Negative Evidence

If you look around on the net, you can find a lot of anecdotes about how the Japanese exclude foreigners, along with generalised statements that don’t even include anecdotes to back them up. I’d like to provide some anecdotes on the other side. They’re still just anecdotes, and the vast majority are only significant because of the prevalence of the opposite anecdote, but they were notable inversions of the common story. I’ve been in Japan for nearly seven years now, and while that’s not long enough to become an expert on Japanese culture, it is quite long enough for the novelty to wear off.

Japanese People Won’t Speak Japanese to Foreigners

I’ve had to go to the dentist recently. At my first appointment, the dentist asked me, in Japanese, “Are you OK with Japanese?”. When I said yes, he replied, “That’s a relief. I’d hate to have to rely on my English; it’s really rusty,” still in Japanese, and then went on talking to me in Japanese. He did use a couple of English words, to translate Japanese dentistry terms into English for me, so he clearly could have tried to speak English to me. Nevertheless, he spoke Japanese to me, and judging from what I could hear through the partitions, in exactly the same way as he spoke to Japanese patients.

Japanese People Won’t Sit Next to Foreigners on Crowded Trains

On my way to Shiobara a few weeks ago, the train was quite crowded. Someone got off soon after I got on, and there were about one and a half seats in front of me. I offered the seat to a Japanese lady standing next to me, and she took it, and then tried to make space for me to sit down. I thanked her, but told her it was too narrow. Some time later, the (Japanese) person sitting wide at the end of the seat got off. She moved up, and once again invited me to sit down next to her. By now the train was emptying out a bit, so I did. We didn’t talk on the train, but she did nod good bye as she got off.

Japanese People Don’t Like Foreigners in Their Hot Springs

At Shiobara, I went to quite a few hot springs, that being one of the main points of the area. The first time I went to the outside spring by the river, I was debating whether to go in. I’d only realised on getting there that the facilities consisted of just some shelves with a roof for your clothes, and that the towel I’d brought was not nearly large enough to dry myself efficiently. The Japanese people already in the pool, however, were enthusiastic about inviting me in, and when I explained about the towel problem, they told me not to worry about it; they lent me one at the end. Possibly notable is the fact that this was a mixed spring, and it was one of the women who was most enthusiastic about inviting me in, although it was one of the men who lent me a towel.

Japanese People Never Really Accept Foreigners

Today was the Summer Festival at Shirahata Hachiman, our local shrine, and the one I go to quite a lot. There are quite a few earlier entries about it, both in this blog and in my Japan Diary. It’s where we did Mayuki’s Hatsumiyamairi, and where I did the ceremony for my permanent residence. The main “event” part of the festival is the Negi Mai, a traditional masked dance performed by the chief priest of the shrine. The dance has reputedly been passed down in his family for about 400 years. However, before that there is a standard Shinto ceremony, where offerings are made to the kami and a norito is recited. Although the general public are invited into the haiden for the dance, only the shrine’s ujiko (a bit like the elders of an English church, I guess) are invited into the shrine for the preceding ceremony. I’ve been to four of the Summer Festivals (I think I’ve missed one since I’ve been in Kawasaki), and I try to turn up in time for the ceremony as well as the dance. Obviously, I stand outside during the ceremony.

Except that today the shrine’s priest came over to tell me that the chief priest had consulted with the head ujiko, and they had agreed to invite me to join the ujiko inside, and to offer a tamagushi (a sakaki branch with paper strips on it, the standard symbolic offering in a Shinto ceremony) during the ceremony. Most of the ujiko do not offer a tamagushi. In fact, only the chief priest and the officers of the ujiko (four people) normally do so; most of the ujiko bow and clap with the last of them to do so, but those who have offered tamagushi themselves do not. So, the chief ujiko, the sodai, led me in with the ujiko, and showed me to a seat near the centre of the front row. I was quite nervous when it was my turn to offer a tamagushi, but I managed it without any serious mistakes that I can remember. Certainly everyone was too polite to point them out if there were any.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I was second to last to offer my tamagushi. You offer tamagushi in order of status, normally, and I’m not one of the leaders of the ujiko, so I went later. On the other hand, I couldn’t go last, because all the ujiko need to bow and clap with the last person, so he needs to be representing them, and thus has to be one of the ujiko leaders. So, I guess, I was slipped in to the most sensible point in the ordering.

It is important to understand the significance of this festival. This is not a private ceremony, like the ones I have had before. It is one of the three main festivals in the shrine’s ritual year.

