Ainu spirituality


Ainu prayer ritual to the god of fire (this and other photos courtesy Sato)


Though they are few in number now, the Ainu of Hokkaido have great appeal to some because of their ancient traditions.  Ethnologists believe they are the remnant of Japan’s original Jomon people, and their spiritual heritage reaches far back into the realm of prehistory.  For Joseph Campbell they offered a compelling picture of how religion evolved in its earliest form.

The following informative piece is taken from the blog ‘Discover Japan’ by Yumiko Sato, writer and music therapist living in Aomori.  Her writing is hosted on Huffington Post UK, and the link carries a listing of her articles. I’m very grateful to Yumiko for her permission and cooperation.  (All photos on this page are taken from her blog.)


Yumiko writes….

An Ainu elder, around 1930

After visiting the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, I wrote two posts about the Ainu, indigenous people of Japan who still live throughout the country.  (See here and here.)  There are about 23,000 – 24,000 Ainu in Hokkaido today, but this doesn’t include those living outside Hokkaido. The exact number of the Ainu living in Japan is unknown. One reason for this is that some feel the need to hide their identities in order to avoid discrimination.

I decided to look deeper at the Ainu culture, because I knew so little about it. It seemed strange that the indigenous people of Japan had mostly been ignored by its own country.  I don’t know anyone personally who discriminates against the Ainu.  At the same time I don’t know anyone who is interested in their culture either.  This indifference is perhaps the source of discrimination.  My hope is that sharing the information will help you learn about their unique culture and traditions.

One can not understand the Ainu without learning about their spirituality, since it’s central to their lives. Their spiritual practices are rich and complex. They’re different from Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion, and they don’t fit the usual definition of animism.

The Ainu felt the presence of the spirits of the dead in their day to day lives. They believed that the human lives were protected by the dead spirits who lived in all things that existed in the human world.  At the museum the first thing on display was a large board depicting different gods – solar deity, god who rules the fish, god who rules the deer, god who rules the earth, god of fire, and so on.

The Ainu solar deity

“Ainu” means “human” as opposed to “kamuy” (gods). The Ainu believed that Gods existed everywhere in the world.  This included not only natural phenomenons but also the man made objects, such as the lacquerware boxes which were used for important rituals. The lacqureware boxes were also symbols of power and wealth, since the Ainu gained them through trade with the ethnic Japanese.

To acquire one lacqureware box the Ainu had to offer a number of valuable items, such as a hundred of salmons or furs of several bears. So the house with many lacquerware suggested that the man of the house was a good hunter, and that the family didn’t have to struggle with foods.

Inaw [or inau], prayer sticks made of wood, were also very important spiritual icons. There were many different kinds of inaw.  Some were offered as gifts to gods or used to communicate with gods, while others were considered gods themselves.

Iyomante spirit-sending ceremony, one of the most important for Ainu


The life of the Ainu was guided by their deep sense of spirituality. On every occasion prayers were offered and various ceremonies were held. “Iyomante” is one of the most important Ainu ceremonies and perhaps the most misunderstood one – the spirit-sending ceremony.

Iyomonte is a ceremony to send back the spirits of bear cubs to the divine world, an intricate ceremony involving many steps and extensive preparations. Iyomante represents the essence of their spiritual life, but its complex nature has also caused outsiders to misunderstand the spiritual traditions of the Ainu.

Picture depicting Ainu and bear cub during iyomante

The Ainu people believed that gods took on the forms of animals and visited the human world. The bear god was highly regarded, since it provided many things to humans, such as fur and meat. During iyomante the soul of bear cubs was sent back with abundant offerings, such as foods, sake, treasures, or ornamental arrows.

But what does it mean by sending a bear cub to the divine world?

Iyomante took place between January and February when the snow was deep on the ground. The bear cub, captured in a hibernation den during winter, had been kept in a cell next to the house. The Ainu people often raised the bear as a part of the family and developed a deep bond.

Inaw, the ritual wood shaving sticks used in prayers.

It took nearly a month to prepare for iyomante. Two weeks prior to the ceremony they began making sake and dango (dumplings). A few days before they started making inaw, important spiritual icons of the Ainu. On the day before the ceremony they offered a prayer to the fire goddess. This was done prior to all ceremonies because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention.

After the prayer people celebrated with dance, song, and story telling, which sometimes lasted until the midnight. Next day iyomante took place. It began by offering prayers to the god of fire once again, which followed by placing inaw in certain ways to make an altar like structure.

After lunch they took the bear out of the cell and tied him/her to a post with a rope. The bear cub would play while people offered a prayer. Women would line up in front of the house, clapping and dancing “rimuse,” the last dance to show God that this was in the form of animals called “bear” on this earth.

Eventually men would shoot arrows and kill the bear. Then the prayers were offered again to the bear. Some men would place dango (dumplings) and kurumi (walnuts) next to the body while others drop dango from the roof of the house. It was believed that the bear would take those things to the divine world. Once the dango was scattered, a young man would shoot an arrow into the sky toward the East, a sacred direction to the Ainu.

