What Shinto means to me

There was only one object in the Holy of Holies and this was a bronze mirror on the back was the tet

I have been fascinated by Japan since I was 19. I saw the original screening in London of Kurosawa’s film ‘Seven Samurai’. It had a profound influence on me and I began to take up Japanese martial arts and develop a serious interest in Japanese swords. Japanese swords are forged at a Shinto ceremony with the smith wearing Shinto dress. The blade is thought of as incorporating a spirit and is the soul of the samurai.

Later, my M.A. dissertation was about Ennin (794-864 CE), an important Buddhist monk who went to China by ship to study scriptures that had not yet reached Japan. On the journey the ship met a terrible storm. Did Ennin, as a Buddhist priest pray to Buddha for the ship to be saved –no. Did he pray to the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Kannon - no. He prayed to the great Shinto kami of Sumiyoshi and the ship was saved. Was anyone surprised – apparently not. This struck me as the epitome of lack of conflict between Shinto and Buddhism.

Being a Londoner it took Shinto to awaken me to the beauties of nature. Heaven Earth and Man and the five senses. Shinto venerates nature. To most people rocks are inert, inanimate matter; to the Japanese they are living things There is no line of separation between the life of nature and the experience of man. The idea of activity in tranquillity was applied to all relationships. And the feeling that Heaven and Earth and I are of the same root.

Having started with a mystery perhaps we can end with one. Curiously some Japanese think that they are the lost tribe and therefore Jewish. My wife’s private tutor for the English language was an elderly lady who particularly followed Shinto. When visiting her once in Tokyo she showed me an old copy of the Stars and Stripes magazine, the magazine of the American forces. She pointed out an article written by an American officer during the occupation. It relates how this officer who happened to be Jewish, and his colleague, were sent to check whether or not there were any weapons in the Grand Shinto shrine of Ise.

The officers entered the shrine and saw the head priest who explained that although they might search anywhere they would not be allowed to enter the holy of holies since only he and the Emperor was allowed there. The Emperor is a living Shinto kami and although he renounced this on the radio at Macarthur’s’ insistence, I do not see theologically how you can undeify yourself.

The officers explained that they were under the direct orders of General Macarthur and although they would show every respect they could not be denied. They found no weapons there but the officer reporting afterwards said that there was only one object in the Holy of Holies and this was a bronze mirror. We know that this is one of the three sacred object of Shinto. The others are a sword and a jewel. The extraordinary thing the officer reported was that on the back of the mirror was the tetragramaton, the four letters of the name of God in Hebrew.

After this, the Holy of Holies was again closed to everyone except the high priest and the Emperor so we will never know if this is true!

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage