Way of the Kami

Japanese Religions
Chapter 3 The Way of the Kami: Shinto Then and Now

[Ise Shrine]

Let us begin at the heart of Shinto. The Ise shrine, which has been called the National Cathedral of Japan, is not located in the center of a capital ancient or modern, like St. Peter’s in Rome. Its plain wooden buildings, rustic and unpretentious by most standards, dominate a lonely site near the Pacific Ocean some 225 miles south of Tokyo, 50 from Nagoya, and not much farther from Kyoto and Nara.

Like ancient Japanese dwellings and granaries, Ise’s edifices are set off the ground on posts, the roofs are thatched, and the timber unpainted, save for gold tips on the roof beams. They are surrounded by four wooden palisades, which block easy viewing and access. Once again, the sacred in Japan, especially in Shinto, is not clothed in glory but left lonely and obscure, and is all the more mysterious for that.

A great western scholar of Japan of the nineteenth century wrote that Ise is “so disappointing in its simplicity and perishable nature,”1 but modern taste has instead discovered in Ise an architecture of clean, austere effectiveness.2 Moreover, the simplicity of style is compensated by majesty of setting. Near the cold and clear Isuzu River, amid cypress groves of wondrous and numinous beauty, Ise suggests that little could be added by human hands to provide a suitable place for worship of the greatest of the kami.

The Grand Shrine is really two shrines about five miles apart, plus several lesser, outlying places of worship. The two are the Naiku, or Inner Shrine, and the Geku, Outer Shrine. The Naiku is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sovereign solar deity who is ancestress of the imperial line; this edifice has as its shintai (or mitama-shiro), or representation of the divine presence, the yata kagami (“eight-hand mirror,” a term probably referring to its width) which Amaterasu gave her grandson when he descended to earth to found the Empire. The Geku is dedicated to Toyouke, the ancient Food Goddess. In each the Kanname-sai, or Harvest Festival as celebrated at Ise, is the most important of annual events. The offering ceremony then is presented twice, identically, in the evening and early morning.

The two shrines are roughly the same in form. Each has a Shoden or main building containing the sacred object, two treasures houses holding imperial offerings, and a white graveled expanse for rituals, plus a partially-covered pavilion for use in inclement weather. Each is rebuilt every twenty years, and with this sacred drama we enter into the mysterious and mystical realm that underlies Ise’s placid exterior.

Immediately beside the rectangle of the shrine buildings and their fences is another enclosed space of
the same size, spread merely with white gravel except for a tiny wooden structure in the center. This expanse is the alternative site of the shrine. The tiny structure covers the wooden foundation post, preserved after the tearing-down of the old shrine. The post is never actually seen by outside observers, and there are said to be many secrets about it.

Every twenty years a new shrine is built on the alternative site; the next shikinen sengu or rebuilding year from the time of writing will be 2013. The construction is done by traditional means, without nails, the wood fit together by a kind of joinery. Many of the highly skilled craftsmen employed are from families in whom the privilege of working on rebuilding the Grand Shrines goes back many generations. For a time in the fall of the rebuilding year two identical shrines will stand together, side by side.

Then, at the Kanname-sai or Harvest Festival at Ise, of a crisp October evening, the mitama shiro will be transferred from the old shrine to the new by priests in solemn procession, including imperial envoys bearing offerings from the court – swords, bows, arrows, shields, quivers, cloth. In the center of the procession is its most dramatic entry, a rectangular wall of white silk, held and carried by twenty persons. Enclosed by it walk the two Chief Priests and certain other senior clerics, carrying the palanquin containing the Naiku’s sacred Mirror, or the shintai of the Geku. The holy relic is followed by an imperial princess/priestess, called the Saishu.

When the Divine Presence is carried out, one priest makes the sound of a cock: “Kakeko” in the Inner shrine, “Kakero” in the Outer. This intriguing custom, reminding one of the cock which cried at Amaterasu’s hiding and re-emergence in the myth presented in Chapter 1, immediately suggests rebirth symbolism, the dawn of a new sacred cycle. So it is that the Ise rebuilding makes the most sacred of all Shinto shrines both ancient and ever new, like eternity itself: the pattern goes back to prehistory, the actual wood is always fresh.

Note that the Harvest Festival at Ise has several things in common with the imperial accession Daijosai, also fundamentally a Harvest Festival […]. Both are done at night, and both involve an odd doubling: in both the ceremony is repeated twice, in both (at the shikinen sengu) two identical buildings sit side by side.

