Pagan Britain

How would those Scottish scenes look if adorned with torii and shrines?

How would those Scottish scenes look if adorned with torii and shrines?

Ring of Brodgar, one of the roughly 1000 stone circles in the British Isles

Ring of Brodgar, one of the roughly 1000 stone circles in the British Isles that served as ritual centres

This summer I made a tour around the British Isles and was struck by the pagan resonances with Shinto in many of the country’s features.  Sometimes this was to do with the shape of rocks and hillside, sometimes the lay of the land, sometimes a pristine waterfall in a wooded grove.  It made me wonder how the country would look if it were adorned with shimenawa and shrines.  No rice fields, true enough, but plenty of awesome nature in evidence.

During my stay I happened upon a book by poet and mystic, William Blake, who wrote evocatively of a time in the past when human beings were more open to the Wonder of things.  ‘The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and endowing them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive,’ he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790).  Elsewhere in the same book he noted, ‘Thus men forget that All deities reside in the human breast.’

We forget too that Europe was once home to a Shinto-like religion of its own.

In some places there are signs that the old ways are being revived

In some places there are signs that the old ways are being revived


A pagan head in a garden of Guernsey

Harmony with nature was evident in this tree house in Guernsey

Harmony with nature was evident in this tree house in Guernsey

The Skara Brae community of 5000 years ago lived close to the land and practised a form of animism.

The Skara Brae community of 5000 years ago lived close to the land and practised a form of animism.

Animal abuse

An article in Japan Today details several traditional practices which involve cruelty to animals.  Unfortunately Shinto shrines figure prominently among those holding and defending such practices.  A nature religion? Or a religion of Japaneseness which includes the preservation of traditional ways?


Adapted from Kuchikomi TOKYO —Sep. 30, 2015 Japan Today

In an article timed to coincide with “Be Kind to Animals Week” (Sept 20~27), Jun Mishina writes in Shukan Shincho about how activists are riding roughshod over tradition in order to safeguard the life, liberty and happiness of non-human members of the animal kingdom.

The water basin at Suwa Taisha, where animal sacrifice is still carried out not only in the form of frogs but of deer

The water basin at Suwa Taisha, where animal sacrifice is still carried out not only in the form of frogs but of deer

In January of this year, the Suwa Grand Shrine in Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture, was beset by placard-bearing protesters, who were upset over a “frog-hunting ceremony”—a 1,000-year-old ritual that calls for capturing amphibians and impaling them with arrows, which are then offered to the gods. Presently, only two frogs are so sacrificed, with the impaling ritual taking place in the shrine’s inner sanctum and not in public. That, however, was enough to infuriate a dozen demonstrators, who disrupted the event with chants of “Cruel! Cruel!”

“What I found most objectionable was the female protester who waded into the Mitarai River and physically attempted to stop parishioners from catching frogs,” Masao Kasahara relates. “The shrine regards the spot in the river as a ‘sacred place’ where even the head priest isn’t permitted to enter. And there was this woman, yelling “Stop that!’ and ‘Don’t kill frogs!’ She was pushing so hard she slipped and fell into the river. That was a huge offense to the gods.”

Another assault on tradition has taken place at freak shows, some of which date back to feudal times. During festivals, people would set up as many as 300 tents on shrine grounds, where rubes could come to gawk at such spectacles as “The Human Pump,” “The Fire-spouting woman” and others. (Tokyoites can still see some of these at the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku during the “Tori-no-Ichi festival held every November.) But you’d better go soon, as their next act may be a vanishing act—literally.

The Hakozaki Shrine festival held every September in Fukuoka City has been beset upon by animal rights advocates, vociferously demanding that performances by the “hebi-onna” (snake woman) and “okami-onna” (wolf lady) be halted.

The entrance to Hakozaki Shrine in Fukuoka, where freak shows include biting the heads off snakes

The entrance to Hakozaki Shrine in Fukuoka, where freak shows include biting the heads off chickens and snakes

The demonstrators were particularly incensed by a female geek who would bite the heads off live chickens and snakes. “That poor snake looks pitiful!” a protestor bellowed.

The demonstrators also persuaded two very reluctant patrolmen to accompany them to the venue. “The cops were saying, ‘If we go along, then the incident will be blown up out of proportion,’” said one of the freak show organizers. “Anyway, they did issue a warning to us, saying, ‘You’re not allowed to do anything illegal or you might get arrested.’”

