Shintoa report by Michael Strmiska
There are problematic aspects of the current position of Shinto in Japanese life. My Shinto-priest friend Mitsugi Ochiai educated me on a number of these matters, and much of what I say here is based on our conversations.
Ochiai-san lamented several effects of the American occupation after WW II. First, many if not all Shinto shrines were shut down and all Shinto celebrations banned for several years after the end of the War. Shinto was seen as an enemy religion, a dangerous rallying point for Japanese nationalism and possible resistance to American rule. The American military showed no respect for Shinto shrines, violating the sanctity of the most sacred, innermost chambers of the shrines, places where no one is suposed to go, and removing, that is to say, stealing many sacred objects such as swords, some extremely ancient and precious, ostensibly because these were dangerous weapons which must be removed from where they could cause harm, but more likely because GI Joe wanted an ‘omiyage’ souvenir to show the folks at home. Well, to the victors belong the spoils; it is an old, sad story. As a scholar of Northern European religion, I am reminded of the Christian missionaries in Europe who chopped down majestic sacred trees to ‘prove’ that there was no deity inside and that the heathens must therefore embrace Christianity….
Shinto was also banned from public education. To the present time, there is, according to my friend, no discussion of Shinto in the public schools. Taking together the American conquest of Japan, the closing of shrines, banning of religious activities, and prohibition of education, it becomes clear that much happened to weaken and discredit Shinto and make it something shameful. Like the Emperor, forced to declare on the radio that he was just a human being, not a deity fit to rule the world as taught in militaristic propaganda, Shinto was a symbol of the Japan that was defeated. With domination by American power in the 40s and 50s, American and Western fashions and values were seen as good, economic and technological progress viewed as paramoun and there was no place of honor for Shinto, just a quiet place in the backyard, or on the farm, or in the forest, where it wouldn’t disturb Progress. I now understand that the ‘relaxed’ Japanese attitude toward Shinto (and religion in general) must also be understood as a reaction of shame and identity crisis, and of numbness after the humiliation of WW II and the American-dominated reconstruction….and when Japanese people look at Shinto, it must sometimes be like looking through a cracked window into a dusty old house that they are not sure if they should enter…yet there is much that is good about the old house, the old style, the old traditions, and the question then arises, how to fit together old and new, traditional and modern? The same dilemma in Japan as elsewhere.
My Shinto priest friend laments that very few young people are interested in or knowledgeable about Shinto, vaguely aware, yes, but truly knowledgeable, no, and many smaller shrines are closing down because many young people, the sons of priests, don’t want to become priests and continue the family tradition. They want to do something more profitable…
In this way, the situation of the local Shinto shrine is similar to that of the small family farm. As small farms are lost to modern construction and development, small shrines, the places where festivals and prayers have been performed for milenia to celebrate the cycle of agriculture and fertility, disappear as well. It’s a 2 for 1 deal, irresistable to the forces of modern economic development: destroy a farming community and destroy its spiritual tradition too, replace a way of life that has lasted and adapted for centuries with one that will last…how long?? “Why ask such a question? Long enough to cash in at the bank, that’s all that matters! Oops, there goes the stock market…well, we can still play Pachinko.” (Pachinko is a Japanese style of mechanized gambling. Imagine a casino on every corner and you will get the idea….)
I think that the future of Shinto in Japan may be linked to efforts to preserve the environment. In the heady years of the ‘bubble economy’, when everyone was rushing around making and spending lots of money, there was, I gather?, no time or impetus to reflect on the process of rapid change that Japan has undergone. Now the bubble has burst, and people are realizing that many things are rotten, corrupt and….polluted. Shinto, as the religion of the land of Japan, of nature and, dare I say it, the Forest God, may develop a new vocabulary and energy to address this situation, to at the very least provide a new/old conceptual, symbolic and traditional vocabulary to articulate deep spiritual concerns…like the desire to breathe the air without choking, and to eat food and drink water that is not poisoned.
At the other extreme, we find Japanese people joining cults like the Aum Shinrikyo…which spend their time developing high-tech ways to POISON people!! A harvest of death…almost the polar opposite of Shinto. But I think we should have some sympathy for the people of Aum, because they are just a more extreme version of the corporate-consumer-polluter culture in which we are all enmeshed. They are just a little more direct and honest with their destructiveness!
Writing this is giving me a headache — I think I had better go take a walk in the forest to get a cleaner, clearer perspective.