Zen and Shinto 15: Japaneseness

DSCN7100On Sunday I took an out of town visitor to a combination of Tofuku-ji Zen temple and the popular Fushimi Inari shrine.  They are both in the south-east of Kyoto, a mere twenty minutes walk apart, and the Zen-Shinto combination makes a wonderful introduction to the world of Japanese religion.  The large solemn buildings of Zen provide a contrast with the colourful bustling crowds at Fushimi, and yet the similarities are striking.

Pulitzer finalist, Sukuta Mehta, admires a garden... but are those clean lines, raked gravel and simple wooden buildings Zen or Shinto?

Pulitzer finalist, Sukuta Mehta, admires a garden… but are those clean lines, raked gravel and simple wooden buildings Zen or Shinto?

There are clean austere lines in the architecture.  Meticulously raked grounds.  A cleaving to tradition.  An emphasis on male heritage in the priesthood.  Symbolism in the statuary.  Mythological underpinnings whose origins lie in China and beyond.

One common point of Zen and Shinto is that they both treasure closeness to nature as a means of enhancing spirituality.  In Zen one comes closer to one’s Buddha nature, in Shinto one comes closer to the realm of the kami.  Tofuku-ji boasts a wonderful gorge of maples, Fushimi Inari is famous for its torii-covered hillside. ‘People must respect nature as they cannot live without nature,’ says a noticeboard at Tofuku-ji.  ‘The spirit of Zen tells people of samsara (concept of a cycle of birth) and suggests people to tame their ego.’

Zen used to be number one in terms of Western interest in Japan.  Now Fushimi Inari is no. 1 on the tourist trail in Kyoto and proudly advertises its status.  Whereas Tofukuji has to charge to see its wonderful modern Zen gardens, Fushimi Inari relies on the constant stream of visitors tossing coins into its offering box and the queues to buy amulets and fortune slips as its office.  In both cases the religious institution is supported by a team of priests, many of whom are hereditary.  In both cases belief in the deities is not a requirement, but upholding the lifestyle of ritual and discipline is.

Did the water basin of Zen and the tea ceremony borrow from that of Shinto....

Did the water basin of Zen and the tea ceremony borrow from that of Shinto….

Rock worship... Zen or Shinto? A combination of both, in fact.

Rock worship… Zen or Shinto? A combination of both, in fact.


Dosoujin, usually associated with Shinto but here in the Zen temple of Tofukuji


Coming up soon at Fushimi Inari is the rice-planting ritual.

June 10: the ritual is held to ensure a good rice harvest; Women dressed in traditional Heian period costumes perform an elegant dance from 13:00; From around 14:00, about 30 women dressed in traditional farm worker clothing plant rice seedlings in the shrine’s sacred rice field.

A Zen-Shinto shrine. Actually it's not counted as Shinto as it's a kami shrine maintained by Zen monks. An anomaly not included in the post-Meiji artificial split.

A Zen-Shinto shrine at Tofuku-ji. Actually it’s not counted as Shinto as it’s a kami shrine maintained by Zen monks. An anomaly not included in the post-Meiji artificial split between the religions.

Dragon waterbasin at a Shinto shrine

Dragon waterbasin at a Shinto shrine


Dragon ceiling at a Zen temple


Fushimi boasting of being number 1 tourist spot in the whole of Japan! No wonder the sheaf of rice the fox is holding looks plentiful…

Japaneseness – whether Shinto or Zen, it’s a remarkable heritage!

Abe’s move backfires (G7)

More evidence today that Abe’s move to politicise Shinto and G7 is backfiring, as the policies behind his choice of venue come under greater scrutiny. This time it’s the Japan Times that has published an article exposing the political agenda and the spectre of State Shinto.


Obama at Ise

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama visit Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, Thursday. Obama is in Japan for the G-7 summit and plans to visit Hiroshima on Friday. | AP

Abe’s pro-Shinto motives in spotlight with choice of G-7 opening ceremony venue
by Reiji Yoshida   May 26, 2016

ISE, MIE PREF. – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked satisfied, happily smiling as he met top leaders from the Group of Seven countries one by one at the gate to a giant Shinto-style wooden bridge.

It was the opening of the G-7 summit at Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) in Ise, Mie Prefecture. It also should have been one of the proudest moments for the prime minister, a conservative who has for years called for the revival of traditional values and Japanese traditions.

Abe said he chose the Ise-Shima area as the venue for the summit because he wanted world leaders to feel the “beautiful nature, rich culture and traditions of Japan.”

But are those really all of his reasons?

Some observers are concerned that Abe’s hidden purpose in conducting the high-profile ceremony was to please Shinto supporters and thereby promote a right-leaning form of nationalism. Shinto was the spiritual source of Japan’s fanatic nationalism before and during World War II.

Abe and many in his Cabinet are prominent members of a group of 308 Diet lawmakers who support the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership).  The Shinto association is pushing for the creation of a new constitution based on Japan’s traditional values, and the establishment of national ceremonies for “the spirits of the war dead” enshrined at war-linked Yasukuni Shrine — all mirroring the key policy goals of right-leaning politicians, many of whom are core supporters of Abe.

“We will aim for creating a society that treasures the Imperial family, which can be boasted to the world, as well as Japan’s traditions and culture,” the website of Shinto Seiji Renmei states.

“We will aim for establishing national ceremonies for the war dead of Yasukuni, who dedicated their precious lives to Japan,” it says.

