Shrine Duties

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yorio Fujimoto

    Main guest

    Yorio Fujimoto holds a PhD in Shinto studies and works as an associate professor at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo. He was born into a family of Shinto priests, and Fujimoto himself acts as the priest at Kashihara Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture. As a Shinto specialist and researcher, his goal is for many people to become familiar with Shinto and learn more about its culture and shrines. To spread this message to the general public, he writes books, newspaper and magazine articles, and also appears in TV broadcasts and various other media.

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October 17, 2017

Shrine Duties

*You will leave the NHK website.

Walk through any neighborhood in Japan, and before too long you'll come across a shrine devoted to Shinto, the native religion of the country. Many visitors to Japan are charmed by the peaceful, relaxing atmosphere and stunning architecture of these shrines, as well as the traditionally-garbed priests and shrine maidens who help run them. Fewer, though, are familiar with the exact traditions of these shrines and the duties performed by the priests and maidens. Those shrine duties and the history behind them are the subject of this edition of Japanology Plus.

A peek into duties at a Shinto shrine must begin, of course, with an explanation of what Shinto is. As we learn from expert guest Yorio Fujimoto, Shinto is about showing respect to natural phenomena such as mountains, rivers, and so on. Unlike monotheistic spiritual practices, Shinto has many hundreds of natural spirits, known as "kami." The primary duty of Shinto priests is to mediate between people and these kami, and over the course of the program, we see many practical examples of what this mediation entails.

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Expert guest Yorio Fujimoto and host Peter Barakan on the grounds of a Shinto shrine.

One particularly interesting priestly duty that takes place outside shrine grounds is conducting the purification ceremonies that go hand-in-hand with constructing a new home or building. These pre-construction rituals, called jichinsai, are performed to appease the kami who may be disturbed by the construction, as well as for the safety of the site workers. Rituals like this are not limited to construction: some Japanese also have Shinto priests bless newly-purchased cars for safety on the road.

As we learn on the program, Shinto shrines were administered by the government until they were made independent, non-governmental entities during the years of the Allied occupation following the Second World War. But why were shrines administered by the government in the first place and why was separation important?

Japanophiles will know that the mid-1800s were a crucial moment in Japanese history: first came the opening of the country after 200 years of isolation, followed by the restoration of the emperor (replacing the shogun) as the leader of the country. Part of this restoration was a reorganization of previously-unaffiliated Shinto shrines into what came to be referred to as "State Shinto," in which attention focused on the emperor as a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess.

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The wooden wand used in Shinto rituals is called a nusa.

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The gate at the entrance to a shrine is called a torii. 

Some shrines these days appeal to fans of anime and manga. Many stories are set at shrines and they're often based on real-life locations. Such shrines may enjoy a huge surge in visitors once fans discover them and they have responded with items such as ema illustrated with fans' favorite characters. Finally, some shrines have been redesigned with a more modern aesthetic. That includes the Tokyo shrine visited by Matt Alt in Plus One, the 2010 overhaul of which was supervised by star architect Kengo Kuma.

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In Plus One, Matt Alt learns all about the duties of miko, shrine maidens.

As Fujimoto points out, though, the current surge in interest in shrines may not last forever. In modern society, shrines face many difficulties, such as waning knowledge of Shinto and a low number of priests to look after the country's over 80,000 shrines. It will be up to those like Fujimoto to help communicate the importance of shrines to Japanese culture in the years to come.

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Peter speaks to some young priests helping keep the tradition alive.

 

*You will leave the NHK website.