Endo Shusaku’s ‘swamp’

Shinto weddings look good but most Japanese choose a fake Christian-style wedding instead.

An article in the Japan Times highlights the nature of Endo Shusaku’s ‘swamp’ in which a foreign religion like Christianity is unable to take root but will simply rot and perish. It’s something I had to think about in my book on Hidden Christians. Why is Japan so resistant to Christianity, yet at the same time so eager to embrace Westernisation?

My conclusion was perhaps similar to Endo, although he never specifically mentions Shinto as a root cause. But it seems to me the polytheistic base of Japanese thinking, coupled with its syncretic nature, creates an environment in which form triumphs over substance. Paying respects at a Shinto shrine is correct form, though the substance of what is being worshipped in the shrine remains vague, unknown and largely irrelevant.

But if you follow Shinto and respect its kami, why on earth would you choose a Christian-style wedding? Particularly if you know it’s a fake priest, anyway. It’s something that the article in question considers, so please see this link here. It’s titled:

Christian-style weddings remain popular in Japan, but allure is more about optics than religion

Even a Buddhist wife wants a white Christian style dress

Quote: Christians make up about only 1 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million, according to data released by the Cultural Affairs Agency in 2015.

But a 2011 survey by research company Bridal Souken found that in the first several years of the new millennium, Christian-style weddings accounted for about two-thirds of Japanese unions, and currently a majority still prefer this type of ceremony over Shinto or secular ones.

Foreign celebrants, who in Altar’s experience are invariably Caucasian, are mostly hired by companies subcontracted by kekkonshikijo (exclusive wedding chapels).

“The chapels have nothing to do with congregations or worshippers. The Western ceremony is a chance to wear the nice dress and be like Cinderella or Snow White. Probably the men too, they want a bright ceremony to invite their friends to,” he said.


For more about Christians and the Shinto connection, see the three-part feature on Hidden Christians here.

Modern pose, traditional clothing


Emperor’s daughter becomes supreme priestess at Ise Shrine


Sayaka Kuroda, who after her marriage to a commoner had to give up her title as princess and leave the imperial family. The new supreme priestess is by training an ornithologist, specialising in kingfishers.

Kuroda, 48, on Monday officially replaced the 86-year-old Atsuko Ikeda, elder sister of the Emperor, who served in the post for 29 years, after the Imperial family requested her retirement, the shrine in Mie Prefecture said without giving other details.

Kuroda will visit the shrine as the Emperor’s representative for festive events including Kanname-sai, held annually in October, in which crops are offered to sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestral deity of the Imperial family.

Kuroda became a commoner after marrying a man outside of the Imperial family. She acted as Ise Shrine’s special priestess from 2012-2013, providing support for Ikeda during its Shikinen Sengu event, in which a symbol of the deity is transferred to a new building every 20 years.

The post of supreme priest or priestess leads Shinto priests at the religion’s holiest shrine. It has been assumed by current or former female Imperial family members since the end of World War II.

Yada Tenmangu (Alex Kerr)

The entrance to Yada Tenmangu – and to Alex Kerr’s house

Imagine a small but atmospheric old shrine, with Japanese garden and wild nature beyond.  Imagine entering the shrine gate and turning left into a large rambling wooden house you call home. Imagine too just outside your front door is a torii festooned with shimenawa, a functioning shrine and surrounds that are quintessentially Japanese.

For author and entrepreneur Alex Kerr this requires no imagination at all, for it has been his reality since moving into the house in 1977. It originated 400 years ago as lodging for Buddhist nuns and it stands now in the grounds of Yada Tenmangu, a small shrine dedicated to the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).

For long the house was used by successive shrinekeepers, but around 1930 it fell into disuse. The shrine however continued to function and today is under the aegis of a nearby priest. (It’s not uncommon for priests to have charge of several, even dozens, of small shrines.)

