Andrew’s blog

See also for my blog while I was in Japan this summer!

Blog #1

The Daijosai

When reading through A New History of Shinto, by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, I was very interested in the chapter about The Daijosai, or rite of Imperial ascension.  Since Hirohito had declared after WWII that he was not a Kami, it was odd that the new emperor should perform the ritual of ascension and binding with Amaterasu. At best it is an acknowledgement of the Imperial line, at worst; it is state endorsement of a religion. There is a constitutional issue with this because it breaches the separation of church and state that we imposed on them. Surely enough, citizens filed lawsuits against government officials attending for using tax payer money to endorse a religion.

The trial played out that the judge ruled the ritual as a right of the emperor for historical and national reasons, not as a specifically religious endorsement. This sounds oddly like State Shinto… The right is a three part process, which involves the passing on and receiving of a sacred sword, then jewel, then night spend in a special pavilion with a bed and shroud. During this one night stay it has been guessed or postulated that the new emperor is in the presence of Amaterasu herself.

The issue of identifying this as a religious ceremony lies with what the goal of the ritual is. As the judge rightly points out the ritual is meant to strengthen the emperors role as a new member of a lineage, and leader.  It is not meant as a right of transcendence, is not a possession, and does not share any aspect  of Shrine Shinto. It is a unique ceremony with historical importance, which focus’ on the emperors role as a leader, and goals for leading his people.  The ritual may have at one time been seen as a religious ascension by not only the citizens, but the emperor as well, but that is the thing about rituals. They can be changed and revised to fit the social and historical context in which they appear. The ritual serves the purpose of the people performing it, and has a different meaning and purpose for each person.

Blog #2


Just like Christians here in the United States, Japan has variations and different cultural disposition as to what Christianity means to them. Japan is no different than the United States in that there are various sects and denominations of Christianity within the indigenous groups. There are some who focus on speaking in tongues and miraculous healings while other are conservative Catholics. There is also a strong cultural adaptation to what the Japanese have changed Christianity to mean to them.

Even though less than one percent of the Japanese identify with an organized Christian church, many Japanese have taken parts of Christianity and incorporated it into their lives. For example, in some areas, the Japanese have started to use Christian priests/pastors to perform their wedding ceremonies. They are beginning to integrate this tradition into one of their rites of passage. This could be attributed to the Japanese love for Western culture. Though they have not taken the entirety of the religion as their own, they have adopted some of the aspects which suit them. This fits with the standard Japanese model of syncretistic practice.

In the Nanzan Guide, Mullins states, “By the early 1960s, the number of Christian schools exceeded the number of Buddhist-and Shinto- related institutions combined.” Also, 300,000 Japanese students ranging from kindergarten to college students are enrolled in a Christian school. Through so many young Japanese attending these schools, there is starting to be more empathy towards Christianity.  Though Christianity has had swings of numbers of followers in Japan over the years, the real issue lies not with government involvement or the missionary practices, but with the Christian doctrine and how this is at odds with traditional polytheistic values.  Christianity still has a future in Japan, as well as much potential. Christianity as a religious group is motivated to spread its word. Unlike “old” Japanese religions, Christianity is not cultural or traditional. As such, it must fight in the religious market to gain prominence.

(Swanson, P. & Chilson, C. 2006. Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.)

Blog #3

The Nihongi

I was struck by a few things while reading the Nihongi. The stories are fantastic, I don’t mean just simply that they were good, they were over the top and ridiculous. As far as doctrine go, these are some of the strangest stories that make up the basis of a religion (kind of).  It also serves as a marker of social perceptions and practice in Japanese culture.

Izanami and Izanagi produce together the first lands and children when they descend upon the earth. This first story puts the Kami on a whole different level than the denizens of earth, their creations. First off they are above our culture taboo of incest. On top of that they are equal deities, and transcend gender discrimination in terms of power.

Under the surface though we see reaffirmation of gender roles when Izanami speaks first and produces the leech child. Izanagi corrects her for her transgression of speaking first.  Henceforth no woman ever spoke first in Japanese culture. Kidding aside, this does show the idea of male rightness, which is echoed later Amaterasu and Susano come to conflict.