What’s more, the plan is for this to not be a one-off. The priest said that they would like me to offer a tamagushi at both the summer and main festivals from now on. (Presumably unless I do something to horribly upset them. I have no plans to do that, though.) One of the ujiko invited me to the ujiko gathering after the dance, as well, but Mayuki was impatient to go home, so I had to decline. I should try to organise around the main festival in September so that I can say yes if I get invited again.

This is, therefore, extremely good evidence that the people associated with Shirahata-san want me to be involved with the shrine. Obviously, I’m very happy about this, because I also want to be more involved with the shrine. I suppose the best way of putting it is this: Today’s invitation was a formal and public acknowledgement that they want me to be involved, and accepting it was similarly a formal and public acknowledgement that I want to be involved. It’s just another stage in a relationship that’s been developing over years, albeit a significant one. The only practical difference it will make in itself, I think, is that I’ll have to be careful not to be late for future festivals…

Welcome to Japan

Yesterday, the three of us went to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, to have a ceremony performed to mark my getting permanent resident status. I wanted to mark it in some way, because otherwise it would just be a matter of going and getting the sticker in my passport, and it really ought to be more significant than that. So, I booked it a week ago, for 9:30 in the morning, as there were other ceremonies booked from 10. We managed to get dressed up in smart clothes and get there by 9:40, but that was fine. With it being a local shrine, they don’t work to tightly regulated schedules aimed to get hundreds of people through.

The shrine family had obviously decided that getting permanent residence was a big deal, which it is. After all, that’s why I wanted to mark it.

First, the chief priest’s wife had written a norito (Shinto prayer) especially for the occasion. The basic collection of example norito issued by the Association of Shinto Shrines doesn’t have one for permanent residence, and I suspect that the large collections of norito written by famous National Learning scholars also fail to cover this possibility. So, she wrote one for us, and it was very good, at least as far as I could judge. It asked the kami that I become friendly with the people of “Taira, Miyamae-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, and Japan”, thus working out in size of regions, and included Yuriko and Mayuki’s names as well, praying for health and prosperity for all of us. (As I may have mentioned before, she wrote a good norito for when I joined the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, as well.)

Then, there were the items we received after the ceremony. You always get stuff after a formal shrine visit: typically an o-fuda (shrine tablet), some sake, and some food. The food is normally dried bonito flakes, but this time we got a very nice baumkuchen. O-fuda also come in various sizes, and at most shrines you get a bigger o-fuda when you offer more money. Shirahata-san is normally the same; you can receive larger o-fuda for larger offerings at New Year’s. However, I got a bigger o-fuda than normal at this ceremony, and since at the point they were making it they probably guessed, correctly, that I was going to offer the normal 5,000 yen (that’s the starting price for a ceremony), the size has to reflect their judgement of the significance of the occasion.

Finally, the chief priest, who wasn’t doing the ceremony, came to the waiting room beforehand to congratulate us. At that point, he gave us a noshi-bukuro with “O-Iwai”, “Congratulations”, written on it. Noshi-bukuro are exclusively used for gifts of money, so that was a real surprise. It was even more of a surprise when I got home and opened it. (It’s rude to open it on the spot.) The envelope contained 10,000 yen. Not only that, but it was a Shotoku Taishi 10,000 yen note. (The lower picture on this page.) I’d never seen a real one before, although I’d seen pictures, and if I read the Bank of Japan site correctly, they stopped circulating them in January 1986. (The successor note went into circulation in November 1984, so they probably stopped printing them then.) Notwithstanding that, the note was in new condition. This is normal for these sorts of gifts, and with current notes you can just go to a bank and ask for new notes. However, with one that’s been out of circulation for 25 years, I imagine you really have to have kept a stock of them. Obviously, I have no plans to actually spend this note.

Everything made me feel that they were really pleased that I was staying in Japan. In short, I felt very welcome. It was definitely well worth having the ceremony.

Kiyoharai Shiki

Last Sunday, the evening before we moved in to the new flat, I asked the priest of the local shrine (Shirahata Hachiman Daijin) to come to perform a purification ritual for us. The Japanese name is “Kiyoharai Shiki”, which means, roughly “Cleansing Purification Ritual”. People who read Tamao will remember that Akiko and Shiraishi did quite a lot of these at people’s houses, but when I wrote that I’d never actually seen one done. It’s rather a relief to discover that I didn’t get anything seriously wrong. They were doing a rather more abbreviated ceremony than we had performed, but, on the other hand, they also charged rather less, so obviously that’s just their shrine’s custom. The priest did drive over in his vestments, just like Akiko and Shiraishi.

He arrived about twenty minutes before the ceremony was due to start, to set up the portable altar. I took a photograph before the ceremony started.