Even though the bear was ceremonially killed, he was not a sacrifice to god. Instead the Ainu believed that a god spirit came to the people, disguised as a bear, and that the death of the bear released the spirit, allowing it to return to god’s land.

Traditional housing in Hokkaido at the Ainu museum


Ainu house interior decoration with inaw, Some were used multiple times, and some disposed of after being used for a single prayer.

Posted in Animism, Folklore, Hokkaido | Leave a comment


A festival tengu, remnant of Japan's early shamans


A news item recently caught my attention relating to the world’s oldest pair of trousers, found on some Chinese skeletons.  The trousers were thought to be those of shamans.

It’s thought shamanism was widespread in early cultures, and Plato wrote in Phaedrus that ‘the first prophecies were the words of an oak’ (interestingly, this was the sacred tree of the Druids).  Ancient people used to listen to an oak, or even a stone, he claimed, ‘as long as it was telling the truth’.  Hah!!  I like that!

Shaman masks now treated as 'treasures' of the Gion Matsuri

In the shamanic world there are ancestral spirits which watch over their descendants, and their are spirits in nature which inhabit animate or inanimate objects.  The shaman is a person with special gifts able to mediate between the material world and the spirit world, typically in the form of trance or possession.

Shamanism developed with hunter-gatherer tribes and herding societies.  With the move to agriculture, different forms of religious expression evolved which were more stratified and codified.  In a paper on the subject, Dean Edwards writes that ‘A society may be said to be Post-Shamanic when there are the presence of shamanic motifs in its traditional folklore or spiritual practices which indicate a clear pattern of traditions of ascent into the heavens, descent into the netherworlds, movement between this world and a parallel Otherworld.  Such a society or tradition may have become very specialized and recombined aspects of mysticism, prophecy and shamanism into more fully developed practices and may have assigned those to highly specialized functionaries.’

As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, with a settled existence shamans lose their power and ritualists take over, more concerned with social order and stability.  These priests become organs of state, with a vested interest in support of the ruling class.  Those with direct access to unruly spirits are demoted and reduced to the role of magicians, or marginalised to the mountains.

Spirit clothes, used in Korean shaman ceremonies

Something of the kind clearly happened in the case of Shinto, where kami are summoned by formal requests by licensed priests rather than induced by trance.  The divine voice expressed once in oracle is now sold through fortune slips.  Female shamans possessed by kami have been transformed into sales girls selling amulets and performing stately dances.  It’s evident too in the animal statuary of Shinto.  Power animals once helped the shaman in the transition between worlds – ‘memories of their animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us,’ says Campbell.  Now they stand as immobile guardians at shrines, fossilised in stone.

In the taming of Shinto, I can’t help thinking there’s something of the Japanese penchant for taming (human) nature.  Control, ritual and orderliness is the Japanese way.  As Alex Kerr has pointed out in his book Dogs and Demons, the common boast of having a special connection with nature can mean in practice a cut flower in a tokonoma – contained and framed.  Shamanism by contrast is much too wild!


Shaman dance in Jeju, Korea where shamanism remains a living tradition

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Hearn v. Chamberlain

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) and his one-time mentor and friend, Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935), were both deeply versed in Shinto.  I’ve long been fascinated by the differences between them, perhaps because they speak to different parts of my personality.  On the one hand is the deeply romantic Hearn, who sought to escape an industrialising present in an idyllic Japan.  On the other hand, there is the scholarly Chamberlain, concerned to maintain his commitment to truth.

Statue of Lafcadio Hearn in Matsue, Shimane, where he had his first house

Basil Hall Chamberlain, one-time good friend and mentor to Hearn

Hearn married a Japanese and went native; yet though Chamberlain was the more fluent linguistically (he famously taught Japanese to the Japanese themselves), he clung to his British identity.  In contrast to Hearn’s enchantment with folklore, Chamberlain remained detached in his compilation of the voluminous Things Japanese (1890-1906).

It was Chamberlain who as professor at Tokyo Imperial University helped Hearn get his first job in Japan.  Hearn became more well-known because of his writings, which shaped Western perceptions of the country.  He wrote of folk customs and ancestor worship, whereas B.H. Chamberlain translated the archaic Kojiki (1882), a huge achievement but not of such popular appeal.  Nonetheless Chamberlain is acknowledged as the most influential translator of Japanese before Arthur Waley (who translated Genji).

The Japanese adopted Hearn as one of their own, as indeed he was after being naturalised as Koizumi Yakumo.  His house has been turned into a museum, and his great-grandchildren keep his name alive in the public domain.  Chamberlain by contrast is little-known among the Japanese.  But a century after the influential pair, it seems to me that though Hearn’s writing has a seductive pull, it was Chamberlain who was the more enlightened, as is evident in the paper below.  I used to belong to the Hearn persuasion; recently I’m inclining towards Chamberlain.

