Matsuri da! (68): Baptism Shinto style in Japan
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 23, 2008
SOME CHRISTIAN CHURCHES—following a Hebrew custom–insist on baptism with full body immersion for purification. This has an intriguing parallel with Shinto, as shown by the Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival) of the Yasaka Shinto shrine in Kumamoto, which was held on the 20th. A group of men change into loincloths to perform a misogi, or ritual ablution, in imitation of the monks who did the same 400 years ago during a time of plague in the area.
Fortunately, we can watch the actual event because RKK Television in Kumamoto City filed a report that you can access here. (RealPlayer is necessary.) Here’s a quick translation of the newsreader’s text:
“The Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival) was held today in Amakusa-gun, Reihoku-machi, during which area residents carried a mikoshi (portable Shinto shrine holding the divinity) into the sea in supplication for health and safety.
“The Hadaka Matsuri of Yasaka Jinja (Shinto shrine) in Kotsufukae, Amakusa-gun, Reihoku-machi, is said to have begun about 400 years ago when people in the area were suffering from a virulent disease. Seeking relief through divine intervention, itinerant mountain priests plunged into the cold sea in an act of religious austerity.
“After a Shinto rite was conducted around a bonfire at 10:00 a.m., a group of 30 men ranging in age from 24 to 62 and wearing bleached cotton loincloths carried the mikoshi outside the shrine grounds and entered the frigid waters.
“It was unfortuately rainy this morning in the Amakusa area, but the men, whose skin turned red in the cold rain, offered prayers for the health and safety of local residents as they swam about 200 meters, buffeted by the waves. Many spectators provided moral support.
“The men later carried the mikoshi to about 180 homes in the Kotsufukae area.”
Additional information: The itinerant mountain priests, or yamabushi in Japanese, were known to carry conch shell trumpets (for reasons I don’t understand), and that’s why one of the men can be seen blowing one in the film clip. The phrase they are chanting for self-encouragement is “Yoiya, yoiya!” Also, during their visits to local homes after coming out of the sea, they enter without removing or changing their footwear, normally a serious breach of etiquette in Japan. Legend has it that the householders are supposed to give their home a thorough cleaning by sundown.
In Christianity, baptism is a rite of purification that represents an initiation. The parishioners of the Yasaka shrine aren’t being initiated—but they are recreating an event in which their ancestors were saved.