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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear