Shinto's relationship with Japanese life

How Japanese religions are centred round three elements: birth, life and death

Shinto has survived throughout the changes in Japanese history and was made the state religion at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1867 when it was formally separated from Buddhism.

At the end of the Second World War Shinto was abolished as the State religion because of its association with Japanese aggression. But it is still the centre of the rituals and community festivals.

Shinto rituals concern life events, such as marriage and birth. For example the ‘seven night’ celebration at which the baby is taken for its first visit to the local Shinto shrine. The shrines are maintained by local communities and Japanese daily life deeply involves them.

It is said that Japanese marry in a Shinto ritual and live life with Confucian ethics, and the deceased is buried and its soul is transformed into ancestors in a Buddhist ritual. These three events are essential factors in a person’s life and the Japanese religions are centred round these three elements, birth, living and death.

Folk religion, a form of Shinto (Minkan shinko) is thought to respond to what people need in daily life through their experience. It is basically the indigenous primitive religion. In addition it has the characteristics of shamanism, divination and magic. It has no doctrines, nor organisation. It is a kind of custom practised among the local communities. Folk religion puts great emphasis not on ideas but rituals, such as local festivals (matsuri). People expect immediate and firm benefits, such as healing from ill-health, and prosperity of family. The emphasis in Shinto and the fundamental goal is on divine favour, ultimate happiness in ‘this life’.

According to Shinto cosmology each person is said to have a soul (tama) in his body. When he dies this soul departs from the body and travels to its ancestors keeping an interest in this world and especially in its family. The ancestors’ functions are to guard and to protect the continuity and prosperity of the household lineage. Their influence does not extend further than this unlike the kami. Ancestor worship is practised in social-religious activities, such as visiting their graves, observing the annual (obon) festival and rituals at the household (kamidana), the Shinto altar.

The daily activity is to offer incense, flowers and food to the family ancestors. As yearly events there are o-bon (hatsumode), the New Year’s visit to shrines, and (Matsuri), village festivals. O-bon is one of major rites and festivals for families. It is the time for hakamairi, visiting the family graves to clean and to make offerings and for praying to ancestors. Every year people return to their homeland, the villages, from which they originally came.

Although the majority of Japanese people say that they have no religion, over 80 per cent of Japanese people take part in New Year’s shrine visiting; and 89 per cent of Japanese visit their ancestors’ graves regularly or occasionally. The high rate of participation in religious activity related to ancestor worship and the use of Buddhist and Shinto rites to deal with them are growing. It seems to be that for the Japanese people religious life is more important than faith.

As long as the traditional religious rites are observed and ancestors are worshipped, in essence, Japanese religious life has changed little this century.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.