‘First Shinto elementary school’?!

Japan Today carries a worrying article about an elementary school linked to the ultra-right with a curriculum that harks back to prewar militarism. Why worrying? Because it concerns what has been called the ‘first Shinto elementary school’. Unfortunately it has already been the cause of ‘hate speech’ and the centre of controversy.  And it hasn’t even opened.

Unsurprisingly for the murky world of the ultra-right, there are links with prime minister Abe, his wife and the Nippon Kaigi. Yet again the latent intentions of the extreme right have been laid bare, featuring the reinstatement of State Shinto with all its worst trappings. The more this is exposed, the greater the chance of stamping out the unpleasant stink that accompanies such developments.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday that his wife Akie has resigned as honorary principal of a soon-to-open elementary school whose nationalist operator bought state-owned land at far below appraised value.

Abe made the announcement as he faced Diet questioning over the land sale to Moritomo Gakuen, which plans to open what it calls Japan’s “first Shinto elementary school” in April in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan.

Shortly before the announcement, a message from Akie Abe was removed from the school’s website. Abe also said he has lodged a protest with the operator for calling the school “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe memorial elementary school” as it sought donations.

“I accepted the offer to be the honorary principal, impressed by Mr Kagoike’s passion for education,” Akie Abe had said in her message on the school website, in reference to Moritomo Gakuen’s president and the school’s principal, Yasunori Kagoike.

The school “will nurture children who have pride as Japanese and a hard core, based on its excellent moral education,” she also said.


From the Guardian

Akie Abe’s links to Moritomo Gakuen, a private kindergarten in Osaka, have come under scrutiny after the media reported that the preschool had bought state-owned land at a seventh of its listed price for a primary school it plans to open in April. She stepped down as honorary principal of the primary school on Friday, soon after it had removed her message of support from its website.

In the message, she endorsed the school’s attempts to foster national pride through moral education – an approach that harks back to pre-war militarism – adding that she had been impressed by the passion shown by the Moritomo president, Yasunori Kagoike.

The issue has dominated parliamentary debate this week, with opposition MPs demanding an explanation as to why the school was allowed to buy land at such a low price.

Shinzo Abe said he had protested against the use of his name when Moritomo was seeking donations for the Abe Shinzo memorial primary school. It has since decided to call itself the Mizuho no Kuni – meaning “land of rice” – primary school. Moritomo’s curriculum is designed to instil patriotism in its pupils, who are required to bow before portraits of members of the imperial family and go on field trips to military bases. Children aged between three and five sing the national anthem every morning and memorise the 1890 imperial rescript on education, which demands loyalty to the emperor and sacrifice for one’s country. The US occupation authorities banned the rescript, believing it had fuelled pre-war militarism.


Feb 26, 2017

Things get worse.  Eric Johnston, Japan-based journalist, writes: ‘The Scandal at Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka takes a bizarre turn. A video has surfaced of kids chanting slogans like “Don’t lose to other countries; protect the Senkakus and Takeshima”,“Don’t teach lies in textbooks that Japan was evil towards China and Korea”. But the real eye-opener is that the kids also chanted `Prime Minister Abe! Gambare!”’

Shades of a personality cult taking place, alongside the increasing rhetoric of a need for a strong, military and patriotic Japan.

Hearn 11): Shinto influence on Buddhism

Lotus flower water basin at a Buddhist temple, influenced by the Shinto emphasis on purity and purification

It can prove difficult to find accounts of how Shinto shaped the nature of Buddhism in Japan, though once again it seems the pioneering Lafcadio Hearn actually covered this subject over a hundred years ago.

In his writings on Buddhism, he writes of the acceptance of the imported religion by a Japan which already had religious practices of its own (kami worship, shamanic rites, nature and ancestor worship, fertility cults, etc.).  In response, Buddhism made modifications to its worldview in order to absorb and subjugate the native ways.

Sanskrit rock in a Shinto shrine

The most obvious way in which Buddhism adapted to Japan was in the adoption of kami.  From early times Japanese kami were accepted as protective spirits, and an ideology subsequently developed in which the Shinto pantheon was integrated into the Buddhist cosmos as guardian figures with local manifestation rather than universal existence. In other words they were avatars. Another way of seeing them is as spirits of place rather than transcendental deities.

