Everyday Religious Practice 1: Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Buddhist Shintoism practice in Japan

Everyday Religious Practice 1:

Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Buddhist Shintoism practice in Japan

I have set myself the target of experiencing as many religious practices as he can in order to better understand the theist position. In this post I advance the idea that the typical Japanese person has an ambivalent and ambiguous attitude towards religion, and that this is reflected both in Shinto mythology and everyday religious practices. This is based on the three months he spent living with an extended family with a large agricultural business in rural Japan. Japan has a semi-feudal system of patriarchal organisation. As such the eldest son, Katsue Katagiri, is considered to be the head of the extended family. Justin lived with, and observed the daily religious practice of the Katagiri family (Katsue and his wife, Kazuko, and their two daughters and son, plus their spouses and children). Additionally, Justin observed the religious practice of Kazuko’s extended family. The Katagiri extended family contained 32 persons ranging in age from 2 months to 71 years.

“I have a Christmas tree, but I am not interested in religion. I just want to worship my ancestors in Buddhist way.” Mieko Katagiri, Niigata, Japan.

As evidenced by the quote, the Japanese attitude towards religious practice is at once ambiguous and ambivalent. Ms Katagiri states that she is not interested in organised religion, but follows the Shinto practice of worshipping familial ancestors, in a way that is consistent with some aspects of the Buddhist religion. Also, typical of this attitude is that everyday religious practices for most Japanese people combine Shinto and Buddhist traditions and ideas in a flexible way, and often depend on family or regional traditions. However, within the extended family observed, the Shinto desire to praise living elders and ancestors overwhelms any Buddhist aspects of everyday religious practice.

In this article I will describe these combined ambiguous and ambivalent religious practices. In the first half I will focus on the ambiguous nature of Shinto mythology and in the second on the ambiguous and ambivalent daily religious practices in an extended family in Nagaoka, Niigata in North West Japan.

Shinto Mythology

Shinto is at once animistic, polytheistic and somewhat monotheistic. Central to everyday Shinto practice is reverence of ancestors, natural spirits and forces. There is a core mythology involving gods, but this has little to do with everyday practice and practitioners report that they have only a peripheral and ambivalent understanding of it. All animals, some mountains, rivers, plants, humans and even rocks are considered to have spirits. Typically one species of animal will have a single spirit. For example, foxes are all represented by a single fox spirit. These are the polytheistic and animistic aspect of Shinto. We will come to the monotheistic part soon.

Shinto mythology contains an ambiguous creation myth, in which the universe including the Earth already exists. Only Japan is created directly by a married couple of gods who descend from a spiritual realm and who stir the oceans to do so. The couple also have three children: two sons and a daughter. When the couple retreat to the spiritual realm, the children stay to oversee the storms and the sea (the son, Susanoo), moon (the son, Tsukuyomi) and sun (the daughter Amaterasu). A conflict between Amaterasu and Susanoo, sees him banished from the spiritual realm, while Amaterasu goes into hiding in a cave. This leaves the earth cold and dark without the sun. A pantheon of other gods (whose origins are unknown) eventually convince Amaterasu to come back, thus returning light and warmth to the world. Amaterasu and Susanoo later reconcile and he presents her with the gift of a sword to mark the occasion. Amaterasu is later elevated to the level of goddess of the universe inclusive of all other gods and spirits, making her also a monotheistic figure (from a Shinto perspective Amaterasu is the god of all gods, making her the ultimate monotheistic figure). Shinto shrines are typically dedicated to either a particular spirit, Tsukuyomi or Amaterasu.

Shinto is said to have 8 million gods, but there is typically no attempt to quantify them. In fact, to do so would be almost impossible, as the concept of a deity is flexible and subject to an individual’s claim that one may exist at any given time. Typically, this is done to convince someone to undertake an action in a given situation. For example, mothers will claim that all pieces of rice are gods, in order to convince her children to eat all the grains of rice in their bowl. The mother will also remind the child that a farmer worked hard to produce the rice, someone polished it, bagged it up and delivered it to their home. This reinforced the deference to living elders (and ancestors) in Shinto.

