Autumn colours turn thoughts to verse


Green Shinto has posted items before on the connection of poetry and Shinto sentiments.  Indeed, it’s said the very origins of the poetic impulse in Japan lie with religious utterances by miko, and in Kojiki (712) kami such as Susanoo are claimed as the country’s earliest poets (see postings in the category for Poetry to the right).

Some places compel a sense of awe - and poetry

Sense of place has always been important to Shinto, as it has indeed to Japanese poetry.  One only has to read the early verse in the eighth-century Manyoshu to see that.  The notion was later transmitted into an even shorter verse form – haiku.

Arakide Moritake (1473–1549) was from a family of Shinto priests who served at Ise Shrine.  He was a poet of renga (linked verse) and is said by some to be the founder of haiku though no one knows for certain when the first 5-7-5 verse was written. The form emerged in feudal times out of the initial stanza of renga, and early haiku tended to be light-hearted or witty in their approach, as evident in this one by Arakide:

a cherry petal
flies back up to its branch—
oh, a butterfly!

It was not until Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) that the haiku came to express serious themes. Basho moved the haiku beyond simple word play and surprises. Here for example is his reflection on a famous battle field that evokes the themes of transience and vanity:


summer grasses—
all that remain of
warriors’ dreams

Basho’s association with Zen steered commentators like R.W. Blythe into promoting the notion that haiku was an essentially Zen form.  But many of its best proponents like Issa for instance had nothing to do with Zen.  It was born rather out of the Buddhist-Shinto sensibility that was (and still is) the religious mainstream of Japan.

Wandering poet, Matsuo Basho

The website for the haiku foundation has a very interesting discussion on the links with Shinto, from which the piece below is taken, written by moderator David Grayson.  If you would like to read more, there are plenty of other comments and examples on the webpage, and amongst the contributors Green Shinto friend Gabi Greve is particularly prominent.  Please click here.


David Grayson writes: As a starting point, I want to highlight five Shinto assumptions and beliefs that are reflected in haiku.

1. Shintoism is local – A characteristic of Shintoism is that it is locally focused. Kami are rooted in specific locales, as are the shrines dedicated to them, and their constituents.

2. Physical vs. spiritual – Shintoism does not draw a hard distinction between the physical world we inhabit and the spiritual world. A nice illustration are Torii gates, which mark the entrance to shrines. The gates, which are actually arches, often have no gate or fence — marking the permeability between our world and the spirit world.

3. The natural world – Shintoism is grounded in the natural environment. Shrines are built in harmony with nature, usually built with natural materials and incorporating natural elements. Indeed, some “shrines” are natural landmarks like waterfalls and trees.

4. Seasonality – This is related to number three, but deserves to be called out. Festivals are tied to the seasons and to milestones in the farming calendar. [Gabi Greve has compiled a saijiki of kigo for festivals and ceremonies.]

5. Focus on the present – Shintoism is very much focused on the here and now.


Mountain muse, Fuji-san

Shinto-inspired haiku abound; here are several that I’ve enjoyed:

on the trail of the gods …
all creatures and spirits
blessed by hoarfrost

- Nozomi Sugiyama, from Seasons of the Gods (2)

flicking off water
a dragonfly quickly
becomes divine

- Hoshinaga Fumio (3)

there is no voice
in this waterfall in November –
Fudo Waterfall
- Shimomura Hiroshi  (4)

Having climbed Mt. Fuji,
My shadow stretches into
The form of a giant man

- Nobuyuki Yuasa, from Seasons of the Gods (5)

As mentioned above, Gabi Greve’s Saijiki for Festivals and Ceremonies is a good resource.



(1) BBC Religions: Shintoism – http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/beliefs/religion.shtml. 76% indicated that they followed Buddhism.

(2) Icebox – http://hailhaiku.wordpress.com/representative-haiku/

(3) Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008), 167.

(4) “Religion and Nature” Topic in Religion, created by Gabi Greve.  http://www.thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/index.php?topic=465.0

(5) Icebox – http://hailhaiku.wordpress.com/representative-haiku/


At its best haiku is a gateway into the realm of the sacred

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Campbell on myth

Sanctification of the spirit of place transforms the mundane into an object of reverence


There are two people in particular who have shaped my spirituality – Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell.  Neither pretended to be a priest or guru, but both imparted jewels of wisdom.  Joseph Campbell in particular wrote revealingly of myth and its power to provide signposts to a fulfilled life.  When he came to Japan in 1954 he was entranced with the survival of a primal religion like Shinto into the modern age.  In the quotations that follow, he shows how human existence is empowered through the quest for self-knowledge and sanctification of the world around us.  We live in an awe-inspiring universe and carry within us the magic spark of life.  Look in the mirror then and rejoice, for we are one with nature. Celebrate the diurnal round.  Be here now!


“The function of myth is to put us in sync—with ourselves, with our social group, and with the environment in which we live…  One of the most interesting and simple ways to get this message is from the mythologies of the Navaho. Every single detail of the desert in which they live has been deified, and the land has become a holy land because it is revelatory of mythological entities. When you recognize the mythological aspect of Mother Nature, you have turned nature itself into an icon, into a holy picture, so that wherever you go, you’re getting the message that the divine power is working for you.  Modern culture has desanctified our landscape and we think that to go to the holy land we have to go to Jerusalem. The Navaho would say, ‘This is it, and you’re it.’ ”

Joseph Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, p.19


“And just as in the past each civilization was the vehicle of its own mythology, developing in character as its myth became progressively interpreted, analyzed, and elucidated by its leading minds, so in this modern world––where the application of science to the fields of practical life has now dissolved all cultural horizons, so that no separate civilization can ever develop again––each individual is the center of a mythology of his own, of which his own intelligible character is the Incarnate God, so to say, whom his empirically questing consciousness is to find. The aphorism of Delphi, ‘Know thyself,’ is the motto. And not Rome, not Mecca, not Jerusalem, Sinai, or Benares, but each and every ‘thou’ on earth is the center of this world…
Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (Vol. IV of The Masks of God), p. 36


“How, in the contemporary period, can we evoke the imagery that communicates the most profound and most richly developed sense of experiencing life? These images must point past themselves to that ultimate truth which must be told: that life does not have one absolutely fixed meaning. These images must point past all meanings given, beyond all definitions and relationships, to that really ineffable mystery that is just the existence, the being of ourselves and of our world. If we give that mystery an exact meaning we diminish the experience of its real depth. But when a poet carries the mind into a context of meanings and then pitches it past those, one knows that marvelous rapture that comes from going past all categories of definition. Here we sense the function of metaphor that allows us to make a journey we could not otherwise make …”
Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That, p. 8-9


“[W]e are the children of this beautiful planet that we have lately seen photographed from the moon. We are not delivered into it by some god, but have come forth from it. We are its eyes and mind, its seeing and its thinking. And the earth, together, with its sun, this light around which it flies like a moth, came forth, we are told, from a nebula; and that nebula, in turn, from space. So that we are the mind, ultimately, of space …
No wonder, then, if its laws and ours are the same! Likewise our depths are the depths of space, whence all those gods sprang that men’s minds in the past projected onto animals and plants, onto hills and streams, the planets in their courses, and their own peculiar social observances.”
Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By






Posted in Mythology | 2 Comments

Shichi-go-san (7-5-3)

Back so soon –
Autumn colours
And Siberian seagulls

One of the joys of Shinto is that it marks the passing of time.  Seasonal celebrations remind us of the turning of the annual round, and the abundance of harvest thanksgivings is replaced now by preparations for winter.  I was reminded of this on my walks up the river when I saw this week the return of the Siberian seagulls, first harbinger of the long cold months ahead.  These joyfully lithe and lively birds add greatly to the beauty of the Kamogawa in winter, when greenery lies low and deciduous leaves have fallen.

With their splashes of white and beady intelligent eyes, the seagulls skim at dizzying speeds up and down the river, mostly in large groups but sometimes in pairs or singly.  As the day darkens, they whirl up into a dizzying spiral that reaches up to the very heavens before flying off to bed down for the night at Lake Biwa.  My heart leaps up when I see them, though I’m none too glad of the cold that clings to them from their Siberian north. (I was once delighted to find on my winter break in Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China that the Siberian seagulls migrate there too.)

Another way in which Shinto marks the passage of time is through the celebration of life events, such as the Shichi-go-san.  It’s the time of year to celebrate seven-, five- and three-year olds, a rite of passage from ancient China.  As such it marks a stage of maturation for children and is a delightful life-affirming affair, one of Shinto’s prime events.  The explanation below by Yumiyama Tatsuya is taken from the Shinto encyclopedia produced by Kokugakuin University.


Rite of passage for the Shichigosan
Generally, on November 15th boys aged three and five and girls aged three and seven are dressed in their best clothes and taken on a pilgrimage to their ujigami (clan or tutelary kami) to express gratitude and pray for their continued health and safety. Sometimes formal banquets are also held for this occasion.

In ancient times, both boys and girls would be shorn of their hair until they turned three, when a formal ceremony would be held after which they were allowed to grow it out. There was also a ritual for five-year-old boys in which they would put on a hakama for the first time. For seven-year-old girls there was the ritual of replacing the narrow belt of a child’s kimono with the much wider obi.

The particulars such as which sex does what at what age and the name for those celebrations varied based on region, era, and a child’s social standing, but generally we can say that these age-based rituals were conducted to pray for and celebrate children’s maturation from the precarious stage of infancy into the more stable stage of childhood. Shichigosan refers collectively to the performance of such rituals.

Although the date on which it is celebrated — the fifteenth of the eleventh month or November 15th — was already considered to be an auspicious day, Shichigosan became specifically associated with it when the fifth Tokugawa shōgun, Tsunayoshi, conducted rites for his child Tokumatsu on this day.  It came to be conducted in grander fashion from the Taishō era [early twentieth century], and these practices grew in elegance as they spread across the nation.

In Tokyo, many pilgrims visit Meiji Jingū and other famous shrines at the time of shichigosan. Also, the selling of chitoseame (“thousand-year candy”) as a souvenir of Shichigosan, a practice that began at the shrine Kanda Jinja, in Asakusa, and other Tokyo sites, is said to have become widespread.


Though the actual day is Nov. 15, it’s customary to visit the shrine on the weekends either side of that date.  For a full account of a family visit, see this page. http://www.tokyowithkids.com/entertainment/shichigosan.html




Posted in Rites and celebrations | Leave a comment

Ame no Uzume (butoh)

A butoh performance of female sexuality re-emerging from the Rock Cave


Last night in Kyoto I attended a striking butoh performance entitled ‘Uzume’.  It portrayed the Kojiki deity in the distinctive manner of butoh, which meant that rather than simple narrative there was a succession of scenes in which the writhing and twisted movements suggested the inner nature of the journey.  In the jolts and unnatural positioning was the suggestion of spirit possession.  There was a strong primal atmosphere about the performance that spoke to the earliest stirrings of (wo)mankind.

Ame no Uzume in butoh garb and appearance

Uzume is an intriguing character because of her role in Japan’s primal myth, The Heavenly Rock-Cave (Ama no Iwato).  She’s often neglected by traditionalists, because in her dance performance which draws the sun goddess Amaterasu out of her cave she exposes her breasts and private parts.  These symbols of vitality and fertility are enough to repel the forces of darkness and reawaken life in the universe.

In neglecting the sexuality of Uzume, puritans and prudes have sought to make Shinto ‘safe’ and  ‘respectable’.  They are the same people that covered up the phalli and vulvae that used to be a common sight around Japan.  They thought sexuality was shameful for an imperial state religion, and Shinto as a fertility religion was repackaged as Shinto as a nature religion.  Ancestors not fertility rites are still given emphasis in public.

Much of the blame for this can of course be put on Western attitudes which were imported after the opening up of Japan in the 1850s.  Christianity in particular preached that there was something shameful about the human body and that sex should be hidden away.  As Alan Watts pointed out, no other religious culture in the history of mankind has been so obsessed with the subject.

Now as we move into a post-Christian age, things are changing and human sexuality is once again being liberated and celebrated.  The Uzume on stage last night danced the central scene completely naked save for a minimal loin cloth barely covering the area between the legs.  In a sense this was a feminist reclaiming of the body, and the production was notable for having four female dancers represent the festival of gods which takes place outside the Rock-Cave.  Uzume was here presented as the physical vessel into which the lifeforce enters, the living key to the opening of the cave.  Here, triumphantly, was the bringer of joy and sunshine.


Wikipedia on Uzume…

Ame-no-Uzume-no-mikoto (天宇受売命) is the goddess of dawn, mirth and revelry in the Shinto religion of Japan, and the wife of fellow-god Sarutahiko Ōkami. She famously relates to the tale of the missing sun deity, Amaterasu Omikami. Her name can also be pronounced as Ama-no-Uzume.

A respectable Uzume at the Ise Jingu musuem

Amaterasu’s brother, the storm god Susano’o, had vandalized her rice fields, threw a flayed horse at her loom, and brutally killed one of her maidens due to a quarrel between them. In turn, Amaterasu became furious with him and retreated into the Heavenly Rock Cave, Amano-Iwato. The world, without the illumination of the sun, became dark and the gods could not lure Amaterasu out of her hiding place.

