Syncretism 2) Umehara

A priest from Fushimi Inari at the gate of Toji temple, for which the shrine has throughout history acted as tutelary guardian

A priest from Fushimi Inari purifies the priests of Toji temple

The question of what exactly constitutes the Japanese tradition remains pertinent to the current debate over what direction Shinto should take.  Some arguments are informed by State Shinto, some by the syncretism of Edo times, some by a mythical time before ‘foreign Chinese elements’ arrived.

One of the leading Shinto theorists is the conservative scholar Takeshi Umehara (born 1925), former director of of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. Unlike others on the right, he does not favour a return to the values of the prewar era, and in the passage below he argues against the idea that the Meiji Constitution and Rescript on Education (1889/1990) were more Japanese than the present postwar constitution.  It was translated for Japan Focus by Yusei Ota and Gavan McCormack, and posted in Japan Focus on July 12, 2005.


Takeshi Umehara writes…

From the time of Prince Shotoku [574-622], Buddhism was Japan’s official religion, but it soon merged with Shinto, the religion of the Japanese people from Jomon [neolithic] times. The merger of Shinto and Buddhism, started by Gyoki [668-749] and Saicho [767-822], and perfected with Kukai’s [774-835] esoteric Buddhism (Shingon-Mikkyo), lasted as Japan’s tradition until the end of Edo.

However, as the Meiji government fell under the ideological sway of narrow-minded “National Learning” (Kokugaku) scholars, they set about implementing policies designed to separate the Kami and the Buddha and to demolish Buddhism. In the end they killed off not only the Buddha but the Kami too, and in the space created by the absence of both Buddha and Kami they set the emperor as the new divinity. This process may be described as the creation of “New Shinto” [or State Shinto].

Torii and pagoda, two symbols of Japanese religion, here ranged syncretically next to each other

Torii and pagoda, symbols of Shinto and Buddhism, here complement each other within the grounds of Toji temple

This New Shinto contributed to making Japan a power comparable to the Western states, by internally consolidating the political control of the Satsuma-Choshu-led government that replaced the Tokugawa shogunate and by externally focusing the power of the whole nation under the emperor.

The philosopher, Watsuji Tetsuro [1889-1960], set out in his war-time book The Philosophy and Tradition of the Philosophy of Revering the Emperor to prove that the ideology of seeing the Emperor as a god was a Japanese tradition, but he was not successful.

The idea of the Emperor as a deity can be seen in the Kojiki and Manyoshu (8th century) and in texts such as the Jinno Shotoki (14th century), but it was not until after the middle of the Edo period (circa mid-17th century) that such ideas became popular and they were then utilized in the process of overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate.

Under such religion, Japan developed as a modern state, became a great power, plunged into the “fifteen year war”, and met the miserable fate of defeat. Bertrand Russell raised the question of how Japan, where no one was allowed to question the divinity of the head of state, could have become a modern state.

 After the war, under the orders of General MacArthur New Shinto was rejected, and an edict declaring the humanity of the Showa emperor [Hirohito] was issued. It seems bizarre that, in the 20th century where scientific thinking dominated the world, the Emperor should have had to issue an edict declaring himself human.

I met the Showa Emperor several times and could not help seeing him as a genial old man who loved the study of biology. How painful it must have been for such a person to play the role of a god. Mishima Yukio totally rejected the announcement of the emperor’s humanity and wrote in his novel Voices of the Heroic Spirits (Eireitachi no koe) that the emperor should have insisted on his divinity.

enmusubi tree in a Buddhist temple (Gojo-in)

An enmsubi (good relations) tree, associated with Shinto but here within a Buddhist temple, indicative of the way the two religions are tied together

I believe, however, that the real modern Japan started from this declaration of the emperor’s humanity. 

The fact of the present emperor alluding to Takano-no-Niikasa, the mother of Emperor Kanmu and the descendant of King Bunei of Paekche, by saying that he “feels an affinity for Korea” and telling the zealous promoters of the movement to raise the Hinomaru (national flag) and sing the Kimigayo (anthem) that “it is best for them not to be imposed by force” – something that even a liberal academic could not easily say – leads me to think that the members of the imperial family are very liberal, and probably are themselves inclined to oppose the kind of Emperor system spelled out in the Imperial Rescript on Education.

Let me repeat. The Imperial Rescript on Education is not something rooted in Japanese tradition. Is it not rather the case that revival of the Imperial Rescript on Education would allow politicians who have neither knowledge nor virtue, and who have no love whatever for traditional culture but care only for their self-interest, to make the people do their will by representing it as the order of the emperor? It seems to me that the only way to make the Japanese people truly moral is to have them come to a deep understanding of the Japanese tradition of reverence for both Kami and Buddha.


