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In Japan, Religion Makes A Comeback

By Richard Halloran

TOKYO -- With an assist from the Internet, the ancient religion of Japan, Shinto, is experiencing a mild upturn in fervor among the Japanese.

"We see more people coming here," said a priest at the Meiji Shrine in the middle of 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 of age seven or five or three are feted.

On a sunny Saturday, fifteen nuptial processions, the brides covered in white silk from head to toe, were led to the wedding hall through crowds in the courtyard. Troupes of dancers from a nearby neighborhood and from Kagoshima, in the south of Japan, performed in the same courtyard.

On a rainy midweek day came a steady stream of visitors, some to pray, others to sightsee and some to do both. They were old and young, "salarymen" office workers and chattering students, families and tour groups that included a sprinkling of foreigners.

No Japanese could point to a neat explanation for the increased interest in Shinto, which means "The Way of the Gods," but several offered reasons that, taken together, appeared to add up:

(dot) It reflects a renewed sense of identity, a revival of national pride and appreciation for tradition after much turbulence since the end of World War II in 1945. "It's part of being Japanese," said a Shinto priest, adding that many Japanese are not conscious of that.

(dot) Web sites on the Internet for Meiji (www.meijijingu.or.jp) and other prominent shrines appealed to people to visit this "spiritual home" and listed the year's events, ways to arrange a wedding, and where to request prayers for a special cause. Viewers were asked to ponder: "What is a beautiful Japanese heart?"

(dot) A Worshippers Association of 230,000 members throughout the country arranges programs 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 the Meiji Shrine's appeal is its freedom from political controversy like that surrounding 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 criticized Japanese politicians for visiting Yasukuni.

In contrast, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Meiji Shrine in January, saying: "This is a venerable shrine. Since this place is close to my house, I often come here." Foreign leaders come to the Meiji Shrine without raising eyebrows; President George Bush was taken to the shrine when he was in Tokyo in 2002.

At this shrine Japanese revere the spirits of the Emperor Meiji, who was among those who led Japan into the modern world and reigned from 1868 to 1912, and the Empress Shoken. It is one of a dozen "jingu," or imperial shrines that are roughly as prominent as cathedrals in Christianity. Altogether, there are 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan ranging from jingu to simple shrines in rural neighborhoods.

Shinto, like Japan itself, originated in the mists of mythology. Two ancient texts record those myths but Shinto has no sacred scripture, no Judeo-Christian Bible or Muslim Koran. Shinto's gods number eight million, led by Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the Sun Goddess. The lakes, rivers, mountains, and rice fields each have gods to watch over them.

None, however, are ascribed the power of God or Yahweh or Allah. Moreover, Shinto and Buddhism co-existed after Buddhism was imported from China as 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 ran Japan and turned it into a force for ultra-nationalism. After World War II, 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 priest of Shinto, somewhat the way the queen of England is head of the Church of England. That tradition seems widely accepted by the Japanese who applauded in November last year when Prince Hisahito, who is third in line to ascend the throne, was taken shortly after his birth to be blessed at one of three Shinto shrines within the imperial palace grounds.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

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