Gods Recruiting: Shinto of Japan

Another in my on-going series of Gods recruiting and religion.

Within Shinto, Inari, the God of Rice, Prosperity and Foxes, will recruit Westerners. Often times, these Pagans are not sure what Inari wants from them. The cultural and language barrier of Japan often stands in the way. Also, Shinto itself is tied to the landscape of Japan. In response, many of these Pagans have been listening to Inari for direction of what to do next. Many have learned Japanese and setting up a kamidama (basic altar).

Shinto could considered an open religion in the sense that the Japanese are bi-religious. In Japanese practice, the Shinto and Buddhist altars are kept in separate rooms, and tended at different times. People will be married in a Shinto ritual, but will have a Buddhist funeral. Therefore, a Pagan can be a follower of Shinto and still practice their form of Paganism. They have to be careful to keep the two religions separate in their daily practices, as the Japanese do.

Since Shinto is a living religion, non-Japanese also need to be careful for other reasons. One is that others, who are unfamiliar with Shinto, regard what these people do to be Shinto. Moreover, many Shinto rituals have specific meanings, and are done in a particular way. People need to know and understand the ritual technology of this religion.

People, not from Japan, should be mindful of interjecting their own cultural ideas into Shinto. The desire to be become a “cultural colonialist” is a strong impulse for anyone to be wary of. That means the person decides what Shinto is or is not for them. It also entails taking a cafeteria approach to the religion – deciding what to follow and not to follow. To know Shinto means to see it within the terms of the Japanese culture and landscape.

In addition, many Westerners are conditioned to think that in religious terms, they can only be mono-religious. Since monotheism, in different forms, permeate Western culture, this is understandable. There is a long cultural history of punishing people for practicing the wrong religion at the wrong time and place. Therefore being multi-religious like the Japanese is a foreign concept. However, Pagans can embrace it in their practice of Shinto, always being mindful to keep both of their religions separate.

To read more about Shinto: The Encyclopedia of Shinto from Kokugakuin University (in Japanese and English).

I lived by Izumo-taisha Grand Shrine, the oldest Shinto Shrine, in Japan. From Shimane Prefecture: Izumo-taisha.

Gods Recruiting: Closed Culture: Native American – the prior entry in the series.

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5 thoughts on “Gods Recruiting: Shinto of Japan

  1. Relevant to my interests!

    Without engaging in appropriation, I think the history of Shinto practice is excellent for comparison to Reconstructionist(-derived) religions, in a really anthropological sense. As you mention, we Westerners have some conditioning to our views, and I think we very frequently misinterpret the histories of other cultures because of it. When learning Japanese history, Westerners are frequently baffled and scandalized at certain viewpoints – like having multiple religions like you mention. I’m not saying to “take” ideas from Shinto, but I think it’s good to use awareness of different human ways of thinking to re-examine how we interpret archaeological knowledge in Europe (and elsewhere). (For example, personally, I find historical Shinto concepts of kami to be *extremely* similar to “fairy faith” in Northern Europe.)

    (For people drawn to Shinto specifically, it’s not *exactly* closed per se, but the only way to do it is to literally go there and learn from the masters. It’s worshiping Gods and Spirits that are specifically in that location, as well as ancestors of a specific group of people. I think there are maybe 3 shrines outside of Japan – one is in Washington state, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, run by Senior Priest Lawrence Koichi Barrish, the first non-Japanese priest.)

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    • Several things.
      The Japanese live in a group culture, where the group ethos is paramount over the individual. Westerners, today, live in the opposite. I wonder to participate in Shinto also means participating in a group ethos. Do the Kami derive their being from the group or a collection of individuals? I don’t know.

      Yes, Shinto is tied to the landscape much like other Polytheistic religions. Izumo, which means decent from the clouds, is where Honshu was created by the Gods. Living there, I could actually see and feel the creation. Removed from Izumo, the Creation becomes an exercise in imagination. It is my understanding that people who travel to Ireland get a deeper feeling for the Morrigan and other Irish Gods because they see Them in the land.

      There is a Japanese Diaspora of sorts – with many living in Hawai’i, the West Coast of the U.S., Brazil, and Peru. They had to adjust their Shinto to a foreign land, including how to honor Ancestors in Japan. Westerners could do well to see how they do it.

      I have studied the Fairy Faith but never made the connection between the Kami. I will have to think more on that.

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      • (A bit late on my reply, apologies…) I agree with you, I think the “group ethos” is essential to understanding the ideology and practice of Shinto. Speaking as a non-expert, I am under the impression that the Kami are a bit amorphous as far as plurality goes – they may be a stone, or a group of stones; is the Kami of a mountain in a rock that comes off the mountain, or is that a separate being? This blurriness used to be taken for granted, but it’s hard for monotheistic cultures to grasp, I think.

        I want to say there’s another Shinto shrine in either Peru or Brazil that I know of, but it’s name is failing me at the moment. I am guessing (though not sure) that they would embrace any non-Japanese local who wanted to pay respects to the Gods of the land. An important lesson is that there are both Gods of the Land and the Gods that Come With You, which I think is something also reflected in animistic Europe and elsewhere.

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  2. Pingback: Gods Recruiting: Hindu Gods | Neptune's Dolphins

  3. The Japanese do NOT keep both religions separate, or as a separate practice. (Except maybe in Shrines and temples.) Buddha said you could keep your religion and practice Buddhism, so historically, Buddhism is wrought with syncretism. Japanese people do not think in terms that there is such a line drawn between the two religions, as we Westerners do.

    Japan Times did an article on this, about why Japanese mix the two up to the point that they blur completely. Sometimes they can’t even tell a Buddhist temple from a Shinto one. This is called “shin butsu shugo” or “shin-butsu konko”. The Buddhist monks think the kami also need salvation. Shintoism likewise, has a lot of Hindu syncretism because of Buddhism.

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