What is it that comes to your mind when you think of Japan? The first thing that comes to my mind is their Shinto shrines. Those beautifully built temples, neat surroundings and story that goes with those temples had always fascinated me.
It is very much like India, where temples had attracted many tourists due to its sheer magnificence and stories on how that temple came to be. For example, the world famous Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple is the place where the goddess Meenakshi, Parvathi incarnate, marries her consort Lord Shiva. An annual festival celebrating their wedding draw millions of people.
Even as you enter temple, you can see many foreign tourists gaping at gapuras and vaganas, wondering how they managed to create a temple architecture so grandeur. But there is so much more to the temple and the 2500-year-old city that houses it. Put in a little history, it makes the whole place fascinating drawing archaeologists, international students and researchers who want to learn and study.
Recently when I went to an Indo-Japan commerce conference, I met a Japanese official in his early forties. I struck a conversation with him and surprised to know he was a student of archaeology at Thanjavur university in Tamil Nadu. He lived in Thanjavur for three years, learnt about temples, its history and found love. He is married to a Tamil girl and is now living in Chennai. When asked about what he loved about Tamil culture, he said, “Temples.”
I’m sure, in a way, religion lends identity to any culture be it Asian or European. It is something people associate a country with and love the country for it. I loved reading about Zeus and Athena of Greek mythology. I loved Irish folktales that talk about faeries and selkies.
A lot can be learnt from studying about them. It gives insights into their religion, deities and what it meant to people. The most famous is Greek mythology. There is so much written and researched about the Greeks and Romans, their myths and race to modernity. Rome and Greece draw thousands of tourists for the same reason.
Asian mythology is equally fascinating, especially Japan’s Shinto religion, though there is not much written about them like their European counterparts. I cannot boast of an expert knowledge from this field, being just an amateur reader. From what I have read from comics, in Shinto gods are spirits of nature. They come into existence because of people’s wishes and go back to nature once the wishes cease to exist. With every prayer they gain power and grant wishes of their believers. Usually these deities have familiars, who help them with temple and assist them in every way possible. These familiars could be snakes, dogs, foxes or animals for that matter.
There are many manga and anime that base their plot on characters from Shinto and during the course revealing what Shinto is about to an unaware viewer. That is how I learnt it at least. In an anime called Noragami, the main protagonist Yato struggles to remain a god as he does not have any followers anymore. To make people remember him, he does odd jobs like anything from painting a wall to cleaning toilets for 25 yen, which he considers his offering. Yato is a God of War and calamity and was born due to people’s wish for fight and destruction. That era long gone, he fears that he will disappear and people will forget about him eventually.
In the same series you would see that one of the gods, God of wealth dies but was reborn again as a child.
In Kamisama Hajimemashita, Goddess of river Yonomori protects people from floods. But she ceased to exist when dams were build and there no floods anymore. People eventually forgot about her. Yonomori-sama is a human personification of a plum tree. Once she was not needed, she returned to being a plum tree. If there are requests again, she can materialise.
So in Shinto, a god never dies. It is like a theory in physics that goes on to say ‘Energy can neither be created nor be destroyed but can be transformed from one form to another.’
These are few famous gods who still exist in Japan. Okui-Nushi-sama is the supreme god who rules the spirit world and have a temple in Izumo, Japan. Then you have Izanami who rules over land and darkness. Bishamon is the god of war and Ebisu is the god of wealth of sea, a deity for fishermen and fishing. There is a god in Shinto for every single wish you make. The god differs from one region to another. A land-locked place like Tokyo might not need a shrine for Ebisu. There might be a small shrine, like that of Dew god who comes in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Probably there are small shrines like these in Japan, which could be something like having a Lord Ganesha temple in every corner in India.
When there is light, there is a shadow. If there are god, there will be demons. In Shinto they are called youkai or ayakashi. They are evil spirits, mostly, that bring about destruction by feeding on people’s insecurities and fear. In India they call such creatures just ghosts that possess people.
Shinto culture has shrine maidens or a supplementary priestess called miko. Miko was once likely seen as a shaman. Mangas that draw inspiration from miko are many. In InuYasha, the miko Kikyou is an expert in healing and archery. She protects her village people from evil forces and heals the people.They are considered God’s substitutes and were worshiped with similar fervour. But in modern Japanese culture their jobs are limited to performing few traditional rituals, ranging from sacred cleansing to performing the sacred kagura dance.
You will be surprised to know that more than half the population in Japan do not associate themselves with any religion. There are three religions followed in Japan – Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity. While most of the Japanese follow Shintoism, they consider it more as a cultural identity than religious one. So do not be surprised when you see confused expression on Japanese’s faces when you ask about which religion they belong to. Next comes Buddhism and very few percentage follow Christianity.
When you think about it, learning about religion and supernatural gives fresh perspective about a country. The way they worship and understand divinity is different. You understand why people do things they do. There are so many festivals that are practised since time immemorial. There are festivals like hinamatsuri or doll festival to celebrate the birth of girl child in the family or Tanabata Matsuri, to celebrate reunion of two lovers. The story goes that stars fell in love and are united by bridge of magpies. Young people celebrate this festival by writing down their wishes on strips of paper and hanging them on bamboo branches set up in the garden. This custom has become widespread even in school, where young pupils hope to acquire skill in handwriting by praying to the star for success in their studies.
You will see at least one chapter dedicated to his festival in most shoujo manga, meant for young girls.
Literary sources like manga, often reveal interesting facts about religion and customs practiced in Japan till date, just like other countries. These customs are very similar to many temple festivals celebrated annually in Tamil Nadu or Durga puja in Indian state of West Bengal. You can still enjoy these festivals and customs without knowing why. But knowing helps you understand the meaning behind it and hence appreciate other cultures better.