The altar is formed from two tables, with the sanpo stands on the upper shelf, and the ohnusa on the lower

The purification altar

The altar was set up in our living room (you couldn’t do it now…), facing south. In the middle of the top shelf are two o-fuda, shrine tablets. The one in front is for Shirahata Hachiman, the kami of the shrine, while the one behind is for Kojin, a kami responsible for fire, and keeping it under control. To either side of the o-fuda are two sanpo, the trays on which things are typically offered to the kami. The one to the right has the offerings on; the tall jars contain sake, while the small round one in front of them contains water. The rice and salt plates aren’t really visible in the picture. The one on the left has a small plate of rice, a small plate of salt, and a small bowl of sake, with a sakaki leaf. These are purification tools for the ceremony. On the lower shelf, there is a large sakaki branch with shide (strips of white paper folded into lightning shapes) on it. This is another purification tool. At the extreme left of the top shelf is a box, which contains small sakaki branches with shide on, called tamagushi. These were also used later in the ceremony.

Yuriko’s parents were here on Sunday, so we all gathered in front of the altar, lined up with me in the middle, since I am the head of the household being purified. We had to kneel on the floor, with no cushions, and that got a bit uncomfortable towards the end, particularly when Mayuki decided to climb onto my knees.

The ceremony started, as always, with purification. First, the priest knelt in front of the altar and recited the purification prayer. He then took the large sakaki branch from the lower shelf and waved it over the altar and the tamagushi to purify them. That is normal. Next, however, he purified the whole flat, and we went with him. He started in the entrance hall, purifying the threshold (with the door open), and then he did every room, including the toilet, specially purifying the shelf installed in the Japanese room for the kamidana. The last room to be purified was the kitchen, and that was part of the ceremony, because he mentioned doing it last. Then, we all knelt back in front of the altar, and we were purified.

After purification, it was time to invite the kami to descend into the o-fuda and be present at the ceremony. The priest knelt in front of the altar again, and said the norito to call the kami. He said it very quietly, far too quietly to be heard, and then performed the keihitsu, a long “o” sound, during which the kami are supposed to take up residence in the o-fuda.

Once the kami were present, the offerings were formally presented. Sometimes this actually involves putting them in front of the altar, but it is quite common, as in this case, to simply take the lids off the jars.

The next stage was the norito, the formal prayer. The priest knelt in front of the altar again, and then recited it. First, the kami are invoked by name. There were several, including kami with traditional connections to the home, as well as Shirahata Hachiman and Kojin. Most of the norito was recited in a strong voice, but there was one phrase of two or three words near the beginning that the priest recited very quietly. The content of the norito was a request for safety and prosperity for the new home.

After the norito (I think; it was a week ago, so I may have got a bit of the order switched), the priest picked up the sanpo with the rice, salt, and sake from the upper level of the altar, and we all went to purify the flat again. He purified the threshold, the kitchen (particularly the cooker), and the kamidana, scattering rice, salt, and sake at each point. The amounts he used were tiny; it may have been a single grain of rice. This form of purification is very traditional, but the need to clean up after purifying seems to have reduced the amounts involved.

Returning to the altar, we knelt again, and then offered the tamagushi. This is also a standard part of a Shinto ceremony. First, the priest offered his, and then it was my turn. You take the tamagushi in both hands, raise it upright, then rotate it so that you place it on the table with the bottom of the stem towards the kami. Then you bow twice, clap twice, and bow once. Yuriko did it after me, and her parents bowed and clapped with her. Mayuki bowed and clapped with everyone, but you’re only supposed to do it when someone is offering a tamagushi on your behalf, and at the beginning and end of some ceremonies, when you bow once, with the presiding priest.

The kami were then dismissed (don’t want them hanging around the house) with another keihitsu, and the ceremony was over. We are supposed to keep the wooden o-fuda on the kamidana for a year (but I’ll probably hang on to it; I tend not to return the ones associated with significant events), and the paper one for Kojin over the stove. It’s paper, and in a plastic bag, so that you can stick it on the wall without it becoming dirty from oil and grease. The tamagushi should also be kept on the kamidana until we feel that we are properly settled in the new flat, at which point we should return them to the shrine. I have no idea how long that will take, so it’s a good job the priest told us it was no problem if the sakaki dried out.

I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the ceremony, but things are going well in the new flat. Not only did we have three days of good weather for the move itself, but living here is working out as we’d hoped, at least so far.

