Day 07 in Ise…Disrupting the Shintō Tradition

This post is titled “Day 07…” but really it’s the end of week 2! Time flies.

By now I’ve attended many lectures on Shintō 神道 that have covered a wide range of topics. I feel as though two radical changes in the way Shintō has been practiced over the centuries have been detrimental to maintaining “true” Shintō.

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This family shrine was probably once in the middle of the rice field they tended–now surrounded by buildings. No rice fields for miles.

Uji-gami 氏神

The first one is when local family shrines were forced to combine to form conglomerate shrines.  For argument’s sake, let’s just call Japan’s native folk religion Shintō.” This form of early Shintō centered on village worship practices focusing on agriculture. Therefore worshiping the kami 神 (deity) associated with the family or village was the center of Shintō traditions. A family, or clan, ruled a particular area and that family’s or that area’s kami was the object of worship. The term for this is uji-gami 氏神 (clan deity). As Japan began establishing itself as a nation, the regions’ powerful families combined and many uji-gami were discarded.

Today what we have in modern Japanese Shintō is not families or villages worshipping their own kami. Instead, what happened at various times in history but (mainly in the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912) is that families and local areas were forced to dismantle their local shrines (in essence, relinquish their ancestral kami) and focus on new larger shrines representing the nation. These larger, newer shrines were established in order to rally the Japanese people around the emperor and the “nation” rather than around their ancestral kami.

 

Lunar Solar Calendar 太陰太陽暦

The second harmful change to practicing true Shintō is when Shintō officials decided to adopt the western calendar. The result is that annual matsuri 祭り (festivals, rituals) became divorced from the natural agricultural-based seasonal calendar. Shintō and kami worship is intrinsically and undeniably an agricultural based religion. The matsuri were created to be in-sync with the planting season and the lunar-solar calendar, thus bringing harmony between people, the kami, and the seasons. By discarding the lunar-solar calendar, which is deeply connected to the planting cycle, in favor of a western calendar beginning on January 1st,  Shintō officials (who probably live in the middle of Tokyo and don’t know the first thing about rice farming) have essentially eradicated part of what makes  Shintō Shintō.”

The population in rural areas is declining in Japan, just like it is in many countries all over the globe, so revitalizing family and village kami worship would probably be a very daunting task. However, re-claiming the lunar-solar agricultural calendar would be rather easy to do. For example, everyone knows about “Chinese New Year”–well that’s the Shintō New Year, too! But in all my time in Japan  I have never heard of a festival happening at that time of year at a Shintō shrine. (There are thousands of Shintō shrines in Japan, so one of them must have a Lunar New Year festival, I just have not heard of it.)

Modern day Shintō leaders should turn back to the family- and community-centered roots rather than focusing on the country and politics.

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