Japan from the inside out

The masters of multiculti

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 29, 2011

IN a recent post, I mentioned a survey which broke down the national population by religious affiliation and found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions. While religious purists might find that appalling, the Japanese, perhaps the most naturally syncretic people on earth, wouldn’t even blink at the news. For example, I once worked with a young Japanese woman who was a such a serious Roman Catholic that she kept an illustration of Christ under the clear vinyl covering on her desk. Yet, for extra income (and probably because she enjoyed it), she also served as a miko, or Shinto shrine maiden, on weekends to assist priests during wedding ceremonies. No one thought this was unusual at all, including, I suspect, the Shinto priests.

One reason for the laissez-faire approach is the partial syncretism that has existed between the proto-religion of Shinto and the latecomer Buddhism, which showed up in the archipelago in the sixth century. The partnership got off to a rough start in 698 when a Shingon sect established a temple near the Ise shrines because they thought the Shinto deities required the Buddha’s spiritual guidance. That demonstrated some serious Shingon sack, because one of the enshrined deities at Ise is Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe and the progenitrix of the Imperial line.

They paid for the blasphemy, however, as the damage from a typhoon in 772 caused the shrine to be temporarily dismantled. The typhoon was said to be a sign of divine displeasure at the presence of Buddhist symbols so close to the most important Shinto place of worship.

But proselytizers everywhere are relentless, and the Japanese Buddhists kept plugging away throughout the Heian period (794-1185) to promote a synthesis. Their efforts culminated with the development of the Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto) school, one of the main tenets of which held that Amaterasu was the manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana), or the Great Sun Buddha. Ryobu Shinto lasted for centuries, influenced straight Shinto thought, and allowed Buddhist temples to take control of Shinto shrines. Sites with both temples and shrines were common in Japan for close to a millennium. That arrangement ended in 1868 when the government ordered their separation as part of the program to establish State Shinto.

Exceptions remain, however, as can be seen in the photograph, which shows a Shinto shrine in front of Nigatsu-do at the Buddhist temple Todai-ji in Nara. That temple is known for housing the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Japan, as well as being the largest wooden building in the world. It dates from the 8th century, but is affiliated with the Kegon sect rather than Shingon.

An estimated 99.39 million of the 127 million Japanese visited a shrine or temple (usually the former) during the three-day New Year period in 2009, so the Nara collocation makes it a convenient holiday stop.

In fact, ceremonies from the two traditions are combined here at an annual Buddhist rite called the Shunie, which is a gathering of priests for prayer and purification in February under the old calendar. (Nigatsu-do translates as February Hall.) Nowadays it starts on 1 March and continues for 14 days. The ritual at Todai-ji is one astonishing combination of elements that could happen only in Japan: disease-curing water magically traveling 175 kilometers, an archery demonstration, sake drinking, frenzied dancing with torches lit by sacred fire by Buddhist priests on retreat for exorcism and to pray for world peace while eating only one partial meal a day, and thousands of people who come to watch and hope that the sacred sparks fall on them. It was started by a Buddhist priest in 752 out of atonement for going fishing instead of going to a prayer meeting. (Read all about it at this previous post.)

Before the priestly procession holes up at Nigatsu-do, they stop off at the Shinto shrine and say a prayer to the tutelary deity. The procession is then blessed and purified with a gohei, a wooden wand with cloth streamers called shide that is used in Shinto rituals. (Here’s a Japanese site with a simple video and diagrams of how to make ’em, including a photo of the finished product.)

Some of the too-cool-for-school rational secularists out there could learn a few things from the Japanese.

Here’s a 30-second commercial for JR Nara showing Todai-ji and featuring scenes of the torch ceremony. The background music is Stranger in Paradise.

See what I mean?

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5 Responses to “The masters of multiculti”

  1. Marellus said


    Other Topic : Somehow I do believe you’re gonna say this is hogwash about the Japanese.
    M: Thanks for the link. You’re right. Everything in that piece is hogwash, including all the “a”s, “an”s, and “the”s. That it got published in the English-language media here gives you an idea why I spend so little time with the English-language media here. Pointing out the internal contradictions alone would take a post longer than the original piece. Has he never heard of the Warring States period, not to mention the other periods of aggressive Japanese behavior? The same rice culture exists in China and the Korean Peninsula, but are they less aggressive than Westerners? Shall we judge Westerners by their bubblegum culture? Michael Jackson was adult entertainment?

    He also gets the MacArthur quote wrong, but a lot of people do. He was referring specifically (IIRC) to their international, or perhaps geopolitical outlook.

    I know it pisses some people off, but there’s a reason I have “Japan from the Inside Out” on the masthead. Just because foreigners live in the physical territory of Japan over a length of time doesn’t mean they’re actually living in the country. The author of that piece is one example.

    And speaking of Hello Kitty, don’t forget that it’s now a worldwide phenomenon.

    – A.

  2. Tony said

    Marellus, your link knocked the morning lethargy out of me. I’m always amused when someone creates an all encompassing “theory” based upon something they know nothing about. I’m tempted to call it nonsense on stilts but that is giving Liddel’s…… fantasy(?) too much credit as there are no supports to act as stilts. Though I am sure that his little nugget of shiite gets some play among the whinging expat crowd.

  3. Marellus said


    Thanks for the comment. Now if only we can get an anthropologist to comment on this …

  4. toadold said

    Eurrk, I just had a flash image of one of the cigarette smoking, raspy voiced, middle aged waitresses from my favorite 24/7 greasy spoon restaurant picking up extra money as a shrine maiden. “OK sport, whatcha want, and make it snappy we’ve got a line here.”
    T: Actually, the part-timers are usually high school and college girls, which readers will see more about in the next couple of days.

    They participate in a purification ritual first (g).

    – A.

  5. toadold said

    While otherwise a good person, a purification ritual for the waitress known as “Boots” would require something on the order of a bath in molten lava.

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