Religion and the environment

Can religion help prevent the destruction of the environment?


Green issues matter to Green Shinto, so it was with great interest that we noticed a forthcoming conference on the role of religion in an age of environmental crisis.  The conference will take place next year in Washington and will look at the possibilities for religion being a positive force and providing leadership at a time of global warming.  The term used to denote the age in which we live is the Anthropocene, which controversially signifies a period in which the structure of the world has been affected by human activity.



Washington D.C., USA, The Catholic University of America, 23-24 March 2016

“Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene: Towards a Common Cause?”

Can sacralisation of the natural world change attitudes to the environment, or simply towards the object in question?

A new framework has been presented in recent years to periodize and interpret the effects of human life on the natural environment: the age of the ‘Anthropocene.’ By this definition, we are now in an era when human activities have become a key macro-determinant of the destiny of the ecosystems of Earth.

The natural environment presents itself as a ground for life and a gift of life in all communities of faith and spiritual meaning. In the ‘age of the Anthropocene,’ how might faith (and explicitly non-faith) communities productively engage in these critical discussions?

Looking backward: could this be an opportunity for productive dialogues between principles of science, economics, and religion? Looking forward: in what ways might faith communities and other communities of spiritual meaning set agendas for personal and community action? What principles of stewardship, compassion, or mutual obligation might they offer? How might they provide leadership on issues of the environment, ecological sustainably, and climate change?

Could addressing these concerns also offer a basis for productive inter-faith dialogue, a locus for the development of unified moral voice across differing belief systems? Could the age of the Anthropocene, as a focal interpretive mechanism for understanding the intersection of human action, science, and faith, become a site for joining into a ‘common cause’ and a place to share imaginations for the future of human development?

Not only might such an agenda have implications for our relations in the natural environment, but also such considerations of the future might prompt us to address related questions of inequality, poverty, and human suffering.

The 2016 meeting will feature a special focus on this provocative subject. We welcome open debate, discourse, and research from participants that center on this special topic, as well as any other themes or issues relevant to religion and spirituality in society.


Proposals for paper presentations, workshops, focused discussions or colloquia are invited that address the broader themes listed below. In addition to the special focus, paper presentations will be grouped into one of the following categories for presentation at the conference:

Theme 1: Religious Foundations
Theme 2: Religious Community and Socialization Theme 3: Religious Commonalities and Differences
Theme 3: Religious Commonalities and Differences
Theme 4: The Politics of Religion
Theme 5: Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene: Towards a Common Cause?

Proposals for in-person presentations should be submitted by 23 FEBRUARY 2016 (title and short abstract). Proposals submitted after this day will be accommodated in non-themed sessions at the conference or are eligible for community membership registrations (no attendance to the conference is required with community membership presentations).

For more information on the conference including confirmed plenary speakers as well as details on submitting your proposal and registering for the conference, visit:

Can spiritual practice provide a focus for environmental concerns?

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Oomoto workshop

The Oomoto sect puts an emphasis on aesthetics and universalism


The 12th Oomoto Workshop will be held from April 27th to May 6th, 2015.  For a report of a previous workshop, please see this account by Australian, Jann Williams.

Program: Come and join us!
April 27 Arriving
April 28
07:30 Moving to Ayabe city 09:00 Climbing up to the Mt. Misen in Ayabe
April 29
06:00-06:30 Morning service at the shrine 09:00 Tour of the Oomoto ground in Ayabe 09:45 Attending the anniversary service for the Fourth Spiritual Leader 14:00 Tour to Amano-Hashidate, a famous touring spot in North Kyoto 21:00 Coming back to Kameoka
April 30
06:00-06:30 Morning service at the shrine 10:00-11:30 Chin-kon (Meditation) 13:30-14:30 Tour of the Oomoto ground in Kameoka 15:00-16:30 Lecture (History of Oomoto) 17:10-17:40 Evening service
May 1
06:00-06:30 Morning service at the shrine 08:30-09:00 Morning meeting for Oomoto staff (Introducing yourself) Oomoto Spring Grand Festival in Ayabe 10:00-11:30 Lecture (Teaching of Oomoto)
13:30-15:00 Lecture (Esperanto Movement of Oomoto) 17:10-17:40 Evening service 19:30-21:00 Esperanto Lesson May 2
06:00-06:30 Morning service at the shrine 10:00-11:30 Lecture (Activity of Oomoto) 13:30-15:00 Lecture (Activity of Oomoto Part 2) 17:10-17:40 Evening service at the shrine 19:00-20:00 Ro-ei (chanting a poem)
May 3
06:00-06:30 Morning service at the shrine 09:00-11:30 Visiting Mount Takakuma in Kameoka 13:00-17:00 Watching Noh dance
May 4
06:00-06:30 Morning service at the shrine 10:00-12:00 Attending Ceremony in Kameoka 15:00-20:00 Visiting Kyoto-city
May 5
Oomoto Spring Grand Festival in Ayabe
May 6 Leaving Oomoto

The Oomoto workshops in English were started in 2011 by the International Department of Oomoto. The aim of the workshops is to provide an overview of Oomoto to the international community. They are run four times a year over an intensive period of one week. The workshops are based at the Oomoto Headquarters in Kameoka, around 20 kilometers west of Kyoto, Japan. Time is also spent at the spiritual centre of Oomoto in Ayabe during the workshops.