Umehara Takeshi, long the director of the International Research Center for Japanese Culture (Nichibunken) in Kyoto, is the author of numerous works on Japanese and Asian philosophy, archeology and history. For other essays by Umehara, see Japan Focus No. 135 and 167.

Umehara claims the 7th century Ritsuryo state was the beginning of State Shinto, with texts and rituals modelled on Taoism.  He also thinks ‘original Shinto” is preserved in the fringes of Japan in the Ryukyu and Ainu traditions which are marked by outdoor rather than shrine worship – an inspiration for all free spirits who reject the nationalism of modern Shinto and wish to return to the roots of the religion.

Shinto priest purifying Buddhist priests at the Awata Jinja festival

Shinto priest at the Awata Jinja festival purifying Buddhist priests, who chant sutra in response


For part 1 of this two-part series on syncretism, please click here to read of how the poet Saigyo and the essayist Kamo no Chomei practised worship of kami and buddhas.


Yasukuni and 1978

Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to offer prayers Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to offer prayers (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

The Yasukuni controversy continues to rumble on.

At the same time as prime minister Abe was telling the world of Japan’s peaceful nature, he sent an offering to Yasukuni Shrine and sanctioned a visit by his wife.  The public face for the rest of the world proved a mask hiding the nod to Nippon Kaigi and the extreme right within Japan.

Westerners unfamiliar with Japan naively maintain that prime ministerial ties to Yasukuni Shrine are simply a matter of honouring war dead.  They assert Yasukuni is purely a religious issue.  Nothing could be more ignorant, and nothing could be further from the truth.

The political role of Yasukuni was not only central to the discredited State Shinto, but continues to be central to the nationalist politics of revisionists who wish to reassert a militaristic Japan.  This has been evident since 1978, the year in which Class A war criminals were enshrined.  It marks the starting point of the current controversy.

When the Emperor himself refuses to visit Yasukuni, you can be sure there’s something pretty rotten at the heart of it all.


A Head Priest’s Ideological Agenda, Matsudaira Nagayoshi
(by Higurashi Yoshinobu for the website)

The impasse [over enshrinement of 14 Class A war criminals] continued until Tsukuba’s sudden death in March 1978. Matsudaira Nagayoshi (1915–2005) was installed as head priest in July that year. It is worth going over Matsudaira Nagayoshi’s background…

Matsudaira’s father, Yoshitami (1882–1948), was the last minister of the Imperial Household. Matsudaira himself was a lieutenant commander in the Imperial Navy during World War II and an officer in the Self-Defense Forces after World War II. His father-in-law, Daigo Tadashige, was a vice admiral in the Imperial Navy. He was tried by the Dutch after the war, convicted of Class B and C war crimes, and executed by rifle shot. He is listed among the war dead honored at Yasukuni Shrine.

Matsudaira unequivocally rejected the verdict of the tribunal and argued that the Tokyo Trials had produced a distorted view of history that cast Japan as the sole villain. He was determined from the outset to enshrine Japan’s Class A war criminals at Yasukuni. This was part of an ideological crusade to discredit the Tokyo Trials.

Once appointed, he moved quickly. In a secret ceremony on October 17, 1978—just three months after becoming head priest—he enshrined all 14. When the story broke in April the following year, the public reaction was relatively muted. But controversy erupted with a vengeance six years later, when Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro became the first postwar prime minister to pay homage at the shrine in an official capacity.

When Nakasone and his cabinet visited Yasukuni on August 15, 1985 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the visit unleashed a storm of criticism from Japan’s Asian neighbors. The next year Nakasone agreed not to visit the shrine in deference to the views of Chinese leader Hu Yaobang.

From that time on, visits by cabinet officials to Yasukuni Shrine have been a hot-button issue, drawing intense criticism from abroad and stymying diplomatic progress between Japan and its neighbors. The ultimate source of this ongoing conflict was the enshrinement of Class A war criminals in 1978. And the enshrinement of this group cannot be attributed simply to religious or filial impulses. In fact, it was a blatantly ideological and political act driven by an urge to justify and legitimize a highly controversial chapter in Japanese history.

Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage

Gassan Shrine peeks through a thick mountain fog. | Photo by DAVEY YOUNG

Gassan Shrine peeks through a thick mountain fog. | Photo by DAVEY YOUNG

Japan is covered in mountains, many of which have been considered sacred since ancient times.  A few years ago while travelling down from Aomori to Kyoto, I took the train along the Japan Sea and stopped off at various points, including the famed three peaks of Dewa Sanzan.  Regrettably, I only had time for a one-day visit, missing out on the heart of the pilgrimage, but an article yesterday in the Japan Times gives an account of the full experience.

Mountain pilgrimages are one of the great joys of Japan, taking one out of the mundane reality of everyday life and bringing one closer to the realm of the gods. Whatever one might think personally about the reality of another world, the mountain ascent alone is guaranteed to produce a ‘spiritual high’.

The traditional pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan, or the Three Mountains of Dewa, begins with the smallest and northernmost Mount Haguro. The plaque at the beginning of the path through Zuishin Gate tells of 33 carvings of “gourds, sake cups and the like” scattered along the 2,446 steps to the top of the mountain, and that whoever can find all of them will have their dreams come true.

It didn’t take me long to realize this isn’t so much an egg hunt as a goose chase, a clever distraction from the arduous ascent. Fifteen minutes and a few hundred steps in, my legs trembled, my clothes dripped sweat and I had yet to spot a single carving.

At least the scenic rewards of Mount Haguro were more immediate. Only just beginning my three-day pilgrimage, I’d already passed the high waterfall that serves to purify those foolhardy enough to undertake such a task, as well the famed five-story pagoda first built by Taira no Masakado in the 10th century.

Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata Prefecture has been a site of devotion since its founding by Prince Hachiko in 593. During the Heian Period (794-1185) it became an important center for Shugendo, a syncretic belief system that borrows elements from esoteric Buddhism and Shinto, and emphasizes the relationship between humans and nature.

I was midway up the mountain and bent over gasping for air when I noticed the clownish nose and mocking eyes of a tengu goblin staring back at me. I’d finally spotted my first carving on the stone stairs. Just then a trio of white-clad yamabushi, Shugendo practioners adhering to a rigorous form of mountain asceticism, passed by carrying pilgrim’s staffs topped with tinkling silver bells. The plonk-plonk of wood hitting stone reverberated around the towering sugi (Japanese cedar) trees that lined the path.

A mountain ascetic blows a horagai (conch horn) to announce his presence on the mountain

A mountain ascetic blows a horagai (conch horn) to announce his presence on the mountain

As the traditional entrance to Dewa Sanzan, Mount Haguro enshrines all three mountains’ deities at Sanjin Gosaiden. The nearly 200-year-old structure at the mountain’s flat summit blends elements of Shinto and Buddhism under its thick thatched roof, and upon my late afternoon arrival I found a few dozen tourists and worshippers alike listening to a monk’s resonant voice chanting sutra. Two other baritone chants unfurled from smaller temples to the left and right and overlapped in the humid air where sharp, clarion cries from unseen birds stitched together a rich sonic tapestry.

I bathed and retired to my room at the Saikan sanrūjō, an inn for pilgrims and Shugendo practitioners, for some quiet time before a dinner of traditional shōjin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian, or “devotion” cuisine). A group of yamabushi ate in a separate dining hall, apparently forbidden from consorting with riffraff like me.

I went to bed early knowing I had a long day ahead of me, but was awakened just before midnight by the sound of my fellow lodgers chanting in the main hall, and again around 4 a.m. by the sounding of a horagai, a trumpet fashioned from a conch shell, summoning the yamabushi to their daily training.

I’d come to Dewa Sanzan chasing a rumor that you could still hike the original 20-km route from Haguro to Gassan, the second and highest of the pilgrimage’s three peaks. I’d been asking everyone local I could corner about the apocryphal trail but kept getting the same answer: Most of the route had been paved over more than 40 years ago and the resulting road ended at Gassan’s eighth station, close to where I was to spend my second night.

The five-tiered pagoda on Mt Haguro

The five-tiered pagoda on Mt Haguro

Luckily the original path off of Mount Haguro still existed and would take me by the visitors’ center, where I could perhaps find fresh intelligence. Stepping from stone to stone I wondered if my feet fell in the same places as those of the haiku poet Matsuo Basho when he passed this way in 1689, before writing about his visit to Dewa Sanzan in Japan’s most famous travelogue, the “Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

At the visitors’ center I procured a topographical map of the area, consulted with the lone employee and confirmed my worst fears. The old path up the mountain had indeed been paved over. With any romantic notion I may have had of walking in Basho’s footsteps thus deflated, I camped out on the quiet, shaded porch of the visitors’ center to wait for the next bus.