“Nothing ever came to the point that the cops would walk on stage and make an arrest,” he continued. “But after that, we completely stopped using snakes. ‘Why did you stop?’ spectators were asking. But it couldn’t be helped. After that, we just don’t have the heart to keep doing it.”

Animal rights

As someone distressed by the appalling treatment of animals by human beings (factory farming being the most egregious example), it saddens me that modern Shinto shows so little interest in the subject.  Animal guardians serve the kami, and horses act as loyal mounts.  Yet there is precious little love expended in return.  There are whaling shrines, for instance, where the focus is solely on the safety of the hunters not the hunted. There is a Shinto festival with horrific treatment of horses. And not once have I heard a Shinto spokesman speak out against cruelty to animals, such as the notorious slaughter of dolphins at Taiji.

Sliced fish offerings at Yoshida Jinja in Kyoto

Sliced fish offerings at Yoshida Jinja in Kyoto

In the past animals such as horses were sacrificed as offerings for the kami.  Fish still are, and at Suwa Taisha there’s ritual slaughter of deer.  It’s Japan’s other main religion to which one has to turn for evidence of a concern with animal rights.  The Buddhist tradition of compassion for living beings has played a significant role in the country’s history and first became evident with a decree by Emperor Temmu in the seventh century.

There will be a Noh play on Oct 3 (14.00 – ) at Kyoto Kanze Kaikan (075 771 6114) which illustrates the profound effect Buddhism had on animal rights. It’s called Utou, or murrelet, and concerns a hunter who imitates the parent bird calling its child and then kills the young. Karma catches up with the cruel hunter, and after his death he is sent to hell where he in turn is tortured by utou and their fellow hawks. He is prevented too from seeing his own child. In the play his ghost asks a travelling monk to pray for him and save him from the torture.

The following account comes from Nipponia no. 36 (March, 2006) and suggests that in the past Shinto’s concern for purity was part of a widespread reluctance to eat meat.  It’s the first time I’ve heard of this and I’m uncertain if it’s historically accurate.  If it is, then there’s clear precedence for the encouragement of vegetarianism.

The first law prohibiting meat eating was issued in the year 675, a little more than 100 years after the arrival of Buddhism. In the 7th and 8th centuries, when a new emperor came to the throne he would issue an Imperial edict forbidding meat consumption. This was because, according to Buddhist belief, killing animals is wrong. The fact that these edicts were issued from time to time indicates that some found it hard to give up eating meat. But by around the 10th century just about everyone had stopped eating it.

A white rooster at Ise Jingu, safe from carnivores, serves as an attendant to Amaterasu

A white rooster at Ise Jingu, safe from carnivores, serves as an attendant to Amaterasu

In China and the Korean peninsula, the Buddhist clergy were not allowed to eat meat or fish, but in Japan even ordinary people did not eat meat. This was partly because of Buddhism, and partly because the indigenous religion, Shinto, considered that eating the flesh of animals was unclean.

But the rule extended only to meat from mammals, not seafood. Whales are mammals, but the common folk thought of them as big fish and there was no prohibition against killing and eating them. Wild birds were also eaten. There was a belief that chickens and roosters were messengers working for the Shinto gods, and their meat and eggs were not eaten until the 15th century.
Living in harmony

Living in harmony

Harvest moon

Moon rising over the Eastern HillsA reminder that tomorrow (Mon 28th) will be the harvest full moon, traditionally celebrated by the Japanese as the most beautiful of the year.  There are lots of moon viewing parties, which in the past consisted of poetry making while sipping saké and admiring the reflection in a specially crafted cup.  Japanese love of beauty at its best.

Miko doing kagura

Miko doing kagura with sakaki branch

One shrine that puts on a wonderful celebration is Kyoto’s Shimogamo Jinja, with musical performances of koto, shakuhachi and other traditional instruments.  In one corner the tea ceremony is put on, sometimes there is a demonstration of junihitoe (twelve-layered kimono) while there is usually a dance performance of some sort too.  It’s all tastefully done, and as the moon ascends from behind the trees of the Tadasu Wood there’s a murmur of delight from the assembled throng.  One of those magical Japanese moments not to be missed.

Happy harvest moon viewing, one and all!


Click here for a full account of a previous full moon festival at Shimagamo Shrine, or here for an account of a different year.
There’s also a previous description of the harvest moon festival at Kamigamo Shrine.