Shinto Traditions Course — Kasuga

The Japanese academic year starts in April, and with it the Kokugakuin Open College courses also start again. Once again, they are offering a Shinto course, and once again I’m taking it. The number of people taking the course has increased every year, and this year there are over 180 students. The lecture room is about three-quarters full, and they make about 360,000 yen (about $4,000) for every 90 minute lecture. This may not be entirely unconnected with their decision to continue offering the course, although the fact that Professor Okada enjoys giving it is probably also an important factor.

Anyway, this year he chose Shinto traditions as his theme. “Traditions” is the way I have chosen to translate “shinkou”, which would more normally be translated as “cults” or “religions”. However, those have misleading overtones. Shinto encompasses the worship of many different kami, and there are some shrines to kami that are worshipped nowhere else. There are also shrines that are all connected to the same kami, and back to one or two major shrines. A few years ago, Professor Okada led a project to analyse the data for the shrines affiliated with the Organisation of Shinto Shrines, and look at the size and distribution of the various affiliations. For this course, he is planning to spend one lecture on each of the top ten affiliation groups. I’ve decided to call these affiliation groups “traditions”, because that seems to be the least misleading way to describe them.

In fact, he decided not to talk about the tenth largest tradition, that of “mountain kami”. This is because most of the shrines are very small, and they don’t tie back to a central shrine. There may not, in fact, be any unified tradition to talk about, as all the cults may be local. In any case, I suspect that it was also more work than he wanted to put into a single 90-minute lecture, even if it would earn the university $4000. So, instead, he chose to talk about the eleventh tradition, that of Kasuga. Since he is starting at the bottom, and working up to the biggest tradition (Hachiman), this week’s lecture was the one about Kasuga.

The Kasuga tradition is based at Kasuga Shrine in Nara. This shrine is closely connected to the Fujiwara family, who provided the wives of the Emperors for several centuries in the Heian period, and effectively ruled Japan for much of that time, and their patronage and that of Emperors born to Fujiwara mothers is why the shrine is so significant. The prefecture with the largest number of shrines in the Kasuga tradition is Nara, unsurprisingly, but the second highest number is found in Fukui, in southern Tohoku. I suspect that this is because an important branch of the Fujiwara had its headquarters in this area.

Most of the lecture was about the origins of the shrine. That wasn’t the original plan (it was point one of six), but it’s clearly something that interests Professor Okada, so he got a little involved in it. In addition, the origins of the shrine are intrinsically interesting.

In the Engishiki, the early tenth-century collection of court rituals that provides a lot of information on early Shinto, most shrines are referred to as “jinja”. There are a handful of exceptions; Izumo is “taisha”, and Ise, Kashima, and Katori are “jingu”. Kasuga is also an exception. It is referred to as “matsuru kami”, which means “worship the kami”. Why is this?

The kami enshrined at Kasuga are the clan kami of the Fujiwara. These are Amenokoyane, their ancestral kami, who is originally enshrined in Hiraoka shrine in Osaka, Takemikazuchi, enshrined in Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki, Futsunushi, enshrined in Katori Shrine in Chiba, and Himegami, originally thought to be the bride of Amenokoyane. The precise nature of the connection between the Fujiwara and the two shrines in the region just east of Tokyo (Kashima and Katori) is unclear; some stories say that the first Fujiwara, Kamatari, was born in the area. In any case, they greatly revered the kami of those shrines.

In 710, the capital of Japan was moved to Nara, called Heijokyo at the time. (They are celebrating the 1300th anniversary this year.) This moved the Fujiwara away from the shrines to their clan deities, and it is thought that Kasuga Shrine was initially established as a place from which to worship those shrines from afar. A map of the area around Nara survives from 756, and it shows a number of important buildings. On Mt Mikasa, the small mountain on which Kasuga Shrine is built, however, there is no indication of a building. Instead, there is a square marked, with “ground of the kami” written in it. The characters are written so that they are the right way up if you are facing east, which, judging from the characters for surviving buildings, means that the front of the area was in the west. The square is about the same size, and in about the same place, as the current inner sanctum at Kasuga, and so almost certainly indicates its forerunner.

If you are in Nara, Kashima and Katori Shrines are to the east, so if you want to worship them remotely, you should face that way. However, it is very unusual for shrines to face west, and the main sanctuaries at Kasuga (there are four separate ones, one for each kami) do not. This dates back to their original construction, in 768. According to the records, the Emperor Shotoku (the daughter of Emperor Shomu, who built the Great Buddha of Nara, and Empress Komyo, who was a daughter of the Fujiwara) had a divine vision in which she was instructed to construct shrine buildings, facing south. The fact that the records explicitly mention the direction, which is the normal direction for shrines to face, suggests that they didn’t originally face that way.

So, it seems most likely that Kasuga Shrine originated as a sacred enclosure, without buildings, for worshipping the kami of distant shrines.

Professor Okada then moved on to tell us a bit more about the history of the tradition. He was running out of time, so some of these points were covered rather briefly. The first point concerns two of the minor shrines in the precincts of Kasuga Shrine, Verdant Sakaki Shrine and Withered Sakaki Shrine. Sakaki is the evergreen tree that features in most Shinto rituals, and which grows around Kasuga Shrine. But why are there shrines to these two states of the tree?

The forests around Kasuga Shrine are unusual in the present day, as they are virgin forest in the middle of a city. This is because it has been explicitly forbidden to hunt or cut wood in them since 841, and they were probably untouched before that, since they became sacred at the same time as people moved to the area in any significant numbers. Shinto has always valued trees, and shrines still need the permission of the Association of Shinto Shrines to cut down trees in their precincts. However, the trees at Kasuga were particularly important to the shrine.

First, they were thought to warn of the anger of the kami. If the trees on the Kasuga hills became brown and dead, this was a sign that the kami was displeased about something, and had withdrawn from the area. The number of brown trees indicated the severity of his anger, so the exact number was recorded; it could be several thousand. The Fujiwara would then perform ceremonies to placate the kami, and wait for things to improve.

The second point relates to the attempts of the shrine (and the associated Buddhist temple, Kofukuji) to browbeat the government into doing what it wanted. When the shrine was unhappy with the government, it used to send its men (lots of them) to the capital with a sacred tree, threatening the Emperor with divine displeasure. The men would all carry withered sakaki branches, to show that the kami was angry, and they went to the imperial palace to make their demands. If these demands were not met, they threw the withered sakaki branches into the compound, symbolically throwing the kami’s curse in as well. On the other hand, if the government caved in, they would come back with green sakaki, indicating that the kami was happy now.

Professor Okada briefly mentioned the Kasuga Wakamiya On-matsuri. The Wakamiya enshrines the son of Amenokoyane, and the On-matsuri is its big festival. It happens once per year, and was popular with the local people, while the main festival of the main shrine was more of a government event, with official ambassadors from the Emperor (as there still are, in fact). The people would put on performances for the kami, and these performances were very important in the development of Noh. These days, Noh is still performed at the festival. However, the performances do not take place at the normal shrine. Instead, the kami is taken in procession to a temporary shrine, which is built every time, and then returned to the main shrine when the plays are over. However, he must get back within 24 hours, possibly because his father gets annoyed if he stays out too late at parties. (Or possibly because he turns into a pumpkin, although that’s less likely; Professor Okada did compare it to Cinderella, however.) The On-matsuri was first held in 1136, making it old, but significantly younger than the main shrine.

Finally, he talked about the Oracle of the Three Shrines, very briefly. This is a set of three oracles, from Ise, Hachiman, and Kasuga, which became very popular in the middle ages, and remained popular in the early modern period. Each of the three kami extols a particular virtue, and Kasuga extols compassion. Professor Okada provided a modern Japanese translation, as well as the original text, so I can provide an English translation.

Even if you purify yourself for a thousand days, I will not enter a house of malice
Even if you are mourning your father, I must enter a room of compassion

The death of your father is one of the greatest sources of ritual pollution in Shinto, close behind your own death, so the gist of this oracle is that ritual purity is much less important to the kami than compassion.

As the oracle was very important, and both the other kami are going to be covered later, I suspect we may come back to this topic.

This promises to be another extremely interesting course of lectures. I’m really looking forward to it.

First Rabbit Festival

Mayuki standing in front of a torii, on which there is a straw snake

Mayuki at Shirahata-san

Today was this year’s First Rabbit Festival at Shirahata-san. Because it is held on the first day of the rabbit in March, I always have to ask when it is. (I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the animals of the Chinese zodiac are used for days as well as years.) Fortunately, I could attend today, and only had to rearrange one lesson. The weather wasn’t great, so at first I was going to go alone, but then I decided to ask Mayuki if she wanted to come. Her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”, so we went to together. Yuriko stayed home, and apparently got lots done while Mayuki wasn’t here.

When we got to the shrine, we paid our respects as normal, and then Mayuki was ready to go home, as normal. I had to explain to her that there was a special ceremony today, and that we were going to stay to see it. I convinced her, but then the priest started beating the drum to mark the start of the ceremony, and Mayuki was frightened. I picked her up and held her, but she really didn’t want to go anywhere near the shrine building at that point, so I couldn’t see that part of the ceremony very well. Not that I imagine it was very different from last year, or the year before.