The clever Uzume overturned a tub near the cave entrance and began a dance on it, tearing off her clothing in front of the other deities. They considered this so comical that they laughed heartily at the sight.[3] This dance is said to have founded the Japanese ritual dance, Kagura.

Amaterasu heard them, and peered out to see what all the fuss was about. When she opened the cave, she saw her glorious reflection in a mirror which Uzume had placed on a tree, and slowly emerged from her hiding spot.
At that moment, the god Ame-no-Tajikarawo-no-mikoto dashed forth and closed the cave behind her, refusing to budge so that she could no longer retreat. Another god tied a magic shimenawa across the entrance. The deities Ame-no-Koyane-no-mikoto and Ame-no-Futodama-no-mikoto then asked Amaterasu to rejoin the divine. She agreed, and light was restored to the earth.

Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto is still worshiped today as a Shinto kami, spirits indigenous to Japan. She is also known as Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, The Great Persuader, and The Heavenly Alarming Female.  She is depicted in kyōgen farce as Okame, a woman who revels in her sensuality.


For an account of a fertility rite, see here.  For a shrine with fertility symbols, click here.  For fertility festivals near Nagoya, including Honen Festival, click here or here.

The meeting of a fecund Uzume and a phallic Sarutahiko as depicted on an ema at Tsubaki Jinja

Posted in Fertility, Mythology | 3 Comments

Hitaki-sai (Fushimi Inari)

Green Shinto friend, Hugo Kempeneer, has written up his visit to a most interesting ceremony at Fushimi Inari which took place recently.  It’s a ceremony I’ve never seen myself, but thanks to his very clear videos of the event, I almost feel that I was there in person! (For an 18 minute video of the event, see here.  For Hugo’s excellent Kyotodreams blog, see here.  All photos copyright Hugo Kempeneer.)


Hugo writes…

Today was the annual Hitaki Sai (火焚祭) Fire Festival at Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) in Kyoto. As usual the Fushimi Inari shrine is crowded with people from all over. Today was no different, though the weather was kind of nice and many people where lining up to get a good spot at the festival site. Myself, I was standing in line for more than 1½ hours. It paid off though and I had a first row view. The ceremony is held to express gratitude for the bountiful harvest and to pray for good health of worshippers. More than 100.000 wooden prayer sticks from all over Japan were burned in three separate bonfires.

Green Shinto comments: Looking at this, one can’t help seeing the syncretic nature of Fushimi Inari writ large.  The ceremony is typical of Shingon Buddhism, and the shrine was appointed by the Shingon founder Kukai to be a guardian shrine of his Heian-kyo temple seminary, To-ji.  Still today the Inari mikoshi is brought past the entrance of To-ji in its annual festival, when the Buddhist priests come out to pay their respects.  The syncretic nature of Inari belief may be the reason, or one of the reasons, as to why Fushimi Inari is not a member of Jinja Honcho (Association of Shrines).


Hugo’s Hitaki Sai Fire Festival Highlights:

The ceremony started at 1.00pm at the main hall of the Fushimi shrine and about 45 minutes later the priests and kagura (神楽) dancers entered the grounds. A cleansing ritual was performed in front of each heap, afterwards the fire starter bamboo sticks were set alight. Three priests lit the three bonfires.

First there was an overwhelming smoke that engulfed all the spectators, but soon it cleared up and the first flames were reaching to the sky.  The long and hot task of throwing the prayer sticks onto the fire began. The priests and participants were singing prayers to thank the gods for a bountiful harvest and prosperity. After all, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to Inari, kami of rice and business.

In-between the prayers and burning of the prayer sticks was a performance by some pretty kagura dancers, performing a beautiful traditional Kagura dance. They did this three times. The burning of the more than 100.000 prayer sticks lasted for one hour. It was quite an experience, as this was the first time I attended this ceremony at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Miko, drum and divine utterance - relics of a shamanistic past

Hugo writes:

During the Hitaki Sai Fire Festival at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Kagura dancers livened up the ceremony. While Shinto priests were busily throwing the prayer sticks onto the bonfires, these pretty miko (巫女) or Shrine Maidens treated us to a traditional Kagura dance. Kagura (神楽) or “god-entertainment” is a theatrical dance—with roots arguably predating those of Noh. Originally called kamukura or kamikura (神座), kagura began as sacred dances performed at the Imperial court by shrine maidens (miko) who were supposedly descendants of Ame-no-Uzume [the dancer in the Rock-Cave Myth, whose bawdy performance leads a curious Amaterasu to emerge from her cave].

