ISSA fieldwork (Sudo and Sekizan Zen’in)

Keeping an eye on the north east
by Jann Williams (photos supplied by Jann)

On June 11th 2016 the International Shinto Studies Association (ISSA) held its second fieldwork program. The afternoon program, which visited Sudo Shrine and Sekizan Zen’in Temple in north east Kyoto, was led by Reverend Yoshinobu Miyake, the Chair of the Board of ISSA. I learnt of the field day through Green Shinto and after contacting Reverend Miyake my husband Tony and I were accepted into the program. On the day we met at 1 pm at Kokusaikaikan Station and were taken by taxis to the two sites.

As Tony and I are both ecologists, we thought that a day of field work would involve some work in the field (e.g. helping tidy up the shrine/temple grounds), so we dressed accordingly. Next time we will know to wear different attire, with the other participants being dressed more formally. This is illustrated in the group photo taken at Sudo Shrine below. As the only participants who did not speak Japanese, we appreciated the Reverend translating some of the information for us.

Group photo Sudo Shrine June 11 2016

Even without hearing the full story, being able to visit these two sites was worthwhile and we appreciated the opportunity to do so. Both the shrine and temple are located on forested slopes which added to the enjoyment of the afternoon. The vibrancy of the vegetation in early summer was a sight to behold.

The original Green Shinto article advertising the ISSA event has links to more information about the Shrine and Temple we visited, including an informative interview with the priest at Sezikan Zen’in Temple. As a consequence I will limit this report to a few impressions of the field day with some accompanying images.

Sekizan Zen’in
The two sites were located to the north east of the original Imperial Palace in Kyoto, as shown in the next image. The spirit gate called Kimon, which is used by demons, is believed to stand in the north east. The Tendai sect temple we visited, established in 888, has been widely worshipped as the protector of people from bad luck coming through this gate.

Pointing out directions

A monk from the temple shared many stories with us, including about the monkey imagery at the temple (seen below on the rooftop behind the monk), the Mt Hiei thousand day practice the ‘marathon monks’ underwent, the origin of the pilgrimage of Kyoto’s Seven Deities of Good Luck, and the importance of the polar star. It was all fascinating and information that otherwise would be challenging to uncover. The ability to see inside some of the temple buildings at Sezikan Zen’in and take photos was appreciated.

Monk with monkey imagery

The temple is known for its syncretic nature, with many Shinto elements apparent at the site including torii, ema and shide. The rosary-shaped gate you walk through reminded me of the chinowa that are gracing shrines at the moment – although in the case of the temple the fixture is permanent. In the next image Reverend Miyake is explaining that you can only make one wish as you walk through the rosary gate. Recently I have visited the Hozanji Shingon Temple at Ikoma which also has a strongly syncretic nature. These places provide some sense of the intimate connections between Shinto and Buddhism before the shinbutsu bunri, the separation of kami and buddhas, in 1868.

Rosary gate and Reverend Miyake

In addition to the Shinto aspects of the temple, the links to China were a feature of the visit for me. For example, the importance of directions such as the north east stems from Chinese geomancy. According to the information board provided by Kyoto City the principal statue at the temple, Sezikan Myojin, was made by the high priest Jikaku Daishi as a double image of Taizanfukun (Dosojin, the guardian deity for the community, in the yin-yang philosophy) in Sezikan, China. I have a particular interest in yinyang and the associated five Chinese elements as part of the research I am undertaking on the elements in Japan.

Sudo Shrine
Sudo Shrine also has a long history. It was established to enshrine the avenging spirit of Prince Sawara Shinno after he died of hunger in 785 AD. On arrival we participated in a purification ceremony at the Shrine. The following image of the service was provided by Reverend Miyake. While I have been part of similar ceremonies at Oomoto, this was my first purely Shinto experience in an outdoor setting. It was one of many special program activities organised during the afternoon.

Purification ceremony Sudo Shrine

The two cones of sand in front of the main shrine (pictured below), each with a sakaki branch and shide in them, reminded me of similar cones I have seen at Kamigamo Shrine (which have pine needles in them) and at Zen Temples such as Myoshin-ji. I was told the cones at Sudo Shrine were related to mountain deities. At Kamigamo Shrine they represent yin and yang. At Zen Temples they have been linked to purification. It is interesting and important to contemplate the shared imagery and rituals between Buddhism and Shinto, as Green Shinto has recently done with Zen. As was shown, there is more that connects them than meets the eye.

The ISSA fieldwork program, while it was not what Tony and I were expecting, was an informative and enriching day. The pace was quick, with presentations given by two priests at the Shrine, a monk at the Temple, and Reverend Miyake at both locations. It was a lot to take in. In hindsight it would have been helpful to take some notes to record some of the finer details we were given. There was also limited time to take photographs, one of my favourite pastimes. All useful lessons if the opportunity to attend another field day arises. I would definitely recommend it.

Twin cones at Sudo Shrine






First clock festival

One of the functions of the shaman in ancient societies was as guardian of the tribe’s identity.  This often meant memorising great chunks of mythology and history.  Keeping a record of the past not only tells you who you are, but it honours the memory of the ancestors.  In other words, it’s part of what is known as ‘ancestor worship’.

Modern Shinto fulfills the same role as ancient shamanism, carefully keeping the past alive in the countless festivals that occur in the country throughout the year.  What’s interesting about this report below is that the festival was started in 1941 and the shrine in 1940.  Was it connected to the patriotic spirit of the time?  Was it simply a matter of exploiting local lore? Or was there some ulterior motive in picking up the subject of clocks?

Whatever the reason, I like the way Shinto acts to keep Japanese history a part of contemporary life.  Each year the past is renewed.  And each time the national identity is reinforced.  It’s an important part of Japaneseness.

(30 second video of the ritual)


Festival celebrating Japan’s first clock held in Shiga shrine

Kyodo    Japan TimesWomen clad in ancient Japanese court dress walk holding clocks during an annual clock festival on Friday at Omi Shrine in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. Emperor Tenji (626-672), said to be the founding father of the clock time system in Japan, is enshrined there as its deity. | KYODO

Women and men clad in ancient Japanese court dress took part in an annual clock festival Friday at a shrine to a seventh century emperor in Shiga Prefecture who is said to be the founding father of the clock time system in Japan.

As musicians played flutes and drums, the participants, including representatives of the clock industry, offered the latest products from Japanese clock makers to Omi Shrine to show its deity, Emperor Tenji (626-672), how clocks have developed.

According to the shrine in Otsu, Emperor Tenji introduced a water clock known as rokoku in Shiga’s capital, where the shrine is situated, on April 25, 671. The emperor is said to have believed in the importance of clocks to Japan’s development.

The ringing of the bell of the first clock in Japan was recorded in the “Nihon Shoki” (“The Chronicles of Japan”), an ancient book of history.

April 25 corresponds to June 10 in the solar calendar, thus June 10 was designated as Clock Day in Japan in 1920. The shrine, built in 1940, started holding the festival every June 10 in 1941.

New Folk Shinto


Imagine my surprise when on my usual commute along the river Kamogawa in Kyoto, I happened to see the above scene.  How very odd I thought.  But then I remembered Green Shinto friend Roger Walch telling me something about his friends in an art collective in Osaka who organise an annual fertility festival in the Kamogawa.  I guessed it must be them.

There were a couple of women accompanying the group along the river bank carrying banners, so I stopped to ask them about the event. They told me it was the Tentsuku Hounen Matsuri (Tentsuku being heavenly possession and Hounen meaning fertility and the name of the famous phallic festival held at Nagoya every year).  Was it an artistic performance or a religious festival, I asked?  It’s folk religion, they answered.  A new addition to the tradition of Minzoku Shinto.


This was the first time I’ve come across this in Japan.  Green Shinto has carried reports of similar developments in the West, so for Japan this seemed something of a breakthrough.  Japan is famously conservative, and in nearly every social movement over the past century it’s lagged something like thirty to fifty years behind the West.  Think of smoking, gay rights, drugs, feminism, anti-discrimination…. you name it, and Japan will be the last to implement it.

In this respect I can’t help thinking that the Tentsuku Hounen Matsuri is Japan’s equivalent to the first neo-pagan events in the West, before words like Wicca had become part of the national consciousness.  I recall taking part in an early Beltane festival at Glastonbury in the early 1970s that was very much on a par with the small group striding along the river in Kyoto.

I can’t speak for the intentions of the group, but the event was ‘pregnant’ with symbolism.  Red is the colour of health and well-being, the phallus the organ of seed-giving.  The impact of the red phallus is traditionally not only one of fertility, but of a way of scaring away evil spirits (in Bhutan they have them painted on their houses).  This goes along with the white clothes to denote purity, and the troupe was led, I noticed, by a fellow with a big phallic nose indicative of Sarutahito, guide and leader.

The phallus was pointing at the triangular power spot where the rivers meet

The phallus was aiming for this triangular power spot

The route of the group was from Sanjo upriver to Imadegawa and the ‘power spot’ in the junction of the two rivers, Kamogawa and Takanogawa.  Here the group enacted a very simple penetration by pushing the red phallus through a white sheet with a hole in it.  (I’ve seen this done much more graphically in traditional style in a rice field.)  I’m not sure if their intention was to bring fertility to the crops of the area, or to their own creative endeavours in the coming year.