The shrine torii illuminated by candlelight, redolent of a ghostly presence as Lafcadio Hearn would put it

Part of the ad hoc collection of art decorating the rambling rooms

When Alex got permission to occupy the building, there was no electricity or running water, just a well in the kitchen. He had come across it while working in Kameoka with the Oomoto sect, organising traditional culture courses.  For the past forty years renovation has been an ongoing process, requiring almost constant attention, as a result of which the spacious rooms now have a comfortable and splendidly bohemian feel. Alongside his other activities Kerr is a dealer in Japanese and Thai artworks, many of which are on display. Traditional fusuma paintings sit cosily alongside modern pieces, including some striking calligraphy by the host. An Aladin’s Cave is how the owner describes the effect in Lost Japan.

Alex Kerr being presented with his birthday cake.

Such was the setting for Alex’s 65th birthday party, when the rambling house and grounds overflowed with people for what was dubbed ‘a firefly festival’. Along with the eating and dining was some Thai traditional music, a dance performance, the creation of a miniature garden in a glass bowl, and a calligraphic show.

In keeping with the shrine setting was a remarkable performance of kagura (sacred dance).  This was given by a former Takarazuka professional, who after retirement from the popular all-female music troupe had taken up the Shinto-style sacred dance, including work at Ise Jingu.  A standing screen featuring Mt Fuji acted as backdrop, creating a spiritual focus for the devotional rite (Fuji san is a ‘spirit-body’). The performer entered with fan held before her face so as not to be ‘polluted’ by the gaze of the audience before revealing herself to the kami.  In her other hand she carried a sprig of sasaki (sacred plant) and suzu bells, the sound of which acts as auditory purification. With her swirling robes the dancer conveyed all the elegance and beauty of the Japanese tradition at its best.

In the interval between performances guests were invited to walk a couple of minutes down the little road that runs past the house and along a creek, accompanied on the way by a chaotic cacophony of frogs from the adjacent rice fields. On the banks of the stream fireflies paraded like ghostly figures holding tiny fairy lights. It was as if ancestral spirits had emerged from some shadowy otherworld to emit for the brief period of their return a bright spark of delight in the sheer joy of existence.

Lost Japan (1996) is the title of Alex’s breakthrough book.  At Yada Tenmangu you can’t help feeling that Lost Japan has truly been found.


For a poetic piece on Alex’s life at Yada Tenmangu, please click here.  For an overview of his books, click here. For his Wikipedia page, click here. For his homepage, click here. For a full account of the Tenmangu house, see Chapter 7 of Lost Japan (extract follows below the photos).

Calligraphy by the multi-talented Alex Kerr

A garden of delights. (photo Heidi Durning)

The kagura begins with shielded face. Attention is diverted thereby to the gorgeous fan and sumptuous clothing

A standing screen with Mt Fuji acted as spiritual focus for the dance

Salute to the kami (photo Heidi Durning)

In one hand an eye-catching fan, in the other a sprig of sasaki and suzu bells. Entertainment fit for the gods.


From Chapter 7 of Lost Japan by Alex Kerr….

“My home is a traditional Japanese house in the grounds of a small Shinto shrine called Tenmangu, dedicated to the god of calligraphy. Like Chiiori, the house measures four bays by eight bays, but it is tiled rather than thatched. While the house is not large, it has considerable garden space because of its location in the grounds of a shrine. One side of the property fronts a small road, while the other side overlooks a mountain stream; the grounds sandwiched within cover about a thousand tsubo of land. The mountain rising up on the other side of the stream is also shrine property, so the ‘borrowed scenery’ of the garden actually extends over several thousand tsubo. A long white wall with a tiled roof borders the grounds of the shrine on the side towards the road, and in the center of the wall there is a high gate. Entering, you see directly before you a stone torii (the entrance gate to the shrine itself), and a small Tenmangu Shrine with an old plum tree standing beside it. To the right is the ‘shrine forest’, a stand of giant old cryptomeria cedars. To the left of the stone path is my domain. Water lilies float in large pots, and an assortment of vessels scattered here and there hold peonies, ferns, lotuses, Chinese lanterns and heron grass. After crossing six or seven stepping stones, you reach the entrance to my house. When you enter the living room, the back garden comes into view – although ‘jungle’ might be a more appropriate description. Just a few square meters have been cleared near the house, a stretch of grass and moss with some stepping stones in it. The edges of this plot are planted with azaleas and hagi (bush clover), which have been long unattended and are beginning to spread unruly twigs outwards and upwards, hiding a mossy stone lantern and some ceramic statues of badgers. Towards the back are a variety of trees: an ancient cherry tree (propped up with wooden supports), a maple, camellias and a gingko tree. Behind these trees, the garden drops away to a waterfall in the stream, and a heavily wooded mountain soars up from the far bank. When I arrive home on Friday night, I throw open the glass doors of the verandah, and the sound of the waterfall swells up into the house. In that instant, all thoughts of the week in Tokyo blow clean away, and I feel like I have returned to my true self. Finding this house was a piece of great good luck.”


