On Praying to a Fox in Japan


Nobody in Japan seems to know anything about Shinto.

Stop by a shrine and watch people. You’ll see plenty of variety in what you’d think would be a ritual. People approach the temple and ring the bell, then clap, then bow, some will bow, ring, clap, bow, clap again, you never know.

The proper order is elusive and everyone will tell you something different. But for the record, this is from the National Association of Shrines, or NAS, the organization responsible for Shinto doctrine:

  • 2 bows (bow deeply twice)
  • 2 hand claps (strike hands together twice)
  • 1 bow (bow deeply once)

That so few Japanese – even among those who visit shrines – know this proper order for worship is kind of telling. For one, it could prove that this populist folk religion has returned to its unstructured roots after its wee-bit-too-structured corruption for state Fascism purposes, but for another, it could just show that nobody really pays much attention to it anymore.

Shinto, Oversimplified
Shinto is an animist religion, so everything has a spirit – kami. This connects the faith to nature and the environment, but there is a spirit within tools and the occasional machine – Shinto priests will bless a new car, for example.

Nature worship emerged easily from the Japanese landscape: Lush but temperamental, where volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis coincide with unparalleled natural beauty, from vibrantly colored hot springs and leaves to dramatic transitions of cherry and plum blossoms.

Nature is central, too, because men were so dependent on the relationships between elements: You need not only good soil, but also stable flows of water, to cultivate rice. The rivers and the rains and the mountains and the fields were connected from the beginning. A successful harvest comes from the cooperation of these elements, and this gratitude toward nature has become enshrined as a faith in the life-giving energy of each collaborator.

But the greatest spirit is the Sun Goddess. The Sun Goddess is not the ruler of spirits so much as the head organizer. The spirits all have their own roles and tasks to follow, contributing to the cycle of what we’d now call “ecology.” The interactions of these spirits by man show “the way” to model one’s own life; preserving harmony with the humans around you but chiefly keeping harmony with the spirits of nature.

foxWesterners are keen to see Shinto as abstract, but in fact, it’s blatant anthropomorphism. You bow to the giant tree because the tree seems to know what it’s doing, or it would never get that big. If you see a fox – a messenger of the Sun Goddess and a divine being themselves – it’s a kami. You can go ask it for a favor, or pray at the shrine to ask its help.

One of the chief elements of Shinto is that it is fundamentally local. In Shinto myth, the islands of Japan emerged from spirits merging together, and that’s where they now live. In simple terms, Japan is the holy land of Shinto. This predates Japanese nationalism: Fact of the matter was, this was an island nation that didn’t get out much. That stayed true for hundreds if not thousands of years. You could easily take this strand of thought – that Japan is a holy land, built by spirits for the spirits to live – and use it to justify the enslavement of other lands, as Japan did in the early half of the 20th Century, its flag bearing a Sun with rays of light extending from the center to encompass the entire world.


Or you could adopt a more modern, almost secular approach, as most normal (ie, not fundamentalist) Japanese people do: Focus on the interrelation aspect, the harmonious alignment of nature and man, and use it to work together with other countries and people, without conquering neighboring lands.

Never Forget Your Beginner’s Spirit
Human beings are all spirits, too. But the Emperor, as chief priest of the Shinto faith, is the messenger of the spirits. He goes to them and asks for advice and suggestions. He is a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess; take a look at that war flag again, see those rays extending into other lands, and know that the center is at once the sun, the sun goddess, the emperor and Japan. The Emperor isn’t the only one; great practitioners of Shinto have become spirits after their deaths, so have a few rich men, shoguns and soldiers.

The rest of us are corrupted by easy paths. Only in our striving do we come closer to the spiritual. We clean our hands of our lazy actions under the fountain springs; we drink the water and spit out our lazy speech. We in the West see good and bad, but Shinto is about striving and not striving: Contributing to improving the world, or freeloading on the work of everybody else.