Everyday Religious Practice

The everyday practice of religion within the extended family focused on the offering of food and goods to ancestors at the family’s home altar. The Katagiri family has a large altar, a butsudan, for daily ancestor worship and monthly visits from a Shinto priest.

Within the wider extended family, some households also had butsudan and others had a smaller altar (a kamidana). The kamidana is Shinto in origin but again also is used for Buddhist practices.

All families I visited had either a butsudan or kamidana. Nakamichi (2003) notes that 90% of homes in rural japan possess one. This drops below 60% in large cities. This may be explained by the tendency to return to one’s hometown to celebrate the all souls festival (O-bon) and eventually to be buried.

At least two families (including the Katagiri family) had both a butsudan and kamidama, increasing the ambiguous nature of the Japanese attitude to religion. The possession of a kamidana is somewhat troublesome to Japanese families, as they involve more restrictions than butsudan. A kamidana must never be walked on, so their use is restricted to single storey building or part of multistorey buildings that are single storey. Although in an interesting display of cognitive dissonance, one can display a kamidana in a multi-storey building simply by writing the word “sky” (o-sora) on paper and putting it above the kamidana.

All items that were bought new within the family are first presented to the family’s ancestors in front of the butsudan or kamidana. How long the items must be left there varies from 2 to 5 days. During this time the items may not be used or even touched. The decision about when they can be used is made by the family matriarch and is arbitrary and ambiguous. Larger items, such as machinery or cars, can be blessed by a Buddhist priest and will often have good luck charm attached.

Flowers on the Katagiri family’s butsudan are replaced weekly and at the same time the painting or sculpture in the alcove next to it, are replaced. During December this alcove is used to store the Christmas tree, a small statue of Santa and Christmas presents. It is worth noting that children’s Christmas presents are first offered to the ancestors at the butsudan, before being moved into the alcove, once again as decided by the family matriarch but typically after 2-5 days. Once again the presents must not be touched during the time they are being offered to the ancestors.

Also typical is the display of photos of important ancestors in the room in which the butsudan or kamidana is kept. This includes the most recently deceased sets of grandparents / great-grandparents and any other family members considered to be significant or important to the history of the family.

Everyday religious practice in the extended family begins with the offering of the first item of food (always rice) to be cooked that day. Daily religious practice, whether performed in the morning at a kamidana or butsudan, typically follow the same pattern:
■ringing a bell twice for purification
■offering food
■meditation or prayer (said after clapping once and while still bowing)
■saying goodbye (by ringing the bell twice); and
■eating the offering of rice.

A similar pattern is followed when visiting a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple.

Cultural rules suggest that any visitors to a home must pray at the family’s butsudan or kamidana before doing anything else. Any gifts brought by them have to be offered to the ancestors prayed to at that altar as well. This rule is ambiguously applied, depending how far the persons had travelled and whether they were staying a long time. Typically, the rule was only applied to those considered to be sojourning in the area. As such, neighbours and family who lived close by were exempted.
A Buddhist monk from a temple that the family financially supports visits the Katagiri home once a month. It is worth noting that this financial support is a result of tradition not belief. The family has done it for many years (Katsue reported that he does not know when the tradition started and bemoaned the money he had to pay to keep it going). The visit included approximately one hour of prayer, in Sanskrit (a foreign language), at the family butsudan. This was followed by tea and a chat. A Shinto priest also visited monthly, to bless the shrine at the front of the house, but first prayed at the family’s Buddhist altar (butsudan).

Adherence to this combined and ambiguous Shinto / Buddhist everyday practice of religion is ambiguous and typical of the ambivalent attitude common among most Japanese people towards religion.

This attitude has led to the development of a more mature approach to religion, where Japanese people do not take their religion seriously and can incorporate elements from other faith traditions, without cognitive dissonance. This is more common if the faith tradition has a party or festival associated with it. This may explain the popularity of the Xmas (Xmas trees and lights being common in Japanese cities) and marriages taking place in wedding centres decorated to look like Christian churches. Despite less than 1% of Japanese people considering themselves to be Christian.

For readers wishing to view more Shinto mythology, I would suggest the Studio Ghibli movie 千と千尋の神隠し- Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (the English title is “Spirited away”). Or the the Playstation game Okami (“The Gods”).

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