Local Gods for Local People…

Kibitsuhiko Jinja, Okayama

Today we took my baby daughter to a local shrine, Kibitsuhiko Jinja, to introduce her to the local kami (god), Kibitsuhiko-no-mikoto – who in earthly life was supposed to have been a prince, many hundreds of years ago.

This hauling of your offspring before the local kami is a rite known as ‘o-miyamairi’.

Like most Shinto kami, Kibitsuhiko-no-mikoto is associated with the surrounding natural landscape – in this case a beautiful wooded mountain.

Shinto kami aren’t regarded as all-knowing, so we really did have to ‘introduce’ my daughter, via the kannushi (the priest-like ‘god-master’) who intercedes with Kibitsuhiko-no-mikoto for us: we had to give our daughter’s name, the name of her parents, and her home address – including her postcode.

This way, Kibitsuhiko-no-mikoto will more easily be able to keep an eye on her, given that we live somewhat off his ‘patch’, a few miles away.

Stones from the mountain: a reminder of the shrine's connection to the mountain into which it's built

Now you might think I’m being ungenerous here, even a little rude, about Japanese Shinto and kami – inviting comparisons with the God of the Abrahamic monotheisms, who knows everything, and who knows you better than you know yourself.

Not so! It’s just that I’m often struck by how Japanese religion is in some ways rather broader than most western counterparts.

On the one hand, there’s an apparent literalism so acute that you can be made safe from car accidents by getting the kannushi to tell the kami your car’s registration number.

And on the other hand, there’s a way of engaging with religious concepts here that doesn’t try to reduce them either to literal commentary or to an empty, pointless symbolism. The fact that we have an unfortunate habit of doing this across much of the West – insisting on a binary of EITHER literal truth OR symbol/myth/poetry – is one reason why debates about religion usually don’t tend to go anywhere.

For New Atheist commentators (serious atheism is far from being this crude), either some floaty-ghosty thing called Kibitsuhiko-no-mikoto is permanently stationed outside my daughter’s bedroom window, dressed in period costume with a samurai sword slung through his belt, or the whole thing is basically a lie.

Today's kannushi

Most people you ask in Japan would find these sorts of concerns a bit odd at first (believe me, I’ve met with my fair share of blank stares on this one). But if you persist with your silly foreigner’s questions you might end up with something like this:

1. We Japanese aren’t really ‘religious': stuff like o-miyamairi is a cultural thing, a family thing.

2. We don’t have a clear concept or visual image of some god-like entity watching over our children or supervising our driving.

3. But performing these rites, or buying charms, provides a sense of emotional security that isn’t purely psychological – because it seems to connect up with ‘something’ about which clear concepts or images can’t realistically be formulated.

And it’s the ‘realism’ part that should interest those of us who find set-piece atheism-theism or science-religion debates to be dull and repetitive: where does the greater lack of realism really lie, in a religious worldview that insists on its partiality or in claims (on whatever side of these debates) that slightly evolved primates can somehow stand outside the Reality that brought us into being and commentate on it with the same degree of confident accuracy that I could describe what I ate for breakfast this morning?

A 'miko', or shrine assistant (lit. 'female shaman' or 'shrine maiden').

This doesn’t of course absolve religion, and the religious, of difficult questions about what texts, doctrines, practices, and all the rest really mean and intend. But perhaps it can inspire a little modesty in us when we do talk about these things.

Towards the end of the service today, I was pleased to see Shinto’s shamanic dimension alive and well.

The kannushi performed an incantation – half said, half sung – while beating a taiko drum.

He started off low-key, slow and sparse with the drumming, building up to something not far off a frenzy before bringing the whole thing to a serene resolution.

My daughter was in need of a feed at this point, so I was bouncing her on my knee to keep her quiet – which gave me the opportunity to dance her around a bit to the taiko rhythms without anyone (noticeably) disapproving.

I hope that Kibitsuhiko-no-mikoto wasn’t upset by any of this. Maybe he’ll allow that now and again Reality likes nothing more than to throw some enthusiastic baby-moves.


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  • Yoshi
    October 16, 2013 - 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this Chris. I also find religion-science debate rather dull. But in understanding experience, and to communicate it, we cannot avoid but to employ a set of direct or indirect representations of reality, right? So, how can we ever put an end to the debate without creating a new metanarrative that relativises or absolves all representations of reality (postmodernism for example)? Postmodernism does not do it for me either. It is an oxymoron – some kind of a tautology. What do you mean by ‘realism’? I couldn’t quite understand what you mean. Is it an understanding of experience which lies between literal and symbolic representation of reality?

  • Yoshi
    October 18, 2013 - 6:43 pm | Permalink

    I think science-religion dichotomy is an outcome of the widespread acceptance of scientific outlook as the norm. Argument for religion is, and will always be, at odds with scientific rationalism. Religious excuse for being “irrational” is that religion is subjective – a retreat into the source of ‘projection’. Symbolism, which many religious apologists have been clinging onto for some time now, merely acknowledges religion as an artificial, communal vehicle used to express ones personal worldview (or orientation). I feel that being part of a religious community provides a useful conceptual framework for personal expression, but the use of same ‘signifiers’ does not make me feel connected. This is why even though I find many aspects of organised religion congenial, I cannot fully commit myself to being “religious”. The thought that my reality is unshareable makes me feel excruciatingly lonely and I cannot help but fall into a bottomless, nihilistic despair. I think this sense of solitude is what Kierkegaard meant by “sickness unto death”, and it is terrifying as well as burdening. ‘Realism’ for me, in this context, is existentialism and humanism. I don’t mind having metaphysical debate about the existence of God even though I think it is pointlessly repetitive and ultimately futile. Because for me, existence (Yoshi) precedes essence (God). But to wonder about it is always stimulating and I believe it is the best anesthetic for the sickness. I want to ask you, Chris, what defines a ‘religious experience’ if religion is unshareable?

  • Anne
    October 19, 2013 - 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Yoshi, I find your comment pretty interesting. I definitely agree with you on the point of the science-religion dichotomy: it is an outcome of a paradigm shift in favour of science. What is striking me most about your comment is that you yourself are trying to analyse your own religiosity from a scientific standpoint. Isn’t that a very impressive example for how scientific rationalism as opposed to religious subjectivism is spreading throughout society, replacing faith and therefore religion?
    For decades now scholars of religion have struggled to provide a definition of religion that is generally accepted in the field. I personally favour Luckmann’s approach: Luckmann distinguishes between religion (as the cultural/social expression of religiosity, based on Durkheim’s definition of religion) and religiosity (as an anthropological constant); Luckmann further elaborates on the function of religiosity to overcome crises and contingencies, and also claims that religion and religiosity have as a result of the process of social individualization started to drift apart. However, what interests me most is the question whether there actually can be one valid definition of what is ‘religious experience’ (religiosity?), which is – based on Luckamnn’s approach – subjective . As you have said, Yoshi, a person’s reality is unshareable, or as Berger and Luckmann would probably put it, every human being has a subjective reality. The question is: is it possible to translate something as highly subjective as ‘religious experience’ into objective reality that is shared by the society as a whole?

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