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!

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In Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour has picked an unlikely winner

The party leader is making gains internally at least. 

Kezia Dugdale did not become the leader of Scottish Labour in the most auspicious of circumstances. She succeeded Jim Murphy, who lasted just six months in the job before losing his Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. She herself has survived one year, but not without rumours of a coup.

And so far, she has had little reward. Labour lost 14 seats in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, and not just to the auld enemy, the SNP, but a seemingly decrepit one, the Tories. She backed the losing candidate in the recent Labour leadership contest, Owen Smith. 

Yet Dugdale has firm fans within Scottish Labour, who believe she could be the one to transform the party into a vote-winning force once more. Why?

First, by the dismal standards of Scottish Labour, Dugdale is something of a winner. Through the national executive committee, she has secured the internal party changes demanded by every leader since 2011. Scottish Labour is now responsible for choosing its own Westminster candidates, and creating its own policy. 

And then there’s the NEC seat itself. The decision-making body is the main check on the Labour leadership’s power, and Dugdale secured an extra seat for Scottish Labour. Next, she appointed herself to it. As a counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Dugdale now has influence within the party that extends far outside Holyrood. The Dundee-based Courier’s take on her NEC victories was: “Kezia Dugdale completes 7-0 Labour conference victory over Jeremy Corbyn.”

As this suggests, Dugdale’s main challengers in Scotland are likely to come from the Corbyn camp. Alex Rowley, her deputy leader, backed Corbyn. But Labour activists, at least, are battle weary after two referendums, a general election and a Scottish parliament election within the space of two years. One well-connected source told me: “I think it's possible we haven't hit rock bottom in Scotland yet, so the scale of the challenge is enormous.” 

Polls are also harder to ignore in a country where there is just one Labour MP, Ian Murray, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. A YouGov exit poll of the leadership election found Smith beating Corbyn in Scotland by 18 points (in every other part of Britain, members opted for Corbyn). Observers of Scottish politics note that the most impressive party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, were given time and space to grow. 

In policy terms, Dugdale does not stray too far from Corbyn. She is anti-austerity, and has tried to portray both the SNP and the Tories as enemies of public service. She has attacked the same parties for using the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum to create division in turn. In her speech to conference, she declared: “Don’t let Ruth Davidson ever tell you again that the Union is safe in Tory hands.”

So long as Labour looks divided, a promise of unity will always fall flat. But if the party does manage to come together in the autumn, Dugdale will have the power to reshape it north of the border, and consolidate her grip on Scottish Labour.