The garden in Hearn's house in Matsue of which he wrote so graphically



New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3, 2 (December, 2001): 106-118.
NANYAN GUO1 University of Otago

Hearn loved what he thought of as ‘Shintoism’, which in his mind combined various beliefs and practices of the common people with the ideology of the Emperor system, which was being constructed in the Meiji period. This has been emphasised recently by some Japanese scholars who treat Hearn as the non-native person who best understood the traditional culture of Japan.

However, Hearn’s interpretation of Shintoism is problematic. He confused the Shintoism he discovered in Japanese legends and religious sentiment, which fascinated him, with the fanatic nationalism which was then being constructed by politicians and ideologues on Shinto foundations. He seems to know little of the political background to this latter process.

Chamberlain's translation of The Kojiki opened up the stories of Japanese mythology to the likes of Hearn and other Japanophiles.

Having himself become ‘Japanese’, Hearn’s writings on Japan suffer from his uncritical and excessive embrace of many things ‘Japanese’, and it is this element which makes them susceptible to manipulation in the interests of a different kind of nationalism one hundred years later.

When Japan started to gain confidence from its economic success in recent decades, Hearn’s popularity again rose. During the 1990s, his major works were re-translated, compiled into a six-volume series and published under new titles and in a new order decided by the editor.    Frequent re-printings of this pocket-sized series indicate that Hearn is being widely read today in Japan.

The editor, Hirakawa Sukehiro, who is also author of several books on Hearn, argues Hearn was the only Westerner of his generation to pay attention to the importance of Japan’s native religion.  Hirakawa believes Hearn wrote beautifully about the Shintoist feelings of the common people and the legends of the world of the dead.  Hirakawa also thinks that the re-evaluation of Hearn is part of the process of realizing that Western religion is not superior. Hearn’s frequent praise for Japanese patriotism based on his understanding of ‘Shintoism’ deserves especially careful study.

In Hearn’s article, ‘From the Diary of an English Teacher’ (in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan), there is a conversation between Hearn and one of his students from the Middle School of Shimane Province in Matsue regarding bowing before the Emperor’s portrait. Hearn said to the student:

I think it is your highest social duty to honor your Emperor, to obey his laws, and to be ready to give your blood whenever he may require it of you for the sake of Japan. I think it is your duty.

In other words, he was doing no more than repeat what most Japanese teachers were telling their students at this time because they all knew that the Christian essayist Uchimura Kanzö (1861-1930) had been expelled in January 1891 from the First Higher School in Tokyo for failing to show sufficient respect for the signature of the Emperor appended to a copy of the new Imperial Rescript on Education.

Hearn's house, open to the public, stands next to a museum dedicated to the writer

After quoting Hearn’s advice to his students, Hirakawa Sukehiro repeats that Hearn was able to understand the nationalism of the Meiji period despite being a Westerner, and describes Hearn’s observations as an impressive and accurate understanding of the psychology of Japan (Hirakawa 1996: 23 & 27).

Because Hearn was not able to read Japanese, his knowledge of ‘the psychology of Japan’ came mainly from the people surrounding him, and therefore his judgements and feelings were strongly influenced by them.  As we can see from his numerous books, Hearn sympathised with Japan because of his love for the people and the traditional culture, and also because of his resentment of modern Western civilisation and Christianity.

Just like the majority of the Japanese around him, he was overjoyed when the country’s army defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and, as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) loomed, he believed that Japan would win that too.

Hearn’s belief in patriotism, based on his love of the ‘Shintoist’ ideal of the sacrificial dead, was strong enough to extinguish his humane emotion [for the war damage]. although Hearn perceived the soldiers’ feelings and felt compassion for the dead, he preferred to choose refuge in the so-called ‘Shintoist’ ideal and to forget about the brutal reality caused by Japanese patriotism.

Things Japanese in a revised edition as Japanese Things remains a lively read and is amazingly still in print (and on Kindle)

Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935) – In reply to Hearn’s letter in which he wrote: ‘I could really cry with vexation when I think of the indifference — the ignorant, blind indifference of the Educational Powers — to nourish the old love of country and love of the Emperor’ (11 October 1893) (Hearn 1910: 184),

Chamberlain stated an opposite view:”I do not agree with you that the Gove’t [sic] does nothing to foster patriotism and the old military spirit. What of the new songs & poems published by the authorities for the use of soldiers & students …? What of the prostration at New Year before the Emperor’s picture? What of the students’ military drill? What of the creation of such festivals as the Emperor’s birthday, the late Emperor’s anniversary, the 11th February? To my mind there is far too much jingo patriotism in this country. But then I confess that patriotism, anywhere, is a thing altogether distasteful to my mind … It grows from ignorance, and is nurtured by prejudice.” (22 October 1893) (Chamberlain 1936: 108)

