that existed then, and Kuroda’s definition of a religion was overly restrictive. However, if you take his definition, it is true that Shinto as an independent religion-with-doctrines only appears in the fifteenth century. That has been denied, and is an important point. Yoshida Shinto was made up by Yoshida Kanetomo in the fifteenth century, and State Shinto was made up by various people in the late nineteenth century. Both, however, drew on a religious tradition that can usefully be called “Shinto”, and which dates back to at least the late seventh century.

All in all, a very interesting lecture.

Silver Week

Japan is now in the grip of Silver Week.

People familiar with Japan will know about Golden Week. This happens at the end of April and beginning of May every year, when several public holidays come together. First, there’s Showa Day on April 29th, then Constitution Day on May 3rd, Greenery Day on May 4th, and Children’s Day on May 5th.

This week, however, is Silver Week. First, it’s a step down from Golden Week, because there are only three public holidays involved. One step below gold is, of course, silver. Second, the first of the three holidays is Respect for the Aged Day, and “silver” is often used to refer to older people, even in Japan.

However, Silver Week is not set to become a fixture. Two of the holidays involved are Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox Day, and these are both mobile. Respect for the Aged Day is the third Monday in September, while Autumnal Equinox Day is the Autumnal Equinox (surprisingly enough). The equinox is normally the 22nd or 23rd of September, but obviously the third Monday can be anywhere from the 15th to the 21st. This year, Respect for the Aged Day is the 21st, the equinox is the 23rd, and the law specifies that a day falling between two holidays becomes a holiday. Naturally, this will not apply next year.

On the other hand, if Silver Week is good enough for the tourist trade, the law might be changed to make it a fixture. This is what happened with Golden Week. Originally, April 29th was the Emperor’s Birthday, for the Showa Emperor (Hirohito), and May 4th fell between two holidays every year. However, by the time the Showa Emperor died, and the Emperor’s Birthday holiday moved to December 23rd, Golden Week was so well established that abolishing the holiday on April 29th would have been a serious political problem. Thus, it initially became Greenery Day, because the Showa Emperor liked trees, and then (from 2007) Showa Day. At the same time, May 4th was made into Greenery Day, since it was always a holiday and deserved its own name.

So, for this year at least, the Japanese get to enjoy Silver Week in the autumn, as well as Golden Week in the spring.

Shinto, by Ian Reader

This book, in the series Simple Guides, is, as you would expect, a simple guide to Shinto. It is very short, and took me about an hour to read, and thus can only hope to cover a basic outline of Shinto. However, if you know nothing about the religion, that’s exactly what you need to start with, so the book has the potential to be very useful for that audience.

So, how is it? The author is a well-respected scholar of Japanese religion, particularly modern-day religiosity, although not particularly of Shinto. This shows in his grasp of the wider context of Shinto. This book avoids the excessive focus on the classic legends in the Nihonshoki and Kojiki that is sometimes found in Japanese introductions, and also focuses on the present day, rather than getting bogged down in history. The overall balance of the book is, I think, good.

There are also a number of other things I think the author gets exactly right. His position on the question of whether Shinto is the primeval religion of Japan or a creation of the nineteenth century is judicious, and, I think, essentially correct. He also handles the connection between Shinto and the far right in Japan well, giving it about the emphasis it deserves (one relatively short chapter out of eight). Finally, his discussions of Shinto festivals and religious practices seem to capture the reality, at least as far as I’ve experienced it.

That said, I do have a few criticisms. First, the book does not seem to include a description of the etiquette for visiting a shrine. That is something I suspect that many people who knew nothing about the religion would quite like to know. Second, there are a handful of errors. Some of these may be regional differences — he says that “most” torii are painted vermilion, but that is certainly not true around Tokyo —, and others might be differences in interpretation — I don’t agree with his description of Susanoo’s motives in the legends. Only one is actually important. He conflates the honden, the inner sanctuary where the kami is enshrined, with the haiden, the hall of worship where formal rituals are held. People, even priests, almost never enter the honden, while entering the haiden is normal if you pay for a formal ritual. The hidden nature of the kami is an important feature of Shinto, and one that does not deserve to be conflated away.

However, these are relatively minor criticisms. Overall, the book provides a good introduction to Shinto for people who know nothing about it, and just want to know enough to put shrines and festivals in some sort of useful context. It would also be a good book from which to start a study of the religion, providing enough background to make sense of more detailed studies. Thus, I recommend it to people who know nothing about Shinto, and would like to know a bit more.