Susano in his effort to overthrow Amaterasu as a result of his jealousy visits her in heaven. When she asks him if his motives are pure he declares that they shall both make kami and if they are male, then his heart is true. This places an inherent rightness to male birth.

Again the kami are above our realm of reality in that they are born of things such as; parts of other kami, objects, actions, bodily fluids, and death. Izanagi, in his anger, murders his son kagetsuchi for the death of Izanami. His dismembered body becomes 5 new kami, and the Nihongi is explicit that the blood that drips from the sword becomes another kami. It is even graphic at times, saying that the wound from his midsection sprayed over the rocks and trees and fields.

The Nihongi is rather inventive and over the top with most of its descriptions. But most Japanese do not worry about these stories, but worry about the social practice, rather than obscure semi-doctrine. These things make it all the more fascinating.

(Aston,W.G. 1993. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D 697. 10 ed. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co. Inc.)

Blog #4

Gender in Buddhism

Since I took the course on Gender, sex and Ritual the Nanzan section on Gender jumped out at me. Although it focused on Buddhist practice I still found it quite informative. In the past, studies were conducted on how Buddhist men viewed women, but there were very few perspectives of Buddhist women living in Medieval Japan. More recently there have been studies by both Japanese and Western scholars that have exposed the role that Buddhism has played in women’s lives. One study in particular published by James Dobbins focuses on Eshini, a Buddhist nun during Medieval Japan. While there were women like Eshini who were devote followers of Buddhism, it is undeniable that the Buddhist teachings were discriminatory against women. They were not allowed to live in shrines, temples, sacred mountains, or ritual sites, and often they were not even allowed to enter into these sites or perform religious practices in them. This is also manifest in the fact that there were no Buddhist sects that were founded by women during Medieval Japan. Even though in current day Japan, women are now allowed to go into some shrines, but there remain some that are only open to men such as Mt. Omine in Nara.

Although women were discriminated against in Medieval Japan, in 1940, Yanagita Kunio (the founding father of Japanese folklore studies) published a book about the spiritual power of women. He believed that women innately possessed a power which originated in a woman’s reproductive capability and is expressed through menstruation and childbearing.  Through the physical and emotional expressions, Yanagita believed that women possessed religious abilities. Feminists and critics believe that this folklore of women having sacred religious ability because of their reproductive function has been used to cover up folk practices that discriminated against women. They believe that Yanagita, who is a man, is imposing this view based on biological essentialism which states that women’s power is inherent and universal in women. This is a 180 from the Shinto and folk religious perspective that menstruation is a product of impurity.

Blog #5

Folk Religion

I have to say that Folk Religions was the newest and most informative topic to me. I learned quite a bit from reading through both Breen-Teeuwen books, the Nanzan Guide, and the first book of the Nihongi this semester, but our discussion on folk religions really made me see a whole new depth to religious identity and ‘religioning’.

I thought an important idea to pull away from the reading was that religious ritual and believe changed with geographical location. Languages and values change with location, why shouldn’t religions. What made sense was that the religions would be changed to fit the needs of the local people. Just as rituals can be changed it only follows that religions too must shape themselves. I use the term shape themselves in a loose term, it is the locals that change the religion to fit their wants and desires.

Folk religion goes beyond the standard shamanism and totemism, or the view of a ‘basic’ religion. The Gion festival could even be seen as folk religion. When the Yasaka Shrine stopped it’s afternoon ritual that is the Mikoshi parade, the citizens still held their annual parade of float carts. It’s hard to visualize what folk religion might look like in America, the closest I could think was Native American belief systems. They don’t typically have a written doctrine, or if they do it can be varied and very selective.

For japanese folk religion it is very hard to disseminate it from Shrine Shinto or new sects of Buddhism. Many of the different new religions popping up could also be seen as folk religions. They are formed as an answer to social discourse that isn’t covered by the existing religion, as such a new leader creates practice that is widely different from other areas, but may seem very common to a small group of people.

1 Response to Andrew’s blog

  1. Doc Roemer says:

    Hopefully, someday I’ll have time to reply to these more fully, but you have certainly pointed out some important issues. Someday, perhaps, you can extend your thoughts on these ideas and do more research on them.

    Thanks for the insight!

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