Home from the East 2: Religion

I am even more conscious than usual that I am writing from a position of almost total ignorance. Before leaving this country for a holiday in Japan, I read one book of history, and looked up Shinto on Wikipedia.

I then spent two weeks looking at tourist sites.

So the following may resemble the thoughts of a Japanese person, unusually ignorant of Christianity, reporting on the state of the Western church after walking about in London and being taken round Westminster Abbey on a weekday.

Japan’s “indigenous” religion is Shinto. Buddhism entered the country in the 6th century, and there are various different versions of Japanese Buddhism. (Catholic) Christianity began to win converts in the 1500s, but the founder of the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns (military rulers, nominally servants of the Emperor) decide to cut off foreign links and persecuted the church not quite out of existence.

There are many places of worship, and almost the only thing I know for sure is that if they’re Buddhist they’re temples, and if they’re Shinto they’re shrines. In other respects they’re very similar, get on very well together, and are often to be found side by side. Show me one, and I’m likely to be unsure which it is.

I suppose we saw three types of temple/shrine: the ancient historic and famous ones, often grouped in large complexes or phenomenally beautiful gardens; frontages on streets which one might pass by, as one does a church in Britain; and tiny ones rather reminiscent of the roadside shrines seen in Greece or Spain. (They’re a bit bigger.)

All of them follow a similar pattern: a rectangular structure approached in the middle of the long side, and a beautifully tiled roof sloping down front and back. There is a barrier, and a space behind the barrier, which in a temple will probably contain one or more statues of the Buddha or other deities. (I am so ignorant that I don’t even know if all these deities are in theory avatars of the Buddha; some unquestionably are. The Goddess Kwannon often features.) Minor deities to guard the Buddha may also be found, one each side of the main statue, or one each side of the door.

There was one spectacular shrine that contained literally one thousand lifesize statues in rows on each side of the central Buddha. Photography was not permitted, but walking past was awe-inspiring.

Shinto shrines tend to be empty inside, but also often have a pair of statues outside: these may look human or may be animals, often foxes. This is because of a legend or tradition regarding foxes as divine messengers protecting the rice granary from rabbits. Deer are also divine messengers, and in two places we saw them wandering around the sites, taking food from tourists. If you bow to a deer in Nara park, it will bow back. Really.

Many of the temples and shrines, although ancient in site and plan, have been rebuilt many times over hundreds of years, as they are almost all made of wood, and susceptible to rot and fire.

The procedure for a visitor or worshipper to a holy complex is first to purify yourself at the water trough which all the larger temples/shrines have. Water is poured in a set order over one’s hands, and swilled round the mouth (but not swallowed). Then the worshippers can step up to the barrier, normally one at a time, possibly clap or ring a bell to attract the sprit’s attention, bow and pray. Only the privileged go beyond the barrier.

The prayers said seem to be largely for personal or family benefits, and all the main shrines we visited had places to buy plaques on which you can write your prayer for health or wealth or whatever – or fortunes that you can buy. If you don’t like the fortune, you tie it to a little rail provided and leave it behind. Such fortune-selling vending machines can also be found in the street.

Larger temples/shrines have neatly piled offerings of flowers and fruit, and also have incense burning outside. The smell of incense (along with the delicious smells of street and café food) is an abiding memory of Japan. Some shrines, notably the Meiji shrine in Tokyo, have a vast array of colourful barrels of sake wine, which have been presented by the brewery. Who drinks the wine I don’t know.

Strikingly, to me, I didn’t see any temples or shrines that seemed to have provision for large-scale regular worship ceremonies or “services” in the way that a Christian, Muslim or Jew would recognise. It’s not clear that such exist. Although I have to enter two caveats: first, we did see one or two processions. Music was being played in the shrine, while a line of people in fantastic costumes approached. Because we were always on a tight schedule, we couldn’t stay to watch what happened next. Secondly, we saw at least two weddings. One was taking place in quite a large open room at one of the most famous Shinto shrines on the holy island of Miyajima, and there were tables of guests, presumably family members, watching. Tourists snapped photos from behind the barrier. Both brides wore white, with enormous white head-dresses.

But most of the temples and shrines didn’t have any substantial indoor space for gatherings.

All shrines have one or more gates, or “torii”, which you pass through or around in your approach. These are vaguely door-way shaped, but enormous and with no actual door. They are normally made of wood and painted red. (Vermilion paint wards off insects and rot, and also red is a lucky colour.) They are apparently gates for the god or spirit rather than for the people. At Miyajima, famously, the torii is set on the sand and at high tide appears to float. Also famously, at the Fushimi-Inari shrine, the visitor can walk up the mountain behind the shrine through a literal corridor of hundreds of torii, each given by an individual or company either to entreat divine help, or in gratitude for prayers answered.