Today, unlike Yasukuni Shrine, which also honors Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead, few Japanese associate Ise Jingu with the dark memories of the wartime militarism that was based on “State Shinto.”

Indeed, particularly for young people, Ise Jingu is just another popular tourist spot with a number of traditional structures blessed with deep, quiet woods and a somewhat mysterious atmosphere.

That is probably the reason Abe’s plan to hold the G-7 opening ceremony there has caused little public controversy in Japan. But for those who know Japanese history well, Ise Jingu is indeed a special place.

It is the most sacred Shinto shrine and is ranked above thousands of others across the country because it enshrines Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who legend says was the predecessor of the Imperial family.

With the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the shogunate government was toppled and a constitutional monarch system centered on the emperor was established to promote the modernization of the Japanese society. “With the Meiji Restoration, Ise Jingu was reborn as the central facility of State Shinto,” wrote noted religious scholar Susumu Shimazono, in his 2010 book “Kokka Shinto to Nihonjin” (“State Shinto and the Japanese People”).

“(Ise) Jingu was put under state control and its relations with the Emperor and Imperial family were strengthened. It transformed into an awe-inspiring sacred place for State Shinto,” Shimazono wrote.

In and after the 1930s, the government systematically promoted State Shinto and thereby encouraged the people to worship Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa, as a living deity. That enthusiastic worship is believed to have served as the foundation for Japan’s wartime militarism.

Though few ordinary Japanese remember, Shinto shrines were once a symbol of Japan’s invasions of other Asian countries.

During Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s, Japan built many shrines in countries and areas it invaded and occupied, including Manchuria, Singapore and Korea, forcing their residents to worship Emperor Hirohito as their sole leader.

Even today, many Shinto believers are participating in grass-roots movements to call for the revival of Japan’s prewar sense of values and to promote nationalism centered on the Emperor.  The most notable examples are the priests of Yasukuni Shrine as well as their supporters.

Others include Katsuya Toyama, a former top priest at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. He was one of the key activists who helped found the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) in 1997, according to the memoirs of Masakuni Murakami, a former senior Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who led right-wing movements.

Nippon Kaigi has since become Japan’s largest lobby for nationalistic policy agendas. The G-7 opening ceremony at Ise Jingu, therefore, may carry great importance for followers of Shinto and other right-wing activists.

But whether it will have a big impact on the general public today is another question. On his Twitter account, Shimazono expressed concern with Abe’s plan to hold the G-7 ceremony at Ise Jingu, maintaining that he might be attempting to revive State Shintoism.

But many other Twitter users, apparently young people, mocked Shimazono’s criticism, saying that holding the G-7 ceremony at Ise Jingu alone would not have much impact on today’s Japan. “Even if (Shimazono’s theory) is true, how many people are fascinated with State Shinto now?” asked Twitter user @Noodle1002.

Abe’s political agenda (G7)

The Ise Grand Shrine has strong links to conservative nationalists who are campaigning to change Japan’s pacifist constitution Manan Vatsyayana/Getty

The Ise Grand Shrine has strong links to conservative nationalists who are campaigning to change Japan’s pacifist constitution (Manan Vatsyayana/Getty)

Abe’s cunning strategy to reassert State Shinto might backfire as the attention of the world is drawn to the political agenda of the Japanese right-wing this week.  Justin McCurry here writing in The Guardian exposes some of the ulterior motives underlying the campaign to reassert the respectability of Ise and Yasukuni.  Green Shinto has written before of Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership), the political wing of Jinja Honcho, and its intention to reimpose the prewar centrality of Shinto.  By all accounts, the Nippon Kaigi are even more extreme.

A similar piece has appeared in The Times, written by Richard Lloyd Parry, the Asia Editor, headlined, ‘G7 leaders warned off shrine visit in Japan’.  The article, available only to those who paid for subscription, tells of religious leaders and scholars in Japan urging the foreign leaders not to fall for Abe’s agenda.


G7 in Japan: concern over world leaders’ tour of nationalistic shrine

in Ise,  Wednesday 25 May 2016

Visitors pass beneath the torii gate leading to the most sacred part of the Ise Jingu complex, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine.
Visitors pass beneath the torii gate leading to the most sacred part of the Ise Jingu complex, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

With an impeccably observed combination of bowing and handclapping, the pilgrims give thanks to Amaterasu, the mythological sun goddess from whom all of Japan’s emperors are said to be the direct descendants.

Behind them, hundreds more slowly make their way up the steps in front of the hidden main sanctuary, waiting their turn to pray at Ise Jingu, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine.

The millions of people who visit Ise Jingu every year will soon by joined by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and other leaders of the world’s richest nations during the G7 summit in nearby Ise-Shima, which begins on Thursday. The shrine, Abe said, “is a very good place to get in touch with the Japanese spirit.

“I wanted to choose a place where world leaders could have a full taste and feel of Japan’s beautiful nature, bountiful culture, and traditions,” added Abe, whose determination to visit the shrine was key to holding the summit in Ise, a small town many believe is poorly equipped to host a major international event.

But Abe, one of the shrine’s most fervent devotees, has drawn criticism that he is attempting to use the shrine to promote his conservative political agenda.

Under Abe, Japan’s indigenous religion is enjoying a political revival, seven decades after its close ties with militarism ended with Japan’s defeat in the second world war.

That Ise Jingu, actually a collection of 125 shrines dating back 2000 years, is a place of beauty and contemplation is beyond dispute. But its role at the heart of the Abe-led Shinto revival would make a G7 leaders’ visit more than a carefree stroll admiring the shrine’s sprawling ancient forest and crystal-clear river.