Oomoto priests at their grand spring festival

The workshops are held in association with the Oomoto Grand Festivals in Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. This provides the opportunity to experience traditional Japanese arts and crafts such as poetry, music, dancing and tea making. Joining in the Japanese folk dancing is encouraged! The broad timetable for the workshops and festivals follows: •Winter workshop and Grand Festival: Early February    •Spring workshop and Grand Festival: Early May •Summer workshop and Grand Festival: Early August    •Autumn workshop and Grand Festival: Early November

In addition to learning about traditional Japanese arts and the role they play in spiritual life, the workshops provide an overview of the history and practice of Oomoto including the role of Esperanto, the work of Oomoto in places such as the Middle East and Mongolia and their approach to meditation. Workshop participants also take part in services at the local shrine at least once a day.

Accommodation and meals are provided by Oomoto. A donation to cover some of these costs is welcome.

Workshop participants will spend a night in Ayabe, the spiritual centre of Oomoto, for three of the four Grand Festivals. Only in summer, when the Grand Festival is held in Kameoka, will participants spend all nights of the workshop in Kameoka. The Summer Festival also celebrates the birth of Onisaburo Deguchi, the Co-Founder of Oomoto. The winter workshop coincides with the Setsubun Grand Festival in Ayabe.    For further information about the workshops contact Katsuya Kimura at:

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Earth Day 2015

Nature calls us back to a proper relationship to the Earth on which we live


Earth Day is upon us once again, and for Green Shinto supporters it’s a day to be treasured with the softest possible environmental footsteps…

What else can we do?  Sign the petition and lend your support to groups such as this –

Shinto may be called ‘a nature religion’ but it’s by no means a campaigning green religion.  Not yet!  With growing pressure, the day may well come soon, but in the meantime let us listen to the voice of sacred streams and holy rocks calling us back home.  Home to Mother Earth.


For those in Tokyo, there are several activities which can be read about in Japanese here:

Water is a blessing and should not be taken for granted


Islands speak to the first descent of the gods


Rocks speak to us of the eternal


Shinto speaks to the magic of existence

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Sacred islands

Benten island and shrine, just off Shiraishi in the Inland Sea


Green Shinto friend, Jake Davis, has posted some wonderful pictures of sacred islands on his blog, More Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.  He points out that these are not much written about in contrast to other sacred features such as rocks and mountains, though as one commentator notes, they could be considered sacred ‘mountains’ that stick up out of the sea.

Abode of the gods? Celestial blues in the Ogasawara Islands...

For myself, I’ve always felt attracted to islands and once harboured serious dreams of living on the Scilly Isles in the UK.  There are only two places in the world where I’ve felt poetically inspired, and both times were on islands when the poetry literally gushed up within me, demanding to be written. Once was on Skyros in the Aegean Sea, and the other was on Shiraishi in the Inland Sea.  The latter moved me to write a small illustrated publication, Spring Buds and Autumn Leaves.

So what is it about islands?  Clearly the invigorating nature of sea-air is one special factor.  Another must be the way they represent microcosms of the larger landmass on which we live.  There is an otherworldliness about them, for they’re separated from the ordinary world by the waters that lie in-between.  Uninhabited islands in particular.   They are pure and untainted by human hand, exuding the sense that if the gods descended, they would surely choose such places as their abode.

Remember Japan’s Creation Myth – Izanagi and Izanami descend first onto the primal island of Onogoro which they had created out of the brine that swished below them.  There they erected an august pillar and a giant hall, before making love and giving birth to the Eight Island Country.  One might take this as a symbolic, metaphorical and poetic rendering of immigrants who arrived in Japan from across the sea, one island at a time.  Or one could just say that islands are divine.  Take a look at Jake’s pictures and see for yourself.


The torii on the island in Lake Nojiriko beckons the visitor into a realm of unspoilt greenery set amidst the blue beauty of the surrounding waters.














Click here for an account of a Japanese island in spring, replete with sacred rocks, and here for an account of the same island in autumn.

Posted in Animism, Poetry | 2 Comments

New book: Folk Legends from Tono

News of a new translation of a Japanese folklore book by the most important figure of the twentieth century, Yanagita Kunio (1875 – 1962).  His groundbreaking work did much to uncover the beliefs of ordinary Japanese, rather than those of the ruling elite.  For a review and more about the book, see the amazon page here.  What follows is taken from the translator, Ronald A. Morse…..


Folk Legends from Tono: Japan’s Spirits, Deities, and Phantastic Creatures (In Japanese: Tono monogatari shui 遠野物語拾遺)

Kunio Yanagita (Wikicommons).

It is not well known, but the Japanese language book by folklorist Yanagita Kunio, Tono monogatari (often translated as Tales of Tono), consists of two independent Japanese language tale collections published at different times (1910 and 1935). The first tale collection of Tono monogatari (the most well-known) was translated into English as The Legends of Tono by Ronald Morse in 1975. It consists of a polished literary collection of 118 Tono tales that were published in 1910.

The second tale collection (or Part II) of Tono monogatarithe collection now translated — was added in 1935 and has 299 original stories. This (in many ways a more interesting) collection has now been translated into English by Ronald A. Morse as Folk Legends from Tono: Japan’s Spirits, Deities, and Phantastic Creatures. It is available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in June 2015.

Yanagita Kunio wrote his 1910 Tono monogatari based on tales that he heard from the Tono tale collector Sasaki Kizen. Sasaki compiled and edited the 1935 collection of 299 tales.







Superbly translated and boldly illustrated, this new collection of tales captures the spirit of Japanese peasant culture undergoing rapid transformation into the modern era. By re-envisioning the sequencing of the tales and intertwining insightful annotations into the text, the translator has restored the original mystical charm of the tales. Reminiscent of Japanese woodblocks, the ink illustrations commissioned for the Folk Legends from Tono, mirror the imagery that Japanese villagers envisioned as they listened to a storyteller recite the tales. The cast of characters is rich and varied, as we encounter yokai monsters, shape-shifting foxes, witches, grave robbers, ghosts, heavenly princesses, roaming priests, shamans, quasi-human mountain spirits, murderers, and much more.

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Shamanic links

BlueSky is a Mongolian shaman, author and director of The Institute for the Study of Mongolian Shamanism, living in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.  In the latest edition of the Sacred Hoop magazine (Issue 87, spring 2015, p.42) he writes about an incident that is reminiscent of the founding story of Fushimi Inari, which involves shooting arrows on a hillside.  The fox as spirit guide is common to both traditions.


Quote…     Eventually we reached a low hill where we stopped, when suddenly a fox appeared before us and jumped and scared the horses. Somehow, it did not seem an ordinary fox, and my nephew was attentive and stopped me when I said “Let us shoot it.” I was glad I listened to him, because we both suddenly realised that the fox was a spirit, and that Ambii (a dead child) was guiding us. And so, we decided to follow it. The fox guided us to the top of Bayan Uul, which we call Rich Mountain, and then, at the top, it just disappeared. We rushed over to where it had vanished and found the revealed place it had shown us.


Elsewhere BlueSky writes of spirit-trees and their transformative power.  The description of how evil is placated is echoed in the rites of early Shinto…

Spirit trees are common to East Asia - and around the world. This one was photographed at Avebury in the UK.

It is a powerful thing to realise and to understand that when you practise as a shaman, personal interests never can be maintained, and the help and well being of other people becomes your esteemed mission, and this is not to be changed by any treasure. Everyone was scared of and avoided this place where I sit now, under the sacred amulet tree.

At one time it is where people put their dead ones openly instead of burying them, even animals did not dare to come close. It was a place where horrifying sounds were heard and cold terrifying multi-coloured lights were seen, and when I dared to call to the spirits and seek to understand the reasons of those things happening, I was born again as a shaman.

I transformed this place to the sacred place it is now – instead of a place which people and animals feared – by digging out of the earth some human bones. It was the spirits associated with these bones who created the frightening lights and the terrifying sounds. And when I had collected them, I dug a hole and put into it a black cauldron, with the bones inside it, and then put another black cauldron on top of the first, upside down, and buried both.

Then I tied seven colour swathes to the tree, and begged, prayed and implored the lords and spirits of the place to remove the spirits that scared all the people and animals. Since that time, the tree has changed from one which terrified all who came to it, to a place of peace, the amulet tree, where many people come, gather and pray.


To anyone familiar with East Asia, the commonalities of Shinto and continental shamanism are striking.  Look for example at this description:

“In Mongolian cosmology, there are said to be ninety-nine sky spirits – called the ninety-nine Tengers or the ninety-nine Skies. Each of the ninety-nine have their own individual names, and all the skies together make the great Tenger – Eternal Blue Sky.”

Tenger equates linguistically to Tenjin, the Sky God of Kitano Tenmangu, who in earthly terms was known as Sugawara no Michizane.  And the multiples of three that find ultimate expression in the ninety-nine sky spirits are echoed in the 3×3=9 ritual (san san kudo) of the Shinto wedding ceremony.

Japanese are fond of claiming that Shinto is unique.  It’s clearly not.  The insularity that sees Shinto as purely Japanese has contemporary ramifications in the frictions between Japan and its neighbours.  Instead of seeking differences, contemporary Japan might be better served by emphasising connections and acknowledging a common heritage.

The tengu crow-shaman could come from anywhere in East Asia - or even North America.

Posted in Shamanic connections | 4 Comments

Three layers of Shinto

The kami of ancient Shinto were nameless, formless and numinous


In an article on the website, religious scholar Yamaori Tetsuo puts forward his concept of a tripartite Shinto in historical terms.  First was ancient Shinto, characterised by animist beliefs in a period with which many of us in the West with neo-pagan sympathies will identify.  The question is, though, whether we can call it ‘Shinto’ as it predates any such term or concept.

With the introduction of Buddhism, native beliefs were affected and more than a thousand years of syncretism followed.  Kami were integrated into Buddhist cosmology, and the imported religion affected rituals and practices.  A Shinto-Buddhist view of life and death emerged.