At 1,984 meters, Mount Gassan is nearly four times as tall as Mount Haguro. The road to the eighth station meanders up the north ridge and affords long, sweeping views down the valleys on either side and over the Japan Sea to the west. Arriving at Midahara Shrine hours ahead of schedule, I left my backpack with the young priests and spent the afternoon wandering around the alpine wetlands north of the peak where squadrons of dragonflies conducted maneuvers over the sedge and red-bellied salamanders swam lazily in the small highland tarns.

After another meal of foraged mountain vegetables, I walked through the moonlit marsh to soak up the silence and take in the clear air. Returning to the sanrūjō, I found the young priests had changed into shorts and tatty T-shirts. They sat chain smoking around a small television showing a variety program about monks at Mount Koya, where a Shingon abbot exhorted the importance of man’s relationship to nature. The dressed-down priests nodded in agreement between the smoke rings they blew.

It wasn’t the blare of a horagai that woke me the next morning, but solemn drumming as the priests, presumably back in uniform, ritually opened the shrine for another day.

The real path of mountain asceticism on Dewa Sanzan (courtesy corbin blog)

The real path of mountain asceticism on Dewa Sanzan (courtesy corbin blog)

Leaving the wetlands I ascended into a ceiling of clouds that had moved in overnight. The fog limited my view significantly as I made my way across fields of gray stone patched with snow and through vivid green chaparral stippled by bright alpine wildflowers. Occasionally the rolling banks revealed crystalline views across the valley like glimpses of the floating world.

The fog so concealed Gassan Shrine where it jutted from the mountain’s peak that I hardly knew when I had arrived. Owing to its prominent placement and the high stone wall that surrounds it, the shrine resembles a medieval military garrison more than a far-flung pilgrim’s post.

I was purified by one from another cadre of priests, who seemed even younger than those at Midahara, before entering Dewa Sanzan’s holiest site. I silently admired the shrine’s principle objects of worship, three round mirrors of pounded and polished metal that gleamed in the murky light, before continuing on.

The fog soon turned to showers as I made my careful, calf-smashing descent down the rain-slicked path west toward Mount Yudono. A section of trail known as the cow’s neck skirted a massive ice sheet so vast I couldn’t discern its far edges as they dissolved into the mist. The ice had crept up the slope to envelope several dozen meters of the trail, and when I reached the far side of this white expanse I encountered a group of hikers waiting cautiously for me — or anyone, really — to appear before venturing onto the ice themselves.

The trail then arced around to the northern slope of Mount Yudono before a final steep descent to Dewa Sanzan’s final stop, Yudono Shrine, near the base of the mountain. The penultimate segment is so steep that steel ladders have been bolted to the rock itself, and in places rivulets of water stream beneath them. At first I mistook this for draining rainwater before realizing the ladders were bolted over a waterfall.

The rain had abated and eventually the ground leveled out as I shakily covered the final few hundred meters to my ultimate destination. With each step I felt a bit more of the pilgrim’s singular pride, that rare blend of accomplishment, relief and reverence.

It’s tradition not to reveal what one sees inside the hallowed grounds of Yudono Shrine, and one that I intend to keep. I’ll only say that every arduous step I took to get there made the experience that much more gratifying. For those of you have been, you’ll get my little joke. To everyone else, you’ll have to make your own way there and discover Yudono’s holy secrets for yourself.


Getting there: Mount Haguro and Yudono Shrine can both be reached by regular bus service from Tsuruoka for around ¥1,400 one way. Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono are closed from October through June due to heavy snow, and bookings at all sanrūjō must be made in advance.

WW2 remembrance

Actions speak louder than words.  While prime minister Abe was making a carefully coded statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2, three of his cabinet ministers were allowed to visit Yasukuni JInja. Legitimising the shrine that stood at the heart of Japan’s military machine can be seen as part of an agenda to gradually restore elements of State Shinto, a movement which is backed by SAS (the political wing of the Association of Shrines).

The symbolic heart of this revisionist mission is Yasukuni and its glorification of Japan’s war dead, who are said to have sacrificed themselves for the sake of the emperor.  Yet the emperor himself, known for his liberal sympathies, has refrained from ever visiting the shrine, for fear of encouraging the nationalistic right-wingers.

In contrast to the peace-loving animism preached by some Shinto theorists, Abe and his followers march to the beat of a narrow, nationalistic drumbeat.  Their concerns are with patriotism, a greater role for the military, and expression of the national will.  The struggle for the soul of Shinto has entered dark times indeed.



Three ministers visit Yasukuni

by and   Japan Times 

On Saturday, Tomomi Inada, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Haruko Arimura, minister in charge of female empowerment and gender equality, internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi and disaster management minister Eriko Yamatani paid a visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.  Former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara also visited the shrine and said he wanted the Emperor to also make a visit. Emperor Akihito has never visited the shrine.

Lawmaker visits to the Shinto landmark routinely draw condemnation from various quarters, particularly from China and South Korea, where wartime resentment against Japan lingers.

“I believe how we console the souls of people who died in the line of public duty is a matter of the people of each nation,” Takaichi told reporters at Yasukuni. “It is not something that should be treated as a diplomatic matter.”

Yasukuni is regarded by many countries as a symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited the shrine in December 2013, raising the ire of China, South Korea and the United States, did not visit the shrine Saturday.

Koichi Hagiuda, a Lower House member and close aide to Abe, visited the shrine Saturday morning. He told reporters at Yasukuni that Abe probably decided not to come because of the diplomatic tensions that were stoked by his last visit.

“(But) yesterday (Abe) told me his sense of gratefulness for the spirits (of the war dead) and his feelings for Yasukuni have not changed,” Hagiuda said, adding he made an offering to Yasukuni on behalf of Abe.

Abe has maintained his visit in 2013 was to pay his respects to all of the war dead, not to show reverence to war criminals.

Yasukuni Shrine honors 2.46 million people who “dedicated their lives to the state.” Most are soldiers killed in Japan’s modern wars, but also enshrined are 12 Class-A convicted war criminals of World War II, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, together with two defendants who died while in detention.


Click here for more on the political manipulation of Shinto and Yasukuni by the Abe regime.

Cat shrine

It’s not usual to enshrine animals in Japan, and I’m uncertain whether the enshrinement mentioned below was carried out by a Shinto priest or not, but it’s certainly captured the imagination of the nation. Interestingly, the name of the cat in question, Tama, can mean ball as well as soul – rather a neat name for a spiritually charged cat!

Railway names Tama the cat’s replacement as stationmaster

Wakayama Electric Railway Co., which recently mourned the death of its popular feline “stationmaster,” has appointed another cat as her successor, hoping the tradition will continue to attract passengers.

The railway, which credited Tama with rescuing it from financial difficulties, issued a letter of appointment Tuesday for Nitama (Tama the Second), a 5-year-old female, to become the master of Kishi Station in Kinokawa, Wakayama Prefecture. Like her predecessor, who died in June, Nitama is a calico.


The railway also unveiled Tama Shrine, a Shinto shrine that enshrines Tama as a deity protecting the once money-losing Kishigawa Line.

“I hope (Nitama) will contribute to boosting local sightseeing and other businesses,” said Mitsunobu Kojima, president of the railway.

At the funeral for Tama, who died at the age of 16, Kojima said she was a “savior” for not only his company but also for many other small railway operators in rural areas struggling financially.

Nitama had been Tama’s subordinate since January 2012, when she was appointed acting stationmaster.

Wearing a stationmaster’s cap as she was held in the arms of the president, Nitama “offered prayers” to the shrine and “reported” her promotion to Tama’s soul, now known as “Tama Daimyojin,” while numerous fans looked on.

Yukako Nakahashi, a 42-year-old office worker from Saitama Prefecture, said Nitama “looked more dignified than when I saw her a few years ago, and she seems to have got more used to her job.”

The shrine, located on a platform at the station, is equipped with two small bronze statues of Tama with beckoning paws — one for drawing passengers and another for money. In Japan, a beckoning cat figure, called a maneki-neko, is traditionally placed in restaurants and shops as a good luck charm.

The Kishigawa Line had been losing passengers and was on the edge of shutting down before Tama became the master of Kishi Station in January 2007.

Her cuteness and the novelty of a cat stationmaster attracted tourists from around Japan and overseas, and the success sparked a trend of appointing rabbits, cats, dogs and other animals as stationmasters among local railways across Japan.

Courtesy Wakayama Tourist Board

Courtesy Wakayama Tourist Board

Syncretism 1): Saigyo

Cherry blossom

No one was a greater lover of cherry blossom than Saigyo, in whom animism mixed with pursuit of Buddha nature

Saigyo (1118-90) is one of my favourite Japanese poets.  Brought up in the warrior class, he had a promising career in front of him but dropped out at 22 to become a Buddhist monk and wandering poet. Basho was a great admirer, and in both cases the wandering served to spur creativity, not only through the freshness of surroundings but through the motion itself, as I’ve noted in a piece on Walking and Writing.

