Sadly for a ‘nature religion’ Shinto does not have a proud record in terms of animal rights. There has been no campaigning on the issue, and no notable record of opposing animal cruelty. Quite the opposite in fact, as previous postings about cruelty to horses at a Shinto festival have shown (see here also for other examples).
Historically, compassion for animals is associated with Buddhism. Shinto for example was very much meat-oriented until the proclamation by Emperor Tenmu forbidding the eating of four-legged animals:
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. By around the 10th century just about everyone had stopped eating meat.
Now Japan Today carries an article about a contemporary Shinto practice that might well be viewed as animal abuse.
Shinto ceremony that involves feeding a carp alcohol criticized as ‘animal abuse’
Every year, the snow-kissed city of Tonami in Toyama Prefecture holds a ceremony wherein people feed a carp “nihonshu” (Japanese rice wine) and then release it into a river. It’s called a “Carp Releasing Exorcism” and is used to purge people of evil spirits.However, after the event was covered on a national television program recently, a backlash began online, with many calling for Tonami to end this “abusive” custom of “intoxicating the wildlife.”
Taken at face value, the concept of making a carp drink alcohol and then throwing it away probably seems odd, but there is a kind of logic behind it. In Japan, there is a widely held superstition called “yakudoshi” which are unlucky ages for each gender. As you can imagine, this isn’t an exact science, but the general consensus says that the worst year in a woman’s life will be at age 33, whereas men will want to watch their backs extra hard when they turn 42.
The years immediately before and after your yakudoshi are said to be rocky as well. For example, television personality and spokeswoman Becky will turn 33 this March and I think she would agree that things aren’t going so great at the moment. If the superstition holds true, 2017 will be a real Charlie Foxtrot for her.
To avoid such a fate, women in their early 30s and men in their early 40s will try to reverse the curse by any means necessary. This is where the Carp Releasing Exorcism comes in, where alcohol is believed to be a purifying agent and carp are regarded as gods of the river. So this ceremony is done to pay homage to the carp and hopefully earn some good karma in the process.
■ What happens?
In the main part of the Carp Releasing Exorcism, the jinxed men and women proceed to the riverside with the guys carrying a bucket containing a live carp and the ladies holding a large bottle of nihonshu. A Shinto priest leads the way, blessing their path.
When they arrive, the men will pick up the carp and try to hold them steady while the women pour the sake into the fish’s mouth. After that, the men will toss the creature gently into the water. Then, if all goes well, they will not be embroiled in a national scandal about an extra-marital affair…or stub their toe on a sofa.
■ In the spotlight
This event was said to have begun back in 1816 but has remained largely unknown among Japanese people as it takes place in only this one location. However, every once in a while a television producer catches wind of it and creates a segment for the rest of Japan to see. When that happens, the outrage begins.
Cue Asahi TV’s “Morning Show,” which aired coverage of this year’s Carp Releasing Exorcism in which 11 men and women and four carp took part. While viewing it, one of the cast members remarked that it looked like they were “pouring a lot of alcohol” into the fish. Nevertheless, after an explanation of the ceremony and watching it, a real-time survey was conducted on the television audience with 36,000 viewers deeming it “understandable” and 8,000 feeling that “it should stop.”
On Twitter and message boards such as 2-channel, the disapproval was much more prominent, however. Comments came down on both sides of the issue but it would seem a majority were against the ceremony.
“It just seems like abuse.”
“Isn’t it alcohol harassment?”
“Why don’t they all go jump in a river drunk?”
“Is this really necessary?”
“This is a fishing tradition.”
“If we keep ending things because someone gets offended, the world is going to get really boring.”
“I don’t think they should do this anymore.”
“People are too uptight these days.”
A spokesperson for the event told news site J-Cast News that they received about 20 negative emails and phone calls but only three or four positive contacts. That stands to reason, however, as people generally don’t call in just to say everything is fine.
■ Fish are people too
Despite the criticisms, the organizers of the Carp Releasing Exorcism say that they have no intention of ending the event and are convinced that they are not harming the fish. They claim that there is a dammed lake downstream and they have never seen any dead carp wash up after a ceremony.
The “Morning Show” also contacted a fish expert who said that the alcohol used doesn’t really affect these fish because most of it just escapes through the gills. It’s hard to say whether this is the case here or not, though, and as the online comments reveal, many people are not convinced.
Fish can get drunk, but as you might expect it would take much less to kill them than it would a human so a few swigs from one of those large sake bottles does appear fairly hazardous. There is also the fact that the fish is already out of the water and in a panicked state which doesn’t help matters any.
Controversy aside, it is interesting to witness what appears to be a “fish rights movement” going on among people in Japan recently. Following the outrage over an ice-skating rink’s decision to implant real fish into the ice for “ambiance” and now this backlash, there are growing elements in the land of sushi and dining on still-twitching squid that appear to be changing when it comes to the welfare of fish – even the lowly carp.
For a one-minute video showing the ceremony, see here. For a 4.30 version of the event, click here.
Comment by Cleo, a Japan Today commentator:”The fish seem to spend an awfully long time out of the water, their gills are held shut as the sake is poured in (so the claim that most of it just escapes through the gills is very dodgy) and for a fish that has just be released into the water to just sit there not moving – especially after a stressful experience, it should want to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible – is evidence that the fish are NOT ‘not harmed’.
For the folk dressed up in their best traditional togs, it seems to be less a religious experience and more a photo op. Also the claim that they are not harming the fish because they have never seen any dead carp wash up after a ceremony is sheer self-serving hogwash. It’s OK to do anything to an animal just so long as you don’t actually see it die? The commentary in the video mentions that the carp is used because of its 強い生命力, i.e. it takes a lot to kill a carp, you can subject it to all kinds of atrocities.
That doesn’t mean it’s OK to torture the poor things. They could just symbolically release the fish into the river and drink the sake themselves, to toast them on their way. No need at all to abuse the poor things for the sake of a photo op.”