Abe and most members of his cabinet are members of the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership), an influential lobbying group that counts more than 300 MPs among its members. The association has called for the removal of pacifist elements from Japan’s US-authored constitution – a key Abe policy goal – increased reverence for the emperor, and a state-sponsored ceremony to honour Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni, a controversial war shrine in Tokyo.

John Breen prior to his talk at Doshisha University for the Asian Studies Group

John Breen, professor at Kyoto’s Nichbunken

The choice of venue is “very closely connected” to Abe’s strong ideological connections with Shinto and its revisionist political agenda, said John Breen, a professor of Japanese history at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. It is “a perfect fit with his active involvement with the Shinto Seiji Renmei, and its aim of bringing Shinto into the heart of government”, Breen added.

While Abe has stayed away from Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo since his controversial pilgrimage there in December 2013, his frequent to Ise Jingu have formed the spiritual – and political – backdrop to his three-and-half years in office.

Just 44 MPs belonged to the Shinto association in 1984, but by 2014 the number had grown to 268, or 37 percent of all parliamentarians. Abe’s cabinet included 14 association members when he took office in 2012; by last year they filled 16 of 19 ministerial posts.

“Shinto is not a universal religion, and it’s inherently nationalistic,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “I already felt rather uncomfortable when Barack Obama was taken to Meiji Shrine last time he visited Japan, and it would be no less disturbing to see the G7 leaders being used to legitimise Shinto, given its reactionary and nationalistic positions on so many issues.”

Many of the Shinto association’s aims overlap with those of another increasingly influential group, Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), whose 38,000 members, including Abe and most of his cabinet, believe that Japan “liberated” Asia from Western colonial powers, and that the postwar constitution has emasculated the country’s “true, original characteristics”.

Likened by some to the Tea party in the US, Nippon Kaigi believes that Japan’s postwar education system promotes a “masochistic” view of its modern history; under pressure from its members several school authorities have adopted textbooks that gloss over or ignore Japan’s wartime atrocities.

Abe and his allies belong to a conservative school of thought that seeks closer military ties to Washington, yet want to roll back reforms made during the US-led postwar occupation, which began with the then emperor, Hirohito, renouncing his divine status as a “living god” and marked the end of state Shinto’s role as the spiritual bedrock of Japanese militarism.

"It's good that I'm Japanese,' runs the type of patriotic poster often seen at Shinto shrines

“It’s good that I’m Japanese,’ runs the type of patriotic poster often seen at Shinto shrines

Amid mounting criticism of his troubled economic programme, Abe must be careful to stage-manage a leaders’ trip to Japan’s holiest site, said Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Serving as the tour guide for the leaders of the G7 as they shuffle about inside the Ise precincts will add little to Abe’s reputation as a leader,” he said.

The reasons Cucek offers for Abe’s strong Shinto beliefs could give other G7 countries pause for thought. “Abe promotes himself as bridge between Japan’s past and its future, vaulting from Japan’s glorious traditions, over the post-1945 years of weakness, socialism and godlessness, to a beautiful, brave new Japan people by beautiful, brave new Japanese,” Cucek said. “Shinto gives him a direct link to pure Japaneseness, unsullied by association with dominant powers and their alien traditions.”

Japan’s foreign ministry confirmed this week that G7 leaders will take time out of their discussions to visit Ise Jingu. “Prime Minister Abe wishes for the G7 leaders to have the chance to visit Ise Jingu and share the dignified and solemn air of the shrine,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told the Guardian.

The British embassy in Tokyo said only that it was “aware” that Abe would like David Cameron and other leaders to visit Ise Jingu, while the French embassy said President Francois Hollande was “keen” on seeing the shrine.

“Ise Shrine is clearly an important historical and cultural site, so it would usually not be seen as a problematic place to visit,” said Mark Mullins, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Auckland. “But given that this religious site is central to the larger political vision Abe has in common with the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership, it will undoubtedly be viewed by critics as a strategy to gain legitimacy for their shared neonationalist agenda.”

A Japanese government official played down speculation that Abe would attempt to make political capital out of a leaders’ visit to Ise Jingu. Abe, the official said, “will be determined not to project any perception” that he is ignoring the constitutional separation of religion and state, adding: “Ise Jingu is a place where silence is golden, and politicking of any sort is its worst enemy.”

Kikuko Nishide, who runs a small museum near Ise Jingu, said she hoped G7 leaders would “experience the power of the forests and the shrine buildings and get a proper feel for Shinto and the spirit of the Japanese people”.

Abe visits Yasukuni in 2013, a deliberate ploy aimed at reinstating the centrality of the shrine (courtesy AP)

Abe visits Yasukuni in 2013, a deliberate ploy aimed at reinstating the centrality of the shrine (courtesy AP)

Abe, Ise and rural shrines (G7)

With the G7 leaders about to be taken to Ise Shrine by prime minister Shinzo Abe, the focus is increasingly being turned on Shinto and its role in Japan.  In this rather rambling overview, the author notes Abe’s political intentions as well as the declining state of rural shrines.  Alarmingly, 40% of them are thought to be at risk of going out of existence.


Abe treads fine line in Ise Shrine tour as Shinto religion faces challenges


Ise Shrine is considered one of the holiest sites in Shinto, a faith whose rituals have been woven into Japan’s culture for centuries.

Located more than 300 km southwest of Tokyo, the historic complex of wooden buildings set in a deep forest is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the emperors are said to be descended.

