What to do with the gods
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 21, 2011
THE SURVIVORS of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami, as well as those residents near the Fukushima power plant forced to evacuate, must deal with the most basic of problems: securing food, clothing, and shelter. The immediate but temporary short-term solution to those problems is a matter of logistics. Resolving those problems will be difficult, but the difficulties lie in execution rather than conception.
The disaster has also created more subtle problems that do not admit of easy answers. The degree of logistical efficiency is irrelevant, and there are no satisfactory short-term solutions, either temporary or permanent. Those problems are not one of the physical survival of people, but rather the survival of the physical symbols of cultural identity.
Residents within a 30-kilometer radius of the Fukushima power plant have been evacuated from the area for an indefinite time. The people affiliated with and responsible for Shinto shrines in the evacuation zone are unsure whether they should take with them the physical objects representing the divinities in the shrines, known as shintai.
This isn’t a trivial issue for the people involved. They believe the spirit of the divinity at the shrine resides in the physical object, and they also think those divinities have protected the area for many years. In the Japanese perspective, “many years” usually means “several centuries” and often means more than a millennium.
The Association of Shinto Shrines, which represents more than 8,000 institutions, said:
“Shrines have been protected by the people of the community for many years. When the people who have been evacuated return, shrines, if they function, will become the spiritual center of life in the community through ceremonies and events.”
The association would prefer that the shintai not be moved. They understand that the evacuation could be for a long time, however, so say that preference must be given to local circumstances.
Another factor is Article 81 of the law governing religious corporations, which applies to the entities responsible for both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. That law states the corporations are subject to dissolution if their facilities have been destroyed and they are unable to replace them for more than two years, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
Common sense says that the extenuating circumstances are as plain as the nose on your face, but government bureaucracies are filled with people who develop visual impairments as a means to justify their existence. The Agency of Cultural Affairs, which has jurisdiction in the matter, says the extenuating circumstances clause could apply, but want to wait to make a final determination until after they conduct a survey. The local people say that’s unreasonable, and they want their institutions to be removed from consideration for dissolution now.
The ramifications of this law could have an effect not only on the shrines and temples in the evacuation zone near Fukushima, but also on those in Iwate and Miyagi unaffected by the radiation because they (and the priests) disappeared in the tsunami.
The problem at hand for the shrines near Fukushima involves the shintai, however. Some people think it would be best to have them stay and keep watch over the land while they’re away (they use the phrase rusuban in Japanese), but others think they should be evacuated with the population for use in festivals and other ceremonies. In some cases, the priests have taken custody of the physical objects themselves, but that’s not always possible. Some shintai are large, heavy rocks that can’t be moved without equipment.
There are 14 Shinto shrines within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant and four more in the 20-30 kilometer belt. The situation is more difficult for those in the former group. Some priests left with just the clothes on their back, so they have no idea what shape the shrine itself is in, and some of them died or are still missing in the tsunami. Even those who were allowed to briefly return to their homes can’t go to the shrines because entry is restricted to residences.
Okada Masashi is the chief priest at the Naraha Hachiman shrine within the 20-kilometer radius. He said:
“All the officers among the parishioners at all the shrines will discuss whether to evacuate the objects before making a decision, but everyone is troubled by the options.”
The tutelary deity at the Naraha Hachiman shrine is the spirit of the Ojin Tenno, an emperor whose reign is said to have lasted from the late 3rd to the early 4th century. (He may or may not have existed, and it’s possible he has been confused with a different tenno now generally considered to have been a real person instead of a legend.) About 1,000 families are in the shrine’s district, but people from only 50 have stayed, all of whom are working at the plant. So has Mr. Okada:
“My role is to protect the tradition that has been handed down in this place. I will continue to wait until everyone returns.”
The shrine’s spring festival was held on April 19, but he was the only person to celebrate it. He said he prayed for everyone to return as quickly as possible.
Let’s hope his prayers are answered.