One of the salient features of pre-Buddhist Japan was the strong emphasis on ancestor worship. Hearn identified it as the bedrock of Japanese spirituality, which is evident still in today’s modernised and Westernised society.  The Shinto ‘cult of the dead’ in terms of making offerings and cultivating the well-being of the deceased was taken up by Buddhism in its concern with funeral rites and ensuring a smooth transition from this world into the next.

Another aspect was the matter of conscience, to which Shinto gave high importance.  The thinking was that since Japanese were of divine creation, they had an inbuilt notion of good and evil. Thus in Shinto there was no need for a written code of ethics.  This was so deeply rooted that Buddhism had to find a way of incorporating the notion, and this they did by emphasising the inherent Buddha nature of human beings.

Daikoku – folk deity who straddles both Shinto and Buddhism

In his first book on Japan, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), Hearn is full of praise for the virtues of Japanese, including their tolerance, harmony and openness.  Personally I see this as stemming from polytheism, which accepts that there are different versions of reality.  It was reinforced by the extensive number of deities in the Buddhist pantheon.

Hearn is struck too by the funloving nature of religion in Japan, surely a legacy of Shinto’s life-affirming ways (as exemplified by its festivals).  Sometimes the informality is striking: I’ve seen a man at Fushimi Inari speaking on his mobile phone while bowing and paying respects at a hokora (small shrine). ‘What has most impressed me is the seeming joyousness of popular faith,’ writes Hearn. ‘I have seen nothing grim, austere or self-repressive. The people take their religion lightly and cheerfully.’ (Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, p.34). Something of that surely has rubbed off on Buddhism in the festivals it shares with Shinto, such as Setsubun.

On the other hand, Hearn is at pains to point out the tremendous cultural benefits that Buddhism brought with it, nowhere more evident than in the fields of art and education.  ‘The Buddhist painter opened to simple fancy the palaces of heaven, and guided hope,’ writes Hearn. (Images of kami only emerged after the arrival of Buddhism.) At the same time Buddhist temples became centres of learning, spreading even to ordinary people the ability to read and write.  It’s the educational role of Buddhism that Hearn seems to value most. while seeing Shinto as ‘the soul of Japan’.

Setsubun is usually associated with Shinto’s celebration of seasonal rites, but Buddhists and mountain ascetics have adopted it too (picture taken at Kyoto’s Senbon Shaka-do)

Hearn 10: ‘ghost-houses’

The vermilion main hall 
of Tsuwano’s Taikodani Inari Shrine (photo by Mandy Bartok)

Lafcadio Hearn had a remarkable instinctive understanding of Shinto, the first Westerner to get at the essence of the religion.  Whereas his great contemporaries like Satow, Chamberlain and Aston were much more proficient in Japanese, they looked to written accounts or documents and were disappointed. Hearn however had a feel for what Shinto meant to the ordinary populace. Here he writes evocatively of the ancestral nature of shrine buildings…

Why certain architectural forms produce in the beholder a feeling of weirdness about which I should like to theorize some day: at present I shall venture only to say that Shinto shrines evoke such a feeling. It grows with familiarity instead of weakening; and a knowledge of popular beliefs is apt to intensify it. We have no English words by which these queer shapes can be sufficiently described – much less any language able to communicate the impression which they make. Those Shinto shrines which we loosely render by the words ‘temple’ and ‘shrine’ are really untranslatable; – I mean that the Japanese ideas attaching to them cannot be conveyed by translation.  The so-called ‘august house of the Kami’ is not so much a temple, in the classic meaning of the term, as it a haunted room, a spirit-chamber, a ghost-house – ghosts of great warriors and heroes and rulers and teachers, who lived and loved and died hundreds of thousands of years ago.  I fancy that to the Western mind the word ‘ghost-house’ will convey, better than such terms as ‘shrine’ and ‘temple’, some vague notion of the strange character of the Shinto miya or yashiro – containing in its perpetual dusk nothing more substantial than symbols of tokens, the latter probably of paper. Now the emptiness behind the visored form is more suggestive than anything material could possibly be…
– Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, Vol VIII, p 4-5

Kitano Setsubun

Setsubun kicks off at Kitano with a kyogen comedy in which an oni descends on a village but is first cowed by the vitality of Otafuku and then seen off by a bean-throwing priest

Following the kyogen sketch is a dance performed by the local geisha from Kamishichiken

Maiko trainees also take the stage to perform in company with their elder sisters. Notice the gorgeous hair pieces on the lady to the left, together with the enticing nape of the neck left naked of the white make-up

After the dance performance comes the highlight of the event, the ‘mamemaki’ (bean-throwing). Catch one of the packets being thrown and you will be able to disspell your demons and have luck through the coming year.