Living in Japan for more than 30 years, Chamberlain also loved the country deeply (Ota 1998: 3-4). He insisted that ‘true appreciation is always critical as well as kindly’ (Chamberlain 1905: 7).  In 1912, he wrote a pamphlet for the Rationalist Press Association entitled ‘Bushidö or The Invention of a New Religion’, and in 1927 included this in the fifth edition of Things Japanese.  In the pamphlet, Chamberlain pointed out:

“Mikado-worship and Japan-worship — for that is the new Japanese religion — is, of course, no spontaneously generated phenomenon …. Not only is it new, it is not yet completed; it is still in process of being consciously or semi-consciously put together by the official class, in order to serve the interests of that class, and, incidentally, the interests of the nation at large …. The new Japanese religion consists, in its present early stage, of worship of the sacrosanct Imperial Person and of His Divine Ancestors, of implicit obedience to Him as head of the army (a position, by the way, opposed to all former Japanese ideas, according to which the Court was essentially civilian); furthermore, [it consists] of a corresponding belief that Japan is as far superior to the common ruck of nations as the Mikado is divinely superior to the common ruck of kings and emperors.” (Chamberlain 1939; 1985: 81, 87)

In Yuzo Ota’ s book Basil Hall Chamberlain, Portrait of a Japanologist (Japan Library, 1998), Chamberlain is shown to be an excellent example for people of today who wish to be free from a narrow-minded nationalism. This book directly challenges the tendency among some Japanese scholars to rebuke Chamberlain and beatify Hearn. It has provided the opportunity to reconsider Chamberlain in comparison with Hearn without bias.

Compared to Chamberlain, Hearn’s love for ‘Shintoism’ and Japanese patriotism was self-deceiving. As demonstrated above, Hearn was not a single- minded person, but rather was conscious of contradictions inside himself. Being aware of these contradictions, he chose to believe in the ‘Shintoist’ fantasy.

His contradictions also disclose the complexity of his literary imagination, and caution us not to take his interpretations of Japan at face value but to examine them carefully. Ignoring his complexity and simplifying his thought can only lead to a self-serving conclusion. Hearn was a problematic interpreter of Japan who deserves an objective and thorough study.

Hearn has long been praised as a way of praising Japan. In the latter years of the twentieth century, glorification of Hearn’s patriotic love for Japan and for the ‘Shintoist’ ideology of the Meiji period can be seen as a rhetorical device to promote a renewed nationalism, one with similar characteristics to that of a century ago. It was the promotion of such an ideology which led, only half a century ago, to the demand in the name of the Emperor for the blood of the people.


For more about Hearn and his writings on Matsue and Shinto, see this posting here.

The sun goes down over Lake Shinji at Matsue a century after the Hearn-Chamberlain friendship came to a fractious end

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Mountain kami

A shrine to Yama no kami (photo by Lee Ratt)


Green Shinto has featured before the writings of naturalist Kevin Short, who combines his research of Japanese flora and fauna with explorations into folklore.  In a recent column for the Japan News, which can be accessed here, he writes of the tradition of ‘yama no kami’ (mountain kami) and ‘ta no kami’ (ricefield kami).  These are linked to Japan’s rice culture, held to underpin the very essence of early Shinto.

The usual understanding is that the mountain kami morphs into the rice-field kami in spring, descending with the nourishing mountain streams to feed the rice-paddies as it were.  In autumn, following the harvest, it returns to the hills where it spends the winter.  However, as Kevin Short points out, there is another form of mountain kami which remains in her realm throughout the year.  This is the one worshipped by hunters and foresters.

Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan*s shrines were realigned along imperial lines and many of the rural shrines honouring nameless ‘yama no kami’ or ‘ta no kami’ were merged into larger entities.  Though not so common now, they can still be found however, and the concept remains a living tradition in rural parts as Short’s article makes plain.


Man’s survival is an age-old matter of flattering the Mountain Goddess
By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News  August 19, 2014

One of my favorite Japanese folklore themes is the Mountain Goddess and the Devil Stinger. This is a story that is widely told in southern Kyushu, but has similar versions in other areas of the country. The Mountain Goddess, or Yama no Kami, is a Diana-like ruler of lands where men live by hunting wild boar or black bear, or by felling trees or gathering herbs. Men who work in the mountains revere the Yama no Kami as the ultimate life force animating the forests and the plants and animals that live there.

The great storywriter and folklorist Muku Hatoju once accompanied a traditional wild boar hunter on a trip deep into the mountains along the border of Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures. “The wild boars we hunt do not belong to us.” The old hunter explained. “They belong to the Mountain Goddess. When we go boar hunting, we humbly ask the goddess to share some of her bounty with us.”

A yama no kami marker (courtesy fudosama.blogspot - see link below)

But ruling over the mountains and forest creatures are not the Mountain Goddess’ only task. In early spring, when the rice paddies are ready for planting, she morphs into the Ta no Kami or Rice Goddess. The Goddess leaves the mountains and takes up residence on the dikes between the paddies. Here she stays, watching over the precious rice crop, until the harvest is completed in early autumn. Then she returns to her mountain domain.