Hearn 18): Meiji Jingu talk pt 2

Yoko Makino, talking of Hearn’s view of the kami

‘Japan, the Land of the Kami as Perceived by Lafcadio Hearn’ was the title of the Lecture Event put on at Meiji Jingu to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Irish-Japanese diplomatic relations. The Japanese for the event was ‘Koizumi Yakumo no mita kami no kuni, nippon’. The use of the Japanese name for Hearn seems to suggest the country has taken him to heart as one of their own. The second of the two talks served to confirm that.

Yoko Makino, professor of Seijo Univesity (Faculty of Economics), is a former pupil of Sukehiro Hirakawa, and her talk was titled ‘The Image of Shinto Shrines in the Works of Lafcadio Hearn’. The theme was that he had better understood the appeal of Shinto than his illustrious contemporaries, B.H. Chamberlain, William Aston and Ernest Satow.

For foreign scholars, Shinto was intellectually void for it lacked dogma, doctrine and ideology. Not only was nature worship regarded as primitive, but the shrines were seen in terms of plain wood with little artistic merit whereas Buddhist temples with their cosmology and ornate decorations were worthy of high respect. Chamberlain even quoted with approval the comment of one visitor to Ise Jingu who complained they had nothing to show and made a great deal of fuss about showing it.

Shinto, so often spoken of as a religion, is hardly entitled to that name… It has no set of dogmas, no sacred book, mo moral code.

Hearn by contrast was a Romanticist, more concerned with feelings. His explicit aim was to see into ‘the heart of the Japanese’, to which end he intended to live among Japanese as if one of them. In this way he came to a sympathetic understanding of Shinto, remarkable for his age (he wrote at a time when Western values were automatically assumed to be superior).

Yet something of what Shinto signifies… may be learned during a residence of some years among the people, by one who lives their life and adopts their manners and customs. With such experience he can at least claim the right to express his own conception of Shinto.  (from ‘Household Shrines’)

Lafcadio Hearn’s image on a shop front in Matsue, indicative of his place in Japanese society

Makino illustrated her point with three passages from Hearn that showed how deep was his appreciation of  indigenous practice. These consisted of 1) the approach to the shrine; 2) the shrine building; 3) the kami inside the shrine. With their setting on hillsides and in sacred groves, the locations of shrines are often as striking as they are appealing, something for which Hearn showed great awareness.

Of all peculiarly beautiful things in Japan, the most beautiful are the approaches to high places of worship or of rest, – the Ways that go to Nowhere and the Steps that lead to Nothing…   Perhaps the ascent begins with a sloping paved avenue, half a mile long, lined with giant trees. Stone monsters guard the way at regular intervals. Then you come to some great flight of steps ascending through green gloom to a terrace umbraged by older and vaster trees: and other steps from thence lead to other terraces, all in shadow.