The third of Yamaori’s ‘layers’ comes with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Shinto as we know it today was consciously assembled as a form of state ideology.  The emperor and his lineage were raised to the front rank of national consciousness.  Interestingly, Yamaori suggests that the elevation at this time of Amaterasu as a primal deity was a nod in the direction of Western monotheism.


The Three-Layered Shintō Religion
by Yamaori Tetsuo (Originally published in Japanese on February 28, 2014.)

A distinctively Japanese view of life and death has persisted since ancient times, despite overlays of imported culture and religion. The distinguished religious studies scholar Yamaori Tetsuo looks at the physical and environmental roots of this world view and its distillation in Japanese religion and mythology.

The overlap of Japanese Buddhism and Shinto is here evident in a water basin for purification featuring the lotus flower

One important aspect of the traditional Japanese religious sensibility was its acceptance of syncretism, most notably the system of shinbutsu shūgō that facilitated the coexistence of Buddhism, an imported religion, with the native Shintō faith.

Shintō is translated “the way of the kami,” and the kami of Japan are very different in character from the divinities with which most Westerners are familiar. From prehistoric times countless kami were believed to dwell deep within nature, in the mountains, forests, and waters of the archipelago. These were not anthropomorphic beings with distinct personalities and physical attributes. The vast majority were nameless but potent spirits of the sort believed to inhabit places and objects of all kinds. For that reason, there was a tendency to refer to them collectively, as kami-gami, rather than in the singular.

After Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, however, the kami began to change, gradually taking on the attributes of Buddhist deities. Shintō shrines were built in Buddhist temple compounds and vice versa, and specific kami became identified with particular Buddhist deities. As this process continued, there emerged a kind of hybrid religion in which kami and Buddhist deities were virtually one and the same.

Amaterasu – was her primacy in Meiji times an attempt to replicate Western monotheism?

In the Meiji era (1868–1912), when Japan opened its doors to the West, Shintō came under the influence of Christianity, and the leaders of the new state began to embrace the idea of monotheism as a unifying and modernizing force. They selected a single Shintō deity from the countless kami scattered over the Japanese archipelago and elevated it to the position of supreme being. This was the dawn of State Shintō.

At a result of this process, Shintō became like a three-story shrine, with the first story dedicated to the indigenous kami of the forests, rivers, and mountains, the second to the Buddhicized kami of shinbutsu shūgō, and the third to the Christianized kami of State Shintō. This three-tiered structure closely mirrors the three strata of our physical landscape and cultural mind-set.

Meanwhile, Buddhism underwent changes of its own in Japan, and these changes provide important insight into the Japanese view of life and death. Under the influence of Shintō, which holds that all human beings become kami after death, Japanese Buddhists began to refer to the dead as buddhas, reflecting an implicit belief that everyone who dies is reborn as a buddha.

Even in modern parlance, the word hotoke (one of two alternate Japanese pronunciations of the Sino-Japanese character for Buddha) is commonly used to refer to someone deceased. On an intellectual level, the Japanese embraced the orthodox teachings of Indian Buddhism, but somewhere along the line they injected the very Japanese notion that everyone is deified after death.

The sacred regalia of Shinto, a Holy Trinity – humans have a tripartite view of life, and Shinto too comes to us historically speaking in three layers

Posted in Animism, General, Japanese culture | 1 Comment

Japaneseness as a religion

Religion or patriotism? (photo courtesy Japan Times)


Shinto and Japaneseness are closely intertwined.  Indeed, scholars such as Ian Reader have described Shinto precisely as a religion of Japaneseness.  Not only are Shinto values fundamental to the culture, but it’s often difficult to separate the two.  For many commentators, being born Japanese means to have an instinctive Shinto attitude to life. And it is common to find definitions of Shinto as a religion of the Japanese people, in much the same way as Judaism is said to be a religion for Jews. To be born Japanese is to be born Shinto.

Anyone who has lived in Japan for a while will be aware of a certain insularity that shapes the Japanese worldview.  This finds its most obvious outlet in the popular genre known as Nihonjinron (the theory of what it is to be Japanese).  All kinds of books, many of them bestsellers, set out to explain what is peculiar about the Japanese and why they are different from others.  This is predicated on the notion that Japanese are homogenous, monoracial, and share a common heritage.  Shinto reinforces the idea, by claiming that Japan is uniquely a land of kami from whom the people are descended. This makes them special, in particular the emperor.  After the Meiji Restoration the thinking became state ideology, and oddly enough it still remains current in today’s ‘democratic Japan’.

In the article below, these ideas are explored at greater length.  Some might find the points overstated, but nevertheless there is little doubt that insularity has gained greater strength under the nationalist-leaning Shinzo Abe.  Some of the thinking is worryingly regressive.  In contrast to the openness, fraternisation, internationalisation and universalism that one might hope the human race was striving towards, Japaneseness as an inward-looking religion appears to be firmly in place.


Viewed through a religious lens, Japan makes more sense
ITO ARUDOU  APR 5, 2015  Japan Times

Ever noticed how Japan — and in particular, its ruling elite — keeps getting away with astonishing bigotry? Recently Ayako Sono, a former adviser of the current Shinzo Abe government, sang the praises of a segregated South Africa, effectively advocating a system where people would live separately by race in Japan (a “Japartheid,” if you will). But that’s just the latest stitch in a rich tapestry of offensive remarks.