Rice farmers usually engage in celebrations, including dancing, music and sometimes theater, to welcome the Goddess into the paddies in spring, and to send her back to the mountains in autumn. The Mountain Goddess is a folk superheroine that blesses the lives and livelihoods of both rice farmers and traditional mountain folk.

In Japan, local kami are asked or thanked for their blessings with food, drink and entertainment. Beautiful fish, such as pink sea-bream (tai) are favored by most kami. The Mountain Goddess, however, must be handled with extreme delicacy.

Although kindhearted and with a true feeling of empathy for the people, she is subject to fits of almost manic depression, during which the natural order begins to break down in both the mountains and the paddies.

The Mountain Goddess gets particularly despondent about her looks. She is, if you will, a bit funny looking. If you presented her with a sea bream, she would only feel sadder; because the beautiful fish would stand in sharp contrast to her own strangeness. The only way to coax the Goddess out of a funk is with a fish that makes her feel better about herself. To qualify, the fish would have to be even stranger-looking than the Goddess.

Devil Stinger found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (courtesy oceanwideimages)

The fish selected for this grave honor is the oni-okoze, called Devil Stinger in English. The oni-okoze is one of a dozen or so species of very similar-looking fish in the genus Inimicus, found in the warm tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region. All these fish are ambush predators. They lie camouflaged on the ocean floor until a smaller fish passes close, then thrust upwards at incredible speed. The passing fish is sucked into a wide vacuum-cleaner mouth, and swallowed whole before it even realizes what happened!

The oni-okoze is truly one very strange-looking fish! The heavy body is designed to lay still either on the ocean bottom or just inches above it. The huge, bulging eyes are on top of the head, and the big mouth opens nearly straight up. Bits of skin hang down from the jaws and face, made to look like pieces of algae attached to a rock. The lower two rays of the pectoral fins can rotate freely, and are used as stiltlike supports for “walking” along the sea bottom.

To protect themselves, devil stingers are armed with a row of long, hard, sharp spines along their dorsal surface. These spines can be made to point straight upward and contain very powerful poisons in sacs at their base.

Swimmers and divers sometimes accidentally step on or touch camouflaged oni-okoze. Poison symptoms range from excruciating pain and severe swelling and reddening, to partial paralysis, and even to breathing difficulty and eventual heart failure.

In Japan the oni-okoze live from inshore up to about 200 meters deep, as far north as Niigata and Chiba prefectures. The devil stinger is considered to be delicious, and in some areas is even raised in aquaculture pens.

A phallic looking yama no kami in Niigata (Wikicommons)

Depictions of the Yama no Kami are rare, but stone statues of the Ta no Kami are common throughout the rice paddy countryside of eastern Kagoshima and southern Miyazaki. An amazing chance to see four of them in Tokyo is in front of a small Suitengu Shrine at Ikebukuro Ekimae Park, just a short walk northeast from Ikebukuro Station.

Ta no Kami usually carry a rice ladle and a bowl of steamed rice. They wear unusual hoods or hats that are actually part of a neat deception. Viewed from behind, the hood or hat becomes the head of a classic male phallic symbol. The wish embodied in the stones is for fertility and abundance, not only in the rice paddies, but in the farmers’ homes as well.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

For more on Ta no kami and Yama no kami, see

Posted in Animism, Folklore, Japanese culture, Kami | Leave a comment

What is Shinto?

In an essay on environmentalism in Shinto which has appeared recently on the website, Green Shinto friend Aike Rots puts forward different ‘paradigms’ used in descriptions of Shinto.  It should give pause to those who like to argue for some kind of ‘official’ version of Shinto.  The fact is that there are competing versions.

In the first part of the extract below, Aike talks of the rift between the historical-constructivists and the essentialists.  This might seem needlessly theoretical, but as Shinto spreads in the West the arguments between practitioners is becoming increasingly split between the two viewpoints.  It’s as well to understand what exactly the differences rest upon.

In the second part, Aike writes of identifying ‘six postwar paradigms’, though reading through the passage below there appear to be only five.  Perhaps if Aike reads this, he’d be good enough to write in and add to the following: 1) imperial Shinto; 2) ethnic religion; 3) local (folk) religion; 4) universalism; 5) the spiritual approach.


Some consider the kamidana an essential part of Shinto – yet the custom of household kamidana only dates back to the mid-Edo period.

In some ways, defining Shinto is even more difficult than defining Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Those three religions all somehow trace their own history back to a legendary historical founder –  Jesus, Muhammad or Gautama Buddha  –  and to the period in which this person lived. But when it comes to Shinto, there is very little consensus about when this religion started.

Famously, Shinto has no single founder, and it is not easy to trace it to one single period in history. Some argue that it is has existed since ‘time immemorial’; according to one of most famous and widely read English-language introductions (number one on the list, in fact), it is the Japanese ‘native racial faith which arose in the mystic days of remote antiquity’ (Ono 1962, 1).