After the main part of the ceremony, they had the part where they shoot arrows at the targets. The two small boys who were supposed to play a major role were not desperately interested in doing so, so it was all done by the ujiko, both the ceremonial bamboo bows, and the rather more usable proper bows. By this time, it had started raining properly again, so Mayuki and I decided to go home.

I rather hope that, by taking her to ceremonies at the shrine, I’ll get her used to it, so that she can enjoy her own three-year ceremony in the autumn. We’ll see whether that works.

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.

Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine

A torii on a flight of steps sandwiched between a building and a wall

The back entrance to the shrine

Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine is a fairly ordinary urban shrine, its precincts sandwiched between high buildings and lacking in old, impressive trees. “Kamimeguro” is the name of the area, and the “kami” just means “upper”; it is, apparently, not connected to the word for Shinto kami, although quite a lot of people have thought it was. (The evidence relies on technical arguments about sound changes in Japanese in the eighth century; apparently the two “kami”s originally had different “i” sounds. Not everyone is completely convinced.)

The main shrine building at Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine

The main shrine building, with flags for the first visit of the New Year outside.

The Hikawa shrines are only found around Tokyo, and the overwhelming majority are in Tokyo and Saitama prefectures. There are one or two in the other adjacent prefectures, and none further away. This sort of situation is fairly common in Shinto; particular shrine groups tend to be found in a local area. Indeed, about the only shrine group that is truly national is the Hachiman group; even Inari seems to have a significant bias towards eastern Japan. This does mean that you cannot walk around visiting the shrines in one area to get a sense of which types of shrine are important; that will just tell you what is important near you.

The reason I was talking about shrine groups rather than kami is that the main kami of the Hikawa shrines is Susano-o no mikoto, the younger brother of Amaterasu ÅŒmikami, who is enshrined in many other places as well. For example, he is the main kami of the Gion shrines, which tend to be found in western Japan, and of several shrines in Shimane prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast. Indeed, “Hikawa” is thought to come from the Hi river in Shimane, which is closely associated with Susano-o’s legends. However, traditions and festivals seem to be more often associated with the shrine type than directly with the kami, so it is generally more useful to keep track of the shrine type.

An additional complication is that sometimes the kami is not the same in all shrines of the same type, and even when it is that is sometimes just a result of Meiji period rationalisation. Another result of such rationalisation can be seen at this shrine. As well as Susano-o, the shrine enshrines Amaterasu and Tenjin, Sugawara no Michizane. Now, while Amaterasu is connected to Susano-o, Tenjin is not, and is only here because he was moved from another local shrine, one that was being closed down, in the Meiji period.

The shrine precincts also include an Inari shrine and a Sengen shrine. The Sengen shrines are dedicated to the kami of Mount Fuji, and thus are only common in areas from which Mount Fuji can be seen. The presence of other shrines in the shrine grounds, called sessha (for shrines to kami closely connected to the main kami, in theory) or massha (for other kami), is quite common. The Grand Shrines of Ise cover 125 shrines if you add up all of the sessha and massha, although some have special names in that case. Some sessha and massha are even outside the shrine grounds, sometimes quite a long way away. These days, I think that the key point is that the sessha and massha are not independent religious corporations; they are administered by the corporation of the main shrine.

Because of my route, I entered the shrine through the rear entrance, and left from the front. The stone steps at the front are almost two hundred years old, and lead to and from the ÅŒyama Kaidō, but as soon as you reach the top of the steps, the fact that you are in the heart of Tokyo is inescapable. There’s something about triple-decker roads that destroys any sense of peaceful isolation.

Steps going down next to a tall building,  towards triple layers of roads

Little of the traffic visits the shrine these days.

Mitake Shrine, Miyamasu

The first actual shrine that I passed walking along the Ōyama Kaidō was Mitake (mee-ta-kay) Shrine, on Miyamasu Hill in Shibuya. This is the main road on the opposite side of the station from the famous junction with the enormous screens that it almost always used as an establishing shot of Tokyo in foreign films. It is, therefore, about as urban as an area can get, and the shrine is squeezed in between two large buildings, one of which is a main post office. As is often the case, there is a flight of stone steps up from the street to the main precincts of the shrine.

There are three things that struck me as unusual about this shrine, but as the shrine office was closed and, in any case, I couldn’t spend too long there if I was going to get to the end of the day’s route, I wasn’t able to check in detail. At some point I may go back, since it isn’t very far away, and try to find out.

The shrine precincts, with the buildings visible beyond the torii and tall buildings to either side.

The shrine precincts. Note the buildings to either side, and that the whole surface seems to be paved.