Ise Jingu, as it is known in Japanese, is also fraught with political meaning this week for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosts the Group of Seven summit on the nearby and secluded Kashikojima Island. Despite constitutional restrictions, Abe would like to see the indigenous religion play a more prominent role in Japanese society.

As 'the Vatican of Shinto', Ise is keen to boost its international standing

As ‘the Vatican of Shinto’, Ise is keen to boost its international standing

Yet as the international spotlight falls on Shinto’s equivalent of the Vatican, which draws 7 million or more visitors annually, Japan’s lesser shrines face a protracted financial crisis amid a decelerating population and younger generations far less attached to traditional rituals.

Abe is expected to take his guests to the shrine, in the latest instance of his promotion of Shintoism. He has held New Year’s news conferences at Ise and, in 2013, was the first prime minister since 1929 to take part in a rebuilding ceremony held there every 20 years, according to John Breen, a history professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.

“Abe is much more focused on Shinto than almost any other postwar prime minister,” said Breen. “He is a key member of Shinto Seiji Renmei, a political association that has as its aim the location of Shinto at the heart of government,” he added.

Ise is less controversial than Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead as well as World War II leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals. Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese leaders, including Abe, have sparked anger in China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan’s aggression in the first half of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, Abe’s 2013 participation in the Ise ceremony drew criticism from Christians in Japan, who said it violated a constitutional ban on the government favoring any particular religion. For some, Shinto is still associated with past nationalism, even though the U.S. and its allies removed its status as the national religion at the end of the war.

“There’s no doubt that Shinto was used by the government during the war,” said Katsuji Iwahashi, public relations chief at the Association of Shinto Shrines in Tokyo. “But is there a religion that has not been used as a reason for fighting? Shrines in themselves are not aggressive.”


Iwahashi Katsuji, international spokesman for Jinja Honcho, who studied for an MA under John Breen at London University

Ise Shrine employs about 600 people and, according to Diamond business magazine, spent about ¥55 billion on replacing all its buildings and artifacts in 2013 — the 62nd time it had carried out this ritual. Its high priests and priestesses are relatives of the Imperial family, and past visitors have included Queen Elizabeth II.

On a visit two weeks ahead of the G-7 summit that kicks off Thursday, dozens of police clad in rain gear were already patrolling the shrine’s grounds among a steady stream of visitors.

For those who run the other 80,000 or so shrines in Japan, life can be hard. The country has only 20,000 priests, meaning many of them supervise more than one shrine.

Small shrines rely on visitors’ offerings or fees for blessings for everything from marriages to new buildings and cars. Priests often combine their religious duties with a job as a teacher or government employee, according to Iwahashi. Older priests are also increasingly struggling to find successors.

About 41 percent of Japan’s shrines are in danger of disappearing along with the rural communities that support them, estimates Kenji Ishii, a professor of religious studies at Kokugakuin University, one of only two Shinto colleges in Japan.

While the same trend is hitting Buddhist temples in rural areas, shrines are even worse off, according to Hidenori Ukai, a Buddhist priest and author of “Vanishing Temples — the Loss of Regional Areas and Religion.” That’s because temples charge their parishioners for the maintenance of family graves, he said.

“We joke that we take people’s bones hostage,” Ukai said. “Things are hard for temples in areas with shrinking populations, but it’s worse for shrines,” which do not conduct burial rites or offer graveyards, he added.


Tadaki Hattori, the 51-year-old chief priest of the tiny, 200 sq.-meter Koami Shrine in the busy Nihonbashi area of central Tokyo, said he often tells his fellow priests that making a success of a shrine comes down to sheer effort. He decided to take a shot at full-time priesthood five years ago, after inheriting the 550-year-old shrine from his father.

What was once a lonely spot hemmed in by a parking lot Hattori’s father used to supplement his income, is now bustling with visitors. The rundown buildings have been spruced up with a new bronze roof paid for by donations, and paper lanterns sponsored by businesses hang at the entrance. Far from worrying over a successor, Hattori said all four of his children are interested in qualifying as priests.

Providing a warm welcome and being willing to explain the shrine to visitors or listen to their problems is key to creating good word-of-mouth, Hattori said. An English-language Web page has also helped bring in some of the record numbers of foreign tourists in Tokyo.

“If people put in a bit more effort, I think things could improve,” Hattori said. “They give up too easily. They think they can’t make money, but you don’t know until you try. I think this is a trend in Japanese society as a whole — everyone is a bit weedy these days.”

Fieldwork trip June 11th


Torii entrance leading to the temple of Sekizan Zenin

The Shinto Foundation has a free fieldwork program in Kyoto on Jun. 11th, to do with legends about  the establishment of Heian-kyo.  The fieldwork will take place between 12.00 and 16.00, with trips to Sudo Shrine and the wonderful Sekizan Zen-in, a syncretic Tendai sect temple.

6月11日(土)13:00に地下鉄烏丸線の国際会館駅の1番出口に集合して、タクシーに分乗します。  今回のフィールドワークのテーマは「平安京成立にまつわる伝説」で、崇道神社と赤山禅院を訪問します。皇城鎮護のための泰山府君(赤山大明神)を祀っています。  プログラムの終了予定時刻は16:00頃です。

I’m told that foreigners are welcome, Japanese speaking or not.

If anyone is interested, please send e-mail to relnet-hp@relnet.co.jp. Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake.


An interesting account of syncretism at Sekizen Zen-in, including an interview with the priest, can be found here.

Explanation and pictures of Sudo Shrine here.