Among Shinto intellectuals, there is disagreement over the question whether the tradition goes back to the worship practices of hunter-gatherers in the Jōmon period (30,000-300 BCE) or to those of Yayoi-period rice farmers (300 BCE-300 CE). Many serious historians think the tradition was shaped much later, under the influence of Chinese ideology and rituals, and of Buddhism: in the Nara period (8th century), according to some; in the late-medieval period, according to others; or even in the 18th or 19th century, as a modern invented tradition (e.g., Kuroda 1981).

In any case, it is important to realise that there is a difference between two things. On the one hand, there is the historical reality of shrine worship, of the worship of local deities (kami) by means of ritual sacrifice and prayers (norito).  These worship practices have always been characterised by great local diversity, constant change, and continuous interaction with Buddhism, Confucianism and Chinese cosmology and ritual.

Local, national, international? Some think kami only exist in Japan (kami no kuni). Originally they were localised, nameless and formless. Only later did they become personified as ancestral spirits.

On the other hand, there is the abstract concept ‘Shinto’, conceptualised as a single and singular tradition, which symbolically unifies the Japanese people as a nation and which is often seen as intimately connected with the imperial institution.

As my PhD supervisor Mark Teeuwen once wrote: Shinto ‘is not something that has “existed” in Japanese society in some concrete and definable form during different historical periods; rather, it appears as a conceptualization, an abstraction that has had to be produced actively every time it has been used’ (2002, 233). But this abstract concept has not always carried the same meaning, and it does not mean the same thing for different people.

There is not only the difference between the ‘insider’s view’, which holds that Shinto is the
indigenous worship tradition of the Japanese people; and the more critical ‘outsider’s view’, according
to which Shinto is an abstraction  –  and one that appeared fairly late in history. I call this latter approach the historical-constructivist approach.

Most historians today subscribe to this approach: they distinguish between the abstraction ‘Shinto’ on the one hand, and the historical diversity of kami worship on the other, and they deny that there is any transhistorical essence to Shinto (i.e., something that defines ‘Shintoness’). This is different from most insiders’ interpretations, and from most popular introductions to Shinto, which usually assert that Shinto is the indigenous religious tradition of Japan –  singular, ancient, uniquely Japanese, and with an unchanging core essence. That is why I call these approaches ‘essentialist’.

But there are also significant differences between various insiders’ interpretations. In particular, they differ with regard to what it is that is considered Shinto’s core essence.  In my dissertation, I have distinguished between six different paradigms, according to which Shinto has been conceptualised, defined and shaped in the course of modern history.

The first of these was dominant from the second half of the nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War, but it still lingers on. According to this view, Shinto is a national ritual cult focused on the worship of the divine ancestors of the imperial family; it was seen not as a religion defined by belief and personal membership, but as a collective Japanese, non-religious ritual tradition in which all citizens should take part. I have called this the ‘imperial paradigm’.

Back to nature. Shrines were a later invention after the spread of Buddhism. 'True Shinto' could be said to consist of outdoor worship.

After the Second World War, this imperial ritual and ideological system (which is often referred to as ‘State Shinto’) was dismantled; Shinto was subsequently established legally and politically as a religion.  Accordingly, it was privatised, and it had to be redefined. According to the dominant post-war view, Shinto is the ancient, singular Way of ‘the’ Japanese people; it is an ethnic, racial faith, shared by all Japanese in the present and the past, by virtue of their nationality.

According to this view, Shinto encompasses the realm of religion, but it is much more than that: it is the essence of Japanese culture and mentality. As such, it is public and collective, not private or individual. Ono Sokyō, whom I quoted previously, is a representative of this paradigm. It has long been the view of many shrine priests. I call this the ‘ethnic paradigm’.

There are several alternative views, however.  One of these is the ‘local paradigm’.  It goes back to the work of the Japanese ethnologist Yanagita Kunio, who wrote most of his works before the war; in recent years, it seems to have acquired new popularity. Proponents of this paradigm challenge the focus on the imperial tradition, and of national unity, that characterises the other two.

According to them, the essence of Shinto cannot be found in powerful institutions; but, on the contrary, in local, rural worship traditions and beliefs, which have nearly disappeared. ‘Real Shinto’, according to them, can be found in the shamanistic and animistic traditions of the countryside – accordingly, they profess a nostalgic desire for a nearly-lost rural Japan, characterised by social harmony and harmony with nature.

Totoro, from the Miyazaki Hayao film – an exemplar of local folk Shinto? (courtesy

This is the image of the popular film character Totoro, living in a grove near an old farmhouse, in a beautiful rural landscape (satoyama, as it is called in Japanese). In all these paradigms, Shinto is intimately connected with the land of Japan.

But there is an alternative paradigm, which has also been around since the pre-war period, and which I call the ‘universal paradigm’. According to this view, Shinto may have emerged in Japan, but it is essentially a salvation religion, which has the potential to reach out to – and maybe even save – the rest of the world. This view is characteristic of many membership-based groups, so-called new religious movements, which define themselves as Shinto. Yamakage Shinto is one of many examples.

