Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 2

Today we focused on traditional rites, shrine workers, and seasonal festivals and events. Much of what we learned can be summed up in a rare video we watched called The Heart of the Matsuri: an Invitation to Shinto. This video seems to be fairly little known even among Westerners interested in Shinto, as it only has about 10 views on YouTube. But it is quite informative so I will put it right at the top of my post. Please go ahead and watch the whole thing; I’ll be here when you get back.

Besides being a fascinating collection of real festival videos, this video shows an idealized picture of how Shinto ought to work according to Jinja Honcho, which organizes most of the shrines in the country. Of particular note is their emphasis on the ujiko system, in which people take care of shrines to which they have a blood connection — shrines connected with their historical or legendary ancestors. Because there are only 20,000 shrine workers in Japan for 80,000 shrines, Jinja Honcho likes the volunteer work done by ujiko. But in fact, despite how it is described in the video, many Japanese people are not aware of being connected with an ujigami, especially when they have moved away from their home villages.

Because the professor-priest who showed us this video was clearly involved in Jinja Honcho, I was curious and asked him what Jinja Honcho recommended for when people move from the countryside to Tokyo. He said that even if they have no uji in the area, they still have ubusuna 産土, the particular neighborhood they live in that ties them to a local kami. But he did not seem to think it plausible that people would seek out a local association to become ubuko, 産子. He said that this is something they would have to learn about by talking with local people, and so he concluded that regrettably it would be hard for urbanites to remain in this idealized Jinja Honcho system if they don’t work to create social ties binding them to their local community, kizuna 絆.

This video was from roughly 1998. We also received another, much more recent attempt to introduce Shinto to foreigners: the book Soul of Japan, produced to commemorate the 2013 shikinen sengū. This book made some headlines in the Japanese press for the fact that words like jinja and kami were officially decided to be left untranslated. However, it is only offered as a PDF and a pamphlet available in Ise itself, and you can’t really order a copy online.

Other things we did today included learning all of the annual rituals performed at the Jingū, hearing about the history of the Jingū, talking about Ise’s attempts to promote itself to foreign tourists, and dressing up in the outfit worn by shrine workers (神職) of various kinds during the most elaborate ceremonies. Here’s an embarrassing photo of myself in full shrine regalia.


It was interesting to experience wearing this kind of clothing for myself. It took about half an hour to put on, and we were instructed to handle ourselves carefully when we were walking around with it on, but once I took it off I had the distinct feeling that my Western clothing was informal and slovenly, a feeling that was shared by many of my classmates. Here’s a photo of some of my classmates being instructed in the way of doing full ritual sanpai for women.


We learned how to walk and move gracefully in a space used for practicing shrine rituals. The professor-priest showed us the difference between the worship area (拝殿 haiden) of the shrine, where people ascend a staircase and pay their respects, and the main hall (本殿 honden), which is open only to priests. When he raised the curtain and allowed us to enter the practice honden, everyone piled in and had a look around. Of course, there were no secrets there, just a table used for making offerings. The actual object representing the enshrined kami (神体 shintai) would be behind another, closed, door, which is visible in the background in this photo.


It is interesting to consider a great difference between Western and Japanese instincts in this regard. I think many Westerners get unreasonably curious about what can be found in secret places. We all want to get a peek behind the curtain. But at Ise Jingu, thousands of Japanese every day content themselves with praying to the curtain. It only costs $10 to get a special sanpai and get yourself a little closer to the honden, but very few Japanese people are interested in this. After all, the important thing is that the kami is there, not the kind of mirror or object it resides in.

Posted: February 24th, 2015 | Kogakkan

Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 1


Kōgakkan University is a small private college in a city in rural Japan called Ise, home of the most important Shinto shrine, Ise Jingū. This month, I join other masters’ students on a Shinto studies program at Kōgakkan. We’ll be touring all over the city and surrounding countryside, hearing lectures in Japanese from some notable scholars in the fields of Japanese history and religion. I will be sharing much of what I see and hear, so this blog will have more updates than usual.

There are thousands of Shinto shrines across Japan, but there is only one Jingū. The Jingū is where the most ancient figures of the Imperial line are worshiped. The kanji for Jingū 神宮 is “kami + miya”, where a miya implies something like an Imperial palace. If a shrine (jinja) implies a dilapidated old altar on the side of the road, a palace (miya) is a new building, regularly rebuilt to prevent decay, that can only built on Imperial grounds. Indeed, ordinary citizens are not allowed inside the central building, or honden 本殿 of the Jingū. We must stand at the outermost gate. Only the Emperor and his family are permitted to enter.