Shinto wedding in New York

A Manhattan-based organisation called Globus Washitsu, which exhibits contemporary Japanese crafts and art such as kimono, brings news of a wedding ceremony being put on by an intriguing Shinto priest from Kyushu.  According to the press release, he spent a decade working in the US as a representative of Kasuga Taisha.  This is very curious, and I wonder if anyone knows anything more about him?


Globus Washitsu
Shinto wedding

Some background on Chief Priest Yuzuru Kiyomi who will conduct the rare and beautiful Shinto wedding in NYC (at Globus Washitsu):

“Yuzuru Kiyomi, Chief Priest of the Miyajidake Jinja in Fukuoka, has found his path in world cultural programs after inheriting the vast territorial domain in northern Kyushu in 2004.

Since taking over the daily duties of guiding worshippers at the shrine, he has made it “his life-long mission” of passing on the history of the shrine and a restored ancient dance to the world and to future generations of shrine devotees in Japan. He has embarked on performing the dance in the United States, a first step in a series of cultural exchange activities. The dance, which originated in China, was first shown and recorded in northern Kyushu some 1,700 years ago.

Shinto wedding rituals remain an essential part of Japanese culture and traditions. Kiyomi has urged marrying couple to seek spirituality in their life and to “pledge in front of kami (deity) on your marriage with your partner because we are the creation of deity. Shinto wedding is a ritual that let you make a report of your marriage to deity, get accepted, and pray for your perpetual prosperity.”

Before becoming a chief priest, Kiyomi spent a decade studying and working in the United States as a representative of the Kasuga Taisha Jinja in Nara, Japan. The experience helped to prepare him for the current leading role at the Miyajidake Jinja.”
(from press release)


Miyajidake is particularly famous for its sunset, featured this year in a CM by the pop group Arashi, which has led to a large number of sightseers.

Shinto wedding

Divine horses

Green Shinto readers will be familiar from previous articles with the white horses kept at some shrines in honour of the kami.  They are of course the origin of the votive plaques known as ema (literally, horse picture).  Because of the expense, the actual horses are often replaced by wooden statues, and only about ten shrines still maintain the ancient custom of keeping a live animal for the kami to mount. In the article below, which appeared in Rocket News recently, an account is given of the horses at the famous Konpira Shrine in Shikoku.

The Steeds of the Gods: The Shinto horses that no mortal may ride


Somewhere around the 500th step on the long approach to Kompira-san shrine in Kagawa Prefecture, you’ll find a small stable housing two special horses. They are pretty as a picture, but don’t get any ideas about hopping on for a ride, feeding them a little carrot, or even giving them a friendly pat.

These thoroughbreds are shinme, the steeds of the gods, and they are not for mere mortals like us.

Shinme (or sometimes jinme) are offerings to the gods in Shintoism, a custom that goes back to the Nara Period (710-794 AD). A supplicant gives a horse to a shrine in the hopes of currying favor with the gods. The Engi-Shiki book of laws and customs even talks about what color horse you should offer up when praying for specific types of weather or victory in battle. Since the horse is meant for the gods to ride, no one else is allowed to, and the priests and worshipers treat the animal with great respect.

Keeping live horses is a lot of trouble and expense for the shrine, so offering statues and paintings of horses as symbolic rides has become acceptable as well. There are only a handful of major shrines still keeping live shinme horses today, and Konpira-san is one of them.

▼About half way up the steps to the main shrine. The stable is to the left.


▼ The stableIMG_7201

▼Hands off, mortals IMG_7198

▼Too high and mighty to even look up for the camera…   IMG_7203

There are two shinme at Konpira-san, a dark brown former thoroughbred called Toukai Stanto and a white one called Gekkin.

▼Unfortunately, Gekkin wasn’t on display the day we were there, but here’s a picture from Kompira-san’s website20131011_S_244_F3Q6313

Of course, being the reserved steed for the largely absent gods means these two horses don’t have much to do in the way of work, but they aren’t complete loafers either. In addition to their display duties, they take part in a large festival held on October 10 each year. One of the horses is brought out on a lead as part of a special ceremony.

078_F3Q5999 copyPhoto: Kompira-san

190IMG_1616Photo: Kompira-san

20131011_kenba_218_F3Q5812Photo: Kompira-san

Given its equine connection, you’ll find lots of horse stuff around the grounds of the shrine, including some of the cutest ema prayer plaques I’ve seen in a long while.



It was nice to see animals being treated with such reverence, but it was also hard to restrain myself from giving ear scratches and pats to the easily-within-reach horses. Best not to tempt divine retribution, I suppose…


To learn more about the reasons behind the divine white horses, please click here.

Zen and Shinto 14: this world

Zen or Shinto? The gardens and aesthetics are similar...

Zen or Shinto? The gardens and aesthetics are similar..

It’s often said that while Shinto is concerned with affairs of this world, Buddhism looks to salvation in the next.  Hence the emphasis in Shinto on rites of passage, such as birth, 7-5-3, weddings, yakudoshi ages of transition, etc.  Buddhism by contrast is concerned with death, so much so that the term ‘funeral Buddhism’ is widespread and temples are said to derive their income largely from services for the departed. In this way Shinto and Buddhism complement each other.

However, I came across this passage recently, which made me rethink the relationship, at least in terms of Zen.  It suggests a surprising commonality of worldview.

Zen tries to help man live fully in this world. This is called the expression of full function. Zen stresses present rather than future, this place rather than heaven. It aims at making actuality the Pure Land.