The direction the group took towards the north is traditionally the correct way in which to approach sources of energy and authority.  Rivers are well-known energy lines, and the meeting of rivers is a convergence of energy often denoted by ancient markers such as a shrine (in this case Shimogamo Jinja).

The classic shrine in the midst of a wooded copse has been compared to the female womb which is reached through a passageway via a torii opening.  Within the womb takes place a magical ritual signifying impregnation, by which the kami descends and life is re-created. This is all the more evident in the case of Shimogamo, since the meeting point of the two rivers forms a V-shape.

It seems then that this New Age Folk Shinto has been very well conceived!  Green Shinto truly hopes this is an early indicator of what is to come in the following years as a young generation turns to the past for inspiration, in the same way that neo-paganism has done in Britain and elsewhere.

DSCN7105 DSCN7110

The Osaka collective pose for a photo by Swiss video maker and Green Shinto friend, Roger Walch

Zen and Shinto 16: Syncretism


Spanning the divide between the seen and unseen worlds

I happened to come across a short piece today that was a stark reminder of just how intertwined Shinto once was with Zen and other forms of Buddhism.  It’s been nearly 150 years since the Meiji-era split between the religions, and we’re used to thinking of them as completely different.  We talk of temples and shrines, of buddhas and kami, of foreign and indigenous, constantly reinforcing the division between them.  Yet for so much of Japanese history this was far from the case, and in most people’s minds they were inextricably linked and indivisible.  For some Japanese they still are.

A path to paradise in the lush moss garden of Saiho-ji

A path to paradise in the lush moss garden of Saiho-ji

The item that prompted my thoughts concerns the World Heritage Site of Saiho-ji, a Zen temple more popularly known as Kokedera (Moss Temple).  The temple was founded in the eighth century by a monk called Gyogi.  By the fourteenth century it had fallen into disrepair and abandoned.  This was a matter of concern to Fujiwara Chikahide, chief priest of nearby Matsuo Taisha.  In 1338 he confined himself in prayer in the inner room of the temple, where he had a revelation that he should invite Muso Soseki, a monk at Rinsen-ji, to preside over Saiho-ji and lead its restoration.  (Muso later became the founder of Tenryu-ji.)

Muso consented to the invitation and took up residence in Saiho-ji, and he constructed a garden based on two levels: a lower pond garden with path to stroll around, and an upper area with a dry landscape and place for meditation.  Muso’s lower garden was apparently spread with sand; only in the nineteenth century, after flooding, did the moss grow for which the garden is now famous.

The collaboration of Fujiwara Chikahide and Muso Soseki shows just how tight were the ties of Shinto and Zen in those days.  For us post-Meiji folk, it seems odd for two men of ‘different faiths’ to collaborate in such manner.  But no doubt for the two men involved nothing could have been more natural, since the idea of ‘separate religions’ would have seemed quite absurd to them.  [John Nelson, professor of Japanese Religion at San Francisco University, suggests that it might be equivalent to music, where what we would term as just music today might be divided tomorrow into quite distinct genres with their own peculiarities. Or to extend the analogy, perhaps it’s like thinking Country and Western is a genre, and then having the two parts split apart and the differences between them emphasised and enforced.]

Shinto shrine in the grounds of the Zen temple of Saiho-ji

Shinto shrine in the grounds of the Zen temple of Saiho-ji

A Zen rock garden – at Matsuo Taisha! (Created by famed designer, Shigemori Mirei)

A Zen rock garden – at Matsuo Taisha! (Created by famed designer, Shigemori Mirei)

Meiji marriages

Jonathan Madrid, 24, and Nao Sasaki, 30, are led by priests to the wedding hall at Tokyo's Meiji Jingu on Saturday. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Jonathan Madrid, 24, and Nao Sasaki, 30, are led by priests to the wedding hall at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu on Saturday. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Meiji Jingu a Tokyo shrine that’s popular for nuptials


One bright Saturday afternoon in the fresh green of spring, priests led a bride and groom toward a wedding hall at Meiji Jingu, a renowned shrine in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

The Shinto shrine is dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. It was established in 1920 and stands in a 700,000-sq.-meter enclosure planted with 100,000 trees donated by people in Japan and others overseas.

Gagaku musicians lined up to accompany the newly-wed's procession

Gagaku musicians lined up to accompany the newly-wed’s procession

Today, the shrine is a popular site for marriage ceremonies. On busy weekends, it carries out around 15 weddings a day.

Last Saturday, Nao Sasaki, 30, and Jonathan Madrid, 24, walked nervously and silently toward the hall to pray, make their wedding vows and become a family. Madrid works at U.S. Army Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Photographs were not allowed during the ceremony, but the rituals included a norito (prayer recitation) by a priest, drinking nuptial sake together, exchanging rings and pledging wedding vows before kami. This word refers to the Shinto notion of myriad divine spirits, as compared with the monotheist tradition of Christianity and Islam.

“In Shinto, some divinity is found as Kami, or it may be said that there is an unlimited number of Kami,” the shrine’s website says. “You can see Kami in mythology, in nature, and in human beings.”

Smiling newlywed Madrid said: “I felt very happy about the wedding. It was pretty different, but a happy experience.”

“It was actually where my wife and I came on our first date. . . . We didn’t know at the time we would decide to get married and decide to have our ceremony here,” said Madrid. The couple now live at Camp Zama.

Tomohiro Isogai, priest at the shrine, said of his job: “I feel the gravity of leading a once in a lifetime event for the couple. They have made their vows before kami and went though a ceremony to live their lives according to their vows.”  He wished the couple eternal happiness.

Wedding pose

Zen and Shinto 15: Japaneseness

DSCN7100On Sunday I took an out of town visitor to a combination of Tofuku-ji Zen temple and the popular Fushimi Inari shrine.  They are both in the south-east of Kyoto, a mere twenty minutes walk apart, and the Zen-Shinto combination makes a wonderful introduction to the world of Japanese religion.  The large solemn buildings of Zen provide a contrast with the colourful bustling crowds at Fushimi, and yet the similarities are striking.

Pulitzer finalist, Sukuta Mehta, admires a garden... but are those clean lines, raked gravel and simple wooden buildings Zen or Shinto?

Pulitzer finalist, Sukuta Mehta, admires a garden… but are those clean lines, raked gravel and simple wooden buildings Zen or Shinto?

There are clean austere lines in the architecture.  Meticulously raked grounds.  A cleaving to tradition.  An emphasis on male heritage in the priesthood.  Symbolism in the statuary.  Mythological underpinnings whose origins lie in China and beyond.

One common point of Zen and Shinto is that they both treasure closeness to nature as a means of enhancing spirituality.  In Zen one comes closer to one’s Buddha nature, in Shinto one comes closer to the realm of the kami.  Tofuku-ji boasts a wonderful gorge of maples, Fushimi Inari is famous for its torii-covered hillside. ‘People must respect nature as they cannot live without nature,’ says a noticeboard at Tofuku-ji.  ‘The spirit of Zen tells people of samsara (concept of a cycle of birth) and suggests people to tame their ego.’

Zen used to be number one in terms of Western interest in Japan.  Now Fushimi Inari is no. 1 on the tourist trail in Kyoto and proudly advertises its status.  Whereas Tofukuji has to charge to see its wonderful modern Zen gardens, Fushimi Inari relies on the constant stream of visitors tossing coins into its offering box and the queues to buy amulets and fortune slips as its office.  In both cases the religious institution is supported by a team of priests, many of whom are hereditary.  In both cases belief in the deities is not a requirement, but upholding the lifestyle of ritual and discipline is.

Did the water basin of Zen and the tea ceremony borrow from that of Shinto....

Did the water basin of Zen and the tea ceremony borrow from that of Shinto….

Rock worship... Zen or Shinto? A combination of both, in fact.

Rock worship… Zen or Shinto? A combination of both, in fact.


Dosoujin, usually associated with Shinto but here in the Zen temple of Tofukuji


Coming up soon at Fushimi Inari is the rice-planting ritual.

June 10: the ritual is held to ensure a good rice harvest; Women dressed in traditional Heian period costumes perform an elegant dance from 13:00; From around 14:00, about 30 women dressed in traditional farm worker clothing plant rice seedlings in the shrine’s sacred rice field.

A Zen-Shinto shrine. Actually it's not counted as Shinto as it's a kami shrine maintained by Zen monks. An anomaly not included in the post-Meiji artificial split.

A Zen-Shinto shrine at Tofuku-ji. Actually it’s not counted as Shinto as it’s a kami shrine maintained by Zen monks. An anomaly not included in the post-Meiji artificial split between the religions.

Dragon waterbasin at a Shinto shrine

Dragon waterbasin at a Shinto shrine


Dragon ceiling at a Zen temple


Fushimi boasting of being number 1 tourist spot in the whole of Japan! No wonder the sheaf of rice the fox is holding looks plentiful…

Japaneseness – whether Shinto or Zen, it’s a remarkable heritage!