You could see that these lessons would be useful for the farmers who depended on each other for harvests, you can see how these values are still prevalent in schools and baseball practices, in the offices of salarymen, of everyone always working. Whether they know it or not, this is because of fox gods and a benevolent sun. Secular Japanese are following in the cultural echoes of Shinto; just as Western Atheists still get Sundays off.

The Japanese stoicism on display in the aftermath of the triple disasters fits the Shinto understanding of shifting fortunes. Tragedy is one phase in a constant cycle of luck, that all you have to do after a disaster is work until the luck comes. Surrender is the easy path, the path that keeps us apart from the spiritual. Imagine what happens if the kami stopped working: If rivers stopped flowing, the Sun stopped rising, the flowers and crops didn’t bloom. That world is the evil one.

The Trouble With Religion
Islamic Jihad (literally, “the struggle” toward grace) was originally an enduring sense of self-refinement against temptations and spiritual impurity within one’s self. Suicide bombers have ignited this word into disgrace, synonymous as it is with “Jihadists” slaughtering people for idiotic political goals, much to the fury of real Muslims. (That the West agrees to call them this is also a disgrace; for some reason we are agreeing to call these guys “Holy Men,” as if they were what they claimed to be).

Gaman, perseverance in the face of adversity and refusal to surrender, has also been channeled into disgrace. Kamikaze has the word “kami” in it, “the spirit of the wind,” the wind that carries its pilot into the side of battleships.

State Shinto as practiced in the 1940s was a corruption of Shrine Shinto as it existed before the war and exists today. While some Shinto priests were on the Wartime Shrine Board, none of them ever sought office, which they point to today to show an uneasy alliance with the military and expansionist rhetoric of State Shinto.

State Shinto overemphasized some pre-existing elements of Shinto – such as the idea of Japan as a sacred home of kami, the idea of the Emperor being descended from the Sun Goddess. But these days most shrines would tell you that it was all a misinterpretation.

IMG_4519Historically, it seems that Shinto got “firmed up” from an otherwise abstracted collection of populist rituals only after Japan met  Christianity (again) in the late 19th century. It needed to compete, so the state cranked Shinto to 11, structuring it in such a way as to hold some legitimacy over things like the Vatican or the Church of England. This also let it slide into the Jenga Tower of the emerging hypernationalism that would, 60 years after the Meiji Restoration, be incorporated into that Fascist ideology of State Shinto.

This is a blip in the religion’s otherwise long history; the full Fascist embodiment of State Shinto only existed for about 40 years at most, in phases, and was visible among the shrines for less than a decade. So, contemporary pacifist Japanese don’t have any trouble clapping at the Fox gods under bright red gates.

Shinto and Buddhism
I often confuse Shinto principles of Japan with Zen principles, but then, so do the Japanese.

Zen was a natural fit with Shinto. It emerged from a cultural blend of Shinto to enhance traditional Buddhism. Both are “ways” more than “religions,” though Shinto has something of a cosmology while Zen doesn’t (until you add Buddhism).

In Shinto, the natural world is the project of spirits working their way toward perfection. The human role is to help it happen. Our ancestors contributed to this ideal, so we should honor them by taking our present tasks seriously, as if they were the intersection of all past and future efforts toward perfection.

Naka-ima, the “center of now,” is mentioned in Imperial writings on Shinto in the 8th century. The center of now is the most important period in history, he suggests, because it is where our ancestors have lead us and where our decisions will shape our future.

Zen has a similar understanding of the present. There is no afterlife in Shinto, nor in Zen (until you apply the Buddhist bit), because there is only the present. So efforts focus on what there is to do in the present, and on committing to those actions with a pure heart. The pure heart endeavors to do its best, always knowing it has a temporary place on Earth in which to improve it. Gratitude helps us remember obligations to the kami, even when they’ve pissed us off; even when they’ve rained on our newspaper or killed our entire village in a flood.