Remember former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s claim that “old women who live after losing their reproductive function are useless and committing a sin,” or his attribution of Chinese criminality to “ethnic DNA” (both 2001)? Or former Prime Minister Taro Aso admiring Nazi subterfuge in changing Germany’s prewar constitution (2013), and arguing that Western diplomats cannot solve problems in the Middle East because of their “blue eyes and blond hair” — not to mention advocating policies to attract “rich Jews” to Japan (both 2001)? Or then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declaring Japan to be “an intelligent society” because it was “monoracial,” without the “blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans” that dragged down America’s average level of education (1986)?

Although their statements invited international and domestic protest, none of these people were drummed out of office or even exiled to the political wilderness. Why? Because people keep passing off such behavior as symptomatic of “weird, quirky Japan,” i.e., “They say these things because they are Japanese — trapped in uniquely insular mentalities after a long self-imposed isolation.”

Such excuses sound lame and belittling when you consider that it’s been 160 years since Japan ended its isolation, during which time it has successfully copied contemporary methods of getting rich, waging war and integrating into the global market.

This treatment also goes beyond the blind-eyeing usually accorded to allies due to geopolitical realpolitik. In the past, analysts have gone so gaga over the country’s putative uniqueness that they have claimed Japan is an exception from worldwide socioeconomic factors including racism, postcolonial critique and (until the bubble era ended) even basic economic theory!

So why does Japan keep getting a free pass? Perhaps it’s time to start looking at “Japaneseness” through a different lens: as a religion. It’s more insightful.

A comprehensive but concise definition of “religion” is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

Japaneseness qualifies. A set of beliefs ordering the “Japanese universe” is available at your nearest big bookstore, where shelves groan under the wiki-composite pseudoscience of Nihonjinron (the “Theory of The Japanese”), a lucrative market for navel-gazing about what Japanese allegedly think or do uniquely and collectively.

Japan also has its own creation myth grounded in mystical immortals (the goddess Amaterasu et al), with enough currency that a sitting prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, once publicly claimed Japan was “a nation of deities (kami no kuni) with the Emperor at its center,” in which Japanese have seen “beings above and beyond humankind” (2000). Seen in this way, Japan transcends the mere nation-state to become something akin to a holy land.

Devotional and ritual observances involve not only an imported and adapted foreign religion (Buddhism) hybridized with an established state religion (Shinto), but also elements of animism and ancestor worship whose observances regularly reach down to the level of the neighborhood (o-mikoshi festival portable shrines) and even the household (butsudan shrines).

In the mythology, the primal pair of Izanagi and Izanami were not creators of the world, but created the eight islands of Japan.

As for a moral code governing conduct, Japanese media offer plenty of ascriptive programming (e.g., NHK’s popular quiz show “Nihonjin no Shitsumon” or “Questions The Japanese Ask” — as if that’s a discernible genre). They broadcast an unproblematized uniformity of “Japanese” thought, belief and morality generally offset from the remainder of the heterodox world.

Thus this religion-like phenomenon, because of the knock-on effects of vague mysticism and faith, goes beyond regular nationalism. For one thing, unlike nationalism, religion doesn’t necessarily need another country to contrast and compete with — Japanese are sui generis special because they are a family descended from gods. For another, nationality can be obtained through law, but bloodline descent cannot — and blood is what makes someone a “real” Japanese. Further, how can you ever offer a counter-narrative to a myth? (For a national narrative, you can offer a different historical interpretation of mortals and events; it’s far tougher to argue different gods.)

These dynamics have been covered in much literature elsewhere — in fact, they are depicted positively by the Nihonjinron high priests themselves — but few people consider three other effects of religiosity.

First, there’s religion’s enhanced political power in prescribing and enforcing conformity. If media uncritically establish how “normal Japanese” act, then deviant thoughts and behaviors not only become “unusual” but also “un-Japanese.” It’s not a big leap from the “science” of what people naturally do as Japanese to the science of what to do in order to be Japanese. There is an orthodoxy to be followed, or else.

This dynamic also robs dissidents of the power to use reason to adjust society’s course. Instead of social mores being codified in the rule of law or grounded in terms of concrete “rights, privileges and duties” of a nation-state, they are molded case by case to suit an alleged “consensus feeling” of an abstract group, sending signals through the media or just through “the air” (which people are supposed to “read”: kūki o yomu).

Shinto posters can be heavily patriotic: 'It's good that I'm Japanese,' says this one.

How can one reason with or argue against an amorphous “understanding” of things, or summon enough energy to push against an invisible enfranchised opponent? Easier all around to fall back on the default shikata ga nai (“There’s nothing I can do”) attitude, meaning Japanese will police each other into acceptance of the status quo.

The second effect of this phenomenon is the corruption of social science. The broad-stroke categorization inherent to “groupism” normalizes the pigeonholing of peoples. In Japan, this has reached the point where influential people openly espouse fallacious theories, such as that eye color affects vision quality, blood type affects personality and race/country of origin/gender influence intellectual ability or talent (e.g., “Indians are good programmers,” “Jews are rich,” “Chinese have criminal DNA”).

Although stereotypes exist in every society, in Japan they underpin and blinker most social science. In fact, learning the stereotypes is the science.

The third effect is religion’s enhanced rhetorical power, and this projects influence beyond Japan’s borders. If Japan’s behavior was merely seen as a matter of nationalism, then things could be explained away in terms of furthering national interests under rational-actor theory. But they’re not. Again, “quirky” Japanese get away with weird stuff like bigotry because they are treated with the deference traditionally accorded to a religion.

Scholar Richard Dawkins put it best: “A widespread assumption . . . is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect.” Author Douglas Adams expounds on this idea: “Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion you’re not allowed to say anything bad about. You’re just not.’

“If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like. . . . But on the other hand if somebody says, ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday,’ you say, ‘I respect that.’ ”

Likewise, you must respect Japan, and woe betide you if you criticize it. Decry even the most egregious bad behavior, such as the whitewashing of an exploitative empire’s history into an exculpated victimhood, and you will be branded “anti-Japan,” a “Japan-hater” or “Japan-basher” by the reactionary cloud of anonyms that so dominate Japan’s Internet.

This trolling wouldn’t matter if that cloud was ignored for what it is — a bunch of anonymous craven cranks — but otherwise sensible people steeped (or academically trained) in Japan’s mysticism tend to take these disembodied opinions from the air seriously. Instead, the critic loses credibility and, in extreme cases, even their livelihood for not toeing the line. Japan is sensitive, and you’re not allowed to say anything bad about it. You’re just not.

This is one reason why even the most scientifically trained among us is ready, for example, to take seriously the comment of a single native-born Japanese (rather than trust qualified Japan experts who unfortunately lack the mystical bloodline) as some kind of evidence in any discussion on Japan. Every Japanese by blood and dint of being raised in the temple of Japanese society is reflexively accorded the right to represent all Japan. It’s respectful, but it also blunts analysis by keeping discussion of Japan within temple control.

So, whenever Japan makes mystical arguments — about, say, longer intestines, special soil and snow or the country’s unique climate — for political ends (to justify banning imports of beef, construction equipment, skis, rice, etc.), skittish outsiders tend to be deferential to the nonsense because of Japan’s “uniqueness” and respectfully ease off the pressure.

Or when Japan’s rulers coddle war-mongering rightists (who also advocate Japan’s mysticism) and sanction pacifist leftists (who more likely see religion as a mass opiate), relax — that’s just how Japan maintains its unique social order. And if that social order is ever questioned, especially by any Japanese, that is treated as heresy or apostasy, drawing the threat of reprisal — if not violence — from zealots. After all, you do not question faith — or it would no longer be faith. You just don’t.

In sum, seeing Japaneseness through the prism of religion helps explain better why the world accommodates Japan egregiously excepting and offsetting itself. It may be time to abandon simple political theory (seeing Japan’s polity in terms of rational actors with occasional inexplicable irrationalities) in favor of the sociology of religious cults.

Specifically, this would mean studying Japan’s cult of personalities, i.e., the way a ruling elite is resurrecting mysticism and exploiting the reflexive deference usually reserved for religion to game the system. This is especially important now, as Japan’s rulers indulge in belligerent behavior — historical revisionism, remilitarization and so on — that’s helping destabilize the region.

Shinto and Japaneseness are often closely identified


Posted in Japanese culture, Nationalism | 5 Comments

International weddings

Kyoto city mayor offers a certificate of marriage to a British couple (Kyodo pic)


A Shinto wedding followed by a certificate from Kyoto city – the promotion scheme has been much in the news over the past few days as the first of the international marriage certificates was handed over to the lucky couple.  The delightful setting of Kamigamo Jinja has been in the forefront of the trend, with the shrine welcoming couples from around the world who wish for something different to celebrate their nuptial vows.  The report below comes from today’s Japan Times.


Kyoto issues souvenir marriage certificates to foreign newlyweds

The city of Kyoto on Friday began issuing marriage certificates to foreigners who wed in the ancient capital and delivered the first one to a British couple. The certificate bears the signature of Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa and contains a congratulatory message from him. The city said it aims to boost tourism with the measure, although the certificate is not a legal document.

When newlyweds Stuart Loakes, 34, and Emma Mulcahy, 29, held their wedding ceremony earlier in the day at Kyoto’s Kamigamo Shrine, Kadokawa read out his message. “I am proud that you have selected Kyoto, a city with more than 1,200 years of kaleidoscopic and brilliant history as the starting point for such an important stage of your life,” he said.

Loakes said he is proud to be the first to receive the certificate. The groom added that he came to like Kyoto so much during a previous visit that he wanted to return one day with his wife.

Shinto style weddings offer something different

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Religious boom

Groups of young people, especially women, have become a common sight at shrines in recent years


In an interesting article on the net, religious scholar Shimada Hiromi examines the religious boom which has been evident among young Japanese in recent years.  Personally I attribute much of this to the increase in nationalist sentiment, as a new generation reared on ‘patriotic education’ and pride in Japan turn to examining the roots of their culture rather than opening their minds to the outside world. With Abe’s right-wing government in control, there has been a palpable upturn in self-congratulation.  TBS airs a programme called Rediscover Japan!, and ABC has Japan Astounds the World.  Among the bestselling books is one by Tsuneyasu Takeda, Why is Japan the Most Popular in the World?

