A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine


What we today call Shinto has been at the heart of Japanese culture for almost as long as there has been a political entity distinguishing itself as Japan. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine describes the ritual cycle at Suwa Shrine, Nagasaki's major Shinto shrine. Conversations with priests, other shrine personnel, and people attending shrine functions supplement John K. Nelson's observations of over fifty shrine rituals and festivals. He elicits their views on the meaning and personal relevance of the religious events and the place of Shinto and Suwa Shrine in Japanese society, culture, and politics. Nelson focuses on the very human side of an ancient institution and provides a detailed look at beliefs and practices that, although grounded in natural cycles, are nonetheless meaningful in late-twentieth-century Japanese society.

Nelson explains the history of Suwa Shrine, basic Shinto concepts, and the Shinto worldview, including a discussion of the Kami, supernatural forces that pervade the universe. He explores the meaning of ritual in Japanese culture and society and examines the symbols, gestures, dances, and meanings of a typical shrine ceremony. He then describes the cycle of activities at the shrine during a calendar year: the seasonal rituals and festivals and the petitionary, propitiary, and rite-of-passage ceremonies performed for individuals and specific groups. Among them are the Dolls' Day festival, in which young women participate in a procession and worship service wearing Heian period costumes; the autumn Okunchi festival, which attracts participants from all over Japan and even brings emigrants home for a visit; the ritual invoking the blessing of the Kami for young children; and the ritual sanctifying the earth before a building is constructed. The author also describes the many roles women play in Shinto and includes an interview with a female priest.

Shinto has always been attentive to the protection of communities from unpredictable human and divine forces and has imbued its ritual practices with techniques and strategies to aid human life. By observing the Nagasaki shrine's traditions and rituals, the people who make it work, and their interactions with the community at large, the author shows that cosmologies from the past are still very much a part of the cultural codes utilized by the nation and its people to meet the challenges of today.


Shinto is sacred rope wrapped around a huge tree or mossy stone, little shrines scattered seemingly at random throughout both city and country landscapes, festivals that can be solemn and raucous simultaneously -- yet these are only the more readily accessible characteristics of a tradition considered to be "ethereal" and "inscrutable" because it does not act the way religions usually do. What we today call Shinto has been at the heart of Japanese culture for almost as long as there has been a political entity distinguishing itself as Japan, or Nihon, "Land of the Sun Source." Through fourteen centuries of recorded history this mixture of rituals, institutions, magical practices, charms, and so forth continues to participate in the framing of Japan both to the outside world and to the Japanese themselves. From "structural impediments" affecting the ongoing trade imbalance with the United States, to Japanese sensitivity about international criticism of its economic policies, to the outlay of public funds at the death of one emperor and the enthronement of his son -- Shinto-based orientations and values, like some great aquifer, lie at the core of Japanese culture, society, and character, nourishing and furthering the lives of both individuals and institutions in subtle, yet often quite tangible, ways.

As the twentieth century comes to a close, it is increasingly difficult to find societies like Japan where cosmologies from the past are still thought immediately relevant to the present-day activities of modern men and women. Where but in Japan will a corporation begin construction of a state-of-the-art laser refraction laboratory with an ancient ritual to calm the spirit of the earth? Where else can we find so many individuals who feel a need to take their brand new Honda or Toyota sedan to a shrine to have it blessed before subjecting it to the vicissitudes of city and highway driving? From the new emperor in his Tokyo palace down to the poorest farmer in his . . .

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