Packets of beans were thrown right, left and centre to the packed throng, causing much jostling and excitement

While the maiko dispersed bean packets to those nearer the stage, this priest made an effort to toss his packets as far as possible

Rather more stately throwing action from this maiko…

One of the packets flew, as if fated, straight into my hands. ‘Lucky beans’ it says, together with the Kitano emblem and a design of plum blossom  (plum being the favourite of the shrine’s kami)

Afterwards there were cameramen all too eager to get up close to the year’s first blossom, already out to celebrate the traditional start of a new year

Afterwards, a mere ten minutes away, there was a Setsubun event at a Buddhist temple, Senbon Shaka-do, with yamabushi (mountain ascetics) leading the way

Behind the priests can be seen one of several oni (demons) that took part in the event. The priests paid respects to a large statue of Otafuku.

Otafuku, or Okame, plays a role in Setsubun as a symbol of fertility. With her plump cheeks, she suggests well-being and is known for her lewdness (rather like Elizabethan barmaids!). Demons don’t stand a chance. (For more about her, see http://www.greenshinto.com/wp/2012/03/25/otafuku-and-uzume/)

The event at the temple was noticeably more religious in nature than at the Kitano shrine, with chanting of the Hanya Sutra and a recital by the temple preservation society. The yamabushi also carried out a fire ritual in which prayer boards are ritually burnt.

There were demons vying for centre stage…

… and then we got the ‘mamemaki’ bean throwing – except disappointingly it wasn’t beans but peanuts in their shells!! Perhaps the Buddhist demons have a different kind of phobia than the Kitano ones.

Hearn 9: Setsubun

For the next two days, Japan will be celebrating the fun festival of Setsubun. Green Shinto has reported on the events in Kyoto on a number of previous occasions: see here, or here, or here.  The event centres around throwing beans at demons.  But why? (click here to find out)  To learn about the historical background, click here.

One of the great virtues of Hearn’s writing on Japan is that it records rites and rituals which have been altered, curtailed or terminated altogether since his time. In the Second Series of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, he describes how Setsubun was practised in the city of Matsue while he resided there in 1891.  As always, Hearn’s sympathetic understanding of the event underscores the narrative, as well as his attention to detail.

The other festival I wish to refer to is that of the Setsubun, which, according to the ancient Japanese calendar, corresponded with the beginning of the natural year – the period when winter first softens into spring. It is what we might term, according to Professor Chamberlain, ‘a sort of movable feast’; and it is chiefly famous for the curious ceremony of the casting out of devils – Oni-yarai.

On the eve of the Setsubun, a little after dark, the Yaku-otoshi, or caster-out of devils, wanders through the streets from house to house, rattling his shakujo (priest’s staff), and uttering his strange professional cry: ‘Oni wa soto!-fuku wa uchi!’ [Devils out! Good-fortune in!] For a trifling fee he performs his little exorcism in any house to which he is called. This simply consists in the recitation of certain parts of a Buddhist kyo, or sutra, and the rattling of the shakujo.  Afterwards dried peas (shiro-mame) are thrown about the house in four directions. For some mysterious reason, devils do not like dried peas – and flee therefrom. The peas thus scattered are afterward swept up and carefully preserved until the first clap of spring thunder is heard, when it is the custom to cook and eat some of them. But just why, I cannot find out; neither can I discover the origin of the dislike of devils for dried peas. On the subject of this dislike, however, I confess my sympathy with devils.

At Yasaka Jinja the local Gion geisha get to throw the beans

After the devils have been properly cast out, a small charm is placed above all the entrances of the dwelling to keep them from coming back again. This consists of a little stick about the length and thickness of a skewer, a single holly-leaf, and the head of a dried iwashi – a fish resembling a sardine. The stick is stuck through the middle of the holly-leaf; and the fish’s head is fastened into a split made in one end of the stick; the other end being slipped into some joint of the timber-work immediately above a door. But why the devils are afraid of the holly-leaf and the fish’s head, nobody seems to know. Among the people the origin of all these curious customs appears to be quite forgotten; and the families of the upper classes who still maintain such customs believe in the superstitions relating to the festival just as little as Englishmen to-day believe in the magical virtues of mistletoe or ivy.