There is some overlap with the fifth paradigm, which I call the ‘spiritual paradigm’. I think it is worth distinguishing between these two, as not all proponents of the spiritual paradigm have an international agenda; some are downright nationalist. Simply put, according to advocates of this view, Shinto is a religion without doctrine, a primordial worship tradition; it can only be truly grasped intuitively, by means of a mystical experience of the divine, not intellectually. Politics, theology, philosophy – it is all peripheral, according to this view.

Is Shinto a spiritual pursuit like Shugendo? Or is it rather a celebration of Japanese tradition?

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The lure of the unseen


The Son of Man by Renée Magritte, 1946


Commenting on his famous picture, Magritte wrote that “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

It’s an illuminating remark, and one that helps in explaining the appeal of Shinto.  Traditionally there were no images of kami, because they are unseen.  Mystery is preserved by keeping the ‘spirit-body’ (goshintai) hidden.  The holy of holies is a mirror – an emptiness that reflects whatever is before it.

In A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote of a disappointed tourist who said of Ise, ‘There is nothing to see, and they won’t let you see it.’  But far from being disappointed, the tourist should have shown appreciation of the subtlety, for the nothingness gives perfect expression to the great mystery of existence. And in its immaculate style and execution, it is quintessentially Japanese.

A work of art with a similar theme to Magritte

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Yasukuni divisions

The divisive nature of Yasukuni Jinja is highlighted each year on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WW2, when the shrine acts as a symbolic rallying point for extremists.  An article in The Japan Times below illustrates to what extent political issues dominate what apologists like to pretend is a purely religious matter.  The shrine has been made into a rallying point for reactionaries who wish to reinstigate State Shinto, and there are established alternatives for paying respects to the war dead such as Chidorigafuchi.  (For more about Chidorigafuchi, click here.  For a visit by US politicians Kerry and Hagel, see here.  For the emperor’s take on Yasukuni, see here.)


Anniversary of WWII surrender met with varied reaction

As Japan marked the 69th anniversary of its surrender in World War II on Friday, people on the streets of Tokyo showed mixed reactions. Right-leaning visitors to Yasukuni Shrine found a new cause in their movement, while the day evoked memories of wartime suffering among older residents.  For many young people, however, the anniversary meant little more than a reminder of a day from the distant past.

Right-leaning activists around Yasukuni Shrine demanded the government embrace more nationalistic policies, such as revising the pacifist Constitution. They also called for recanting the so-called Kono Statement from 1993, which admitted the Japanese army and other authorities were at times involved in forcibly recruiting women, mostly from the Korean Peninsula, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

“We see more people are signing a petition this year compared to last year,” said Takao Ishihara, president of the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform, which was organizing a campaign to present a more nationalistic view of the past in school texts. “This is a war for the correct understanding of history.”

The group said that their movement is gaining momentum, especially after the Asahi Shimbun, which is generally seen as a liberal daily and often becomes the target of conservatives, earlier this month admitted there were errors in its past “comfort women” stories.

Asahi retracted all the stories it had published, stretching back decades, that quoted a Japanese man who claimed he kidnapped about 200 Korean women and forced them to work at wartime Japanese military brothels.

The Abe administration in June also said the accounts of 16 former South Korean comfort women, on which the Kono Statement was based, were not backed up by evidence. The government also said Japanese and South Korean officials consulted one another on the wording of the statement before it was issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people marched to Yasukuni Shrine, waving Japanese flags and claiming the war was defensive in nature and that Japan never invaded any Asian countries. The march was organized by a group headed by Toshio Tamogami, a former Air Self-Defense Force general.

“It was not Article 9 of the Constitution that maintained Japan’s postwar peace. Thanks to the mighty Japanese soldiers who fought the war, China and Russia were too afraid to attack Japan,” said one participant in the march who only identified himself as Murata. “We should thank the soldiers.”

Tensions escalated in the afternoon when a group denouncing the emperor system marched near Yasukuni and had a close encounter with the Zaitokukai rightist group. Members of Zaitokukai yelled, “Go back home, you Koreans,” throwing PET bottles into the crowd of left-leaning activists who were part of Hantenren, the group opposed to the emperor system.

Posted in Nationalism, Yasukuni | 1 Comment

Obon, Daimonji, the dead

It’s coming up to that special summer time of Obon – Japan’s day of the dead.  Or rather days.

Bon odori, or the dance of the dead. Circle dances are held in which it's thought that the spirits of the deceased partake in order to celebrate the unity between the living and the dead. (courtesy Wikicommons)

Though the dates of the festival can vary from region to region, the spirits of family deceased are thought to come back to visit on Aug 14 when reception fires are lit, and to depart on Aug 16 when Departure Fires (Okuribi) are lit.

Green Shinto has carried pieces on the festival before.  For coverage of its syncretic nature and the significance of ancestor worship in Japanese culture, see here.