Religion, of course, transcends the world of science, but it should not conflict with science. Buddhism is a world religion that envelops science. Any religion that hopes to appeal to modern man must embrace science and as well as transcend it. Zen does this.

In conclusion, Zen….
* Frees man from enslavement to machines and reestablishes his humanity;
* Eases mental tension and bring peace of mind; and
* Enables man to use his full potentialities in daily life.

From this grow the Zen characteristics of simplicity, profundity, creativity, and vitality that have attracted so many Westerners.  (S. Hisamatsu in ‘Zen and Art’ p.24, states that the 7 characteristics of Zen art are asymmetry, simplicity, austerity, naturalness, profundity, detachment, and tranquility.)

If Zen is truly concerned with this world, then what are we to say about the differences?  Particularly since the characteristics overlap so closely with Shinto – simplicity, austerity, naturalness, asymmetry…
DSCN6571In this respect one has to wonder if Zen is not a more sophisticated view of the notion that humans are the children of kami.  In other words, we all have ‘kami nature’ which is pure in spirit, just as in Zen we all have buddha-nature.  It’s why we need the ‘magic cleansing’ of the oharai from time to time, to clean us of the dust of this world.  No wonder that both Shinto and Buddhism use mirrors on their altars.

There are however two striking differences that come to mind.  One has to do with individualism.  Zen aims for personal salvation; Shinto looks to the well-being of the group (family, community, nation).  The other striking difference is in perspective.  Zen seeks truth within, whereas Shinto looks for harmony on the outside.  In other words, Zen is inward looking and Shinto outward.

Zen's search for inner truth centres around the meditation hall (zendo)

Zen’s search for inner truth centres around the meditation hall (zendo)

The fundamental concern of Zen is to uncover one’s true self, the self that lies beneath the rational thinking ego. It’s the self that functions unconsciously, breathing and digesting and making a myriad ‘decisions’ that maintain life.  It’s often referred to as one’s Buddha nature, and is an intrinsic part of the wider universe.  The ego likes to think of itself as an independent being; the Buddha self is inextricably linked with the environment on which it is dependent.

Whereas Zen finds expression in sitting silently, Shinto finds expression in matsuri (festivals) when the kami is paraded around its parish.  Both religions disdain logic and reason in favour of non-verbal truth.  Both have fed off and fed into the Japanese trait for emotional response and wordless communication.  Here then may be the mutual complementary nature that has sustained the two religions over the centuries.  One is yin and the other yang, both being part of a larger whole.  It’s an idea I’d like to explore further in the next post about the role of the sun and the moon in Japanese religion.

The grounds of Ise resemble the dry landscape of Zen gardens

The grounds of Ise resemble the dry landscape of Zen gardens.  Both seek to symbolically strip away embellishments and externals to arrive at a state of purity.

Sanja Festival (Tokyo)

Paper lanterns announcing the Sanja Matsuri festival are seen Tuesday in the Asakusa district in Taito Ward, Tokyo. (courtesy Yomiuri Shimbun)

Green Shinto is very Kyoto-oriented, but three interesting points caught our attention from this article about the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo.  One is that 1.8 million are scheduled to attend.  1.8 million!!  That’s more than the entire population of Kyoto!   Moreover, the festival boasts 100 portable shrines.  Really?  Who or what one wonders is in them…
Another point is that the date of the festival has been changed because of the G7 Summit to be held at Ise-Shima.  That either shows flexibility by the Shinto authorities, or it is a worrying indicator of just how much power the Abe administration has amassed.  The third point concerns donation boxes being set up at shrines for those affected by the Kumamoto Earthquake.  Such humanitarian measures are of course to be welcomed wholeheartedly, and it would be good to such work extended.

The Yomiuri Shimbun  

The Sanja Matsuri, a symbolic festival of Tokyo that attracts more than 1.8 million people to the Asakusa district in Taito Ward, will be held from Friday.

The ritual event at Asakusa Shrine is normally held for three days starting on Friday in the third week of May. But the shrine and its supporting group decided to hold the event a week earlier than usual due to concerns over festival security, as the Metropolitan Police Department’s focus will be directed toward the Group of Seven Ise-Shima Summit meeting on May 26-27.

The Sanja Matsuri will kick off at 1 p.m. Friday with its iconic Daigyoretsu parade. A 300-meter-long line of people, including steeplejacks singing a work song and women in geisha costumes, will be headed by floats carrying musicians that will parade down streets such as the Asakusa Rokku Broadway and Nakamise-dori.

From noon Saturday, Asakusa will be bustling with about 100 mikoshi portable shrines from local neighborhood associations.

The last day, Sunday, begins in the early morning with the main ritual event of Miya-dashi, in which the ujiko (local members of shrines) bring out three mikoshi portable shrines. These mikoshi will be carried around the whole Asakusa district by members of the general public. The festival finishes with Miya-iri, when the mikoshi return to the shrine after dark.

On Saturday, a ritual to pray for the early recovery of those affected by the Kumamoto Earthquake will be held after the festival’s ceremony. Donation boxes will be set up in the shrine for the three days of the festival.


For the official website (in Japanese) click here.  There are also numerous youtube videos there that can be viewed by clicking on them.