Shimogamo full moon

Hata pt 7: Inari origins

DSC_1038 Fushimi Inari is of such importance that an understanding of its role is essential for anyone interested in Japanese religion and culture.  Unusually amongst the major shrines, its kami is not an ancestor or relative of the emperor.  It’s rather an animistic deity, to do with rice and food (and by extension business).  The passage below is interesting for the light it casts on the origin of the shrine and the etymology of the word Inari (derived apparently from inenari, becoming rice).  The extract is taken from the sixth chapter of Bruno Lewin’s Aya und Hata Bevolkerungsgruppen: Altjapans kontinentaler Herkunf (1962), translated by Richard Payne with Ellen Rozett.


One of the most wide-sweeping impacts on folk Shinto was the Inari cult initiated by the Hata, which consists of the worship of the deities of the crops. The point of origin of the cult was the Inari Shrine, in the Kii District of Yamashiro and situated in the territory of the old royal domain of Fukakusa.  Concerning the establishment of this shrine, the Yamashiro-fudoki reports:

Hata no Kimi Irogu, a distant ancestor of Hata-no-Nakatsue no Imiki, had amassed rice and possessed overflowing wealth. When he made a target (for archery) from pounded rice, this transformed itself into a white bird, which flew up and alighted atop a mountain. There it again became rice and grew upward. Inenari (“becoming rice”) is given therefore as the shrine’s name.”‘

Inari fox

Guardian fox, holding the key to the granary. Fox clans are not uncommon among the shamanic tribes of East Asia.

In addition the Jingi-shiryo clarifies this, saying that Irogu, moved by this wonder, in the fourth year of Wado (711) erected a shrine there and worshipped the transformed rice plant, on account of which the shrine was called Inari (inenari). Accordingly, the shrine is of a comparatively late date, though there can be no doubt that the Hata as long-standing cultivators of rice had long possessed the cultic worship of the rice gods, but now mixed with the cult of Inari shrine worship of the Japanese food deity Ukemochi-no-kami.

In the Inari shrine the deities Uka-no-mitama-no-kami, Saruka-biko-no-kami and Omiya-no-me-no-mikoto are worshipped. Uka-no-mitama is the main deity of the shrine, identical with Ukemochi.

During the middle ages, the worship of the rice and food deities in the Inari cult spread over the whole of Japan. One can still count about 1,500 Inari shrines, most of them small fields and village shrines, in which the fox, whom one frequently comes across in the fields, is also worshipped, either as messenger of the deity or even as an incarnation [or the deity] itself.

The Inari shrine of Fukakusa is considered to be the mother shrine of all of these cultic sites. Its priesthood descended without exception from the prosperous Hata families of the surrounding area. From the Heian era the priests have borne the status name of Hata no Sukune. Gradually there separated out from amongst them more branch families: the Nakatsue, Nakatsuse, Onshi, Matsumoto, Haraigawa, Yasuda, Toriiminami and Mori.

The subshrine at Fushimi Inari dedicated to the Hata clan ancestral spirits

The subshrine at Fushimi Inari dedicated to the Hata clan ancestral spirits

The Inari shrine forms a triangle with the shrines of Kamo and Matsuno’o, in the middle of which was placed the final capital, Heian kyo. All three cultic sites enjoyed the support of the Imperial palaces and were visited in the course of history again and again by individual emperors to venerate the divinities there.

The integration of the Hata with the history of these powerful shrines shows what a prominent position they possessed in the territory around Heian kyo.  We can well assume that Kammu-tenno, in shifting the capital, allowed himself to be guided by the effort to remove himself from the immediate of the Yamato aristocracy and to lean instead on the rich and loyal, though politically unambitious, Hata clans.

Priests at Fushimi


Trees of life

DSCN0390The following passage in praise of trees comes from Herman Hesse’s Baume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte (Trees: Reflections and Poems), 1984. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that speaks of a connection to the natural world and the happiness that comes from feeling at home in the universe.


For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.


Womb of life

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

Restoring the natural order at Angkor Wat

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

shinbokuPraying to shinboku

Ryozen Gokoku Shrine (Kyoto)

View of Kyoto from the Ryozen area on the city's Eastern Hills

View of Kyoto from the Ryozen area on the city’s Eastern Hills

The Ryozen Gokoku Shrine is not a name that springs to mind when thinking of Kyoto, yet it draws a continual stream of visitors.  The reason is that it houses the grave of Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the great heroes of Japanese history.  Indeed, some accounts consider him the architect of the Meiji Restoration which turned Japan into a modern Western-oriented country.