One more feature of the Setsubun festival is worthy of mention – the sale of the hitogata (‘people-shapes’). These are little figures, made of white paper, representing men, women, and children. They are cut out with a few clever scissors strokes; and the difference of sex is indicated by variations in the shape of the sleeves and the little paper obi. They are sold in the Shinto temples. The purchaser buys one for every member of the family – the priest writing upon each the age and sex of the person for whom it is intended. These hitogata are then taken home and distributed; and each person slightly rubs his body or her body with the paper, and says a little Shinto prayer. Next day the hitogata are returned to the kannushi[priest], who, after having recited certain formulae over them, burns them with holy fire. By this ceremony it is hoped that all physical misfortunes will be averted from the family during a year.

Jichinsai (Robert Brady)

When Kyoto author Robert Brady decided that he had had enough of urban living, he moved out to land in the Shiga countryside with views of Lake Biwa. There was a small cabin there which could be replaced by something more substantial, and as is the way in Japan before beginning a new construction, arrangements had to be made for a ‘jichinsai’ (ground-breaking ceremony).

The idea of the ceremony is to pacify the earth spirits so that they will not vent their anger on those who disrupt the land.  A temporary altar is set up with offerings for the kami, and prayers are directed towards the safety of those doing the construction and those who will use the building. At the centre of the ceremony is a pile of sand representing the land, which is symbolically broken.

The passage below about a rather special jichinsai comes from Robert Brady’s evocative collection of pieces about life in the Japanese countryside entitled The Big Elsewhere (see here).  As Ken Rodgers puts it in the Introduction, Brady teaches us about reconnecting with nature, with the life-source.  For Shinto lovers, it’s a deeply inspiring book.


Grand view of the lake
from the window
with the frog on it

The local Shinto priest proposed February first or fourth as auspicious days for the Jichinsai ceremony of blessing the land on which the house is to be built. We chose the former date, the ceremony to be held at one o’clock in the afternoon; the priest had stipulated that it shouldn’t be raining or snowing.

On the day, we in Kyoto received a phone call from the priest at about 7 am; he said that it was snowing only lightly in Shiga and it seemed ok; was everything in progress? We told him it was. When we got to the village at about noon, having left Kyoto at around 9:30 and taken the long route around because of snow in the mountain passes (we only had two-wheel drive, automatic, useless in more than light snow). As soon as we turned off route 161 onto the mountain road up to the land, we encountered about 25~30cm of snow, mostly slush lower down but becoming pure and untraveled by the time we reached the school.

We tried to go up the slope beyond, but our wheels slithered and slid, so we left the van at the roadside and unloaded the god-goodies we’d picked up in small towns along the way. These included a large bottle of high-class local sake, long green onions, peppers, carrots, pumpkin, rice, salt, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, nori, dried squid and strawberries. Gods love this stuff.

We lugged it all up the rest of the way through fallen and falling white silence, a grand, magnified stillness, the mountains impressive in their ermine robes. When we got to the tunnel beneath the highway, I noted that no vehicles had been by in the past hour or two; it was now afternoon. I left Echo in the tunnel with the godgoods, out of the steadily thickening snowfall, and went up the rest of the way to see if anyone was at the site. Nobody but snow, about 50cm deep, perfect for snowballs, which I personally confirmed for some time.

Later on, standing in the tunnel, we figured that the priest must have cancelled and maybe we should go back down to the village and call him, when a small, spiffy and obviously 4WD van came purling up the road over the drifts. It was the priest. He stopped in the tunnel. We talked. He was strongly in favor of no Jichinsai today, since the snow was falling in heavily anticeremonial fashion. Echo said that the architect, the contractor and the materials man were already on their way, some from quite far, and it was too late now to call it off, so could he just do something simple maybe. He said ok, chugged on up. It would just be the three of us then, I figured, assuming that the others must have turned back by now; they’d have to be crazy to come out here in this, like me and Echo and the priest.