In his pioneering work, Saigyo sought inspiration in the spirit of place, both through the historical associations and though the sense of presence.  A true animist, he was above all sensitive to the transient beauty of the moon and cherry blossom.  The moon was a symbol of Buddhism (the full moon suggesting enlightenment), whereas cherry blossom epitomised the fragile impermanence of life.  His most famous poem combines both features, honouring the historical Buddha who is said to have died under a full moon:

I would like to die
at full moon
by cherry blossom.

As a young man Saigyo lived in Kyoto on the Eastern Hills, but after tiring of the political in-fighting he took to a peripatetic life.  He spent time at Mt Koya, headquarters of the Shingon sect, and often returned there. Twenty-eight years after his tonsure, he revisited the capital prior to setting off for Shikoku and the 88-temple pilgrimage.  Yet despite being a sincere Buddhist who regarded waka poems as a form of mantra, Saigyo retained the strongest of feelings towards the kami and his writings show how very deep ran the syncretic strain within him:

‘Just as had always been so, I continued to go to the Kamo Shrine even after becoming a monk.  Now at an advancing age, I was about to pilgrimage to Shikoku, thinking that I may never return.  So I made a night visit to the shrine on the tenth day of the tenth month of 1168.  I wanted to present a votive request, but since I was wearing the clothes of a Buddhist monk and could not go inside the shrine, I requested someone to present it on my behalf.  Through the trees the light of the moon was filtering softly, so that the atmosphere of the place was even more sacred than usual, and I was deeply moved.  I wrote this:

Awe is what fills me
as my tears fall onto the sacred branch
I here present:
my feelings are of someone
wondering if he’ll ever return.

(tr. William R. Lafleur in Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times and Poetry of Saigyo)

The romon at Kamigamo Jinja, also part of a World Heritage complex

Kamigamo Jinja as it looks today

Later in life Saigyo mysteriously changed his place of abode from Mt Koya to near Ise, where he was based for 11 years. Writing of his decision, Saigyo referred to the central teaching of the day, honji–suijaku (element–trace), in which Shinto kami are seen as localised manifestations of universal buddhas and boddhisattvas.  From this viewpoint, worship of Amaterasu was a means of paying respect to Dainichi Nyorai, the central buddha of esoteric Buddhism.  ‘I grew tired of living on Mt Koya,’ writes Saigyo,

… and went to a mountain temple at a place called Futami in the vicinity of Ise. The sacred mountain of the great Shinto shrine there is referred to as the mountain traversed by sacred beings. Reflecting on the fact that the great Amaterasu, who is worshiped at the imperial shrine in Ise, is a manifest expression of Dainichi Buddha, I composed the following:

Following the paths
the gods passed over, I seek
their innermost place;
up and up to the highest of all;
peak where wind soughs through pines

One of the most inspiring Saigyo poems was written about Ise Jingu, surprisingly, since there was some antagonism at the shrine towards Buddhism and priests dressed in religious garb were forbidden entry.  This apparently had no effect on Saigyo, who was moved by the vitality of the woods surrounding the shrine, and the poem he wrote as a result has been much quoted:

Just what it is
That resides here
I know not
Yet my eyes
Fill with tears

It’s the most complete expression of animism, which discloses a true sensitivity of soul.  It speaks to the sense of awe at the mystery of existence.  The Japanese are not given to metaphysics or intellectual abstraction, it is often said, and the poem here speaks to the emotional force of direct experience.  There is no desire to name, no attempt to rationalise.

Ise Jingu,Japan's prime pilgirmage destination in Japan

Ise Jingu, where the Buddhist monk Saigyo worshipped

It seems one reason Saigyo may have moved to Ise was his close relationship with members of the Arakida family, hereditary priests of the Inner Shrine (Naiku) from as early as the eighth century.  Nonetheless the family seem to have had a strong interest in Buddhism, and Saiygo’s friend Arakida Mitsuyoshi, whom he coached in poetry, was later tonsured as a Buddhist priest.

Like others of his time, Saigyo was convinced of the interdependence of native kami and transcendent Buddhas, noting that  ‘Having gone to Ise, I worshipped at the great shrine’…

Adoration for
the sacred sakaki tree
– pendant branches
with both gods and buddhas
depending on each other.