Hearn goes on to describe the architecture in remarkable detail, commenting on how there is no artificial colour but plain wood which turns under the influence of rain and sunshine to a natural grey ‘varying according to surface exposure from the silvery tone of birch bark to the sombre grey of basalt.’  He then writes of the ‘august house’ of the kami as a haunted room, a spirit chamber, in which live ancestral ghosts. [See here for his writing on ghost-houses.]

There are three beliefs which underline ancestral worship, he says, whether in Japan or elsewhere. 1) The dead remain in this world. 2) All the dead become gods (in that they have supernatural power). 3) The happiness of the dead depends on the respectful service of the living.

Imagining the kami

Hearn’s ability to enter imaginatively into the world of the Other was nicely brought out by Makino in a passage from Hearn’s ‘A Living God’, in which he wonders what it would be like to be a kami, guarded by stone lions and shadowed by a holy grove. He would have no form or shape, but like a natural vibration he could pass through walls ‘to swim in the long god bath of a sunbeam, to thrill in the heart of a flower, to ride on the neck of a dragonfly’. Here, the speaker interjected, Hearn was clearly reaching back to the fairy folklore of his youth, yet in his description of the interplay of worshipper and kami Hearn was able to summon up the essence of Shinto in unparalleled manner.

From the dusk of my ghost-house I should look for the coming of sandaled feet, and watch brown supple fingers weaving to my bars the knotted papers which are records of vows, and observe the motion of the lips of my worshipers making prayer…

Sometime a girl would whisper all her heart to me: ‘Maiden of eighteen years, I am loved by a youth of twenty. He is good; he is true; but poverty is with us, and the path of our love is dark. Aid us with thy great divine pity! – help us that we may become united, O Daimyojin!’ then to the bars of my shrine she would hang a thick soft tress of hair, – her own hair, glossy and black as the wing of the crow, and bound with a cord of mulberry-paper. And in the fragrance of that offering, – the simple fragrance of her peasant youth, – I, the ghost and god, should find again the feelings of the years when I was man and lover….

Between the trunks of the cedars and pines, between the jointed columns of the bamboos, I should oversee, season after season, the changes of the colors of the valley: the falling of the snow of winter and the falling of the snow of cherry-flowers; the lilac spread of the miyakobana; the blazing yellow of the natané; the sky-blue mirrored in flooded levels, – levels dotted with the moon-shaped hats of the toiling people who would love me; and at last the pure and tender green of the growing rice.

The muku-birds and the uguisu would fill the shadows of my grove with ripplings and purlings of melody; – the bell-insects, the crickets, and the seven marvelous cicadae of summer would make all the wood of my ghost-house thrill to their musical storms. Betimes I should enter, like an ecstasy, into the tiny lives of them, to quicken the joy of their clamor, to magnify the sonority of their song.’

In this way, nourished by the devotion of worshippers, the kami participates in human life and the seasonal cycle. In a superlative flight of fancy, Hearn has the kami transcend its ghost-house to enter into bird-bodies and become the very voice of nature. Here in imaginative form is the essential spirit of Shinto, and for anyone who doubted the genius of Hearn the brilliance of the writing is surely more than sufficient proof. Like all visionaries, he was a man of extraordinary insight and a hundred years ahead of his time.


For Part One about the lecture by Sukehiro Hirakawa, please see here.

Yoko Makino talking on the Image of Shinto Shrines in the writings of Lafcadio Hearn with particular reference to his essay on ‘A Living God’

Hearn 18): Meiji Jingu talk pt 1

Entrance to Meiji Jingu on a sunny June 3 (all photos Dougill)

On June 3 there was a major event at Meiji Jingu to celebrate 60 years of Irish-Japanese diplomatic relations. It consisted of an introductory talk by the Irish Ambassador followed by two lectures by eminent Hearn scholars. Since one of them was the elderly doyen of Hearn research Sukehiro Hirakawa, I was eager to attend, for he is said to be the driving force behind the recent revival of interest in Hearn, both within Japan and internationally. This is evident in the two thick collections of papers which he edited – Rediscovering Lafcadio Hearn (1997) and Lafcadio Hearn in International Perspectives (2007). I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, particularly the way in which each focussed on different aspects of the multi-talented genius.

