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28 June 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

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

By Jeffrey Somers

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.

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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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