For a piece on Kyoto’s Daimonji Festival, when the spirits of the dead are given a big send-off by symbolic fires lit on the hills surrounding the city, see here.  It contains a long article from the Kyoto Shinbun entitled ‘Bonfires for commoners’ about the origins of the festival.

For ancestor worship in the pagan tradition, with a focus on Stonehenge, see here.

The Daimonji Festival takes its name from the big 'dai' character written on the hillside above Ginkaku-ji, in reference to a Buddhist teaching.


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Beauty shrine (Yasaka Jinja)

Women taking beauty water at the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine (all photos courtesy Hugo Kempeneer)

The following piece comes from our friend, Hugo Kempeneer, the man behind the seductive photos of Kyoto-Nara Dream Trips which have been winning increasing attention recently.  See his blog at


On the grounds of the Yasaka shrine in Kyoto are many sub-shrines, some more colourful than others. This is the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine and you can find it on the east side of the Hondo, or main hall. During the Gion Matsuri, this shrine and all other buildings are colourfully decorated for a whole month. There is much activity in the shrine grounds as people come from all over to partake in the Gion matsuri festivities.

The Utsukushi-gozen Shrine is dedicated to three beautiful goddesses of Japanese history. They are Ichikishima-hime-no-kami, Tagiri-hime-no-kami and Tagitsu-hime-no-kami [known as the 3 female Munakata kami]. If you visit the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine you’ll notice that many, young and old, woman come to pray here and use the water from this spring. Legend has it that, “If you wash your hands and face with the “Biyōsui”, your skin and heart will be beautified. Enjoy the beauty water and this mystical shrine.

The Utsukushi-gozen Shrine (美御前社), a sub-shrine of Yasaka shrine (八坂神社) in Kyoto.

The Utsukushi-gozen Shrine, a sub-shrine of Yasaka shrine

Yasaka Shrine History:

Susanoo-no-Mikoto, Kushinadahime-Mikoto and Yahashirano-mikogami are enshrined here. The shrine is sometimes referred to as “Gion San” or “Yasaka san” by the local people. According to tradition, Yasaka Shrines dates back to 656, when Susanoono-mikoto was enshrined here. Thus the shrine’s foundation was long before Kyoto became the capital.

The Gion Matsuri is held every July and its origin dates back to the Goryo-e festival held for the first time in 869. That year many plagues prevailed in Japan and the people of Kyoto prayed for the appeasement of the evil spirits by constructing 66 halberds.  This number equalled the number of provinces that existed at that time in Japan.  From the Yasaka shrine those floats and mikoshi (portable shrines) went to Shinsen-En (South of Nijo Castle). Ever since the year 970, the Gion Matsuri has been held annually.

Ema at the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine (美御前社), a sub-shrine of Yasaka shrine (八坂神社) in Kyoto.

Ema at the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine, a sub-shrine of Yasaka shrine in Kyoto.

Explanation of Kami enshrined here:

From the “Encyclopaedia of Shinto”: “The Yasaka shrine is dedicated to Susanoo as its chief kami, with his consort Kushinadahime on the East, and eight offspring deities (Yahashira no mikogami) on the west.

The honourable offspring include: Yashimajinumi no kami, Itakeru no kami, Ōyatsuhime no kami, Tsumatsuhime no kami, Ōtoshi no kami, Ukanomitama no kami, Ōyatsuhiko no kami, and Suseribime no mikoto.” See All Pics Here!

The “Beauty water” (美容水) fountain at the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine (美御前社), a sub-shrine of Yasaka shrine (八坂神社) in Kyoto.

The “Beauty water” at the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine


A prayer to be more beautiful in body and mind (photo John Dougill)


A woman rings the bell at the subshrine before paying respects to the goddesses of beauty (photo John Dougill

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Australian musician

The Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), who has just passed away (photo courtesy ABC)

Sad news comes from musician Graham Ranft about the death of the famed Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe at the age of 85.

Graham writes that ‘His music is about the earth, the dreamtime and the Australian landscape.’  Clearly the following passage was underwritten by similar sentiments, and as someone with Viking roots myself, I find myself very much in sympathy with his statement…  (taken from this page):

“I stayed in a Zen Buddhist monastery and soon discovered it wasn’t for me. I had to divest myself of possessions, and I had previously bought a wonderful ancient gilded Japanese Buddha, which I had to put in a locker in the Kyoto railway station. Often I’d sneak out to the railway station just to have a look at it.

While in Japan I discovered Shintoism, a wonderful religion that is concerned with the sacred in all things. I was easily able to relate it to my own pantheistic beliefs. There was a famous garden at the Buddhist temple I stayed at in Kyoto, and if you looked carefully, all the plants and trees were pulled into shape with little wires.

At the Shinto shrine everything grew as nature intended”…

Thanks for sourcing the above quote to Graham Ranft, who adds, ‘He was a wonderful speaker and I heard him speak live at least twice..witty and civilised with a lovely speaking voice.’

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