The identification of kami and buddhas in the honji-suijaku concept underwrote Saigyo’s love of cherry blossom too.  Since the kami are present within natural phenomena that impress us with their beauty and numinous presence, then to be drawn to them is to be drawn to the buddha-spirit within.  Love of cherry blossom was therefore to move towards the enlightened state, which was the goal for all Buddhists.

It’s a reminder that the other great writer of the times, Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), was a Shinto priest at Shimogamo Shrine before dropping out to become a Buddhist recluse on the southern fringe of Kyoto, where he lived in ‘a ten-foot square hut’. The author of Hojoki (1212) was much preoccupied with impermanence and sought refuge in the transient beauty of nature, equating the  cycle of the seasons with the great wheel of existence. For Shinto and Buddhism alike, the circular mirror was a potent symbol, and the notion of a ideological divide would have seemed absurd to these figures of the past. How could you break two modes of thinking that were so perfectly fused?

The history of post-Meiji Japan suggests they had a good point.

Model of Kamo no Chomei's hut, housed at Kawai Jinja within Shimogamo Shrine.  The hut itself is beneath the large protective roof.

Model of the ten-foot square hut in which the syncretic Kamo no Chomei lived.  Once a Shinto priest at Shimogamo Jinja, he dropped out to become a Buddhist recluse living close to nature on a hill outside Kyoto.

Tradition v. Star Wars

A preliminary sketch for the 'Star Wars' float to be on display at the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri festival depicts C-3PO and R2-D2. Festival organizers have dropped plans for the float to join the parade. | LUCASFILM LTD.

A preliminary sketch for the ‘Star Wars’ float to be on display at the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri festival depicts C-3PO and R2-D2. Festival organizers have dropped plans for the float to join the parade. | LUCASFILM LTD.

Green Shinto has carried many reports about how shrines act as the custodians of tradition, while at the same time trying to appeal to a younger generation with anime, manga, New Age power spots and other gimmicks. However, news from Aomori and the famed Nebuta Festival suggest there are definite limits to how far the authorities will go…


Aomori Nebuta festival organizers refuse to let ‘Star Wars’ floats join parade

Kyodo/ Japan Times


Nebuta float (courtesy japan.hillground)

Organizers of the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri Festival, scheduled to start in Aomori on Sunday, will not put the much-awaited floats based on “Star Wars” characters on the streets, as they feared the design goes against the cultural tradition and the floats would attract too many visitors, causing turmoil.

Many residents who had been hoping the floats would become a good opportunity to promote the city said they were disappointed by the decision.

Organizers announced in July that Nebuta floats depicting “Star Wars” characters would appear in this year’s festival. The design was created under the supervision of Lucasfilm Ltd., the producer of the films, as the first attempt to create floats using characters from movies.

The promoter of the film series asked that the floats be pulled down the main streets of the city, but the organizers refused and instead decided to reveal them at an event to be held on the eve of the festival and put them on display during the festival.


Photo courtesy JapanShops

“We put priority on preserving the tradition. I don’t regard (“Star Wars” floats) as Nebuta,” said Hidenori Nara, head of the organizing committee. The latest episode of the film series is expected to be released in December, and Nara said if the festival is seen as a part of film promotion, it could have a negative impact on the event in the future.

Organizers also said there were concerns that the appearance of “Star Wars” floats would lead to a sharp increase in the number of visitors, making it difficult to ensure safety.

Creators of the “Star Wars” floats said they cannot understand why the floats cannot parade on the streets, saying they would help boost the region’s economy.

Noboru Shirakawa, a 68-year-old resident of Aomori, said children and visitors from abroad would have enjoyed looking at “Star Wars” Nebuta on the streets more than the traditional ones.

Aomori, which hosts the festival designated as one of the national important intangible folk cultural assets, was ranked the most popular tourist site for festival-goers in a survey by major travel agent JTB Corp.

Photo courtesy JapanShops

Photo courtesy JapanShops

Animal cruelty (Ageuma)

Westerners who know little or nothing of Shinto like to think it’s a ‘green’ religion.  Yet strangely the voice of Shinto is completely absent from anti-nuclear demonstrations, from protests against the dolphin massacre at Taiji, and from any kind of objection to whaling.  In fact, the Shinto establishment is very much aligned with the Abe government in supporting all three of the anti-environmental measures.ageuma

If Shinto was truly concerned with environmental matters, it would certainly not be practising animal cruelty.  Yet that is exactly what it’s doing at the annual Tado Festival in Mie Prefecture. The sickening Age-uma festival has featured on Green Shinto twice before (see here for details),  and the authorities have even been taken to court to stop the barbaric practices. Yet animal welfare monitors report that this year’s festival continues to show absolutely no improvements at all.