Ise Jingū consists of two different legal organizations, the Gekū (外宮 “Outer Miya”) and the Naikū (内宮 “Inner Miya”). The Naikū is also known as Kōtai Jingū, or the Emperor’s Jingū. The most important kami at the Jingū is Amaterasu-Oomikami, who is housed in the central miya of the Naikū. The Gekū houses Toyouke-Oomikami, who was called to Ise to prepare Amaterasu’s food. As is common across all ancient societies, the offering of food to the highest ancestor is a very serious matter: in this case, so serious that part of the Jingū is dedicated to the kami who would prepare that food.

Kōgakkan, located between the Naikū and the Gekū, is one of only two universities in Japan that has the promotion of Shinto as its founding mission. Shrine priests are also trained here. This means that some unusual groups are coming through; today in the Kōgakkan lunchroom, there were a bunch of young men dressed in shrine priest robes who sang a Shinto prayer before and after eating. I am sure that I will see and learn many more interesting things in the days to come.

This program has assembled a motley crew of Japan scholars from across Europe and the US. It includes a Romanian comparative literature student with an interest in Jungian archetypes, a Spanish guy who quit his job (a rare thing in Spain these days) to make a serious study of early modern cultural exchange, and two Poles from the same school who do a remarkable job of being a tsukkomi and boke. When he introduced himself to our professors, the boke insisted that they call him “Micchan”, so I’ll refer to him by that name on this blog. The people at Kōgakkan have been very nice and showered us with gifts as we started the program today. They’re also paying for all of our meals and a free guided tour of Kyoto. Below, some of the books they gave us:


After the opening ceremony today, we heard a lecture from the president of the college, a Shinto historian named Shimizu Kiyoshi 清水潔. Shimizu-sensei explained that Kōgakkan was founded in 1887 as a reaction to Tokyo University having no Eastern readings in its original curriculum. To give us a taste of the early Meiji love of all things Western, he related the episode of the Rokumeikan, where Japanese nobles built a modern dance hall and attempted to hold fancy dress parties in a perfect copy of European fashions, only to trigger harsh critique from Westerners who found the empty imitation of their social rituals uncomfortable and eerie.

Japan had a need to blaze its own trail and assert itself as a developed country, without endlessly imitating Europe. Shimizu-sensei quoted from German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s 1865 account of his visit to Japan. Schliemann was apparently impressed with Japan’s mastery of Western technologies, but felt that Japan lacked “spiritual development” — that is to say, Christianity. In this context, the philology and classical studies promoted at Kōgakkan could be helpful to Japan in demonstrating its moral worth as a nation. Shimizu-sensei is of the opinion that even today, Japanese people need a firm grounding in their own language and history in order to explain their culture to foreigners.

Shimizu-sensei discussed briefly how Kōgakkan was closed in 1945. He only briefly mentioned that the primary reason for the closure is that the town of Ise was razed to the ground by American bombing. This began with, in January 1945, the destruction of several Gekū buildings, and continued into the summer with severe damage to Kōgakkan. The school did not reopen until 1962, with the support of alumni who had become wealthy in the postwar years. No longer would it be a public Shinto institute; now it was a private college, which has focused increasingly on education in recent years.

Sir Arthur Toynbee visited the Jingū in 1967. He left a message for the people of Ise where he described his experience at the Jingū as affirming the “underlying unity of all religions.” Shimizu-sensei apparently found this phrase very moving and he repeated it several times. Maybe he should read Frithjof Schuon.

We were given a tour of the campus — I was especially interested in the Jingū’s private archives, the Japanese equivalent of the Vatican Secret Library, which are located right next to the library — and enjoyed a free lunch. After lunch, a shrine otaku showed us around the nearby Yamatohime-no-miya and explained how to do sanpai (paying respects). Here he is with my classmate Jonathan:


Yamatohime-no-miya was just renewed for the 2013 shikinen sengū, a recurring 20-year event where all of the shrine buildings at the Jingū are torn down and rebuilt. As Shimizu-sensei reminded us, the shikinen sengū has been going on for over 1300 years. Our otaku guide, Sano-san, gave us some very complex and technical information about the circumstances surrounding Yamatohime-no-miya’s founding (it’s actually a new shrine) and its ranking in the internal Jingū shrine system (it’s called a betsugū).