Sukehiro Hirakawa (b.1931), professor emeritus of Tokyo University, delivers the keynote address

The subtitle of Hirakawa’s talk was ‘Towards an Irish and Greek Interpretation’, in reference to the circumstances of his birth. Born to a Greek mother and Irish father, Hearn spent his first two years on a Greek island and was then taken to Dublin. This dual background is often linked to his ready acceptance of polytheism (as in the Greek myths of which he was fond in his youth) and also to his interest in the supernatural (as in the Celtic folklore on which he was reared by his Connaught nanny).

Sukehiro Hirakawa, now in his mid-80s, cut a dapper figure and gave a wide-ranging speech that covered very little about Hearn but a lot about the wider appeal of Shinto. In keeping with the venue, his view of the ‘nature religion’ was of a benign indigenous practice that rightfully centred around the emperor and promoted ‘the land of kami’. There was no suggestion here of a universal religion, but rather assertion of the notion that it’s not a religion at all but an intricate part of Japanese culture.

Much of Hirakawa’s talk, not surprisingly, was couched in dated terms. There was constant comparison with Christianity and emphasis on the difficulty for those brought up in a monotheistic culture to understand Shinto thinking. Westerners think humans are created, but Japanese common sense sees people as ‘generated’ in similar fashion to the way that mould naturally appears in moist conditions.

There was however one Westerner who had an instinctive understanding of Shinto and that was Hearn, which for the professor made him so exceptional.  Indeed, he was not only able to enter deep into the ‘kokoro’ (heart) of Japanese but he transmuted into Koizumi Yakumo, a figure loved and respected to this day by his adopted land.

Sukehiro Hirakawa explaining the odd beliefs of Shinto for people brought up in a Christian culture

From his first glimpse of Obon with its dance for the dead, Hearn was smitten with the Japanese kinship with the spirit world. The closeness of ordinary Japanese to their ancestral spirits impressed him deeply. He had been obsessed with ghosts since childhood, and his fanciful imagination was easily able to take in such concepts as returning or restless spirits. That all dead become gods to their descendants made perfect sense to Hearn, who was familiar with the notion from his previous experience of non-Christian cultures.

Hirakawa’s talk ended with reference to imperial loyalty shown in his childhood days when people lined up to bow towards Meiji Jingu when crossing the road. Now he complained, young people hardly knew anything of Shinto and were even ignorant of the fact that the emperor was head priest. Why, he wondered, was there no emphasis in school textbooks of Japan’s ‘unbroken imperial line’?

At this point I remembered the mention I’d seen on the internet of Hirakawa’s links to Nippon Kaigi and the move to reintroduce forms of State Shinto. The genial professor emeritus who had begun his talk with promotion of Shinto as a green-loving nature religion ended with a tacit call to strengthen the emperor system of prewar days. Though he didn’t mention it, he could have added that Lafcadio Hearn had urged much the same course, telling his students in Kumamoto that the highest goal which they could aspire was to sacrifice their lives for the emperor.

Unlike Hirakawa sensei, Hearn had the excuse of living at at time when the world was yet to witness the terrible excesses of State Shinto.

The Irish ambassador (centre) talks to members of the audience during a break in proceedings. The event was part of the Irish Embassy’s anniversary celebrations of 60 years of diplomacy with Japan.

Green activist Minakata Kumagusu

Minakata Kumagusu (1867-1941) was an idiosyncratic naturalist, whose pioneering research brought him high prestige though he never completed a degree. He lived abroad in the US and the UK in early Meiji times, then returned to Japan and became an acknowledged authority in botany and folklore matters.  He also became a fierce advocate for protection of shrine forests, in the face of government policy to the contrary, as is made plain in this extract from a longer article by Roger Pulvers.  (For those in Kyoto, there will be a talk show in Japanese about Minakata at the Maruzen bookshop on June 27.)