Ironically, the horse is a sacred animal in Shinto, as it is regarded as the mount of the kami.  A few special shrines keep a white horse on the grounds, and ‘horse pictures’ are the origin of the votive plaques known as ema.  Yet despite this, Shinto shrines apparently see no problem with maltreating  horses, leading sometimes to severe and crippling injuries.  It’s a matter of ‘tradition’.


Photos on this page from anonymous sources

Here is the report of the Japan Animal Welfare Society for this year’s festival (Newsletter 83, Spring 2015, p.9).  The emphasis is theirs…

Age-Uma still running
JCAW representatives visited the Age-uma Shinji again this year to observe and report on the cruel practices. This festival, held in Inabe and Tado Shinto Shrine, uses horses in a shockingly abusive way, where they are ridden at high speed and encouraged to jump a high, vertical stone wall.
Unfortunately, the abusive actions of festival staff have continued despite numerous warnings issued by JCAW (Japan Coalition for Animal Welfare), including a request for action officially filed with the local police department.
JCAW will continue to monitor this festival and devise new ways in which to change the current situation.
This festival uses horses in a shockingly abusive way, where they are ridden at high speed and encouraged to jump a high, vertical stone wall.

Munakata-Okinoshima W.H. bid

Fukuoka ancient monuments tabbed for UNESCO heritage list

Kyodo (Japan Times)

The Council for Cultural Affairs has picked a group of five ancient monuments in Fukuoka Prefecture as a candidate for UNESCO cultural heritage status in 2017.

Munakata Shrine near Fukuoka, Kyushu

Munakata Shrine in northern Kyushu

The government will recommend the Munakata-Okinoshima monuments to UNESCO by next Feb. 1 for screening by the World Heritage Committee in summer 2017.

The monuments include the island of Okinoshima, which lies midway between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula.

The island is home to Okitsu-Miya Shrine, which was used for prayer rituals for Japan’s successful exchange with the Asian continent in the fourth to ninth centuries.

About 80,000 articles unearthed on the island have been designated as national treasures, including a gold ring made on the Korean Peninsula and a cut glass from Persia.

A local government official said Okinoshima is suitable for the UNESCO cultural heritage list as it represents a rare case where the island itself has traditionally been worshipped.

The group of monuments also includes the Munakata Taisha shrine pavilions and ancient tombs on the northern tip of Kyushu.

Japan already has 18 sites on the UNESCO list, including the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” approved earlier this month.

The shrine at Oki Island, only open once a year for its festival

The shrine at Oki Island, only open once a year for its festival


See for more pictures, as above, of the Oki festival.

Festival yakuza

Yakuza at the Sanja Festival (photo by 'Yumi' for Japanworld)

Yakuza play a prominent part at the Sanja Festival (photo by ‘Yumi’ for Japanworld)

The ties of the yakuza with Shinto are not widely-known, but they certainly exist.  They are not perhaps surprising when one considers that the mores of the yakuza are deeply rooted in Japanese traditions. It’s why gang leaders are often pictured making shrine visits, so as to enhance their self-image as guardians of Japaneseness.  And yakuza rituals often borrow deeply from Shinto practice.

A news item in Japan Today touches on the close ties between the yakuza and the huge Sanja Festival, which took place in May.  The article raises more questions than it answers.  What was the purpose of the two men?  How and why were they ‘unlawfully’ manoeuvering a large mikoshi?  What indeed was going on?


2 yakuza members arrested for obstructing Sanja Festival

Japan Today

Two yakuza members have been arrested after they obstructed the Sanja Festival in Tokyo’s Asakusa district in May.

The suspects were identified as Shuichi Obitsu, a 46–year-old executive member of organized crime group Sumiyoshi-kai, and Masahiro Kondo, a 30-year-old member of the group, Fuji TV reported Saturday.

According to police, the two men unlawfully maneuvered a large mikoshi (portable shrine) during the festival near their office. Police said they showed off their tattoos and yelled at spectators to intimidate them, all of which disrupted the flow of the festival.

Police said the pair have been charged with creating a public nuisance.

There have been many similar cases caused by yakuza members at the Sanja Festival in the past.


For the background to this story, see this article on yakuza involvement by ampontan.
For pictures of yakuza involvement in Tokyo’s Torikoe Matsuri, click here.

There's little mistaking the festival costume here! (courtesy the japanismo site)

There’s little mistaking the festival costume here! (courtesy the japanismo site)


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