(courtesy tokyoing.net)

Foreign priests

An article in the Japan Times covers the five foreign (i.e. non-Japanese) priests who are currently known to Green Shinto.  Much of the information for the article came from this blog, though the author has made a few mistakes and there are some dubious statements: ‘some have even founded their own shrines abroad,’ being a case in point.  Moreover, I would take issue with Iwahashi’s claim that the authors of Kojiki were unaware of other countries, given that China and Korea loomed very large in Japanese consciousness. The mythology is clear in restricting Amaterasu’s orbit to the ‘eight islands’ that comprise Japan, and at no point is there evident any suggestion of universalism.  After all, the whole notion of ‘kami no kuni’, used historically at the time of the Mongol invasion and later by Hideyoshi, signifies Japanese distinctiveness.

For more information and an interview with Pat Ormsby, click here, or for Caitlin Stronell click here.  For Paul de Leeuw and his Amsterdam dojo, click here.  More here about Florian Wiltschko.  See also this interview with Rev Barrish.


Foreign priests find a spiritual home in Shinto

Though few and far between, non-natives are blazing a trail in Japan’s native faith


Intended to stand for eternity, religious buildings such as churches, mosques and synagogues are typically made of stone. Shinto shrines, on the other hand, are completely fashioned from wood and rebuilt time and time again.

“The concept of eternity in Shinto is not everlasting as a physical existence. Worshipping or enshrining a particular kami (deity) at that place and people worshipping for generations and generations is the concept of eternity. So the building itself can be rebuilt,” says Katsuji Iwahashi, chief of the international section of Jinja Honcho (the Association of Shinto Shrines).

Even Shinto itself had to be rebuilt in post-World War II Japan. Postwar Shinto was forced to completely separate from the Japanese government under the U.S. Occupation’s Shinto Directive, which led to the creation of private associations such as Jinja Honcho and what is known today as Shrine Shinto.

Pat Ormsby

Pat Ormsby, who obtained a license as a priest from the Konpira head shrine in Shikoku

Many foreign observers still view Shinto through the lens of the so-called State Shinto of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). One foreign priestess or kannushi, Pat Ormsby, sees State Shinto as a failed enterprise that continues to cast a shadow over the faith.

“A lot of the blame for World War II was given to Shinto, probably unfairly,” says Ormsby, a native of Salt Lake City, Utah. “But looking from a Christian perspective, you have God and you obey God and then Shinto tried to do this, they tried to get everyone to obey the Emperor just like God. So it (Shinto) has that stain. There was a real effort to use it as a coercive tool, but the degree to which that was successful has been exaggerated.”

Postwar Shrine Shinto, on the other hand, has shown more of an openness toward other ethnicities, cultures and beliefs — so much so that Florian Wiltschko, a blue-eyed Austrian, became the first foreign Shinto priest certified by Jinja Honcho in 2007.

The more accepting nature of Shrine Shinto, Wiltschko says, can be symbolized by the torii gateway located at the entrance of every shrine.

“It’s the entranceway, the gate, but we cannot close it,” he says. “Everyone can enter. We don’t care about ‘members.’ But this is the entrance to a shrine, so it is a different world: human and kami.”

Florian Wiltschko at the temple where he works as a priest in Tokyo (c. Mami Makuro)

While Wiltschko may look like an outsider, Iwahashi stresses that he is just one of more than 20,000 Shinto priests, focused on the rituals of his job rather than issues related to his identity as a non-Japanese in an overwhelmingly Japanese world. Keeping a low profile and working at Konnoh Hachimangu Shrine in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, most Japanese people don’t even know he exists.

Other foreign kannushi were trained and certified before Wiltschko, but through non-orthodox shrines in Japan unaffiliated with Jinja Honcho. Ormsby, who has been living in Japan since 1984, is one example. Ormsby first arrived at Kotohiragu Shrine in the town of Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture, in 1999, where she trained to become a kannushi and was awarded a license in 2001.

Three other foreign priests who are known to have practiced and trained in Japan are American Koichi Barrish, Dutchman Paul de Leeuw and Australian Caitlin Stronell. None of them are certified through Jinja Honcho like Wiltschko, but they can still perform special rites in shrines throughout Japan, and some have even founded their own shrines abroad. This would have been unthinkable before and during the Meiji Restoration and the prewar period, when Shinto was seen exclusively as a state religion.

“I wonder if it would have been possible pre-1990,” Ormsby replies when asked if a foreign national could have become a kannushi in pre-WWII Japan. “I mean, I was the first one in Japan and there was a kannushi in Seattle,” she says, referring to Barrish. “He predated me by about a decade. His shrine during World War II, Tsubaki Taisha (in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture), opposed the war. As a result, since the government had taken over Shinto from the top down at that time, they were defunded from the government. They are one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan.”

Wiltschko and Ormsby’s respective paths to priesthood were not easy. They, like every prospective Shinto kannushi, had to go through examinations. These included questions about Japanese history, culture and language — not only the modern language but also ancient Japanese. The foreign apprentices also had to learn how to write Shinto prayers in the language, which would be a challenge even for native Japanese speakers.

Iwahashi san, of the Internatonal Department of Jingu Honcho, one of the prime movers behind the event

The personable Iwahashi san, head of the International Department of Jinja Honcho

The difficulties facing a foreign national wishing to become a kannushi don’t start with exams. They have much deeper roots in ancient Japanese history and mythology centered around the Emperor.

According to Japanese myth, Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess and supreme deity of heaven, allowed her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, to rule the Earth. Amaterasu gave her grandson the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan — the mirror, the teardrop-shaped jewel (magatama) and the sword. These treasures are believed to be in the possession of the Imperial Household today. The Emperor is seen by many as a direct descendant of Amaterasu, and the Japanese people, similar to Jewish belief, are thought to be “the chosen ones.”