‘Three ecologies’ pioneer fought Japan’s rape of nature
by Roger Pulvers   {Taken from Japan Times Jan 20, 2008}

Minakata 1891

In 1906 the Meiji government issued the Edict of the Amalgamation of the Shrines, ordering the dissolution of local shrines around the country and their merger with large, officially sanctioned ones. Minakata saw this clearly, and rightly, as an attempt to politicize the institution of the shrine. In effect, it was an early and giant step toward the establishment of state Shinto, turning the animistic faith into an ideology of nationalism.

To Minakata, local shrines, surrounded by sacred trees, were the symbol of genuine Japanese nature-worship. He knew that Wakayama prefectural officials were hand-in-glove with developers (the kind of cozy tie-up that exists throughout Japan to this day), and that trees formerly protected by local shrines would be felled in a wholesale manner. He pointed out that this would decrease the bird population for lack of nest sites — and so lead to an increase in the insect population. Farmers would then resort to using insecticides, which in turn would get into the water and harm the livelihood of both freshwater and inshore fishermen.

The result of the merger of the shrines was the formation of a link between the destruction of nature and the eventual creation of a fascist state. Ironically, those who supported that state in Japan’s most disastrous-ever war sang the praises of nature while simultaneously decimating it.

Minakata created a mandala to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all natural phenomena. He wrote of the “three ecologies”: the ecologies of biology, society and the mind. By fusing these three into a world view that necessitated the conservation of nature, he stands as a global pioneer in the ecology movement. His philosophy and actions can teach us a great deal today.

As for the latter — his actions — they were sometimes, in the thinking of the day, extreme. On Aug. 11, 1910, he barged into a meeting where officials were discussing the “development” of Wakayama timber, threw a portmanteau and a chair at some of them, and protested vehemently against the travesty of destruction they were wreaking on his beloved forests. Fanatic, yes; passionate and committed, absolutely. And where did this agitation opposing the greed and hypocrisy of much “development” get him?

Handed a suspended sentence

Minakata in 1929

The police were called and Minakata was arrested for “breaking and entering.” In court he was merely handed a suspended sentence; after all, this celebrated native son of Wakayama had brought international renown to his remote prefecture.

He wrote in his diary at the time: “[The result of the official policy] would have been the laying to waste of every last native forest of Wakayama.”

He was a flamboyant and iconoclastic man who strove to honor what he saw as the nature-harmonious taboos of ancient Japan, embracing them as he embraced his Western learning, as a methodology to husband, preserve and live with nature. He was often seen dressed in no more than a loincloth, carrying a hammer and an insect net, roaming the forests. (Minakata suffered from hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, and often pranced about in his natural state.)

When Emperor Hirohito visited Wakayama in 1929, Minakata was asked to deliver a lecture to him, apparently the first time this privilege was ever afforded a commoner. After the Emperor left, with 110 specimens of slime mold in hand as an offering, Minakata wrote this poem:

Oh breeze from the inlet
Do you realize the branches you are blowing through?
This is a forest praised by the Emperor!

Minakata’s life, from 1867 to 1941 (he died exactly three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor), spanned the greatest and most dramatic era of change in the last 1,000 years of Japanese history. His “three ecologies” teach us that the fundament of scientific research is a love and respect for nature. To Minakata, what the eye sees, what the mind reasons and what the heart feels are one.

On Minakata’s death, the Emperor, who had led Japan in its most fatal years of “development,” wrote of the island of Kashima in Minakata’s native province of Kishu (Wakayama):

When I gaze upon Kashima Isle,
dim in the rai
I think of the man
that Kishu gave to the world

Kumagusu Minakata

Minakata became one of the most worshipped heroes of his time. But his greatest achievement may be that he lived his life discovering, protecting and fighting for the phenomena of nature that this country so assiduously and cynically destroyed in his day and has continued to do so since. Minakata is, in this sense, a heroic figure in more ways than one.

Thanks to the efforts of Minakata, scenes such as this were preserved for posterity.