The slow and stately kagura dance performed by miko

Posted in Festivals, Inari, Kyoto shrines, Syncretism | 6 Comments

The Far Right

Four recent articles have highlighted the growing danger of right-wing extremism in Japan.

First Murakami Haruki, Japan’s leading novelist, spoke out against the whitewashing of Japan’s record in WW2.  “After the war, it was eventually concluded that no one was wrong,” said Murakami of the pervasive attitude in Japan. It is offensive to the millions who suffered untold cruelty at the hands of the Japanese army, and nationalists need to take on board that more Chinese died in WW2 than all the Americans, British and Japanese put together.

Extreme nationalists like the Zaitokukai make Yasukuni a rallying point

A second article by Hugh Cortazzi, former UK ambassador to Japan, stated: ‘It is very much in Japan’s national interest that the revisionists are discouraged from propagating their historical lies and that Japanese democratic processes are not threatened by extremist anti-democratic individuals or groups.’  As a supporter of Japan, Cortazzi ends his forceful piece with, ‘Better a candid friend than an insincere sycophant.’ Hear, hear!  (For the full article, click this link.)

A third article by Japanese professor, Yamaguchi Jiro, further highlights the extreme rightwing orientation of the Japanese government.  While campaigning to win respect abroad, it pursues repressive politics at home and condones ties to neo-Nazis.  The media have been effectively silenced, textbooks are being rewritten to omit mention of atrocities, and the head of the national broadcaster NHK has more or less declared that it operates as an arm of the government.  (Click to see  The article in the Japan Times .)

Fourthly, there was a stinging condemnation of extremist elements by Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University, entitled ‘Right-wing witch hunt signals dark days in Japan’ (click here).  “The revisionist right in Japan with the active encouragement, if not involvement, of the Abe government has succeeded in controlling NHK news, intimidating Asahi Shimbun and now academia,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University.

A far right van in Kyoto bearing the slogan Respect the Ancient Japan School (wikicommons)

Intimidation of those who speak out against prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni is part of the extreme right’s campaign of vilification.  “In 2006, Koichi Kato, a moderate (Liberal Democratic Party) politician, had his house in Yamagata burned down for his criticism of Prime Minister (Junichiro) Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.”

Things have grown so bad now that some commentators are likening the situation to the 1930s.  “In recent years, pressure by right-wing groups has led to cinemas canceling movies dealing with sensitive war-related issues; hotels canceling the reservations of conference rooms for symposia dealing with such issues; and museums canceling or revising exhibitions with sensitive contents.  (There has been) widespread anti-China and anti-Korea sentiments (and) books of that kind becoming best-sellers, hate demonstrations, assaults on history by the nation’s leaders that trickle down to the general public, page-ripping of Anne Frank’s diaries, hiding of ‘Barefoot Gen’ in school libraries, assaults on protest tents in Okinawa and anti-nuclear tents in Tokyo, and public places refusing to rent space to groups that discuss issues like the Constitution and anti-nuclear power.”

There are times in history when it’s important to stand up and speak out.  Conservative collaborators in the West, including sympathisers with Shinto, like to turn a blind eye to political developments such as visits to Yasukuni.  In so doing they are guilty of complicity, for the stink of collaboration with racist thugs like the Zaitokukai* hangs over them.  As Yamaguchi points out in his article, ‘It is the job of members of the media and academics to tell people immersed in narcissism that they, in fact, have ugly aspects.’  So let it be clearly stated: those who exploit Shinto for extremist ends are ugly indeed!

* To learn about Zaitokukai, see here.


Author Murakami chides Japan over WWII, Fukushima responsibility
NATIONAL NOV. 04, 2014 Japan Today

Murakami Haruki (source unknown)

Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, the 65-year-old author said: “No one has taken real responsibility for the 1945 war end or the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. I feel so.”

“After the war, it was eventually concluded that no one was wrong,” said Murakami of the pervasive attitude in Japan. Japanese people have come to consider themselves as “victims” of the war, he added.

Murakami, one of Japan’s best known writers who has repeatedly been tipped as a future Nobel Literature laureate, said that it was natural for China and the Koreas to continue to feel resentment towards Japan for its wartime aggressions.  “Fundamentally, Japanese people tend not to have an idea that they were also assailants, and the tendency is getting clearer,” he said.

Japan’s lack of repentance over its in the first half of the 20th century continues to strain relations with regional neighbors.


