Monday, February 21, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 3. The Shrines

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

In contrast to the Buddhist temples, the shrines were for me a near pure pleasure. I am bewildered (if curious) at a people that can be so technologically astute and at the same time practice a form of animism and spirit worship usually relegated to the pre-Roman world by western academics. Of course, this bewilderment is all the more enjoyable because I imagine that it must have bewildered many an anthropologist, secure in his belief that science replaced small gods as a belief system and explanatory power.
I'm not even sure that with the prefix small, Japan's shrines can be said to be raised to any sort of god, at least not one that would in any way be recognizable by western eyes. I will admit some ignorance of Japanese Mythology (and anyone who could point me to a few good source texts would be amply thanked) but rather than ever having been sources of explanatory power, the shrines always seem to have operated more as parks. In fact, several of the shrines I went to included small playgrounds. They are relaxing, enjoyable places to find oneself. The Tori gates are beautiful, and sometimes bewildering and labyrinthine. Unlike the Buddhist temples, not one (at least as I remember) demanded any sort of money, though they do make money through donations and the selling of good-luck charms.
Furthermore, the shrines never close. People go through them, and pause in them, at all hours of the day and night. The objects of "worship" (if it may be called that) are locked up for the night, the foxes put to bed (some shrines are specifically fox shrines) but the shrines remain open, a garden for every traveler.

The Japanese attitude towards shrines is more like the American attitude towards fad diets than the American attitude towards Churches.

Whether or not this makes them religious or dangerous is another question.

But that's just my current pith, and I will admit that there are many things about the Japanese attitude towards shrines that I just don't understand, and that pique my curiosity greatly.


  1. Although I am no more familiar with the specifics of Japanese mythology than yourself, I would be inclined to hypothesize that their current form of spirit worship/animism probably emerged out of practices of sympathetic magic, the surviving mythology and its associated practices being merely an exercise in traditional culture the original intentions of which have long since been forgotten or secluded.

  2. I wonder what you would think of GK Chesterton's writings on the academics of sympathetic magic - but that said, if it did arise from sympathetic magic, it is certainly at an interesting remove now.

  3. Could you point me to a specific work of Chesterton's dealing with that topic? I'd be interested to read it.

  4. Chesterton tends more to make comments about that sort of thing almost off hand, perhaps his most famous being something along the lines of "the academics take magic far more seriously than the people who supposedly believe in it ever did." which would be from the Everlasting Man, which may be worth a read (it's short and fairly easy) even if it's not all about that subject. Understand when you reach that quote, I really don't have the book on hand right now, and am admittedly too lazy to actually do what I should and look the quote up. I have the internet, why don't I use it?

    I'll keep my eyes out for anything in which he deals with it more thoroughly, it's more of a side-note to Everlasting Man.


  5. ok... I've actually heard that quote before. I can't remember the exact phrasing either, but yes, I know I've heard it, maybe from you I don't know.

    I'll have to pick up Everlasting Man so I can find out what his context is in making that statement, but I have to say from an uninformed perspective I would be inclined at first to disagree with it. If, as Frazer would suggest, the primitive paradigm of sympathetic magic has been responsible for the development of numerous pagan rituals, you could hardly say that those savages engaging in such acts as human sacrifice or severe self-mutilation are not convicted of the supposed virtues of these acts, and consequently of the infallibility of sympathetic magic as natural law, far more seriously than any modern academic has ever been, indeed, far more seriously than most could possibly bring themselves to imagine.

    That however is only, as said already, an uninformed impression, and I'll have to read Everlasting Man before I say more.

  6. I've actually been thinking about picking up some of Chesterton anyway. From what I've heard of him he seems to be quite the rhetorician. I can't say I agree with everything I've heard of him, or even most of it for that manner, but there has been a certain appeal in all of it, a sort of intelligent wit that, while not necessarily lending credence to his statements, definitely carries a certain power of persuasion, or suggestion, a point that I find of interest as the art of rhetoric has long occupied my fascination and been a prominent candidate for assimilation.

    Anyway, just a thought.