You may be able to tell from the photograph of the precincts, but, in addition to being squeezed between buildings, the shrine looks rather as though it is on top of a building; the structures to the side seem to be built into the “ground”, not next to it, and all of the surface is paved. This is surprising because, according to one of the lecturers at Kokugakuin a few years ago, the basic rule of the Association of Shinto Shrines is that a shrine must be “On the earth, under the sky”. A shrine on a building or inside is, as far as the Association is concerned, just a glorified kamidana. So, most shrines are built directly on the ground. Now, Mitake Shrine may be, in fact, on a hill. The bits of the hill to either side could have been carved away to make room for the buildings; that’s fairly common in Japanese cities. On the other hand, it might not be recognised by the Association; there is no law requiring shrines to have such recognition, and, indeed, some very famous ones (Meiji JingÅ«, Fushimi Inari) are not. Either way, the absence of an obvious natural earth surface under foot is unusual.

Three stone Buddhist images

The images of Fudō Myo-ō enshrined in the precincts.

The second unusual point is the presence of an image of Fudō Myo-ō in the shrine grounds. According to the notice next to it, this image has been worshipped in the area since the late seventeenth century, and it is a Buddhist image. Now, as I have mentioned before, in the late nineteenth century the government required that all Buddhist images be removed from shrines. Unlike Toyokawa Inari, Mitake Shrine is clearly a shrine, which raises the question of why it has a Buddhist image.

One possibility is that it was moved to the shrine after the second world war, as a result of the development of the area around Shibuya station. That sort of thing happens quite a lot; there are a number of religious images noted in the Ōyama Kaidō guidebook as having been moved from their original sites due to building and development.

Another possibility arises from another historical event recorded on a big noticeboard at the shrine. In 1870, the Meiji Emperor made a royal progress from the palace, and on the way out and back he stopped at Mitake Shrine for a rest, paying his respects at the shrine. If the Fudō Myo-ō was near the shrine at that time, and the Emperor paid his respects to it as well, it would be difficult to move it away. So, it might have been just outside the shrine, thus formally within the law, and protected by an imperial association.

Whatever the history, the fact remains that the Buddhist image is now clearly within the shrine precincts, although there is a second torii between the small shrine for the image and the main hall of the shrine. Whether or not this can actually be called Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, given that, as far as I could see, it was just a matter of physical proximity, it is still a reminder of the close links between Shinto and Buddhism.

A bronze statue of a dog or wolf.

The open-mouthed koma-inu.

The final point concerns the koma-inu. Although the name means “Korea Dogs”, these statues normally look nothing like dogs. Rather, they look rather like lions, with curly hair and, occasionally, horns. They stand in a pair in front of the shrine buildings, protecting them from evil influences, one with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed. At Inari shrines, the koma-inu are almost invariably replaced by foxes, and at Hie shrines they are sometimes replaced by monkeys. In both cases, these are the animals particularly associated with kami in question. On the other hand, I’ve never seen a Tenjin shrine that uses cattle, or a Hachiman shrine that uses doves (the animal associated with the kami of scholarship is the cow, that associated with the kami of war is the dove).

As you can see from the photograph, the koma-inu at this shrine look a lot like dogs, or possibly wolves. “Mitake” refers to a sacred mountain, and wolves used to live in Japan’s mountains, so it is possible that the animals associated with the kami of this shrine are wolves, and that the koma-inu are wolves. Alternatively, since there are no formal rules for how they look, the chief priest of this shrine, or the donor, may just have decided to make them look like dogs. In any case, this is definitely unusual.

Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin

The main building of the temple, and the approach.

It's a temple, not a shrine

The first shrine I visited on my walk along the Ōyama Kaidō last month was not, in fact, a shrine at all, at least not strictly speaking. Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin is formally a Zen Buddhist temple. It is also, very clearly, an Inari establishment, and Inari is almost always a Shinto kami.

A vermillion torii and avenue of prayer flags

Don't be fooled; this is not a shrine

So, what’s going on? From around the eighth century to the nineteenth, the borders between Shinto and Buddhism were extremely ill-defined, with many practices and people shifting from one to the other. A lot of early Shinto theology, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was written by Buddhist monks, for example, and reading Buddhist sutras to held kami achieve nirvana was also very common. The most famous manifestation of this, however, was the doctrine of Honji Suijaku, which said that the kami were local, Japanese manifestations of Buddhist deities. The inverse doctrine, holding that Buddhist deities were different manifestation of the kami, was also popularised by some Shinto priests.

