On the path to Shinto enlightenment
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With the internet's help, Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan, is experiencing a mild upturn. 'We see more people coming here,' said a priest at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. 'We see more weddings, more people bringing their babies for blessings, more requests for prayers to be rid of a curse or to prosper in business, more people taking part in festivals such as shichi-go-san', in which children aged seven, five or three are feted.
On a sunny Saturday, 15 nuptial processions, the brides covered in white silk, were led to the wedding hall through a crowded courtyard. Dance troupes from a nearby neighbourhood and Kagoshima, in the south of Japan, performed.
On a rainy weekday came a steady stream of visitors, some to pray, others to sightsee and some to do both. They were old and young, office workers and chattering students, families and tour groups that included a sprinkling of foreigners.
No Japanese could explain such a fervour for Shinto, which means the 'way of the gods', but several offered reasons that seem to add up:
It reflects a renewed sense of identity, a revival of national pride and tradition after the end of the second world war. 'It's part of being Japanese,' said a Shinto priest.
Websites for Meiji and other shrines encourage people to visit.
A worshippers' association of 230,000 members arranges programmes to promote tradition, improve family relationships, guide young people and urge people to fly the national flag on holidays. Its precepts include respecting the imperial family, devoting oneself to the good of others and praying for world peace.
Another, perhaps less noble, reason for Meiji's appeal is its freedom from controversy like that of the Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of Japan's war dead, including several convicted war criminals, are enshrined. Japanese leftists, as well as legions of Koreans and Chinese, have criticised Japanese politicians for visiting Yasukuni.
In contrast, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Meiji in January, saying: 'This is a venerable shrine. Since this place is close to my house, I often come here.' Foreign leaders go to the Meiji Shrine without raising eyebrows; US President George W. Bush was taken there in 2002.
At this shrine, Japanese revere the spirits of Emperor Meiji, who helped lead Japan into the modern world and reigned from 1868 to 1912, and Empress Shoken. It is among 12 jingu, or imperial shrines, that are roughly as prominent as cathedrals in Christianity. There are 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, ranging from jingu to simple temples.
Shinto originated in the mists of mythology. Two ancient texts record those myths, but Shinto has no sacred scripture. There are 8 million Shinto gods, led by Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the Sun Goddess. The lakes, rivers, mountains and rice fields each have gods. None, however, are ascribed the power of God, Yahweh or Allah, as in other religions. Shinto and Buddhism co-existed after the latter was imported from China because Japanese, unlike westerners who belong to only one denomination, see no conflict in following the tenets of both faiths.
Shinto was co-opted in the 1930s and 1940s by the militarists who turned it into a force for ultranationalism.
After the war, the Allied Occupation decreed a constitutional separation of church and state, with Shinto reverting to the private domain.
Even so, the emperor remained the chief Shinto priest, somewhat the way the British monarch is head of the Church of England. That tradition seems widely accepted by the Japanese who applauded in November when Prince Hisahito, who is third in line to the throne, was taken shortly after his birth to be blessed at one of three Shinto shrines within the Imperial Palace grounds.
Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington