Religion, Joy, and Community in Japanese Life

This post was originally written in March 2016 for Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. Original post here.

On the stuffy train ride back to the office from a meeting with a firm, my internship supervisor and I shared bits and pieces about our lives, and I learned that she was Catholic.

In 1550, St. Francis Xavier, S.J., one of the first Jesuits, sought permission from the emperor in Kyoto to spread Christianity in Japan. Just 37 years later, the general Totoyomi Hideyoshi banned Christian missionaries.

Over 400 years later, relatively few people in Japan are Christian—around only 1 percent report to practice it. And yet here was one of them, sitting with me on a train. “I only go to church during Easter and Christmas,” she smiled. “I’m not a very good Catholic.”

At the Catholic church I went to during my childhood, young Sunday school students would line up outside of the chapel after Mass, holding little record books for the presiding priest to stamp, marking their attendance. Getting a perfect attendance record might have shown that you were a “good” Catholic, but it did not necessarily mean that you discovered what Catholicism meant to you.

Although religion has been exploited in modern Japanese history for unfortunate reasons—during World War II, state Shinto artificially generated feverish devotion to the emperor, and in the 1990s, a religious cult orchestrated a deadly terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system—no one religion dominates Japanese life. Over the course of his or her life, a Japanese person will celebrate childhood at a Shinto shrine, marry a partner at a Christian wedding, and die at a Buddhist funeral. On Christmas, which is a workday in Japan, friends and family gather for fried chicken rather than for the birth of Jesus, thanks to a wildly successful 1970s marketing campaign by KFC’s Japanese franchise.

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Ema (絵馬) at the Kanda Myojin Shrine during the 2019 Kanda Festival (神田祭).

The notions of being a “good” or “bad” religious follower don’t really exist in Japan, because many Japanese people simultaneously believe in the existence of ubiquitous gods without necessarily subscribing to a faith or religious doctrine. These kami-sama manifest themselves everywhere, whether they be a 1,000-year-old tree or Mount Fuji.

As a result, many people ranging from local residents to foreign tourists, participate in rituals and worship activities at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, even if they are not Shinto or Buddhist. Whereas tourists sit in the nave of a European cathedral and silently admire its awesome high ceilings and irreplaceable stained glass, visitors at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan indulge in offering coins to the local kami-sama, buy protective charms, and dance in summer matsuri festivals, where the kami-sama (or at least its physical manifestation or spirit) is placed on an elaborate float and paraded down on the city streets.

While the lavish summer matsuri are still some time away, I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Kameido Tenjin Shrine, which was dedicated to the god of learning. At the shrine there was a mini-festival celebrating the plum trees in bloom. There were vendors selling chocolate-coated bananas and fried chicken. A young man was performing sarumawashi, a traditional art involving a trained monkey doing handstands and two-legged tricks, on the shrine grounds. It was a perfect Saturday afternoon.

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Monkeying around during the 2016 Kameido Tenjin Shrine Plum Blossom Festival (亀戸天神社梅まつり).

As children were busy writing wishes to excel in their school entrance exams on wooden placards to hang in the shrine, and as tourists snapped photographs of the flowery trees, I joined the very long line to go up the steps to worship the kami-sama in the shrine’s grandiose building. I threw my 5-yen coin into the offering box, clapped twice, bowed deeply, and made my wish for a good semester at Waseda University.

Whether I truly believed that this kami-sama would condone my sins, or that there was a presiding priest enforcing my perfect attendance record at this shrine, or that I had to go through some sort of final examination in order to properly worship the god: none of that mattered. At the top of the steps, basking in the fresh, spring sun, I was happy to share my brief moment with the local god.

Further reading: I also recommend posts written by my Georgetown friends, Samu Boyne and Benjamin Liu, who also studied in Tokyo.

Love letters to Hong Kong, from Shibuya

Amazing footage from Mainichi Shimbun of a heartwarming and impromptu rally at Shibuya’s Hachiko square in support of people in Hong Kong who have been protesting throughout this week for their freedoms. Apparently over 2,000 people gathered tonight and made speeches in Japanese, Cantonese, English, and Mandarin.

This city lives in precarious and extraordinary times—I’ve have quite a few Japanese friends express their concern by direct message in the past few days. And I’m elated—and devastated—that many cities around the world had protests calling to protecting our freedoms, as people have done in the past with Tibet or Xinjiang.

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Mainichi Shimbun

Japan is watching. The world is watching.

Update: A Huffington Post Japan article calling for Japan to support the Hong Kong protests has gone viral on 14 June, and #tokyoantielab is the hashtag to follow on reactions on Japanese Twitter.

Tsundoku Digest: June 5, 2019

Here are some tabs I’ve left hanging in my browser this week (or in the past two months):

A TV show decides that it’s funny to ambush bystanders with offensive inquisitions about their genders and a camera, and its guest calls out their shit.

Ueno Chizuko dishes out painful truths about being a woman in Japanese higher education at a school where the percentage of women in every incoming class never exceeds 20 percent. (English-language coverage here.)

Here’s an extract from her speech:

女子は子どものときから「かわいい」ことを期待されます。ところで「かわいい」とはどんな価値でしょうか?

From the moment they are born, girls are expected to be “cute”. But we should ask: is there any value in being “cute”?

愛される、選ばれる、守ってもらえる価値には、相手を絶対におびやかさないという保証が含まれています。だから女子は、自分が成績がいいことや、東大生であることを隠そうとするのです。

That value is this. When one is loved, chosen, sheltered, one is guaranteed never to threaten the other. That’s why girls hide the fact that they’re good at grades, or the very fact that they go to the University of Tokyo.

Speaking of archaic and awful gender roles, apparently Hato Bus (a bus tour company) employing a male to be a tour guide was so trailblazing that Tokyo MX decided to do a 6-minute feature on this new employee, from asking about why he wanted to become a tour guide (he really enjoyed his school trip to Okinawa) to whether he passed the company exam (he did, but just barely, so he has to do more training before he officially debuts. Oops. Spoilers!).

A write-up of an art exhibition about the lingering impact of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Tokyo.

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Finally, in celebration of Pride Month, a plug for this excellent photo book, Edges of the Rainbow, by Michel Delsol and Haruku Shinozaki.