Ryoma Sakamoto and Nakaoka Shintaro

Ryoma Sakamoto and friend Nakaoka Shintaro

Another important aspect of Ryozen is that it was the origin of Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, as can be read in the account below.  Like other Gokoku Shrines, there is a strongly patriotic atmosphere and I was bemused on my first visit to the graveyard to hear a recording being broadcast in English which turned out to be the voice of Judge Pal, who was the only dissenting voice at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (he claimed all defendants were not guilty).

The article below comes from the Yomiuri newspaper, a noted rightwing publication.  It explains the lack of mention of any controversy about the nationalistic nature of the shrine’s museum. It also explains the curious usage of ‘patriot’ in the article.  The term is used to refer to those who fought on the imperial side in the war of liberation against the shogunate.

Why should only those who fought on the emperor’s side be considered patriots?  It’s a subtle ideological ploy by the writer and a reminder that, as the saying goes, history is written by the victors.


Finding Ryoma in the Hereafter
Japan News September 17, 2015  By Yasuhiko Mori / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

An endless line of people visit the grave of legendary samurai Sakamoto Ryoma, commonly called Ryoma, in the Ryozen area in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto. Next to his grave is the grave of a close associate, Nakaoka Shintaro. There are also graves of other patriots from the closing days of the Edo period (1603-1867), including Kido Takayoshi, Umeda Unpin, Maki Izumi, Hirano Kuniomi, Hashimoto Sanai and Rai Mikisaburo. Why were so many patriots buried there?

Shinto funeral rites

The Ryozen area was originally part of Jishu Shoboji temple. Murakami Kuniyasu, who served in the Imperial court, purchased part of the premises in 1809 to use it for Shinto funeral rites and established Reimei Shrine.

The grave of Sakamoto Ryoma at the Ryozen Shrine in Kyoto

The grave of Sakamoto Ryoma at the Ryozen Shrine in Kyoto

Under the religious policy of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period, everyone became a parishioner of a Buddhist temple, in principle, and funerals and memorial services were conducted by temples. Shinto priests were not excluded from this rule.

“Kuniyasu apparently opposed the rule,” said Shigeki Murakami, the eighth Shinto priest of Reimei Shrine, where Kuniyasu served as the first Shinto priest. According to Murakami, based on the idea that Japan is the country of the Emperor, Kuniyasu rejected Buddhism, considering it to be a foreign religion, and only carried out Shinto-style funerals.

Retainers of Choshu domain

During the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Choshu domain — where the “sonno-joi” doctrine, which wanted to restore the Emperor while expelling “foreign barbarians,” was popular — buried its retainers who died in Kyoto at the cemetery at Reimei Shrine. The domain’s first burial at the shrine took place in 1862 when Matsuura Shodo, who was taught under Yoshida Shoin at the Shokasonjuku academy, was buried.

Following this, many supporters of the sonno-joi movement from the Choshu and other domains were buried there. That same year, the shrine conducted a rite for the souls of the supporters of the movement who died during and after the Ansei no taigoku purge, or the suppression by the shogunate of those who did not support its policies in the late 1850s.

There is a record showing that Kusaka Genzui, who was a key figure among supporters of the sonno-joi movement in the Choshu domain and is known to have met Ryoma, asked the shrine to perform memorial services for his ancestors for the rest of time.

"Dream" - the inspirational Ryoma Sakamoto ema at the shrine

“Dream” – the inspirational Ryoma Sakamoto ema at the shrine

Reimei Shrine was regarded as a holy place among supporters of the sonno-joi movement, according to Kiyoshi Takano, a novelist who is familiar with the history of Kyoto during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate.

On Nov. 15, 1867, of the lunar calendar, Ryoma and Nakaoka were assassinated at the Omiya shop and inn in the Kawaramachi district of Kyoto, and their bodies were transported to Reimei Shrine in the evening of the 17th by their associates, including Kaientai, a corporation established by Ryoma. There is a record showing that the shrine conducted a Shinto funeral rite for them before burying them. In some cases, shrines enshrine only the souls of the dead, but Ryoma and others were actually buried at the site.

Managed by Shokonsha shrine
The Meiji government, launched following the Imperial restoration, established Shokonsha shrine at the Reimei Shrine’s cemetery in 1868 to enshrine the souls of people who died because of the chaotic state of affairs after the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, as well as of the war dead in and after the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in 1868.

In 1877, the government confiscated most of the Reimei Shrine’s cemetery and precinct, and had the government-owned Shokonsha shrine manage them. Shokonsha shrine was later renamed to what it is currently known as, Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine.