When we got to the place, the snow was falling in big white feathers, softly onto a down of silence; every once in a while there was a muffled thump as pillows of snow avalanched from the bending cedars. The priest opened his van and took out snow shovels, gave me one, marked out a circle in the snow; he and I began to dig. The ceremony had to be held on bare ground: the earth connection was essential. Still, with the snow falling like this I didn’t have much hope for an earth connection of any magnitude; the snow was already piling up on the priest’s shoulders. He wore white cotton robes with a brown vest and a high woolen hat. Out in the air the Lake was invisible; nothing but a blur of whiteness out there: what a clear-day sight it would be from the front windows!

After we’d dug out a circle that right away began filling with snow, the priest began to unload the ceremonial paraphernalia. First the high wooden altars, which he set up so that he would face north in the center of the circle. The altars were quickly covered with snow, which Echo brushed off every now and then to make room for the next centimeter. Then out came the altar dishes, onto which went salt and rice, and the bigger dishes to hold the carrots, peppers, eggplants, onions, pumpkins, dried squid, seaweed, strawberries etc., then the sacred flasks, into which went the sake. All were soon covered in snow.

While all this was under way, up from out of the white dimness came the contractor, carrying four wooden stakes, a heavy sackful of something, and two bottles of sake; and knowing exactly what to do. The priest pointed to a place on the ground beside the altar and the contractor emptied the sack there: instant sacred sandpile. Then he proceeded to drive the stakes into the ground at four points on the edge of the circle, marking off a square inside the circle. To these stakes he tied the bamboo fronds the priest had put out earlier; to these fronds he led rice-straw rope around the square; the architect, who had also emerged from the whiteness, brought two more bottles of sake, which he put on the altar. He then began to hang shide (strips of white cut-and-folded paper), also prepared earlier by the priest, from between the strands of the ropes, all these little adjustments soon comprising a most impressive ceremonial forest chapel.

All this while, the sky was a thick whiteness. The snow was falling harder and harder as we stood there while the priest, under cover of the back door of his van, donned his red crane-covered gray silk ceremonial robes (it was painful to think of them getting snowed all over), donned his tall lacquered wicker hat, took his wooden ceremonial wand in hand, stepped out into the circle to begin the ceremony, and the snow stopped, the clouds in one part of the sky separating into a little blue circle as the sun shone full down upon the scene. I swear to this. I said to myself: This guy’s got connections.

Then began the ceremony, the priest moving crisply in ritual, each motion part of a complex cosmic hypermetacosmogeometry, he all the while reciting incantations in a soft monotone that slowly grew in power until he was shouting at more than full voice into the sunny silence of the trees; then, taking out from his robes a large folded parchment, he began to read what sounded like a list of all the gods he was invoking, the list going on and on, when somewhere in the middle of it I was startled to hear my own name, and that of my wife; some sort of cosmic petition.

About this time another car came out of the whiteness and parked with a blast of the horn at the roadside. It was the materials man. He trudged on up through the deep snow just as the priest had blessed all the things on the altar and was beginning to lead us through our portions of the ritual: the architect took the ceremonial scythe and made three rice-stalk-cutting motions above the pile of sand; then I used the ceremonial spade to dig three spadefuls of sand; then Echo did the same; then the materials man; then the contractor dug a hole in the top of the pile with the ceremonial paddy hoe and buried the small box (wrapped in white paper with an inscription on it) the priest had placed in the hole.

The priest then did some more incanting, which led to a reversal of the long howl that had summoned forth the gods and now, in reverse, sent them back to their places pleased with good words and a fine repast, and ended the ceremony. He dug up the little box and gave it to the contractor, told him that before construction he should bury the box under what would be the northwestern corner of the house. He then stepped out of the circle and the sun went in, the sky got dark, and it began to snow heavily again. I swear to this too.

And so it continued to do the rest of the time we were there. The word ‘miracle’ was heard among us. Afterward we all had a cup of the holyized sake and Echo divided the vegetables between us and the priest. We got the dried squid, he got the strawberries. All then set off down the mountain in the vehicles, but I preferred to walk, to be alone in this vast action of snow, this immense white silence, every step a splendid one.

Part of the way down I heard, as crisply as though directed to me by the snowflakes and heightened by their lacy quiet, from the soul of the whiteness the call of the hawk, arrowing out through the endless powder of the sky. There was no answer but a gentle falling everywhere.