In the late nineteenth century, however, the Meiji government declared that Shinto and Buddhism were clearly separate, issuing a law, the Shinbutsu Bunri Rei, or Law to Separate Kami and Buddhas, which said that all religious institutions and practitioners had to choose to be either Shinto or Buddhist.

The Inari cult started at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto in the early eighth century, but when KÅ«kai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, founded Tōji nearby in the late eighth century, he adopted the kami as a protector of his sect’s temples. As a result, many Inari shrines were founded with strong Buddhist elements. Nevertheless, in the Meiji period almost all chose to become shrines, getting rid of much of the Buddhism.

Toyokawa Inari, in Aichi prefecture, was an exception, and it became a Buddhist temple. The one I visited in Akasaka is technically a part of that temple. Karen Smyers did part of her research for The Fox and the Jewel at the one in Aichi, which she says has few obvious foxes. That is not the case in the Tokyo temple.

The combination of Shinto and Buddhist elements was very interesting. The main building did not have a torii, but it did have two fox statues in front of it, like the koma-inu at a shrine. The shrine building at the end of the path marked by the large red torii was built like a shrine, but the items inside were Buddhist style. Similarly, the dedication on the stone at the centre of the crowd of fox statues was to Dakiniten, the Buddhist deity who was assimilated to Inari, not to Inari directly.

A statue of a fox in front of an incense burner

The stone fox looks like it belongs in a shrine, but the incense burner behind it is definitely temple furniture

There were quite a lot of fox statues around, some of them next to distinctively Buddhist items, such as an incense burner. There was also a complete set of statues of the seven gods of good fortune, behind some shrine buildings. The seven gods of good fortune are derived from Shinto, Buddhism, and Hinduism, at least, so they are even more complex than most elements of Japanese religion.

It is interesting to speculate that, two hundred years ago, most Shinto shrines were like this, with sutras being chanted before the kami and incense burned, while monks went about their business. However, Toyokawa Inari had no miko, and even two hundred years ago a shrine would have had them, so this is no more a relic of pre-Meiji practices than any other location. It does, however, provide evidence that the syncretic practices were not completely suppressed by the Meiji law, and were ready to reappear when, eighty years later, the law was repealed by the occupying Americans.

Lots of stone fox statues, arranged on stone shelves

I can't think why so many people think Inari is a fox

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

Here we have another example of a book that does what it says on the cover; a recounting of one year’s festivals and activities at a Shinto shrine, together with comments from various of the priests on matters connected to Shinto, Japan, and the shrine’s operation. The writing is clear and lively, and it gives, I think, a very good idea of what contemporary Shinto is actually like. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to get an insight into the practice of the religion.

However, I do have a few caveats. The book appears to be highly accurate on areas I know about, so I’m inclined to trust his account of the shrine, as he was actually living there and attending the rituals. The biggest error I noticed was in the glossary, where he says that the colour of the hakama worn by priests depends on their rank within the shrine, whether chief priest, senior priest, or whatever. Actually, the colour of the hakama depends on a separate ranking system, but in practice it does seem to correlate closely with rank at the shrine. However, a chief priest at a small shrine might only get the hakama that the assistant chief priests get at his topic shrine. As I said, the book is highly accurate; I think you’d probably have to read the Association of Shinto Shrines regulations to be aware of this distinction, and even then you might elide it in a book.

A larger concern is that the book does not, I think, make it sufficiently clear that his account applies to one shrine, Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki. This is quite a major shrine, associated with one of the largest festivals in Japan, and it has a large staff of priests. To take one example, he refers to the reverence towards Ise as a standard part of rituals. I don’t doubt that it was a standard part of rituals there, but I have never seen it done as part of a ritual. My local shrine doesn’t do it, and I haven’t noticed it in the festivals I’ve attended at other shrines. Maybe it’s a Kyushu custom (Nagasaki is in Kyushu), or maybe it was just the chief priest of that shrine who thought it was a good idea. The rituals and festivals reported in this book are a good example of the sort of thing that happens at a shrine, but the details are not necessarily true of anywhere apart from Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki, and I think that could have been rather more emphasised.

A related concern is Nelson’s attribution of particular interpretations of the rituals to the attendees in general. In some cases, this may be based on interviews with them afterwards, but even so he does seem to generalise more than I’m comfortable with. He quite rightly emphasises that Shinto rituals do not include sermons that specify a particular interpretation, so there is no way to know how most attendees interpret the ritual words and actions.

My criticism is not that the book fails to reflect the diversity of Shinto; that would be asking for the book to be a different book. Rather, I think it fails to make clear that it is only describing one small part of Shinto, and that other shrines are different in many ways. If you read the book bearing that in mind, it is an excellent introduction to Shinto as it is actually practised.