"I want to be the present-day Sakamoto Ryoma," runs a heartfelt tribute

“I want to be the present-day Sakamoto Ryoma,” runs a heartfelt tribute at his grave

During that time, Tokyo Shokonsha shrine was established in the Kudan district of Tokyo, and the enshrined “divine spirits” in the Shokonsha shrine and the Reimei Shrine in Kyoto were moved to the Tokyo shrine. Tokyo Shokonsha shrine was later renamed Yasukuni Shrine.

This means it is possible to revere Ryoma at Yasukuni Shrine, but if you really want to show your esteem for the legendary samurai, visit Ryozen, where his remains are buried.

Influence of Emperor Kokaku
Murakami Kuniyasu, who established Reimei Shrine, served the Imperial court ruled by Emperor Kokaku, whose reign was from 1779 to 1817.

Emperor Kokaku was a descendant of the Kanin-no-miya branch of the Imperial family, but he revived a range of rituals of the Imperial court, which were lost in the medieval period, in an attempt to restore the authority of the Imperial court. Such efforts had an impact on the sonno-joi movement later.

The origin of the Gakushuin schools lies with Emperor Kokaku. The emperor planned to establish an educational institution for sons of kuge aristocratic class families, similar to the daigakuryo (university) in the Heian period (late eighth century to early 12th century). While the plan was not realized during his reign, it was decided that such an institution would be established in 1842 when Emperor Ninko, Kokaku’s successor, was on the throne. The institution was the Gakushuin school, and it was located south of Kyoto Imperial Palace until the first year of the Meiji era. The Gakushuin school in Tokyo was established in 1877.

Worshippers at Ryoma's grave

Worshippers at Ryoma’s grave, before which handwritten tributes are placed.  Unusually he was not only given a Shinto funeral but his body was buried in the shrine’s cemetery.

Great things about Japan


Green Shinto friend Amy Chavez has written an article for Rocket News in which she lists 17 positive things about Japan.  Here’s her listing…

1) Returning favours
2) Thanking people
3) Politeness
4) Putting others first
5) Including everyone in the group
6) Respect for property
7) Drunkenness doesn’t lead to violence
8) Peace mentality
9) Govt run business works
10) Being less assertive
11) Being a good listener
12) Being less nationalistic
13) Gambaru (doing your best)
14) Commitment and keeping promises
15) Being a good citizen
16) Doing things with grace
17) Being on time

I find myself almost in total agreement with Amy here, though the only item in the list I might quibble about is no. 12.  Personally I think Japanese have a strong sense of nationhood, but they don’t allow themselves to express it as openly as others because of WW2.  It’s true they have a peace constitution, but this was imposed by the Americans and reinforces the sense of uniqueness (expressed in a plethora of books known as nihonjinron).  As others have pointed out, Japanese ‘internationalism’ is actually a form of nationalism, for the fascination with other cultures serves as a way of defining themselves as special.

One symptom of Japan’s nationalism is the strong sense of homogeneity.  Just look at how many asylum seekers Japan takes in – would any other developed nation be allowed to get away with as few as twelve in a year!!!?  Racial attachment makes perfect sense in a Japanese context since, as Amy herself points out, belonging to a group is a key characteristic of the Japanese.  And the nation as a whole is simply the ultimate Japanese group.

Cherry blossom subshrineWhatever one thinks about Japanese and patriotism, there are still 16 great attributes in Amy’s listing that command admiration.  It’s my belief that these virtues (and the patriotism) are deeply rooted in Shinto values.  Gratitude, for instance, is said to be fundamental to Shinto and is expressed throughout the culture at large.  It makes living in Japan such a gratifying experience. Another cardinal virtue of Shinto is sincerity, meaning that doing one’s best, keeping promises, contributing to the group and being on time are treasured.  Cynicism and alienation are largely lacking.

Shinto is also a deeply communal practice, which emphasises the well-being of the group/village/rice-growing community.  It sees human beings as part of nature, subservient to its destructive power and seasonal blessings, therefore the ego is suppressed in the face of the common good.  It’s worth noting here that the Shinto symbol of a mirror is ‘kagami‘ in Japanese, whereas kami is the mirror without the ‘ga‘ (ego).  This stands in contrast to the individualism of the West, which has resulted in societies in which the promotion of self is much more prominent.

As for the grace and elegance of life in Japan, one might presume this comes from the trickle-down effect of the aesthetics of Heian nobility, in which elegance was elevated into an all-important social attribute.  But could this too be linked with Shinto? The importance of form in its rituals and objects of worship was examined in a recent Green Shinto posting (see The Art of Shinto).

