Doing it right at a Shinto shrine
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 20, 2007
ETIQUETTE BOOKS went out of fashion in the West a long time ago—probably in tandem with the concept of etiquette itself. But books on proper behavior and conduct, particularly for specific times and places, continue to be published and widely read in Japan.
One of those guides is a trade paperback I have for my own edification called Keigo (Honorific Language), which takes 280 pages to explain the proper use of honorifics in speech and writing for the general reader. While the Japanese may be blasé about such things in informal settings, most are still more than willing to follow traditional customs appropriate to the situation.
Another such book that recently appeared is Jinja no Shikitari (Traditional Practices at Shinto Shrines) by Akitoshi Urayama. Shinto is the indigenous proto-religion of Japan, and visits to shrines are a part of everyone’s life. When people go to a shrine, they usually have an ulterior motive—they’re going there to ask for something. So it’s common sense for the visitor to behave properly in front of the divinity who just might make your wish come true. Urayama wrote the book to remind everyone what constitutes proper behavior, and why.
Last Thursday, on 15 November, parents throughout the country took their five-year-old boys and three- and seven-year-old girls to shrines on Shichigosan, which literally means seven-five-three. The visit was to pray for their health and sound growth in the future. Children of those ages are taken because of an old belief that they are susceptible to misfortune at those times and require divine protection. In some places, a child is accepted as part of the shrine parish at age seven. (That’s an interesting parallel with Catholicism; in that religion seven years old is the age at which children are assumed to have the capability to independently distinguish right from wrong.)
Some of the information Urayama provides might surprise Japanese readers. Most people believe, for example, that smaller bells (suzu) are rung to attract the attention of divinities, but that’s not the case. As the author explains, “Enveloping one’s body in the soothing sound of a bell will drive away malevolent influences. People then can present themselves to the divinity with a clean body and spirit.” (And that is an interesting contrast with mantras in Yoga.)
The shrinegoer, before making his request, bows twice, claps twice, and then bows once again. Helpful diagrams are provided to make sure everyone is familiar with each step of the procedure and such details as the proper angle of bowing, as you can see from the illustration on the dust jacket.
Why go to all this trouble? The author explains that the essence of Shinto is to respect nature, respect others, and then respect oneself. Observing the customs is the outward expression of these forms of respect, particularly when one considers the Shinto belief that natural phenomena, such as the wind, sun, moon, water, mountains, and trees, are divinities themselves.
Of course people can overdo it, and the Japanese are aware of it themselves. Recently we talked about noted director Juzo Itami’s film Tampopo. That was his second full-length feature. His first was Soshiki, or Funeral, which, among other things, lampooned this tendency by following a Japanese family over three days as they learned the proper way to conduct a funeral ceremony.
In the movie, however, the head of the house didn’t use a book. He watched a video while preparing food in his kitchen.
UPDATE: In a serendipitous bit of synchronicity, Mark Schreiber of the Japan Times explains why proper etiquette on the telephone is also important. It’s also a nice Japanese lesson for beginning level students.