In the article below Shimada Hiromi seems to agree with this thesis, while adding an overview that looks at recent trends in Japan’s religious landscape.  Along the way he examines power spots, the low cost of shrine visiting, the ‘new new religions’, the connection with roots and with nature, and he ends with a warning about the possible danger involved. He also makes what to my mind is a controversial statement about Shinto’s supposed uniqueness, based on its continuity and longevity.  (For the original article, click here.)


Young Japanese men and women drawing inspiration from Japan’s ancient spiritual heritage.
by Shimada Hiromi  (Originally published in Japanese on March 4, 2014.)

Queues at times of religious festivals can be impressively long, as here at New Year at Uji Jinja

As a religious studies scholar who writes a good deal on the subject of Japanese religion, I am a frequent visitor to Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples. These days I rarely go to any shrine or temple without running into a throng of young Japanese visitors.

This was not always the case. Not so long ago, touring temples was mainly a hobby of the elderly. But nowadays I encounter older people there much less often. One still runs into the occasional senior bus tour, but not that many. The most enthusiastic habitués of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines nowadays are unquestionably young adults.

Record Turnout at Ise Grand Shrine

Among the most popular religious destinations last year was the venerable Ise Grans Shrine in Mie Prefecture. A record number of visitors made the pilgrimage in 2013, [eager to be present on the occasion of the shikinen sengu] and to see the buildings in their pristine new state.  The Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine recorded a combined total of 14.3 million visits, well in excess of the 13 million predicted.

Particularly noteworthy, it seems, was the unprecedented number of youthful visitors to Ise. This was certainly the case when I made my own first post-sengū pilgrimage near the end of the year. Moreover, the young people I saw there had studied their Shintō rituals well — for example, bowing whenever they passed through the torii gate, whether entering or leaving. Their behavior suggested that they were there as something more than curiosity-seekers.

Kamigamo Jinja in Kyoto, which has recently undergone its twenty-year renewal

I had the same impression when I visited Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto on a similar occasion three years ago. In preparation for its own shikinen sengū, scheduled to take place in 2015, the shrine was offering special tours in which visitors had the rare opportunity to view the Main Sanctuary close up. Before paying their respects at the shrine, they were also invited to hear a presentation by the head priest. I was surprised to find that the audience consisted almost entirely of young adults, who listened to the priest with the utmost attention.

I cannot tell you exactly when temples and shrines became such a popular destination for the under-25 crowd, but there is no escaping it. More importantly, it seems clear that these young visitors are not there just to see the sights. They have come to get in touch with the divine.

“Power Spots” and Budget Outings

Of course, the “power spot” craze surely has something to do with this phenomenon. In recent years Japanese magazines and websites have sought to capitalize on the popular new theory that certain sites have a spiritual energy that one can marshal for one’s own benefit. Mount Fuji has figured prominently in Internet rankings of power spots since it was designated a World Heritage site in 2013.

I cannot deny having overheard young visitors to temples and shrines whispering to one another they could “feel the power.” I have also heard people of that generation react to a Buddhist images in a museum or exhibition with comments like “This one has amazing power.” Still, I am convinced that this is more than just a passing fad.

The queue to pray at Tokyo Daijingu, a noted 'power spot'

Economic factors probably contribute to the trend as well. Despite all the talk about stimulating the economy, conquering deflation, and boosting wages, incomes remain stagnant, and steady jobs are hard to find. The younger generation is by no means insulated from the stresses and strains of this economy situation. The bottom line is that they have less money to spend on leisure activities, and visiting temples and shrines is a cheap and accessible form of recreation. Nowadays a day at Tokyo Disneyland costs at least ¥10,000 per person. But one can tour the grounds of Ise Shrine for nothing at all, apart from a few coins tossed in the offertory box. “Power spots” in general are a good choice for the budget-minded, and Shintō shrines, which typically charge no admission at all, are especially attractive from this viewpoint.

Still, while budgetary considerations doubtless play some role, they do not explain why the young visitors arrive at these temples and shrines so well versed in religious etiquette. To my mind, the best explanation for their behavior is that they have a genuine interest in religion.

Millennial Cults of the 1970s

The shin shūkyō (new religion) that thrived in the heyday of rapid economic growth and urbanization lost momentum during the 1970s, particularly after the economic slowdown precipitated by the oil crisis of 1973. Sōka Gakkai’s problems were exacerbated by a wave of bad publicity in the media following its attempt, during 1969 and 1970, to suppress the publication of a book harshly critical of the organization.

As the shin shūkyō stagnated, a new crop of cults and sects sprang up to fill the gap. These were dubbed shin shin shūkyō, or “new new religions.” One of the major forces shaping the religious movements of the 1970s was a surge in apocalyptic and millennial thinking, epitomized by two of the top-selling books of 1973, Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen (Prophecies of Nostradamus) and Nihon chinbotsu (Japan Sinks). Where the shin shūkyō of the 1950s and 1960s had promised the worldly benefits of health, wealth, and peace, the shin shin shūkyō (new new religions) emphasized the approaching “end times” and promised followers the ability to survive the apocalypse.

