Bewitching primitivism – Shinto
Have you ever played Neverwinter Nights 2 with a spirit shaman? If you did, than you know what Shinto is mostly about: spirits, nature and mortals.
The old Japanese religion with basically an infinite number of deities or gods (kami) that are omnipresent (they still have power restrictions like in comics though) and live in nature and our surroundings. They go as far as having a kami for the toilet seat….wow. Shinto is all about community, nature and harmony between these elements, with special emphasis on purity and righteousness. In Shinto, what’s peculiar, female goddess are not segregated and they are on equal footing with males… they can be even more vicious.
Let’s enlist the most important Shinto terms:
- Kami – god in shintoism.
- Jinja – Shinto temple.
- Omiya – Shinto shrine.
- “Nigimi-tama” and “arami-tama” – represent the gentle and aggressive part of kami’s soul.
- Yurei – Japanese ghosts that are usually followed by eerie pair of flames or will o’wisps with foreboding colors: green, blue etc.
- Yokai – we classify them as demons or powerful creatures like the famous kitsune.
- Goryo – vengeful ghosts that exist to chase and kill their target.
- Magatama – comma shaped beads, around who there are still mysteries.
- Ofuda – ward for protection against malicious spirits.
When we look into it deeper, Shinto beings aren’t so unique as they seem – the “true” demons are called “oni”, “obake” is a shape shifter that grows in power with every transformation and true yokai ( or elemental yokai how I call them) are beings of nature and its elements. When we add yurei to this mélange, you get the complete, four-leveled yokai group. Even spirits that live in abandoned and secluded places are similar to Western wraiths.
Shinto mythology and its tradition is heavily popularized today in every medium and art – just look for anime nonsense that deals with Shinto and you’ll get the picture. The self-proclaimed experts that educated themselves in Inuyashas tend to be annoying and unbearably loud, while coloring their fingernails even if they are supposed to be male. Japanese horror genre is simply loaded with references to Shinto tradition and worldview.
However, a more “mature” theme when comes to Shinto is the emergence of State Shinto that worshipped the Emperor as a living god and saw Japan as a land of gods and a superior race. This topic is polite to be silent of because it brought ruination and misery to Japan after and during the WWII. It has a sinister method to its insanity – the descendants of the first Japanese emperors are the offspring of Amaterasu, supreme goddess of sun and thereby their legitimacy as well as rule is undisputable. A really good divine excuse for fascism and manslaughter.
When it comes to clergy, things get interesting really fast. Since Shinto is a community-centered belief, almost anyone could become a priest that was usually an elder in the old times. The “norito” or prayers had been offered to the gods along with offerings while dance or “kagura” is used to amuse and please them too. It was performed by “miko” priestess that are today targets for perversion and controversy. During the more, let’s say original and appropriate times for Shinto, the miko were young virgins that performed temple services and dances until marriage, something like Vestal virgins in Rome, but less formal and secluded. Today they are female high school students working for money selling ofudas and other trinkets. Weird or inevitable?
Temples themselves are a completely different story. Shinto temples have no frescos or statues, rather swords and mirrors with some sacred object representing the dwelling of a certain kami. They are made from wood and usually elongated from the ground, with simple geometry and shapes. Before you enter one of them, you’ll pass through the “torii”, a gate representing the passing from this material world into the realm of the spirits. Various prayers are performed in temples as well as purification rituals for and by the visitors. There is nothing unusual if you see a Shinto priest blessing the ground and materials that will be used for building “worldly” objects like companies, hospitals, shopping malls etc.
No, the tone used here is not for hate speech, but for a bit more poignant critical review of a thing so popularized today even among Christians and other non-Japanese. I’m not a fundamentalist, but if you are a true Christian, participation in even slightest tourist rituals is considered a relapse into paganism. Just let me point that out.
Shinto is a weird thing to be propagated in a world of cold logic and technology where more complicated and established religions that have a whole lot sense to them are struggling for their place, while Shinto, like a good filler lives in all forms of Japanese media and spreading to the farthest corners of world. If you look at Shinto as a belief system, you can see its beauty of diversification and orientation towards family and community (where it should stay as a colorful custom) while putting purity and honesty on the pedestal of virtue. As a religion it is a no brainer with some ridiculous notions (kappa devouring, red arrows and formation of deities in Kojiki) and sad results (kamikaze and WWII casualties) and a simple net of ritual and gatherings – to deepen the contrasts with other religions (especially monotheistic) it has no theology or works of any kind (art, music, books etc) , yet through media and popular culture it is revered. Somebody could say that most people fell back into paganism.
So, I’ll end here. It is difficult to avoid taking sides in talks when it comes to religion, the thing that plants seeds of murder and sin across the world today. This essay tries to take a look from a bit more traditional, Harajuku, modern Japan love, cosplay and anime-free position with a potion of scholarly wisdom. People who are critical, skeptical and “down to earth” might find this amusing.
No hard feelings?