AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Is it religious tradition or is it modern art?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 6, 2008

THE MAINTENANCE OF TRADITION doesn’t require people to cripple their creativity or neuter their imaginations. Japanese women have been wearing kimono for more than a millennium, for example, but fashions in kimono patterns come and go just as they do for other women’s apparel or accessories.

A radical and unique example is the Toyo’uke Shinto Shrine in Okayama City, Okayama. As you can see from the photo, the torii, or gateway, is built with metal tubing, and the building has glass walls. It more closely resembles a small, private museum of modern art than it does a religious institution.

It didn’t look like that when it was established in the mid 19th century and its tutelary deity was the god of agriculture. Its name was changed in 1951 when it received part of the spirit of Toyo’uke no Omikami, a divinity protecting food, from one of the shrines at the Ise Shrine complex.

Back then, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the shrine or the conduct of its affairs. It held seasonal festivals with local parishioners carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines, and local merchants selling fried octopus and roasted corn in stalls. But the population started drifting away from the neighborhood. The festivals were suspended due to a lack of parishioners, and the shrine fell into disrepair.

The Benesse Corp., a large company offering correspondence courses and other services, opened its headquarters nearby in 1990. The employees were saddened by the sight of the rundown shrine in their neighborhood, so they took it upon themselves to be good corporate citizens and rebuild it at their own expense in 1992. The man responsible for the reconstruction said the idea for the design was to blend the best of the old with a sense of the modern.

The festivals began again, but were suspended once more in 1998. They were hard to maintain for a small institution on a small street in a neighborhood with a dwindling population.

Then a younger priest took over in 2002 and committed himself to bringing the shrine back to life. He revived the festivals, believing they were a way to revitalize the area. They now hold a taiko drum and lion dance festival in the autumn and at New Years.

The priest (I’m not sure about the reading of his name) hopes to keep the shrine’s traditions alive this time by getting young people involved in banging the drum and performing the lion dance. He takes his duties as chief priest seriously, and thinks the shrine can contribute to the creation of a more dynamic community. In fact, here’s what he told a reporter: “Festivals are a symbol of the town.”

Now that’s my kind of guy!

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6 Responses to “Is it religious tradition or is it modern art?”

  1. Jordan said

    Wow, great story! Hats off to those employees and the priest. I wish them luck.

  2. Gina said

    It all depends on the charisma on the person beeing in charge. This is how the gurus in India work. I wish him luck. Gina from Germany

  3. yasuyasu said

    時間と英語の表現力が足りないので日本語で失礼いたします。

    福武(ベネッセ)は当地では趣味がよくないことで有名ですよ。
    日本人から見ればモダンアートというより、やはり悪趣味でしょう。
    しかも新社屋建設で立ち退きを迫った罪滅ぼしに、付帯施設を作ったのでしょう。

    そもそも現地は、広大な岡山大学の敷地に近く、以前は一面の農地でしたが、今では、ほぼ全域住宅街になっており、神社もその役割を終えたと思われます。
    ただ、役割を終えたとはいえ、八百万の神々を蔑ろにできないところは日本的です。
    いつも興味深い記事、ありがとうございます。

  4. ampontan said

    Hi, Gina! The same thing goes for schoolteachers, too.

    Yasuyasu: Thanks for that. The report I saw did say that population in the district was declining, however. If it went from farmland to suburb, wouldn’t it have increased?

  5. bender said

    Ampontan:
    Urbanization there must have happened a while ago (maybe 1960s & 1970s) and then it peaked out. I get the impression that small to mid-sized cities in Japan are decaying with the exception of those adjacent to Tokyo.

  6. yasuyasu said

    Ampntan:
    Please look at this map.Around 30 years ago, farmland was still left, but it is a state that you are watching now.
    http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=ja&tab=wl
    It is distance of 10 minutes by bicycle to the center of the town.
    Because land prices became too much high, population would be decreasing.

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