For a suppressed 2-hour documentary on WW2 by Kazuo Hara, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yukiyukite shingun, 1987), see
. You can switch on subtitles at the bottom.

Posted in Nationalism, Politics, Yasukuni | 2 Comments

Bears in Distress

One of the distressed bears at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido


The following piece comes from Green Shinto reader, Jann Williams.  As a professor of Ecology, she has expertise in environmental matters and a concern with the welfare of animals.  Given the deep spirituality of the Ainu, it’s highly unfortunate to say the least that bears should be mistreated in their name.  Green Shinto has no hesitation in giving its backing to this campaign and has written to the museum in question to ask them to improve the conditions of the animals.


The Bear Goddess beckons

In May 2014 my husband and I visited Hokkaido, starting our visit in Daisetsuzan National Park and finishing in Hakodate. As experienced ecologists with a keen interest in Indigenous cultures, the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi was high on our list of places to visit. We were impressed that a Museum of Indigenous Culture had been built in Japan, and we were attracted by the opportunity to learn more about the intimate connections between Ainu and their environment.

The Museum has some interesting and informative exhibits describing and demonstrating the Ainu religion and associated way of life. We were both very surprised however by the way the Hokkaido bears and dogs at the Museum were treated. It ruined what would have been an enjoyable and educative experience. The Great Bear Goddess is the highest of the gods worshipped by the Ainu, so it was distressing to see these majestic animals being kept in very small cages with a concrete base.

The conditions the bears are kept in at the Museum are inimical to their mental and physical health. The bears had gone ‘stir crazy’, having no energy and demonstrating disturbing repetitive actions. Technically this is known as ‘stereotypic behaviour’ and is a common occurrence in animals kept in captivity in inadequate conditions.

In August I posted a comment, along similar lines, on Green Shinto, in response to an article about the Ainu. Since posting the comment, I have written to the Ainu Museum about my concern over the treatment of these majestic animals. As a Professor of Ecology, and past President of the Ecological Society of Australia, I am hoping that that my voice may carry some weight.

Other international visitors have expressed concern about the condition of the bears. Of the reviews of the Museum on TripAdvisor, over 70% of visitors from western countries refer to the unacceptable treatment of these animals. Using their words, the reviewers call attention to “distasteful animal abuse”, “unnecessary animal torture” and “cruelty towards the bears”.

Since my earlier post on Green Shinto, the Japanese Animal Welfare Society was also approached to conduct an inspection of the facilities at the Museum and of the treatment of the bears. To my disappointment they reported that the conditions the bears are kept in are considered ‘legitimate’ according to Japanese law.

So what to do next? Changing the laws to meet international standards is required, that is clear. Even if these sub-standard conditions currently meet the letter of the law, it saddened me that Ainu consider this a respectful way to treat the bears. This was unexpected for an Indigenous people with strong spiritual connections with nature. Judging from some of the posts and comments on Green Shinto, it may reflect a broader Japanese attitude towards animals. Changing these attitudes and associated behaviour will take time and require cultural understanding.

I wasn’t sure what more could be achieved as an outsider looking in, but then a friend of mine leant me The Romance of the Bear God – a book of Ainu Folktales by Shigeru Kayano. To me this was a sign that the Great Bear Goddess wanted to reach a wider audience, to let people know about the conditions under which the bears are forced to live, and to find a way to improve them. That spurred me on to write this piece.

It’s been suggested that other readers of Green Shinto might consider sending letters to the Ainu Museum, for the more pressure they receive the more likely they are to improve the conditions of the bears. For those interested, the email address is museum@ainu-museum.or.jp:

Ainu Museum
2-3-4, Shiraoi-cho
Shiraoi-gun, Hokkaido
Japan 059-0902

P: 0144-82-3914.  Fax: 0144 82-3685.

Any suggestions for other ideas to help rectify the situation would be appreciated.

Professor Jann Williams
Tasmania, Australia

The caged bears which have caused outrage amongst visitors to the museum on Trip Advisor


A noticeboard on the cages to explain that the Bear was not only the at the top of the ecosystem in Hokkaido but was the most worshipped Kamuy (deity) of the Ainu. Each spring a captured bear cub was bred with care as 'God's child' in preparation for a grand ceremony known as Iyomante, held to send the spirit of the bear back to The Bear Goddess.


Dogs kept in concrete cages – symptomatic of a special relationship with nature?