One stillness high
in the snowstorm—hawk
riding the howl

Hearn 8): Kitsune (foxes)

Fox spout on the Fushimi Inari hillJudging by the popularity of Inari among non-Japanese Shinto sympathisers, it would seem that fox guardians have a special appeal. There’s certainly something about the liminal creatures that appeals to the imagination. Perhaps it helps explain why Inari shrines and subshrines are so numerous across Japan.  It seems nearly every major shrine has a small Inari shrine somewhere on the precincts.

That great folkorist, Lafcadio Hearn, explored the appeal of ‘Kitsune’ over a hundred years ago, helping to preserve for us some of Japan’s ancient traditions that have since died out.  It is part of his litany of ‘Lost Japan’, as he portrays the forces of modernisation steadily destroying the charming customs of the past.

The following extracts come from his chapter on ‘Kitsune’ in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894)


“By every shady wayside and in every ancient grove, on almost every hilltop and in the outskirts of every village, you may see, while travelling through the Hondo country, some little Shinto shrine, before which, or at either side of which, are images of seated foxes in stone. Usually there is a pair of these, facing each other. But there may be a dozen, or a score, or several hundred, in which case most of the images are very small. And in more than one of the larger towns you may see in the court of some great miya a countless host of stone foxes, of all dimensions, from toy-figures but a few inches high to the colossi whose pedestals tower above your head, all squatting around the temple in tiered ranks of thousands. Such shrines and temples, everybody knows, are dedicated to Inari the God of Rice. After having travelled much in Japan, you will find that whenever you try to recall any country-place you have visited, there will appear in some nook or corner of that remembrance a pair of green-and-grey foxes of stone, with broken noses. In my own memories of Japanese travel, these shapes have become de rigueur, as picturesque detail.”

stone lantern with fox

“Inari the name by which the Fox-God is generally known, signifies ‘Load- of-Rice.’ But the antique name of the Deity is the August-Spirit-of-Food: he is the Uka-no-mi-tama-no-mikoto of the Kojiki.  In much more recent times only has he borne the name that indicates his connection with the fox-cult, Miketsu-no-Kami, or the Three-Fox-God. Indeed, the conception of the fox as a supernatural being does not seem to have been introduced into Japan before the tenth or eleventh century; and although a shrine of the deity, with statues of foxes, may be found in the court of most of the large Shinto temples, it is worthy of note that in all the vast domains of the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan-Kitzuki-you cannot find the image of a fox. And it is only in modern art-the art of Toyokuni and others-that Inari is represented as a bearded man riding a white fox.  Inari is not worshipped as the God of Rice only; indeed, there are many Inari just as in antique Greece there were many deities called Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Poseidon-one in the knowledge of the learned, but essentially different in the imagination of the common people. Inari has been multiplied by reason of his different attributes. For instance, Matsue has a Kamiya-San-no-Inari-San, who is the God of Coughs and Bad Colds – afflictions extremely common and remarkably severe in the Land of Izumo. He has a temple in the Kamachi at which he is worshipped under the vulgar appellation of Kaze-no-Kami and the politer one of Kamiya- San-no-Inari. And those who are cured of their coughs and colds after having prayed to him, bring to his temple offerings of tofu.”

Inari subshrine with white fox guardians

“…the old conception of the Deity of Rice-fields has been overshadowed and almost effaced among the lowest classes by a weird cult totally foreign to the spirit of pure Shinto-the Fox-cult. The worship of the retainer has almost replaced the worship of the god. Originally the Fox was sacred to Inari only as the Tortoise is still sacred to Kompira; the Deer to the Great Deity of Kasuga; the Rat to Daikoku; the Tai-fish to Ebisu; the White Serpent to Benten; or the Centipede to Bishamon, God of Battles. But in the course of centuries the Fox usurped divinity. And the stone images of him are not the only outward evidences of his cult. At the rear of almost every Inari temple you will generally find in the wall of the shrine building, one or two feet above the ground, an aperture about eight inches in diameter and perfectly circular. It is often made so as to be closed at will by a sliding plank. This circular orifice is a Fox-hole, and if you find one open, and look within, you will probably see offerings of tofu or other food which foxes are supposed to be fond of. You will also, most likely, find grains of rice scattered on some little projection of woodwork below or near the hole, or placed on the edge of the hole itself; and you may see some peasant clap his hands before the hole, utter some little prayer, and swallow a grain or two of that rice in the belief that it will either cure or prevent sickness. Now the fox for whom such a hole is made is an invisible fox, a phantom fox – the fox respectfully referred to by the peasant as O-Kitsune-San. If he ever suffers himself to become visible, his colour is said to be snowy white. According to some, there are various kinds of ghostly foxes. According to others, there are two sorts of foxes only, the Inari-fox (O-Kitsune-San) and the wild fox (kitsune).