Abe’s move backfires (G7)

More evidence today that Abe’s move to politicise Shinto and G7 is backfiring, as the policies behind his choice of venue come under greater scrutiny. This time it’s the Japan Times that has published an article exposing the political agenda and the spectre of State Shinto.


Obama at Ise

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama visit Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, Thursday. Obama is in Japan for the G-7 summit and plans to visit Hiroshima on Friday. | AP

Abe’s pro-Shinto motives in spotlight with choice of G-7 opening ceremony venue
by Reiji Yoshida   May 26, 2016

ISE, MIE PREF. – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked satisfied, happily smiling as he met top leaders from the Group of Seven countries one by one at the gate to a giant Shinto-style wooden bridge.

It was the opening of the G-7 summit at Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) in Ise, Mie Prefecture. It also should have been one of the proudest moments for the prime minister, a conservative who has for years called for the revival of traditional values and Japanese traditions.

Abe said he chose the Ise-Shima area as the venue for the summit because he wanted world leaders to feel the “beautiful nature, rich culture and traditions of Japan.”

But are those really all of his reasons?

Some observers are concerned that Abe’s hidden purpose in conducting the high-profile ceremony was to please Shinto supporters and thereby promote a right-leaning form of nationalism. Shinto was the spiritual source of Japan’s fanatic nationalism before and during World War II.

Abe and many in his Cabinet are prominent members of a group of 308 Diet lawmakers who support the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership).  The Shinto association is pushing for the creation of a new constitution based on Japan’s traditional values, and the establishment of national ceremonies for “the spirits of the war dead” enshrined at war-linked Yasukuni Shrine — all mirroring the key policy goals of right-leaning politicians, many of whom are core supporters of Abe.

“We will aim for creating a society that treasures the Imperial family, which can be boasted to the world, as well as Japan’s traditions and culture,” the website of Shinto Seiji Renmei states.

“We will aim for establishing national ceremonies for the war dead of Yasukuni, who dedicated their precious lives to Japan,” it says.

Today, unlike Yasukuni Shrine, which also honors Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead, few Japanese associate Ise Jingu with the dark memories of the wartime militarism that was based on “State Shinto.”

Indeed, particularly for young people, Ise Jingu is just another popular tourist spot with a number of traditional structures blessed with deep, quiet woods and a somewhat mysterious atmosphere.

That is probably the reason Abe’s plan to hold the G-7 opening ceremony there has caused little public controversy in Japan. But for those who know Japanese history well, Ise Jingu is indeed a special place.

It is the most sacred Shinto shrine and is ranked above thousands of others across the country because it enshrines Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who legend says was the predecessor of the Imperial family.

With the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the shogunate government was toppled and a constitutional monarch system centered on the emperor was established to promote the modernization of the Japanese society. “With the Meiji Restoration, Ise Jingu was reborn as the central facility of State Shinto,” wrote noted religious scholar Susumu Shimazono, in his 2010 book “Kokka Shinto to Nihonjin” (“State Shinto and the Japanese People”).

“(Ise) Jingu was put under state control and its relations with the Emperor and Imperial family were strengthened. It transformed into an awe-inspiring sacred place for State Shinto,” Shimazono wrote.

In and after the 1930s, the government systematically promoted State Shinto and thereby encouraged the people to worship Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa, as a living deity. That enthusiastic worship is believed to have served as the foundation for Japan’s wartime militarism.

Though few ordinary Japanese remember, Shinto shrines were once a symbol of Japan’s invasions of other Asian countries.

During Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s, Japan built many shrines in countries and areas it invaded and occupied, including Manchuria, Singapore and Korea, forcing their residents to worship Emperor Hirohito as their sole leader.

Even today, many Shinto believers are participating in grass-roots movements to call for the revival of Japan’s prewar sense of values and to promote nationalism centered on the Emperor.  The most notable examples are the priests of Yasukuni Shrine as well as their supporters.

Others include Katsuya Toyama, a former top priest at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. He was one of the key activists who helped found the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) in 1997, according to the memoirs of Masakuni Murakami, a former senior Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who led right-wing movements.

Nippon Kaigi has since become Japan’s largest lobby for nationalistic policy agendas. The G-7 opening ceremony at Ise Jingu, therefore, may carry great importance for followers of Shinto and other right-wing activists.

But whether it will have a big impact on the general public today is another question. On his Twitter account, Shimazono expressed concern with Abe’s plan to hold the G-7 ceremony at Ise Jingu, maintaining that he might be attempting to revive State Shintoism.

But many other Twitter users, apparently young people, mocked Shimazono’s criticism, saying that holding the G-7 ceremony at Ise Jingu alone would not have much impact on today’s Japan. “Even if (Shimazono’s theory) is true, how many people are fascinated with State Shinto now?” asked Twitter user @Noodle1002.