It’s the social cohesion and consideration of Japanese for others that makes living in this country so wonderful.  For myself it remains an almost daily source of joy, and it’s something that always impresses tourists to the country.  It even impressed the first Western missionaries who came to Japan in the sixteenth century.  How have the Japanese managed to maintain such high standards of social intercourse?  Theories abound, but for myself I strongly suspect it’s something to do with living in a ‘kami no kuni’ – a land of spirits.

Kimono-clad women at a hokora


Norito book review

Norito being read during a ritual at Kamigamo Jinja

Norito being read out during a shrine ritual

During Shinto rituals formal prayers or declarations are made, which are known as norito. They first appear in the Kojiki (712) and in the Nihongi (720). But they are best-known from the Engi-shiki (927), in which the customs and regulations concerning ritual practice were compiled.

The archaic language of the norito means that in parts they are barely comprehensible to modern Japanese.  In this respect they are similar to Latin in the old-style Catholic services.  Proponents claim that the incomprehensibility adds to the mystical nature of the ritual, and that in the sounds themselves is an inherent beauty (in Shinto’s case the claim is that the sounds are imbued with kotodama, or word spirit).

For foreign followers of Shinto, there’s a curious dilemma in whether to use the Japanese or English version of the norito.  Quite apart from the comprehensibility of the Japanese, wrong pronunciation will rob the language of kotodama.  On the other hand, modern English translation will clearly have neither authenticity nor mystery.  And then there’s the thorny issue of what language an overseas kami might use!

The classic English version of norito is by Donald L. Philippi, and the Japan Times has recently carried a short book review…


51A+SLhsA2L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Norito, Translated by Donald L. Philippi 136 pages Princeton University Press

The norito (ritual prayers) found in the 10th-century Engi-shiki (“Procedures of the Engi Era”) have fascinated Japanologists for over a century.

In the introduction to his 1878 translation of the norito, Ernest Satow suggested that they could offer insight into “the rites practiced by the Japanese people before the introduction of Buddhism and Chinese philosophy.” More recently, they have also attracted attention from linguists interested in the earliest attested stages of the Japanese language.

Donald L. Philippi’s Norito: A Translation of the Ancient Japanese Ritual Prayers, originally published in 1959, walks a line between literal fidelity and readability that will be familiar to readers of his translations of the Kojiki or Ainu yukar (folk tales), which are both sadly out of print. In particular, Philippi’s use of indent levels to show parallel and nested phrases makes it so easy to grasp the intricate structures involved that compared to the unbroken paragraphs of the original this translation almost feels like cheating.

The 1990 edition from Princeton University Press contains a preface by religious historian Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa that is well worth reading in its own right. Kitagawa argue for a view of the prayers as a product of the early Japanese state as it “came under the massive influence of Chinese civilization and Buddhism.”

Norito being read out by a priest during a Shinto ritual

Norito being read out by a priest during a Shinto ritual

Irreligious Japan?

“Visiting a shrine to pray is different from being religious. It has nothing to do with religion. Most Japanese, including me, don’t think about whether we’re religious or not.”

A torii marks the entrance to another world, one that is not thought of as being 'religious'

A torii marks the entrance to another world, yet paying respects at graves is not thought of as being ‘religious’

The quote is by Yasunori Ueda, who visits the Ise Grand Shrine every summer to pray for his family and good health. Japan is one of the world’s least religious countries, according to a Gallup survey this year, but people of all ages continue to visit shrines at pivotal moments in their lives. (Christian Science Monitor)

One could explain the quote by reference to tourism, with Japanese behaving simply as people who visit churches in Britain out of historical and architectural interest.  Such people might lower their voices as a sign of respect, even if they’re atheist.

Yet I’ve met several Japanese who vocally profess to be non-religious but neverthesless pray at shrines and graves.  What’s going on?  I think it has to do with the deep-seated nature of “ancestor worship” in Japanese culture, which is traditionally not seen as a religion but a natural process of mourning.  ‘Thus men forget that All deities reside in the human breast,’ as noted by that most mystical of poets, William Blake.

You see the same kind of thing continually in American movies, where people visit graves and talk to their dead friends or family.  No one calls that a religion either.  It’s more like a deep sense of connection between the living and the dead.  Their spirits live on in our memory and continue to play a real part in governing our lives.  It’s what Lafcadio Hearn so eloquently pointed out in Japan. An Attempt at Interpretation, and the book remains a classic precisely because it does so much to explain the religious/irreligious nature of Japan.

Imperial grave

Paying respects, even praying at an emperor’s grave is not seen as a religious act.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...