“To define the fox-superstition at all is difficult, not only on account of the confusion of ideas on the subject among the believers themselves, but also on account of the variety of elements out of which it has been shapen. Its origin is Chinese; but in Japan it became oddly blended with the worship of a Shinto deity, and again modified and expanded by the Buddhist concepts of thaumaturgy and magic. So far as the common people are concerned, it is perhaps safe to say that they pay devotion to foxes chiefly because they fear them. The peasant still worships what he fears.

“The old Shinto mythology is indeed quite explicit about the August-Spirit-of-Food, and quite silent upon the subject of foxes. But the peasantry in Izumo, like the peasantry of Catholic Europe, make mythology for themselves. If asked whether they pray to Inari as to an evil or a good deity, they will tell you that Inari is good, and that Inari-foxes are good. They will tell you of white foxes and dark foxes-of foxes to be reverenced and foxes to be killed-of the good fox which cries ‘kon-kon,’ and the evil fox which cries ‘kwai-kwai.’ But the peasant possessed by the fox cries out: ‘I am Inari-Tamabushi-no-Inari!’ – or some other Inari.


The following comment on Hearn’s observation comes from a paper entitled “The Gothic Traveler: Generic Transformations in Lafcadio Hearn and Angela Carter” by Mary Goodwin of the National Taiwan Normal University.

In “Kitsune” [Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, 1894], Hearn devotes a long essay to the subject of fox images in Japanese rural culture, covering all aspects of fox lore, including their supposed supernatural power, rumors of demonic possession, madness caused by fox magic, foxes that are goblins and those that transform into beautiful women. Hearn carefully details how profoundly the fox culture has influenced the behavior of the local people, including how beliefs about the dangers of foxes influence property rights and value: “the land of a family supposed to have foxes cannot be sold at a fair price”. Fox culture even affects the marriage chances of young women; those whose families have foxes may be considered a bad risk as a daughter-in-law.


Anime at Shimogamo

Japanese folklore meets anime in Kyoto


The colors were jarring. Beneath the vermillion torii gates of Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine and surrounded by the olive broadleaves of Tadasu Forest was a pool of furry, bright yellow ponchos, decorated with the brown facial features, rounded ears and bulbous oblong tails of the tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dog.

Out of roughly 2,500 applicants, 200 anime fans, the majority of them young women, won entry to the Jan. 12 “Uchoten Kazoku 2 (The Eccentric Family 2) Event: Tanuki Gathering at the Forest of Tadasu, Shimogamo Shrine” via raffle tickets sold at ¥2,000 each in November and December. The lucky fans had access to an intimate seating area to view the solemn Shinto blessing of the series’ second season, which premieres on April 9. Even Kyoto’s mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa, arrived to officially christen the show as his city’s “Special Goodwill Ambassador.”

So-called live events, bringing fans face-to-face with the creatives behind their favorite shows in real-world settings, comprise the most active growth categories for the anime business, according to industry analyst Tadashi Sudo of the site, animeanime.jp.

Shimogamo Shrine and its ancient forest are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that date back to the sixth century, prior to the city’s establishment as Japan’s capital in 794. “The Eccentric Family 2” launch ceremony last week was the first of its kind on the grounds of one of Japan’s oldest and most hallowed locales, and its producers made clear that it wasn’t for financial gain, at least not for them.

“It’s a win-win,” one studio staffer told me as puzzled tourists ambled past us, eyeing the throng of golden tanuki costumes. “(Shinto) shrines need the money, and we need the publicity.”

Anime fans are increasingly making their presence felt at shrines and power spots

The anime series is based on the novels of author Tomihiko Momiri and features three sets of characters: two types of yokai (supernatural spirits), the mischievous, shape-shifting tanuki and the more godly, bird-like tengu (goblins), and standard-issue human beings — all of whom interact and attempt to peacefully coexist in contemporary Kyoto. Its protagonist is a tanuki boy named Yasuburo, the third son of the Shimogamo family, whose home is the shrine itself.