Abe’s political agenda (G7)

The Ise Grand Shrine has strong links to conservative nationalists who are campaigning to change Japan’s pacifist constitution Manan Vatsyayana/Getty

The Ise Grand Shrine has strong links to conservative nationalists who are campaigning to change Japan’s pacifist constitution (Manan Vatsyayana/Getty)

Abe’s cunning strategy to reassert State Shinto might backfire as the attention of the world is drawn to the political agenda of the Japanese right-wing this week.  Justin McCurry here writing in The Guardian exposes some of the ulterior motives underlying the campaign to reassert the respectability of Ise and Yasukuni.  Green Shinto has written before of Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership), the political wing of Jinja Honcho, and its intention to reimpose the prewar centrality of Shinto.  By all accounts, the Nippon Kaigi are even more extreme.

A similar piece has appeared in The Times, written by Richard Lloyd Parry, the Asia Editor, headlined, ‘G7 leaders warned off shrine visit in Japan’.  The article, available only to those who paid for subscription, tells of religious leaders and scholars in Japan urging the foreign leaders not to fall for Abe’s agenda.


G7 in Japan: concern over world leaders’ tour of nationalistic shrine

in Ise,  Wednesday 25 May 2016

Visitors pass beneath the torii gate leading to the most sacred part of the Ise Jingu complex, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine.
Visitors pass beneath the torii gate leading to the most sacred part of the Ise Jingu complex, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

With an impeccably observed combination of bowing and handclapping, the pilgrims give thanks to Amaterasu, the mythological sun goddess from whom all of Japan’s emperors are said to be the direct descendants.

Behind them, hundreds more slowly make their way up the steps in front of the hidden main sanctuary, waiting their turn to pray at Ise Jingu, Japan’s most revered Shinto shrine.

The millions of people who visit Ise Jingu every year will soon by joined by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and other leaders of the world’s richest nations during the G7 summit in nearby Ise-Shima, which begins on Thursday. The shrine, Abe said, “is a very good place to get in touch with the Japanese spirit.

“I wanted to choose a place where world leaders could have a full taste and feel of Japan’s beautiful nature, bountiful culture, and traditions,” added Abe, whose determination to visit the shrine was key to holding the summit in Ise, a small town many believe is poorly equipped to host a major international event.

But Abe, one of the shrine’s most fervent devotees, has drawn criticism that he is attempting to use the shrine to promote his conservative political agenda.

Under Abe, Japan’s indigenous religion is enjoying a political revival, seven decades after its close ties with militarism ended with Japan’s defeat in the second world war.

That Ise Jingu, actually a collection of 125 shrines dating back 2000 years, is a place of beauty and contemplation is beyond dispute. But its role at the heart of the Abe-led Shinto revival would make a G7 leaders’ visit more than a carefree stroll admiring the shrine’s sprawling ancient forest and crystal-clear river.

Abe and most members of his cabinet are members of the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership), an influential lobbying group that counts more than 300 MPs among its members. The association has called for the removal of pacifist elements from Japan’s US-authored constitution – a key Abe policy goal – increased reverence for the emperor, and a state-sponsored ceremony to honour Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni, a controversial war shrine in Tokyo.

John Breen prior to his talk at Doshisha University for the Asian Studies Group

John Breen, professor at Kyoto’s Nichbunken

The choice of venue is “very closely connected” to Abe’s strong ideological connections with Shinto and its revisionist political agenda, said John Breen, a professor of Japanese history at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. It is “a perfect fit with his active involvement with the Shinto Seiji Renmei, and its aim of bringing Shinto into the heart of government”, Breen added.

While Abe has stayed away from Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo since his controversial pilgrimage there in December 2013, his frequent to Ise Jingu have formed the spiritual – and political – backdrop to his three-and-half years in office.

Just 44 MPs belonged to the Shinto association in 1984, but by 2014 the number had grown to 268, or 37 percent of all parliamentarians. Abe’s cabinet included 14 association members when he took office in 2012; by last year they filled 16 of 19 ministerial posts.

“Shinto is not a universal religion, and it’s inherently nationalistic,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “I already felt rather uncomfortable when Barack Obama was taken to Meiji Shrine last time he visited Japan, and it would be no less disturbing to see the G7 leaders being used to legitimise Shinto, given its reactionary and nationalistic positions on so many issues.”

Many of the Shinto association’s aims overlap with those of another increasingly influential group, Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), whose 38,000 members, including Abe and most of his cabinet, believe that Japan “liberated” Asia from Western colonial powers, and that the postwar constitution has emasculated the country’s “true, original characteristics”.