This gratitude propels people to work to build a better country and better homes. It is mothers making bentos for their children every day, salarymen toiling in an office to grow economies. Always working! And it is why it is so easy to be called selfish here. All you have to do is not always be working.

Smoking Shinto
Fukuzawa Yukichi, a famous educator and diplomat in Japan, wrote of a boyhood experience where he mischievously replaced sacred objects in a shrine with stones; nothing terrible happened (he even went on to be the face of Japan’s 10,000 yen note) and so, with no tragedy to take it away for him, he gave up his faith by choice.

But Shinto ideals have molded the organization of Japan to such a degree that, perhaps, the shrines are no longer needed to remind anyone.

Journalist Yamamura Akiyoshi spent some time traveling Japan, interviewing priests. They told him that shrines were growing as obsolete as the last generation to care for them. The population is shrinking and converts rare. As established wealthy donors die, no one rises to replace them. And they lamented to Akiyoshi that “the average Japanese has no knowledge of Japanese kami.”

Shrines sell amulets as a main source of income, and if you were to track amulet sales you might see the decline in participation in Shinto rituals. Ise amulets, crafted in the central shrine of the Sun Goddess (which is dismantled and reassembled every 20 years), have been a major push for about 30 years.Omamori_Protection

That said, 94% of 20-year-olds have never purchased one. A short spike in youth interest was reported to fall away rapidly at a shrine in Toyoma after the kids found out that you couldn’t smoke what was inside the pouches; it seems the Japanese word for “amulet” corresponded to local Japanese slang for “pot.”

One reason for the confusion about Shinto is that the religious leadership doesn’t share very much information. In fact, its primary goal seems to be the production and sale of the Ise amulets, which is a pretty belabored process. As a religion deeply connected to nature – celebrating the spirits of trees and stones, keeping forests around shrines as a practice – the religion has almost nothing to say on environmental policies in Japan or around the world. Shinto leadership have never made any bold statements regarding human rights abuses or concerns, wars, or much else.

Instead, it sells amulets. The amulet push has been so strong that priests throughout the country have taken to hiding unsold amulets rather than report them for a refund from the main shrine in Ise, which might give the priests a stern talking-to. The priests have enough to do, traveling to various shrines in their areas and assisting local communities for ceremonies, festivals, and weddings. The amulet salesmanship is a huge distraction.

But the murky stances of the central shrine leadership – as is often the case in Japan – leaves it quite easy for anyone to make assumptions about the belief system. While “Shrine Shinto” has distanced itself from “State Shinto” of the second world war, there are of course some levels of overlap.

For one; the distinction of the emperor as a divine being. Some literature distributed by the NAS will make mentions of kami without a single nod to the emperor; but in its own charters and internal documents it still pines for the old days, when the Emperor could commute with the Sun Goddess without everyone thinking he was a fascist. This is a pretty typical sample of statements from the head of the NAS in 2008, who ended a newsletter with the following:

As long as the emperor and the Ise shrines survive in their true form, then the sacred land of Japan will one day be resurrected. We must believe in this and, inspired by it, spare no efforts to distribute Ise amulets.

The problem with this position – which may go a long way toward explaining why nobody is buying amulets – is that nobody really wants to see the sacred land of Japan one day resurrected. The last time that happened, things didn’t go so well, and most people in Japan these days would rather find work, a date, or, apparently, something to smoke.

Perhaps that’s an easier way to have a chat with a fox.

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9 Responses to On Praying to a Fox in Japan

  1. Catspaw says:

    Shinto, state or shrine, seems similar to many religions. The reliance on magic is present in the core revelation.

    A sprit force separate from the material aids or punishes humans. We ask the sprit and try to please the sprit. The sprit does whatever and has its own reasons we cannot really divine.

    Primitive maybe, worship of nature is as old as human perception, Shinto at least keeps nature central. Other ‘religions’ place a sprit embodiment over nature. What gets us into trouble is these sprit embodiments.