Ise has a number of auxiliary buildings. Outside the main Naiku and Geku buildings stands a shrine to the aramitama or “rough spirit” of that goddess; this is the deity in her vigorous, aggressive, active mood, in contrast to the nigimitama or “smooth” spirit in her main house. Buildings for preparing offerings complete the complex, together with side shrines to deities of the wind and weather, to Tsukiyomi the moon good, and to the primal parents of the mythology, to be reviewed later, Izanagi and Izanami. There are barns for sacred horses, presented by the Emperor, which are led before the shrine three times a month, and a kagura-den or dance platform where divine dances are performed by priests and mai-hime, colorfully-garbed shrine maidens, who also assist in preparing materials for worship and work in the offices.3

In addition to sending offerings for major festivals, the Emperor informs his ancestral deities at the
Grand Shrine in person of major events in the history of the nation. In 1945, Emperor Hirohito visited Ise to report Japan’s defeat in the great world war.

The Inari and Miwa Shrines

Another face of Shinto is presented by the Inari family of shrines. These are visible everywhere by those who are aware of them, for Inari is the Shinto god of fertility, fortune, fields, and foxes. This popular deity, famous for responsiveness to ordinary human desires, has easily moved from the rice-paddy to the business districts of modern Japan’s great cities, where his (or her, for this deity can appear in both male and female form) distinctive shrines are evident in shops and atop banks and department stores, as well as in urban corners, wherever a little space can be squeezed out.

A recent report tells us that devotion to Inari is now especially high among firms dealing in stocks and securities. Some such companies have their own Inari shrine on the premises; some organize visits by their employees to the great Fushimi Inari shrine, to be discussed in a moment, to pray for prosperity.4

You can always tell an Inari shrine by its bright red torii, and by the two red-bibbed foxes, one holding
a stick in his mouth, and the other a ball or jewel (tama, which can also mean “soul”), on either side of the torii. They are guardians or messengers of the kami, a deity who may appear as a long-bearded old
man carrying a sack of rice, or as a woman with long flowing hair carrying two sheaves of rice, accompanied by one or two white foxes.

The deity is said to start the year in the mountains, to come down into the rice fields in the spring, aid in their growing to harvest, then return to the mountains again at the Harvest Festival (for the Daijosai, Kanname-sai, or Niiname-sai harvest festivals are merely state or Grand Shrine versions of what is done in every village shrine). Inari winters in the heights, away from the people and close to heaven, to return again the next spring. Virtually all ancient Shinto deities ultimately have such descending and ascending features, and links to the agricultural year, ascending features, and links to the agricultural year, as
they rotate between being a yama no kami, mountain god, and a ta no kami, rice-paddy god.

The fox, kitsune, is an interesting entry in itself. Many are the stories told in Chinese and Japanese folklore of trickster foxes who have done mischievous or even cruel things, causing accidents or, with their shapeshifter capability, appearing as a lovely maiden who leads astray some country lad, or promises someone a bucket of gold which, come morning when the mysterious companion is gone, turns out to be nothing but dry leaves. And usually a fox, or even only the tail of a fox, will be just glimpsed disappearing out of the corner of the eye at the critical moment. (I have myself heard modern, well-educated Japanese relate that someone they knew saw a fox run across the road just before a serious auto accident. . .) But this is the kitsune on its own, and Inari cannot be blamed for these antics; the foxes that are her guardians or messengers seem to be well under control. Nonetheless they remind us this is a deity with deep folkloric roots.

The main Inari shrine, head of some 30,000 Inari shrines throughout Japan, is Fushimi Inari, in a suburb
of Kyoto. The impressive main shrine edifice, with its large, stately vermilion torii, is at the base of a high hill. But what is most remarkable is the path up the hill to auxiliary shrines along the way and at the top; this trail is covered with countless red torii, becoming virtually a tunnel. All have written on them the name of the donor, most often a company, hoping for a share in the prosperity Inari is believed to bestow. The walk up this torii-arcaded way takes two to three hours (many joggers do it in less), and is an interesting experience in entering the archaic/modern world of Shinto.5

Even more archaic is the Miwa shrine, not far from Nara. The shrines of prehistory seemed not to have had a structural honden, wherein the shintai or sacred object was contained, but to have worshiped the kami directly in nature, or at an altar in an open, set-apart sacred space. Here, at the very ancient shrine of Miwa, the kami-presence is still an entire holy mountain, and the shrine altar simply faces toward it. No one is allowed to set foot on Mt. Miwa, save once a year, when priests ascend to its summit to present offerings.

The Meiji, Togo, and Nogi Shrines

Shinto is not only about the remote past. In the center of Tokyo stands one of the most famous and impressive, and most often visited, of all Shinto shrines: the Meiji Shrine. It is dedicated to the spirits, now revered as kami, of the Emperor Meiji and his consort, the Empress Shoken. Meiji presided over the rapid modernization of Japan together with, not incidentally, the revival of state Shinto that accompanied the “Meiji Restoration.”* He died in 1912 and she in 1914; the shrine was dedicated in 1920, destroyed in World War II, but rebuilt afterwards.