Likened by some to the Tea party in the US, Nippon Kaigi believes that Japan’s postwar education system promotes a “masochistic” view of its modern history; under pressure from its members several school authorities have adopted textbooks that gloss over or ignore Japan’s wartime atrocities.

Abe and his allies belong to a conservative school of thought that seeks closer military ties to Washington, yet want to roll back reforms made during the US-led postwar occupation, which began with the then emperor, Hirohito, renouncing his divine status as a “living god” and marked the end of state Shinto’s role as the spiritual bedrock of Japanese militarism.

"It's good that I'm Japanese,' runs the type of patriotic poster often seen at Shinto shrines

“It’s good that I’m Japanese,’ runs the type of patriotic poster often seen at Shinto shrines

Amid mounting criticism of his troubled economic programme, Abe must be careful to stage-manage a leaders’ trip to Japan’s holiest site, said Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Serving as the tour guide for the leaders of the G7 as they shuffle about inside the Ise precincts will add little to Abe’s reputation as a leader,” he said.

The reasons Cucek offers for Abe’s strong Shinto beliefs could give other G7 countries pause for thought. “Abe promotes himself as bridge between Japan’s past and its future, vaulting from Japan’s glorious traditions, over the post-1945 years of weakness, socialism and godlessness, to a beautiful, brave new Japan people by beautiful, brave new Japanese,” Cucek said. “Shinto gives him a direct link to pure Japaneseness, unsullied by association with dominant powers and their alien traditions.”

Japan’s foreign ministry confirmed this week that G7 leaders will take time out of their discussions to visit Ise Jingu. “Prime Minister Abe wishes for the G7 leaders to have the chance to visit Ise Jingu and share the dignified and solemn air of the shrine,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told the Guardian.

The British embassy in Tokyo said only that it was “aware” that Abe would like David Cameron and other leaders to visit Ise Jingu, while the French embassy said President Francois Hollande was “keen” on seeing the shrine.

“Ise Shrine is clearly an important historical and cultural site, so it would usually not be seen as a problematic place to visit,” said Mark Mullins, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Auckland. “But given that this religious site is central to the larger political vision Abe has in common with the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership, it will undoubtedly be viewed by critics as a strategy to gain legitimacy for their shared neonationalist agenda.”

A Japanese government official played down speculation that Abe would attempt to make political capital out of a leaders’ visit to Ise Jingu. Abe, the official said, “will be determined not to project any perception” that he is ignoring the constitutional separation of religion and state, adding: “Ise Jingu is a place where silence is golden, and politicking of any sort is its worst enemy.”

Kikuko Nishide, who runs a small museum near Ise Jingu, said she hoped G7 leaders would “experience the power of the forests and the shrine buildings and get a proper feel for Shinto and the spirit of the Japanese people”.

Abe visits Yasukuni in 2013, a deliberate ploy aimed at reinstating the centrality of the shrine (courtesy AP)

Abe visits Yasukuni in 2013, a deliberate ploy aimed at reinstating the centrality of the shrine (courtesy AP)

Abe, Ise and rural shrines (G7)

With the G7 leaders about to be taken to Ise Shrine by prime minister Shinzo Abe, the focus is increasingly being turned on Shinto and its role in Japan.  In this rather rambling overview, the author notes Abe’s political intentions as well as the declining state of rural shrines.  Alarmingly, 40% of them are thought to be at risk of going out of existence.


Abe treads fine line in Ise Shrine tour as Shinto religion faces challenges


Ise Shrine is considered one of the holiest sites in Shinto, a faith whose rituals have been woven into Japan’s culture for centuries.

Located more than 300 km southwest of Tokyo, the historic complex of wooden buildings set in a deep forest is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the emperors are said to be descended.

Ise Jingu, as it is known in Japanese, is also fraught with political meaning this week for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosts the Group of Seven summit on the nearby and secluded Kashikojima Island. Despite constitutional restrictions, Abe would like to see the indigenous religion play a more prominent role in Japanese society.

As 'the Vatican of Shinto', Ise is keen to boost its international standing

As ‘the Vatican of Shinto’, Ise is keen to boost its international standing

Yet as the international spotlight falls on Shinto’s equivalent of the Vatican, which draws 7 million or more visitors annually, Japan’s lesser shrines face a protracted financial crisis amid a decelerating population and younger generations far less attached to traditional rituals.

Abe is expected to take his guests to the shrine, in the latest instance of his promotion of Shintoism. He has held New Year’s news conferences at Ise and, in 2013, was the first prime minister since 1929 to take part in a rebuilding ceremony held there every 20 years, according to John Breen, a history professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.