“(The) shape-shifting ways (of yokai) are a huge influence on Japanese pop culture,” says Matt Alt, Tokyo-based author and co-translator of the just-published “Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien.” “Tanuki and tengu are two of the most well-known yokai (in Japan), the subject of all kinds of folk tales and even idioms still used in everyday speech.”

Yasuburo often appears in the form of a cute teenage girl and is obsessed with a fashionable young human woman named Benten, who acquired and learned to use magical powers from the tengu master who raised her. Benten is the only female member of a private club called “The Friday Fellows,” who ritually consume tanuki stew at their year-end parties. Some years before the show’s first episode, they ate Yasuburo’s father, Soichiro, once the lord of all Kyoto tanuki, and Benten may have been the cause of his demise.

Shimogamo is not unused to working with works of fiction, here blessing the ‘character’ for Kyoto Station

In short, there’s a lot going on. In its best episodes, “The Eccentric Family” balances its trio of character sets against a meticulously rendered backdrop that is pure modern Kyoto, with its low boxy office buildings, broad avenues and intersections bordered by alleyways, and bucolic oases of parks, temples and shrines. Segues between scenes show a map of Kyoto identifying the exact location of the action. The tone shifts seamlessly from romantic comedy to farce to serious drama about the need to make life meaningful and ward off loneliness and boredom.

Season one of the series aired in 2013 and became an unexpected TV hit for its studio, the Toyama-based Progressive Animation (P.A.) Works, whose projects focus on Japan’s traditional and/or rural stories and rituals. The studio was eager to produce a second season, but there was a problem: Novelist Momiri had writer’s block; his second novel was finally published in 2015.

“Kyoto is the perfect setting for audiences to believe in the supernatural, in the darkness and light of our world and other worlds,” says [studio producer] Horikawa. “The city has such an eventful history. You can put anything in it and people will believe it could happen here, because it has all happened here.”

“You know, I used to get orders from my bosses for overseas releases — ‘Don’t use kanji on signs, make universal landscapes, don’t make anything too Japanese.’ But I went to America for the first time last summer, and in Los Angeles, people kept telling me that they love our work, especially ‘Shirobako’ (‘White Box’) and ‘The Eccentric Family.’ I realized that when foreign audiences see tengu and tanuki running and flying around Kyoto today, they get really excited, and they want to know more.”


Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a 2017 Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University.

Shimogamo Shrine often uses its spacious grounds to pull in potential worshippers, such as art displays and dance competitions

Art objet at one of Shimogamo’s many events throughout the year


Martial arts displays are a regular feature at the shrine

The putting on of 12 layered kimono (junihitoe) with subsequent dance display is another popular event

Sometimes non-traditional objects can be seen on display

The grounds are given over to other activities too, such as jumble sales or, as here, dance compettions

New Year ritual

Joshua Bewig has written in below about the following video of a Shinto ritual he has posted on youtube….

This ceremony is for Hatsumode, meaning the first visit of the year to a Shinto Shrine. The shrine is named Hiyashi Jinja, and is the local shrine here in Gujo Hachiman, Gifu-ken. A similar ceremony takes place at shrines throughout Japan on the eve of the new year. It is carried out to ask the Kami for forgiveness, protection, and purification, and to give offerings in thanks for the lives of the plants and animals that were taken to sustain life.

At the end of June another ceremony will take place, to pray for blessings for another six month period. The miko, or shrine maidens, perform to please the Kami, who descend to be present for the ceremony. Notice that the miko dance facing the Kami who are enshrined at the altar, rather than the congregation.

I recorded this event to share with those who might be interested that these ancient traditions are still very much a part of everyday life.  They continue to be vital in promoting harmony and well-being in communities throughout Japan.  I was very impressed by these girls. They danced beautifully, and at 1:00 in the morning and zero degrees celsius!

Peace and Joy for 2017!

Shrine crisis?

 The following extract is taken from a longer article carried by Bloomberg News

Japan’s Shinto Shrines in Crisis Despite Abe Pushing Religion

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.

The tiny Koami Shrine in Tokyo.  (Photographer: Isabel Reynolds/Bloomberg)

Tadaki Hattori, the 51-year-old chief priest of the tiny, 200 square-meter (240 square yard) 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 run-down 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.”

These days a valuable source of income comes from turning shrine grounds into car parks.

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