The Meiji Shrine is set amidst a large park-like area, and beyond it the “outer garden” contains extensive sporting facilities, including two baseball stadiums, a golf driving range, a tennis club, swimming pool, skating rink, and much else. The Meiji Shrine complex offers two important insights. First, it manifests the intimate connection of Shinto with the needs of people, above all in the vast crowded cities of today, for open air, natural beauty, and opportunities for recreation. Similar concerns are close to the heart of the kami, who always want their places of worship to be surrounded by at least a patch of green, and unceasingly yearn to share simple joys and earthly pleasures with their people, especially those associated with health and family.

Many shrines, especially since the war, have tried to develop such community service facilities as preschools and playgrounds, though none on the scale of Meiji. It is important to remember that Shinto is generally concerned with enhancing and making holy life in this world, not with otherworldly or after-death matters.

Second, the Shrine shows us how intimately Shinto is connected with Japan’s history, especially in the
State Shinto era between the Meiji Restoration and 1945. Shinto has always recognized that the kami are not only spirits connected with nature, or primordial mythological figures, but can also be divinized great souls of yesterday and today, particularly those who had a notable historical role. Most such men or women made kami are imperial, though not all.

Also in Tokyo is a shrine dedicated to Admiral Togo Heihachiro (1848-1934), a great naval hero of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05); despite his strongly-expressed resistance in life to being divinized after his death, he was so enshrined in 1940, at the height of Japan’s militaristic surge. As it were in companionship with Togo is a shrine to General Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), another Russo-Japanese War hero, who chose to accompany his sovereign in death, the practice known as junshi. He and his wife Shizuko committed seppuku, the ritual suicide considered honorable among samurai, shortly after the emperor’s funeral cortège had left the palace. […]

Faithfulness unto death fulfilled, they entered the world of kami, or so it was thought by enthusiasts for traditional values in those days when Japan hovered between two worlds, old and new. Apart from a few extremists, theirs is a world now largely left behind.

The Yasukuni and Tenjin Shrines

Something of that world, however, still lingers in the Yasukuni (“Pacification of the Nation”) Shrine, as it
keeps alive memories of war and death. Located on a spacious hilltop in the Tokyo University area, this edifice honors and enshrines the spirits of all those who have died in Japan’s modern wars. Grieving widows, parents, and children have often worshiped in its precincts; so also, more controversially, have political figures.

As recently as August 15, 2006, the 61st anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited the shrine, despite vociferous protests from China and Korea, as well as from domestic quarters. Critics associate Yasukuni with Japanese militarism and assert that many of those honored therein were guilty of unspeakable atrocities, as many Japanese soldiers certainly were. Others see Yasukuni, though in Shinto guise, as no different in principle from the military memorials and cemeteries many countries maintain.6

By way of contrast to these warlike modern figures, mention should be made of the Tenjin family of shrines, which comprise no less than some 11,000 of the 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan. They honor the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane (845-903), a scholarly court official, historian, and poet who was advanced by the emperor to counter the all-powerful Fujiwara house. But Sugawara was outmaneuvered by rivals, who managed to have him exiled to Kyushu. There, mourning the loss of the cultured capital he loved, he died two years later.

Soon after, however, lightning struck the main Fujiwara residence, igniting a fire that destroyed much of the city. Popular opinion attributed this and other disasters to the enraged spirit of the exiled courtier. The government was forced to make elaborate amends, including the erection of a shrine, followed by many others, to him as kami under the name Tenjin (“heavenly kami”). Here then is an example of a deified historical human being in Shinto who was not warlike, but represents another side of tradition Japanese culture, that of scholarship, poetry, and aesthetics. He is considered a patron of learning and the arts of peace.

The Shinto Year

As you can probably imagine, the succession of festivals and worship occasions at a Shinto shrine keeps its priests and supporters busy. While there is no weekly service quite like the sabbath or its equivalent in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, bimonthly offerings, originally tied to the phases of the moon, are presented regularly in some shrines; some major shrines even have daily offerings. More important is the well-packed schedule of special or occasional events, some unique to the particular shrine. January at the large Suwa shrine in Nagasaki, for example, brings not only New Years, but also, on the 5th, Chinka-sai, to control fires and protect the local fire department; Saiten-sai, the coming-ofage ritual for 20-year-olds, on the 15th; and Kenae-sai on the 19th, when members recite poems to the kami.

February offers special rituals for Setsubun matsuri on the 3rd, a popular festival when beans are thrown to drive away demons; Kenkoku kinen-sai, the controversial national holiday commemorating the mythological founding of the nation; and Kinen-sai, prayers for a bountiful harvest, among others. Later months bring numerous other worship events, including the ancient Oharai, or Great Purification, at the end of June and December; and in early October the Okunchi matsuri, the festival of the patronal kami of this shrine, lasting over several days, involving numerous rituals and the carrying of the Suwa kami in great mikoshi or palanquins to visit different areas of his domain. At Suwa, the procession becomes a parade with many floats, TV cameras, food and souvenir stalls, and a general public holiday.7

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