“Abe is much more focused on Shinto than almost any other postwar prime minister,” said Breen. “He is a key member of Shinto Seiji Renmei, a political association that has as its aim the location of Shinto at the heart of government,” he added.

Ise is less controversial than Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead as well as World War II leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals. Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese leaders, including Abe, have sparked anger in China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan’s aggression in the first half of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, Abe’s 2013 participation in the Ise ceremony drew criticism from Christians in Japan, who said it violated a constitutional ban on the government favoring any particular religion. For some, Shinto is still associated with past nationalism, even though the U.S. and its allies removed its status as the national religion at the end of the war.

“There’s no doubt that Shinto was used by the government during the war,” said Katsuji Iwahashi, public relations chief at the Association of Shinto Shrines in Tokyo. “But is there a religion that has not been used as a reason for fighting? Shrines in themselves are not aggressive.”


Iwahashi Katsuji, international spokesman for Jinja Honcho, who studied for an MA under John Breen at London University

Ise Shrine employs about 600 people and, according to Diamond business magazine, spent about ¥55 billion on replacing all its buildings and artifacts in 2013 — the 62nd time it had carried out this ritual. Its high priests and priestesses are relatives of the Imperial family, and past visitors have included Queen Elizabeth II.

On a visit two weeks ahead of the G-7 summit that kicks off Thursday, dozens of police clad in rain gear were already patrolling the shrine’s grounds among a steady stream of visitors.

For those who run the other 80,000 or so shrines in Japan, life can be hard. The country has only 20,000 priests, meaning many of them supervise more than one shrine.

Small shrines rely on visitors’ offerings or fees for blessings for everything from marriages to new buildings and cars. Priests often combine their religious duties with a job as a teacher or government employee, according to Iwahashi. Older priests are also increasingly struggling to find successors.

About 41 percent of Japan’s shrines are in danger of disappearing along with the rural communities that support them, estimates Kenji Ishii, a professor of religious studies at Kokugakuin University, one of only two Shinto colleges in Japan.

While the same trend is hitting Buddhist temples in rural areas, shrines are even worse off, according to Hidenori Ukai, a Buddhist priest and author of “Vanishing Temples — the Loss of Regional Areas and Religion.” That’s because temples charge their parishioners for the maintenance of family graves, he said.

“We joke that we take people’s bones hostage,” Ukai said. “Things are hard for temples in areas with shrinking populations, but it’s worse for shrines,” which do not conduct burial rites or offer graveyards, he added.


Tadaki Hattori, the 51-year-old chief priest of the tiny, 200 sq.-meter Koami Shrine in the busy Nihonbashi area of central Tokyo, said he often tells his fellow priests that making a success of a shrine comes down to sheer effort. He decided to take a shot at full-time priesthood five years ago, after inheriting the 550-year-old shrine from his father.

What was once a lonely spot hemmed in by a parking lot Hattori’s father used to supplement his income, is now bustling with visitors. The rundown buildings have been spruced up with a new bronze roof paid for by donations, and paper lanterns sponsored by businesses hang at the entrance. Far from worrying over a successor, Hattori said all four of his children are interested in qualifying as priests.

Providing a warm welcome and being willing to explain the shrine to visitors or listen to their problems is key to creating good word-of-mouth, Hattori said. An English-language Web page has also helped bring in some of the record numbers of foreign tourists in Tokyo.

“If people put in a bit more effort, I think things could improve,” Hattori said. “They give up too easily. They think they can’t make money, but you don’t know until you try. I think this is a trend in Japanese society as a whole — everyone is a bit weedy these days.”

Fieldwork trip June 11th

Torii entrance leading to the temple of Sekizan Zenin

The Shinto Foundation has a free fieldwork program in Kyoto on Jun. 11th, to do with legends about  the establishment of Heian-kyo.  The fieldwork will take place between 12.00 and 16.00, with trips to Sudo Shrine and the wonderful Sekizan Zen-in, a syncretic Tendai sect temple.

6月11日(土)13:00に地下鉄烏丸線の国際会館駅の1番出口に集合して、タクシーに分乗します。  今回のフィールドワークのテーマは「平安京成立にまつわる伝説」で、崇道神社と赤山禅院を訪問します。皇城鎮護のための泰山府君(赤山大明神)を祀っています。  プログラムの終了予定時刻は16:00頃です。

I’m told that foreigners are welcome, Japanese speaking or not.

If anyone is interested, please send e-mail to Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake.


An interesting account of syncretism at Sekizen Zen-in, including an interview with the priest, can be found here.

Explanation and pictures of Sudo Shrine here.

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