Graffiti mystery

Izanagi Jingu on Awajima claims to be located close to where the primal kami first descended on Japan. It’s even said Izanagi is buried beneath the Honden (presumably as a heavenly kami he defies the taboo on death).

Graffiti found on 11 shrines in Awaji prompt police investigation

Kyodo, Staff Report.  

Graffiti were found at 11 shrines from Tuesday to Wednesday in the city of Awaji in Hyogo Prefecture and local police suspect the property damage was done by the same party.

The Awaji police department said graffiti were first seen at Izanagi Jingu Shrine on Tuesday afternoon. The Asahi Shimbun reported that a shinto priest noticed two kanji scribbles written in red ink on a wall of a shrine structure.

On Wednesday, graffiti were also found at 10 other shrines in the Island city, according the police.

Izanagi Jingu Shrine is believed to enshrine Izanagi and Izanami, a divine couple that appear in Japanese mythology.

In the city of Sumoto, which is also located on Awajishima Island, graffiti were also found in a local shrine in April and the police are looking into whether the vandalism was connected with that found in the city of Awaji.


To read more about the mysterious Izanagi Jingu, check out this two-part Green Shinto posting here and here.

As the Adam and Eve of Japan, Izanagi and Izanami begat all the other kami in existence – which is why this subshrine is dedicated to the whole host of yaoyorozu kami (eight myriad kami)

Shinto in the past

People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that present-day Shinto is the way things have always been.  Far from it!! Shinto has been different in every age, and you can bet it will be different again in future. And as well as variety over time, there has been great variety by region too. The standardisation of modern times dates from a wish to impose uniformity on a national state by the emerging Meiji ideologues. Before then things were far more diverse.

Coins are scattered on and around a rock in a modern Shinto shrine

Awareness of this comes when you read the accounts of Meiji era visitors to the country. One such was the American scientist, Edward Morse. An expert on molluscs, he went on a trip to Lake Chuzenji but failed to find what he was after.  Instead he came across two topless girls bathing in a spring, who quickly covered up because they’d been told that Westerners found it immoral.

Following this, Morse went on to climb the 8000 ft Mt Nantai. On the summit was an ancient shrine with an open platform on which were strewn rusty coins, broken sword blades, thick strands of hair. These were offerings, and the rough way in which they were scattered reminds me of the messy nature of Okinawan altars and Siberian shaman sites. Though Morse had a scientific mindset, when he heard that most mountains in Japan had such shrines he was moved by the spiritual impulse. ‘What a wonderful conception, what devotion to their religion,’ he wrote. (It did not stop him taking some of the fragments as a souvenir, however.)

In the fascinating study of this time Mirror in the Shrine, Robert Rosenstone notes that amongst the leading kami were Inari, god of rice; Benten, goddess of the sea, Hachiman, god of warfare, Koshin, overseer of roads and highways, and Kishi-bojin, mother of demons.  The first three are familiar to us today; Koshin is known, but not so much as an overseer of roads. The absentees are interesting. No Tenjin. No Amaterasu. No Okuninushi.

Offerings in Okinawa are often left scattered around after worship

Unlike the fixed imperial hierarchy of modern times (an invention of tradition by Meiji nationalists), the kami of earlier times were liable to change, mutate, vary and manifest in different forms. For the pagan Lafcadio Hearn this was perfectly understandable as an expression of ‘The infinite Unknown’ that underlies all religions.  Neat.

For Hearn it was one of the tragedies of a modernising Japan that its local deities were being lost as country folk shook off centuries of tradition. The ancient kami had for long centuries consoled the suffering of peasants and gladdened their hearts at festival time. They helped common folk cope with the great tragedy of natural disasters and human warfare. But Meiji purists insisted on ‘one shrine, one village’, and they closed down those with obscure kami while promoting those with imperial connections.

From now on the country hastened to embrace the new path of urbanisation, industrialisation and rationalisation.  In the process some kami were privileged, some barely survived, and some fell by the wayside. The yaoyorazu (myriad) kami were no longer as numerous or diverse as before.  In place of a demotic, localised Shinto came the state oriented Shinto of the present.

