Japan from the inside out

What price piety?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 12, 2009

TO BE HONEST ABOUT IT, communing with the divinities by attending a service at a religious institution is a lot like attending an event at any other private sector facility. You have to pay to be there.


Of course attending a concert or a play requires money up front, and churches won’t turn people away for sitting on their wallets, but the priests still devote a lot of time and energy to making financial pitches to their patrons. The ushers never forget to pass out the collection plates and buckets at every service. The Catholic Church, which has been at it longer than the other Christians, is more efficient and businesslike. The squad of ushers at the church I attended as a boy wouldn’t put the receptacles directly into the hands of the parishioners. They had long poles with baize-lined wicker plates on the end that they thrust down the row at every pew. People dropped their money in as the plate went past.

The Presbyterians, meanwhile, shoot for higher targets. During my high school days, I went to a Presbyterian church for a couple of years because most of my school friends went there. Once a year, every year, the pastor gave a sermon about tithing—in other words, giving the church 10% of your income off the top. He and the elders were quite imaginative in coming up with ways to justify the expense, which they leavened with just the right amount of pious sincerity.

But there’s no beating around the bush or searching for justifications at a Shinto shrine in Japan. When people visit a shrine and stand in the presence of the divinities, the first thing they do is toss some coins into a large receptacle. They follow that up with two bows, two claps to make sure the divinities are looking their way, and conclude with another bow. Then they get down to asking silently for what it was they wanted to begin with.

Collecting the cash doesn’t usually present a problem since the daily traffic at a Shinto shrine is so light. But that changes during holidays, and that’s especially true during New Year’s. For example, about 680,000 people showed up at the Inaba shrine in Gifu City, Gifu, during the three-day holiday period this year, and nearly every one of them came bearing a cash gift.

They offer more cash than usual since it’s a special occasion, so the parishioners discreetly place it into a straw bag called a kamasu to deliver it.

The accompanying photo shows the shrine’s annual Kamasubiraki, or the kamasu opening, the ceremony in which they count their haul for the year. They get so much, in fact, that they can’t handle it all themselves. The Juroku Bank thoughtfully sent 14 employees over to help them separate the bills from the coins, and they probably carried it back to the vaults when they were done.

It was estimated that 80,000 more people visited the shrine during the holiday period this year than last year. But one of the shrine’s priests also said he thought they were not as generous with their folding money when compared to other years. “During tough economic times”, he observed, “more people come to ask the divinities for their blessing, but they put less money into the bags.”

Well that makes sense, but it somehow doesn’t sound quite right for a priest to say it out loud–especially when he needs 14 people from a bank to help tally up the swag!

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