Japanese spirituality: purification and festivals
DOI link for Japanese spirituality: purification and festivals
Japanese spirituality: purification and festivals book
When I was a graduate student I attended an event hosted by Japanese government officials who were instrumental in financially supporting my research in Tokyo. As I left the event, I happened to get on the elevator with one of the officials who then asked me about my research. When I mentioned new religions, he slowly shook his head, took a deep breath, and said: “If you want to study real Japanese religion, go visit the Grand Shrine of Ise. That’s where the soul of the real Japan is. The new religions? They don’t represent the true Japanese.” This official’s statement, which speaks volumes about how not a few Japanese (and non-Japanese) perceive the role of religion in their society, implies two contrasting views: “traditional” versus “supermodern.” In the former view, the Ise Shrine epitomizes a tradition-steeped, authentic Japanese spirituality. Located in Mie Prefecture, this religious site is closely tied to the imperial family (another symbolic source of genuine Japanese identity) and is actually a complex of shrines.1 In the “supermodern” view, Japan is a secularized, rationalized, and highly modernized society where religion does not play any significant role. Such a Japan is familiar to the scientific and advanced “West.” Of course, religion can still be found in present-day Japan. However, for not a few, spirituality has lost its saliency, though its rich legacy remains evident in festivals, ancestor worship, funerals, holidays, and other warmed-over customs. Some might even regard Shintō and Buddhism (and sometimes Confucianism) as “museum religions,” whose premodern irrationalities have been tamed by modernity and “traditionalized” into daily customs (celebrations, festivals, weddings, funerals, ancestor worship). These aforementioned binary opposing views-traditional versus supermodernexclude and marginalize the “newly arisen” (shinkō) religions, which are seen as watered-down upstarts that engage in strange and inauthentic practices. Indeed, the exclusion of the new religions from the traditional-versus-supermodern bifurcation results in a third view of Japanese religion: “superstitious.” In this leftover category, new religions are regarded are anomalous, even dangerous, organizations, peopled by the desperate, misguided, and irrational. This “three Japans” approach is arguably an exaggeration, but it is at least a convenient starting point for appreciating how religion is perceived in Japanese society. We might refer to the traditional view as the “official image” of Japanese spirituality, which is informed by the bifurcation of Japan into an exotic culture versus a highly techno-scientific society. In a sense, the traditional and supermodern views are “familiar” or “conventional” understandings. The third or “superstitious” perspective is a less familiar, more unconventional image.