This leads to inevitable questions about whether Shinto assumes an inherent Japanese superiority over other races. Iwahashi believes the question of superiority is best viewed from a historical perspective. When the myth was written, in the eighth-century “Kojiki” (“Records of Ancient Matters”) and “Nihon Shoki” (“The Chronicles of Japan”), the authors were not aware that the world consisted of much more than the islands of Japan. The archipelago was seen as the entire Earth. Iwahashi believes Shinto and Japanese myth is actually much more inclusive.

“Maybe the ‘Earth,’ the word written in Japanese myth, includes the whole world,” Iwahashi says when asked about the question of ethnic superiority in Japanese mythology.

John Dougill, a professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto and founder of the Green Shinto blog, sees the belief system as more “particularist” than exclusive.

“Shinto developed from a tribal religion into a national religion, such that it’s been called ‘a religion of Japaneseness,’ ” Dougill says. “I think there’s a lot of truth to that; it’s what is known as a particularist religion — particular to one area, that is.  Or, as Wiltschko puts it, “there wouldn’t be a Japan without Shinto, and the other way around.”

Caitlin Stronell

Caitlin Stronell in her priestly garb

This, however, does not mean that Shinto is completely separate from other belief systems — far from it. Nevertheless, the Meiji oligarchy attempted to exploit the differences between native Shinto and imported Buddhism, although Iwahashi agrees with Ormsby that overall, this was a failure.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, says Iwahashi, the government looked at each shrine and temple and “tried to separate or, say, tried to clarify whether the institution is Shinto or Buddhist. And talking about the regulation, yes, the government was quite successful.”

“But for many people, I think, it really didn’t work,” Iwahashi concludes. “Even today some Japanese people cannot tell the difference between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.”

Much of the Japanese population deems itself to be either Buddhist or Shinto, and the two are far from mutually exclusive. A 2012 government survey found that 100 million people considered themselves followers of Shinto, while 85 million were Buddhists. Considering Japan has a population of over 127 million, it doesn’t take a mathematician to deduce that there is a great deal of overlap between the country’s two major religions.

The fusion of Buddhism and Shinto (shinbutsu-shūgō) was quite normal in Japan before the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji government aimed to unpick this mesh of faiths, claiming that Buddhism was “impure” and should therefore be separated from Shinto.

Rev Barrish and John Dougill, at the Tsubaki Shrine near Seattle, USA

Yet the syncretism is still quite prevalent, as shown by the above statistics, not to mention Buddhist-inspired shrine architecture and the existence of both temple-shrines and shrine-temples. When asked about the relationship between Shinto and Buddhism, Wiltschko clasps his hands together and replies, “This is one.”

Ormsby, who was raised a Buddhist in Utah, also believes it is impossible to separate the two religions.

“They have coexisted side by side so very long that even the scholars have trouble ratting them out from each other,” she says, “although they made a real effort during the Meiji Era, when they split Buddhism from Shinto and the scholars got together to decide which was which, and they basically tried to make ‘pure Shinto.’ But the influence nonetheless persists. It is impossible to remove it, I think.”

Iwahashi says that so-called religion in Japan doesn’t need a particular label, and this may be why some non-Japanese find it attractive.

Shinto is not even necessarily viewed as an organized or institutionalized religion in Japan — it is more a part of life. At its core, Shinto is the reverence for ancestors along with the many deities, such as the kami of the mountains or the sea. With a world view anchored in the belief in a spiritual presence within elements of the natural world, it is easy to imagine why environmentalists might see Shinto’s potential value in an age of ecological destruction.

“Given the state of the world, it’s not impossible, for instance, for Shinto to shift from its present orientation to an environmentalist outlook, which would attract non-native priests,” Dougill says. “It’s not impossible, but sadly it looks remote at the moment because nationalists such as Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe are trying to coopt the religion to their own ends.”

Abe has been accused of trying to resurrect the link between politics, nationalist education and Shinto that was dismantled during the U.S. Occupation. In the context of his administration’s bid to amend the 1946 “peace Constitution,” return to a more patriotic education system and restore the Emperor to his prewar position as the official head of state, critics of Japan’s current direction fear a return to something resembling the State Shinto of prewar Japan.

Today, Shinto has only a small presence outside of Japan, with a smattering of shrines scattered across North America, Brazil, Hawaii and Europe.

“The kami are where they are worshipped,” Wiltschko says.

De Leeuw founded the Japanese Dutch Shinzen Foundation in Amsterdam in 1981. He was licensed through the Yamakage Shinto School in Shizuoka Prefecture, one of the approximately 1,000 shrines that opted to remain outside Jinja Honcho after 1945. Koichi Barrish opened the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, Washington state, near Seattle, also in the 1980s. But, according to Dougill, Shinto’s presence abroad has withered since the heady bubble period, despite foreign curiosity.

“What’s interesting is that while Japanese Buddhism has managed to survive quite well overseas, Shinto has not fared so well and has waned with time, as if being cut off from its land of origin has a deteriorating effect,” Dougill says. “Shinto is very much rooted in the soil of Japan. It is, after all, a ‘land of kami.’ ”

Paul de Leeuw, first non-Japanese priest

Paul de Leeuw, first non-Japanese priest in history?

Paul de Leeuw and the Yamakage Shinto Shrine in Amsterdam

Paul de Leeuw and the Yamakage Shinto Shrine in Amsterdam, historically the first ever Shinto shrine to be run by a non-Japanese priest

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...