Modern offerings might not include swords or strands of hair, but they can be diverse in nature

Animal Abuse (Ainu Museum) update

The caged bears which have caused outrage amongst visitors on Trip Advisor (photo Jann Williams)

Regular readers of Green Shinto will know that we previously featured the cruel and inhumane conditions in which bears at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido are being kept. This is particularly egregious because of the deep connection of bears with Ainu spirituality in former times.

Green Shinto tried previously to raise awareness of the problem with animal welfare groups, and letters of complaint were written to the relevant authorities. We were not the only ones, because there has been a stream of complaints from tourists (presumably in English and not reaching the ears of those who matter).

Because of all this, the case has been taken up by the Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS), based in the UK and operating through Japanese representatives.  Three members went to visit the museum on the shores of Lake Poroto near Shiraoi in Oct last year. As well as the museum building, there are five thatched houses, a botanical garden and animal housing in concrete cages.  Here is an extract from the official report.

Three overweight-looking brown bears are being kept in an ageing, cramped and dirty cage without clean water to drink and with no enrichment to prevent boredom and allow natural behaviour. The bare concrete floor is caked in faeces. According to the handlers, the bears are fed leftovers from the canteen of an elementary school nearby.

There are also five dogs in another old dirty cage nearby, which contains plastic kennels without any bedding, causing some of the dogs to have callouses on their legs. Again the dogs have insufficient space to be able to exercise properly, are being fed mainly school canteen leftovers and have no enrichment or adequate protection from the cold in winter.

One of the bears at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido

The Tokyo representatives of JAWS later had their impressions confirmed by an animal expert that the conditions were totally unacceptable. An official complaint was lodged, and the following response from the Ainu Museum was received on Dec 27, 2016. “In 2020 the Ainu Tribal Museum will be merged into the ‘Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony’, but the government plan does not include the animals currently residing in the museum.”

As a result the museum is apparently looking for a new home for the animals, though it has made no change to the present conditions. It is possible that the dogs will go back to their owners or to new homes. (Hopefully the latter since the owners clearly don’t care about them at all.).

Meanwhile, JAWS has approached Sahoro Bear Mountain to provide a decent home for the three bears, with an offer to pay for their transportation and donate animal feed.  Let us hope for a swift improvement to the conditions of these innocent and suffering poor animals!!


Show your support for JAWS by emailing them in the UK at jawsuk@jawsuk.org.uk. Their representative in Tokyo is Osamu Uno, General Secretary, at 020 7630 5563. For more information and details of financial support, please see the website: http://jaws.or.jp/about01/about04/

Hearn and Shinto (Meiji Jingu talks 6/3)

Followers of Green Shinto will know of our interest in the works of Lafcadio Hearn, particularly with regard to his interest in and elucidation of Shinto.  So far we’ve carried seventeen different postings on the subject. Now comes the wonderful news of a huge event devoted to the subject to be held at Meiji Jingu on June 3.  ‘Japan, the Land of the Kami, as perceived by Lafcadio Hearn’ runs the title.

There are two major speakers, one of whom is the former Tokyo University professor Sukehiro Hirakawa, who has spearheaded the revival of Hearn studies in recent years. He has also edited a couple of thick volumes of papers by various contributors covering the enormous achievements of Hearn not only in Japan, but in the United States where he was a successful journalist, novelist and interpreter of French literature.

I’m also very much looking forward to the talk by Yoko Makino on ‘The Image of Shinto Shrines in the Works of Lafcadio Hearn’.  Imbued with the spirit of Greek paganism, Hearn had an instinctive liking for the spiritual essence of Shinto shrines, particularly the atmospheric old shrines found in his beloved Izumo region.  (When he naturalised, he chose the Japanese name Yakumo in reference to the ‘many clouded’ region.)

For previous Green Shinto postings on Hearn, see here or here or here.

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