    In the end we all pay a heavy price for magical sprit beings who may or may not be very interested in us at all. We may be their entertainment and what a laugh they must have.

  2. Cool says:

    Well. Good read. But perhaps write about a fun thing next time? It’s been a long time

  3. Danny Boy says:

    Very interesting read. I didn’t know shito(ism?) was decreasing in influence in Japan. You said they don’t believe in after-life, is that why they cremate the bodies of the dead? This religious blend happens a lot here in Brazil, especially with Christianity and the African religions around here – Candomblé, for example – with a perceivable influence of Spiritism, which is also a big religion here. I guess this is becoming more and more natural in the world, to sum one’s convictions that might not necessarily be part of only one religion.

  4. renmi86 says:

    During my last trip to Japan I was surprised how many old shrines were closed down or “closed for repair.” I guess this explains it somewhat.

  5. Good post. While not a practitioner, I have a soft spot in my heart for Shinto practices.

    It would be a shame if they were discarded in the process of “modernization” but I really don’t think they will be.

  6. Josh says:

    Nice post. I must say though, that Shinto and Buddhism have an extremely long history in Japan. If you include Shinto’s precursor Shamanism, then the practices we see in Japan today stem from a history possibly older than 10,000 years. Given this, then, the Shinto described in this post is a minuscule (but interesting) sample of the deep cumulative history of Shinto.

    But, your observation that most Japanese know absolutely nothing about Shinto (or Buddhism for that matter) is spot on. Fewer than 10% of Japanese that I speak to on a daily basis know anything about the story of Michizane, for example. Only one other person that I’ve met so far could accurately recall the history of the figure in any detail whatsoever, despite that his name (at least) is fairly well known. Most high-school students recognize him only as the deity to pray to in order to pass the college entrance exam. However, Michizane – the historical scholar – is inexorably connected not only historically and politically to the Heian polity, but also spiritually to a variety of Shinto legends and myths about Goryou, Raiden, and the Thunder God. The figure also has many connections to practices in the religiously-based Noh theater, it’s comedic variant Kyogen, and the theatrical evolution from the Edo period Kabuki.

    This post is but one portion of the surface of Japan’s rich religious history. Unfortunately, many young people could care less about history. And that doesn’t just include Japan. It is – at least to me – an unfortunate side-effect of modernization and globalization. Rich cultural history seems to be destined to fade into the annals of time itself.

  7. Archana says:

    I think religion has changed everywhere. I prayed at local shrines like i would at a Hindu temple. A Japanese lady once tried to correct me (probably after seeing me at one of the them several times) by showing me what you were supposed to do. I incorporated her actions in my next prayer – no big deal. She was cleaning the area around the shrine once and i helped her move a bin into a doorway and then i proceeded to help her (mainly because she was old). she said something to me and her son/helper/neighbour said i would be blessed by nature.or something wisdomy – and later on that day a 10,000 yen note blew towards me – just like that.

    But many young hindus I know, only pray for something. They don’t pray in general. My father recites a formalised prayer in the morning and evening and then just prays for the well-being of his family. That was how he was taught to pray. But these days people only pray around exam time or they fast every monday for 16 mondays and do a ritualised prayer because they want a husband. You don’t see well educated people praying every morning before heading out to work. It’s not relevant to them on a daily basis. The temples are kept up though because whenever a child is born,a wedding takes place, there is a birthday, new job etc etc – a huge donation is given in the form of food, money and jewellery. And generous patrons get a small plaque of recognition on the wall – and when temple matters come up and voting is required, those generous people are given a say.

  8. Pingback: On the Salesmen of Sri Lanka | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  9. Lucius says:

    If you haven’t read it, check out Zen at War by Brian Victoria. It’s an interesting look at the way institutional Zen was appropriated by Japan’s government in order to bolster their moral case for WWII aggression.

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