Posted in General, Green issues, Hokkaido | 5 Comments


In 1955 the head of Yamakage Shinto, Yamakage Motohisa, met with a Shinto researcher called Jean Herbert.  Together the pair visited something like 1000 shrines, and the research was eventually used in Herbert’s massive book on Shinto; at the fountain-head of Japan (1967).

In the following piece, Yamakage Motohisa describes part of their trip together and how Herbert related to the animistic ‘power spots’ of Shinto.  I once had a similar kind of experience when accompanying a priest sensitive to the spirit of place on a trip to various sacred sites.

“Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence.  One aspect of Shinto is the celebration of that.


To show that Shinto is so closely related with Nature, I thought it vital to take him to some natural sacred place, somewhere deep in the mountain as the archetype of Shinto shrine, where there were but some rocks.

He was sensitive enough to feel the natural vibrating energy; when he sensed the incredible energy coming out of such a ‘purified’ place for the first time, he looked greatly surprised, just asking “why …. why … why…”

“Because this is a Natural-Spirit Zone.” I said.
“We didn’t feel such a strong vibration in the shrines we visited.” he said.
“Because their buildings are what man made. They are not natural or pure.”
Then he asked: “Why, man should be Child of Kami according to Shinto.”
“In its radical sense, Yes, however, man has a lot of Kegare, spiritual pollutions. And who do you imagine comes and prays here, far away from the town? They come and pray for thanks…”
“Thanks for what?
“Thanks for — that I am fine, happy today.  Their prayer is never for selfish desires.  But most people visiting big shrines in the town will often give bad vibration with their egoistic praying. So I admit not all shrines in Japan are purified.”
“Hindu is also ‘natural’, isn’t it the same as Shinto in this sense?” he said.
“No.” I answered.
“Because some deities of Hindu are ‘hand-made’(artificial).”
Dr. Herbert smiled, then.

But in fact it is not only in Nature but also somewhere in the city that Natural Shinto is still breathing, secretly. We went to a very small shrine called Karasumori-Inari, situated in a back street surrounded by taverns in the middle of Tokyo.  It was so small that no priest took care of it.  But, once he entered its space, he could feel that ‘purifying’ vibration, which created a sacred place, different from the surroundings. He was amazed to find that ‘Natural Shinto’ is alive still in the middle of Japan.

Since he learned to feel the Natural-Spirit vibration, he tried by himself to examine every shrine we visited. When we reached the area of a shrine, he as a rule stood for a moment to feel its vibration, good or bad. and then asked me if his sense was right or not, to make sure.  Such practical, deep experiences made a great contribution to his penetrating the core of Shinto. the natural power of purification.

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Yasukuni war criminals

Apologists for prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni like to pretend it’s a purely religious matter or a purely Japanese matter. I guess German rightists used similar arguments about Catholicism’s compliance with the Nazis.

One of the most vocal groups in support of prime ministers visiting Yasukuni, not surprisingly, has been the War-Bereaved Families Association. In this respect it’s of interest to note the article below which highlights that: 1) even some Japanese Shintoists are opposed to the secret enshrinement of the war criminals; 2) both the previous and the present emperor have shown their disapproval; 3) the enshrinement of the war criminals is viewed as a symbol of Japan’s lack of atonement for the shocking war crimes committed in East Asia.


Group tells Yasukuni Shrine to ditch convicted war criminals
AFP-JIJI, KYODO   Japan Times OCT 29, 2014

Visitors take in some of the 30,000 paper lanterns illuminated during a festival at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine on July 13. A chapter of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association is asking Yasukuni officials to remove the names of war criminals enshrined there. | REUTERS

An influential group that represents families of the war dead is urging Yasukuni Shrine to remove the names of the convicted war criminals currently enshrined there, an official said Wednesday.

A chapter of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association passed a resolution at its annual meeting Monday, calling on the shrine’s governors to delist the names from the 2½ million Japanese souls honored there.

The change would enable “the Emperor and the Empress, the prime minister and all Japanese people to visit Yasukuni Shrine without discomfort,” an official from the group’s chapter in Fukuoka told reporters.  Similar calls have been heard over the years, both inside Japan and overseas.

The names include that of army Gen. and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nationalists, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, argue that the Tokyo shrine is no different from war memorials in other countries, such as Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.

The Yasukuni Shrine. A group representing families of soldiers has asked that the names of 14 war criminals be removed. Credit Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the secret addition of World War II leaders to the Yasukuni list in 1978 caused Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, to cancel a planned visit, according to a memo by one of his aides.  His son, Emperor Akihito, has never visited the shrine.

Japanese politicians stoke anger in China and South Korea whenever they visit the shrine. Those nations suffered at the hands of Japanese aggression in the first half of the 20th century and regard visits by political leaders as insensitive triumphalism.

A small [but alarmingly powerful and influential] section of the political right believes Japan is unfairly criticized for its wartime past, saying the international military tribunal that convicted the leaders was practicing the justice of the victors and that Japan’s empire-building was no different from that of the European powers.

The issue has soured ties with Japan’s neighbors and even prompted a scolding from the United States when Abe visited the shrine last year.  Japan’s leader has not held formal talks with either China’s President Xi Jinping or South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye since they came to office.

Abe’s visit to the controversial shrine came amid a near-crisis in relations with Beijing, strained by sparring over the sovereignty of an island chain in the East China Sea.

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Miyazaki honorary Oscar

Miyazaki Hayao (source unknown)

One of Green Shinto’s favourite Japanese, Miyazaki Hayao, is to be given an honorary award next year, according to an article in the Japan Times.

The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Thursday it has picked anime director Hayao Miyazaki as one of three recipients of its Honorary Award this year.

The only other Japanese to receive the award was Akira Kurosawa, in 1990 at the 62nd Academy Awards.


Film specialist Michael J. Anderson writes…

In 2005 New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata: Masters of Animation. The retrospective’s centerpiece was the North American premiere of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).

Spirited Away publicity poster

As no great fan of animation, let alone anime, I will admit that I think of Miyazaki as something of an exception. His best films manifest many of the same qualities as the very best of the classical Hollywood system: that is, they succeed in addressing multiple audiences at once, both as organic works of art and as entertainments in their own right. Spirited Away (2001), for instance, is targeted at ten year-old girls, seeking to remedy their principle anxieties, while operating as a parable for the economic crisis for older viewers. Then again, those not within the former demographic are likewise given a glimpse into the young female’s psychoses. It is in other words an art that operates on numerous levels, separately addressing different viewers.

Another instance of dual and even multiple address in Miyazaki’s work is in its salience for culturally Japanese and non-Japanese audiences. In any context, Spirited Away is a fantasy. However, for the Japanese viewers, it is a fantasy mitigated by Shinto metaphysics. Spirits are everywhere in the work, as kami are everywhere in nature.

When a creature enters the spa with a horrendous odor, it is the product of a spirit. Chihiro, the ten year-old protagonist, judiciously cleans the monster, ridding the spa of this terrible spirit. In this way, not only does Spirited Away manifest a Shinto causality, but further upholds one of the religion’s four affirmations: the importance of physical cleanliness. To bath in Shinto is to participate in an important purifying ritual.

Totoro publicity poster

Another of these affirmations is the sacredness of nature, which is a concern that the filmmaker often returns to throughout his corpus. In films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997), this Shinto belief is fused with an ecological allegory that condemns reckless industrial civilization, and particularly its employment of nuclear weaponry. That Shinto has so easily coopted environmentalism surely accounts for the latter’s prevalence in recent Japanese cinema — beyond Miyazaki, major works include the Shinto-titled Himatsuri (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985), Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1990), and Charisma (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1999), among others.

Beyond Japanese cinema, where ecological concerns flow from Shintoist thought, environmentalism has become, arguably, the chief religious art of the modern world. The cathedrals of the medieval world have been since replaced by public spaces that call attention to a transgressive industrial past. Another recent MoMA exhibit perfectly articulated the religious intimations of environmentalist art. Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape offers a view of contemporary urban landscapes reappropriated after their industrial dereliction.

Princess Mononoke publicity poster

As the program notes, “nearly every significant landscape designed in recent years occupies a site that has been reinvented and reclaimed from obsolescence or degradation as cities in the postindustrial remake their outdoor spaces.” In other words, these new designs represent a sort of contrition toward a misused Mother Earth, often maintaining the scars of their industrial abuse as if a continual reminder for generations ahead of the industrial era’s grave sins.

But more on that later: in a film review of mine to be published next month, I further articulate the reasons for evaluating environmentalism as a religion. If you are unable to wait that long, I would recommend Michael Crichton’s speech to the Commonweath Club.

As for the current film program at the MoMA, or for Miyazaki’s art more generally, it almost goes without saying that it is essential, whether or not its respective religious intimations are of any interest to you. I mention these only out of what is otherwise critical slight: to understand Miyazaki’s work in particular, I would argue, it is necessary to understand it within its Shintoist rubric.


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