Following this, we had two lectures on the history of Ise from Okano Tomohiko 岡野友彦, a medievalist with a specialty in reading premodern Japanese literature. By this point my hike had worn me out, but I was awake enough to understand the important point that for much of its history before the 20th century Ise was dominated by two alliances, the Yamada Triad and the Uji Assembly, which controlled the pilgrimage businesses around the Geku and Naiku, respectively. He described a 1486 event where the Yamada refused to allow visitors to pass to the Naiku, which caused the Uji in return to call upon a neighboring warlord, Kitabatake Masasato, to give the Yamada an ultimatum. When they ignored him, Kitabatake and his crew set fire to the entire Gekū pilgrimage area and murdered the Yamadas indiscriminately. Some of the Yamadas were murdered inside the Gekū, which caused it to fall into a state of impurity. Okano-sensei did not mention this, but the Yamada and Uji actually called the Kitabatake warlords to intervene in their disputes (i.e. help kill each other) about ten times from 1400 to 1600, something which should have pleased the Kitabatakes very much, as it allowed them to build their power base in the Jingū area. It is not surprising in this context that the only time in history that the shikinen sengū was interrupted was the period from 1460 to 1580. The shrinekeepers must have been remarkably impoverished at this time.

After the Meiji Restoration, Ise Jingū took on renewed importance, and by 1930, with the expansion of the imperial cult, there were plans to turn it into a sacred city, similar to how the Saudis have attempted to renew Mecca. In 1940, the 2600th anniversary of Japan’s founding, a plan was approved to completely remodel the area. But in a typically shortsighted way for the time, the people who signed off on this plan did not realize that Japan’s increasing disregard for Western interests had set it on a path to total war. Okano-sensei described the postwar atmosphere at Ise, in an era when the Jingū had been bombed and damaged and the Kōgakkan abandoned, as a “hard blow spiritually” 精神的痛手. But the Jingū was rebuilt with private funds and continues to conduct the shikinen sengū today, with increasing interest from the Japanese public. Over the course of 2013, 13 million pilgrims came to see it happen.

Another thing we learned from Okano-sensei is that it always rains on or near the day of the Naiku sengū. After class we had a welcome party where I tried and failed to strike up a conversation with my professors, and then we students enjoyed a nijikai (second party) with all the extra beer and liquor left behind from the party. Okay, that’s it for today!

Posted: February 23rd, 2015 | Kogakkan

Why do Japanese people visit shrines and temples?

Source: survey by JTB travel agency

A survey of 3,600 Japanese adults shows that 52% visited a shrine or temple in the past year. (Of those who didn’t, most simply didn’t have a reason to go; only 8% of all respondents specifically said they were totally uninterested in religious places.) The reasons shrinegoers and templegoers gave for visiting were as follows:

22% There were things I wanted to see in the surrounding area

21% There’s something special about that place

18% I visit that place regularly

11% No reason in particular

8% I felt like I wanted to pray

5% A relative or friend asked me to go

4% I was taken there on a tour

4% I saw it on TV or in a magazine

4% I was attending a special event or service there

3% Other

If these reasons seem a bit unflattering, the positive reactions from visiting should be more encouraging:

40% I felt soothed / my heart was calmed

19% The buildings were very pretty

13% I felt like I should go more often

10% My ki/energy was renewed

10% The souvenirs were good

4% I gained something from visiting

2% I enjoyed talking with local people

2% Other

Furthermore 56% go to temples and shrines together with their families, while only 15% go alone. A supermajority are praying for the health and safety of family members.

JTB found that about 18% of Japanese people would like to visit either Ise or Izumo this year if they can find the time. Other popular choices include Itsukushima, Meiji Jingū, Kiyomizu-dera, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, Atsuda Jingū, Kumano Sanzan, Fushimi Inari, Nikkō, Takachiho, and Kirishima-Jingū. A mixture of tourism-related, history-related, cultural heritage-related, and “power spot” reasons were given for these choices.

Posted: March 4th, 2013 | Shinto 1 Comment »

A Wider View of Shinto

Japanese shrines, called jinja, have a poor relation to the Western view of religion. Japanese people often complain that shrines are improperly viewed as religious, owing in great part to a legal intervention by the American Occupation. Having researched this in an academic capacity for several years, I will now state for the record that it is meaningless to list “Shinto” as your religion, because there are so many views of the jinja and ways of the kami, and none of them is officially endorsed by any establishment. You should rather put “Japanese” as your religion if you want to act like one. However, it is possible to be a “Shintoist”, that is, a researcher who studies Shinto history and expresses views about kami.

The postwar organization created by the American Occupation, called Jinja Honcho (“Shrine Authority”), is often assumed by both scholars and amateurs to propound an orthodox theology, when in fact it does not endorse any religious views at all, but only encourages an orthopraxy of respect towards shrines which Japanese people naturally have anyway. Obsessing over Jinja Honcho, as some Western books have done, gives you a very limited perspective on shrines in the public mind.

21st century religious treatment of shrines falls under the purvey of many different groups. This complex system is not thought about very much by the scholars I have read. Shrines are actually treated as public institutions and religious groups are free to theorize about them just as much as the “ordinary” Japanese people to whom they cater. Here are the players at work:

Independent shrinekeepers legally own all 80,000 shrines of Japan and can basically run them how they like. The majority of full-time shrinekeepers are atheists trained in Jinja Honcho-linked universities as ceremonial specialists whose main interest is continuing tradition, with an occasional view to historical awareness, or in rare cases attracting new worshipers with advertisements.

Jinja Honcho has organizational influence over the shrines but their main concern is continuing traditions. All shrines are privately run and free to leave Jinja Honcho at any time.

[edit] It should be noted that Jinja Honcho sponsors the Shinto Political League, which is, as the name implies, a right-wing political organization that, rather than propounding religious doctrine, calls for the restoration of imperial era traditions and practices, and espouses right-wing political views generally. Its mission statement says that it “aims to convey Japan’s culture and traditions to future generations”.

Public and legal opinion control how shrines are treated in government and by the courts. The general public sees shrines as an old public institution with vague links to history and religion. Ordinary people visit their local shrine roughly twice a year, for holidays and special occasions. Books about shrines from the “public opinion” side are often about issues surrounding Yasukuni Shrine.

Supporters’ organizations are set up by frequent shrine visitors and donors as independent groups to control how individual shrines are run, most notably at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. These are basically non-religious groups.

Hobbyists are often atheists with a mania for medieval architecture and sculpture. They do not exert any control over shrines but write a lot of books about them. Surprisingly, I recently met a foreigner who falls precisely into this category.

Spiritualists are a tiny minority of Japanese people who hold strong religious faith in shrines and donate a notable amount of money to them. Their view of shrines is often vague, and similar to that of the general public, except that they see them as old religious institutions that house powerful beings. Shrinekeepers do not cater to these people whatsoever, since they see their mission as public and not religious.

Occultists, who I might also call independent Shintoists, promote an eccentric intellectual view of shrines, often linked to martial arts, kotodama, parahistory, or the Oomoto movement. While they engage with Japanese history and occult tradition much more than spiritualists, they are fundamentally disorganized independent researchers. Their books can be found at large bookstores in the “UFO/occult/conspiracy” section.

The Shinto Kokusai Gakkai is a private organization linked to the religious group Worldmate which encourages awareness of shrines and belief in them. Worldmate, the brainchild of Toshu Fukami, is an interesting group which sells “spiritual services” to people but also encourages people to worship at shrines, which they have no control or social influence over. Worldmate is a rather large religious movement but is extremely poorly documented by religious scholars. I have never seen a shrine acknowledge them (see “spiritualists” above).

Buddhists and friendly new religions treat shrines with respect but focus on their own objects of worship.

Unfriendly new religions and some Christian sects prohibit members from visiting shrines, but this is very rare.

Japan only has a handful of medievalists, academic Shintoists, and religious scholars but they obviously promote a view of shrines to the general public as well.

When a Japanese or foreigner claims that they are “a Shinto” they usually mean that they fall into the spiritualist group. But let’s not be so hasty. If you would like to study the Japanese occult you can become an occultist, or if you want to learn about Toshu Fukami’s theory of the universe (which is very interesting), you can join the Shinto Kokusai Gakkai and be a sort of superpowered spiritualist. These other categories are equally part of “Shinto” in that they are interested in shrines and want to promote respect for them.

Furthermore, documenting shrine architecture and history is an equally important part of preserving tradition, so hobbyists and spiritualists should be friends.

Posted: January 7th, 2013 | Secular-Religious, Shinto 17 Comments »