One of the most memorable for me  was the Hasedera complex in the ancient city of Kamakura. In its beautiful garden and among its numerous buildings was one with a host of small identical humanoid figures, rather like Antony Gormley’s “Field” sculptures, but not all the same size. Some of them had red garments like bibs around their necks. This was the hall of a Buddhist saint to whom people pray for help in childbirth, and we were told that the statues represented or comforted dead or miscarried children. There were other similar shrines and temples, including a set of menhir-shaped little stones by a road with very little to identify them as children other than a few of the bibs.

Tourists swarm to all these sites, and there are tourist maps kindly provided for them. I was a bit taken aback to see that on one such map (for visitors to Kyoto), the symbol for a shrine was a torii shape – and the symbol for a temple was a swastika. While roaming in Kyoto, we came across a tiny temple by the river, with a swastika displayed. The symbol apparently originally meant peace.

It seems plain that religion in Japan is not at all the same as what we are brought up to experience in the West. In Britain you can be a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist – or, of course, none of them. In Japan you celebrate life, eg a baby’s birth, at a Shinto shrine, but choose a Buddhist burial. You may get married by Christian rites, possibly for the dress. You may say a prayer for good luck anywhere holy you go, and you can still describe yourself as having no religion.

Buddhism, as I said, seems to come in various types which I am too ignorant to describe. The Japanese passion for orderly gardens, the samurai valuing of discipline to and beyond death, the fierce deity statues, the worship that to an outsider seems indistinguishable from Shinto, the monks with beads – all are Buddhist.

I’m aware that I haven’t yet said anything about what Shinto actually is, and I’m not entirely clear. It appears to be a faith of respecting and acknowledging divine spirits, both of nature and of people. Many shrines are placed at sacred mountains, springs or the like. They are also about honouring the dead – the Meiji shrine is to commemorate and possibly seek help from the spirit of a 19th century Emperor and Empress. To me, this seemed ironic, as it was Emperor Meiji with his advisers who rejected the shogunate and the old ways, turning Japan instead towards industrialisation, imperialism and the modern world.  Shinto is also said to be a faith of emperor-worship and ancestor-worship. Since we didn’t enter any ordinary Japanese houses, I can’t say if there are domestic shrines, although I suspect that there are. We were in Japan just before the abdication of Emperor Akihito, and the usual spring holiday was to be extended to ten days in honour of his successor, but we didn’t notice any particular excitement.

I keep coming back to the fact that in retrospect I can’t tell the difference between a temple and a shrine. (There was more likely to be an entry fee for temple complexes – people seem to fund shrines through their prayer-fees.) I did find myself wondering why the monotheistic religions are so separate and so – well, by many people’s standards, intolerant of each other, and of everyone else. And yet they have to be. It is the essence of Judaism that God is one, and tolerates no other gods. Christianity and Islam have taken on this basic – and atheism by definition surely has to deny all.

But as one of our fellow tourists said, “All this prayer for individual blessings – that’s not what prayer is to me.” I’m sure it’s not what prayer is either to many Buddhists, but it’s what Japanese religion is as far as the tourist sees. (That, and a rather vague notion of “contemplation in a garden.” It is of course impossible to contemplate in a garden crowded with tourists like oneself on a twenty-minute schedule.)

In a final note, the trip has aroused a small interest in anime films, of which I’d seen almost none before, and a few days ago we watched “My Neighbour Totoro”, by the famous Studio Ghibli. This film dates back as far as 1988, and apparently in 2010 Empire magazine named it 41st in a list of best films in world cinema. I had never heard of it.

It is a very sweet and beautifully made story of two girls living in the Japanese countryside, who are befriended by a forest spirit called Totoro. So far, so possibly like Disney, but what is different is the acceptance of the spirit world by all the adults, especially the girls’ father, rather implausibly portrayed as a lecturer in archaeology in Tokyo. He teaches his children to bow to trees, and when they shelter from the rain in a wayside shrine they expect to ask permission from the invisible spirits. I even spotted one of the Inari fox statues. I would recommend this film as a gateway (or torii!) to some of the ideas we glimpsed, but perhaps also a warning that these concepts are real religious ones, and not just jolly inventions like say Donald Duck – nor is Totoro probably intended as a figment of the imagination. (There is also a delightful flying bus in the form of a giant cat that reminds one of JK Rowling’s Knight Bus – but 15 years or so earlier.)

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS I apologise for the unusual length of this piece!

PS 2 I’d be interested if anyone more knowledgeable wanted to “guest-post” on Japanese anime generally. Also if anyone would like to do a review of “Avengers: Endgame”, please contact me!

3 Comments
  • Malachi Malagowther

    17th May 2019 at 5:25 pm Reply

    Wasn’t the “spectacular shrine” with the 1,000 statues of Buddha really a temple? Or were you just illustrating the difficulty of distinguishing a shrine from a temple?

    • Penelope Wallace

      19th May 2019 at 5:57 pm Reply

      Touche, Malachi!

  • Matthew Perry

    18th May 2019 at 8:38 am Reply

    Thank you, very interesting.

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