Buddhism too has benefitted from the upturn in religious sentiment amongst the young

As in the 1950s and 1960s, the rise of these new orders and cults was fueled predominantly by young seekers. This time, however, the majority of converts appear to have been individuals born and raised in or around major urban centers, as opposed to recent migrants from the countryside. Simply put, they were the children and grandchildren of the generation from which the shin shūkyō had drawn their membership. Among the more prominent of these apocalyptic and millennial movements were Mahikari, GLA, and Agon Shū, as well as the overseas-based Unification Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The 1970s were also marked by concerted efforts on the part of the established shin shūkyō to compete with the shin shin shūkyō in attracting young converts. A good example is the Inner Trip movement launched by the Nichiren lay organization Reiyūkai (from which Risshō Kōsei-kai originally sprang). Sōka Gakkai, meanwhile, began holding youth-oriented World Peace Festivals, conceived as opportunities to organize and draw young people into the fold.

A Return to Traditional Values

Both the lay movements of the rapid-growth period and the sects and cults that emerged subsequently have lost ground in recent years. Religious groups of this sort have little appeal for today’s youth.

Sōka Gakkai, which used shakubuku (break and subdue) so effectively to build the organization during its heyday, now relies almost entirely on the children of existing members to replenish its ranks. The newer-style cults, similarly, have lost their impact and vitality and rarely come up in the media. In the realm of religious studies, the term shin shin shūkyō (new new religions) has virtually fallen out of use. With the passage of time, the phenomenon has been subsumed under the general category of shin shūkyō (new religions). And nowadays, shin shūkyō seems anything but new.

Cults and spiritual movements tend to exert a powerful appeal during times of social upheaval, when rapid change breeds deep uncertainty about the future. To be sure, the past few years have witnessed some traumatic events, including the 2008 financial meltdown and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. But notwithstanding these setbacks, Japanese society as a whole is considerably more stable and predictable than it was during the period of rapid economic growth or the economic bubble of the 1980s. In terms of political and social stability, the Heisei era (1989–) thus far bears comparison with the Heian (794–1185) and Edo (1603–1868) periods.

Meiji Jingu: "the lush forest setting in which the shrine is situated helps convey a truly timeless Japanese spirituality."

In such times, traditional and conservative impulses tend to predominate. In the realm of religion and spirituality, this impulse is manifested as a preference for faiths that have stood the test of time, rather than new religions or cults.

Japan’s established religions are among the oldest in the world. Shintō goes back thousands of years, and while it has evolved considerably over time, its longevity and continuity as a system with its roots in primitive folk belief are probably unequaled.

Buddhism cannot be considered an indigenous religion, having entered by way of China and the Korean Peninsula, but its history in Japan goes back almost 1,500 years, to the middle of the sixth century. Since then, Buddhism has lost ground in China and Korea and has all but vanished from India, where it originated. Japan is one of only a handful of places, including Tibet and Vietnam, where Mahayana Buddhism persists as the dominant religion today.

Ise Shrine’s shikinen sengū rebuilding ceremony dates back to the end of the seventh century. Nara and Kyoto are brimming with magnificent monuments to Japan’s ancient religious heritage, Buddhist and Shintō alike. Because Japanese spirituality is inextricably connected with nature, most of these religious sites stress the natural environment in some way, and this element of nature worship accentuates the continuity with ancient religion. Tokyo’s Meiji Jingū, for example, dates only to the 1920s, but the lush forest setting in which the shrine is situated helps convey a truly timeless Japanese spirituality.

It seems to me that, to today’s young people, these ancient traditions offer something new and refreshing. I would suggest that their efforts to honor shrine and temple etiquette reveal an intuitive understanding that adhering to established ritual is the only way to truly enter into those traditions.

The nostalgic and conservative impulses underlying this trend are apparent as well in the political orientation of today’s young people. Amid rising political tensions between Japan and its neighbors in the region—particularly China and South Korea—these impulses tend to arouse an intense nationalism. Such feelings are exacerbated by Japan’s current sense of stagnation. Without the endless possibilities offered by rapid social change, the younger generation becomes restless and unconsciously looks forward to some dramatic event or development to relieve the boredom.

For an impulse to gel into a movement requires the leadership of some charismatic figure. It is doubtful that Sōka Gakkai would have grown into such a huge religious community had it not been for two such leaders, Toda Jōsei and Ikeda Daisaku. Likewise, there would have been no Aum Shinrikyō without Asahara Shōkō. Whether a comparable figure will emerge again any time soon is impossible to say. But in today’s climate, the emergence of a charismatic leader capable of focusing the inchoate spiritual longings of today’s youth may be all that is needed to give rise to a major new religious movement in Japan.

“Efforts to honor shrine and temple etiquette reveal an intuitive understanding that adhering to established ritual is the only way to truly enter into ancient traditions.”

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Posted in General, Japanese culture, Nationalism, Power spots | 2 Comments