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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.