Day 03 in Ise…

In my last post I wrote about an example of a change in the Japanese language that was connected with how people think and talk about Time. I wanted to write about another Time related theme that was presented to us: the calendar of Shintō festivals throughout the year. The title of the lecture was Ise Jingū’s festivals (伊勢神宮の祭り) and was given by Matsumoto-sensei (松本丘), a professor of Shintō Studies at Kōgakkan University.

Print of an Edo period (1600-1868) new year’s festival, most likely held in early February. 『江戸砂子年中行事 元旦の図』


To use an example from Catholicism, think of the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar is the yearly timeline of church events: feast days, holy days of observation, Lent, Advent, and others. The liturgical calendar generally runs independent of the official public calendars that we use locally day-to-day. Following the liturgical calendar keeps all churches, parishes, and individuals uniform. It also affects how Catholics conceptualize their day-to-day lives. Not only conceptualize their lives, but it also affects their work life, family life, and the economies in which they participate. So this liturgical calendar (although a fabricated measure of Time) has very real concrete effects in the world in which Catholics live. Similarly there is a calendar of Shintō festivals. There are various Shintō schools and sects (Ise Shintō 伊勢神道, Ryōbu Shintō 両部神道, Watarai Shintō 度会神道, Yoshida Shinō 吉田神道, etc.) but of course the Shintō calendar that we learned about was the Ise Festival Calendar.

A few points about Shintō festivals (matsuri 祭り) to keep in mind:

  • There are about 80,000 Shintō shrines (jinja 神社) in Japan
  • The purposes of Shintō festivals are peace in the Emperor’s household, peace in the Nation, and peace for the People, as well as prosperity for the whole world
  • The festivals are tied to rice cultivation (inasaku 稲作), that is to say Japanese people’s traditional daily activities
  • The festivals are not only observed at shrines, but also privately within people’s homes

A couple points to keep in mind about the Ise Jingū festivals:

  • There are over a thousand matsuri (though not all massive festivals like are seen on TV or in guide books)
  • Ise Jingū’s “Big 3” traditional festivals are in June and December (Tsukinami no matsuri 月次祭) and in October (Kan name no matsuri 神嘗際)

As of about 1873 (Meiji 6) the Shintō sacred year begins on January 1st. The Meiji period (1868-1912) is the time immediately following the 268 years of Japanese self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. When the Meiji period began, Japan began mimicking European and American governance (as well as other things like fashion and other customs) in an attempt to “catch up” with the rest of the developed world. Hence one way of catching up and conforming was by adopting the western calendar (Gregorian calendar).

The Shintō sacred calendar is based on the rice planting season, thus it begins not on January 1st in the dead of winter, but later—around the time of “Chinese New Year,” which is a lunar new year. For example, according to the lunar new year, the Shintō new year and sacred calendar should have started 4 February 2017, a whole 35 days after the western 1 January new year. Speaking from my own observations this year, during the weekend of 4 February this year, the snow in farmlands like Gifu, Aichi, and Shiga (and I’m assuming Mie) had all but melted away. Temperatures were also above freezing, meaning the earth had begun thawing and making it ready for the planting season. A month earlier the fields would have been nowhere near the conditions needed to prepare for the planting season.

I think that if Shintō really wants to preserve Japan’s folk, rice agriculture based traditions (as it claims to do) then discarding the western calendar and reclaiming it’s lunar-solar calendar is a necessity. Government, fiscal, and academic calendars can stay the same—there’s no need for Shintō to follow suit with them.


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