Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On priesthood

The priest I went drinking with, Mr N, shared with me a little of the details of life as a Shinto priest in Japan. These details were not won easily, I might add, since they involved the intense life-and-death struggle of my stupidity against his mumbling incoherence, so it could be that he actually told me something entirely different. Perhaps for all the facts I present hereunder, one should substitute "mud-wrestle my own grandmother", just in case I misunderstood a few points.

Firstly, I discovered that Shinto priests live entirely by donations and by services rendered to their local community. So for example, weddings, car blessings, special remembrance services and new year festivals provide the bulk of a Priest's income. Because of the separation of church and state (which has a special word in Japanese), Priests receive no income from the government at all. Shintoism also has no central authority or administrative body which provides funds for the maintenance of priests, so all of their income is derived from their congregation. When important buildings need to be refurbished the goverment provides half of the cost.

Secondly, becoming a priest is quite easy, since it merely requires that one study manners, learn the prayers, and study the history of Japan (starting at the Kojiki and reading forward) and Shintoism. There may be an internship involved - Mr. N worked for a while at the Yasukuni Jinja, which is surely going to lead to some charming conversations when we next meet - but I don't think this is essential. University attendance is not essential.

Mr. N decided to become a Priest at the age of 19, and since he is the eldest son in his family he felt that he was following a tradition of eldest sons becoming priests. He is at his busiest during the New Year and coming of age festivals, although he seems to randomly do various blessings during the year. He assured me that the alms of his congregation are more than sufficient to maintain a decent lifestyle, and agreed that yes, should the Japanese people lose interest in Shintoism he will be out of a job. Fair enough, I say.

Finally, I should mention that there is a common view in Japan (held by the Japanese) that Japanese people are irreligious. Quite often young people hold foreign religions - particularly Islam, but also Hindhuism and Christianity - in awe for their willingness to "live" their religion on a day to day basis. I think this is complete bunkum, for many reasons but not least of them the fact that you can't turn around in this country without seeing a shrine with attendant bowing local person. Once in Matsue, riding down a main street at night, I saw a tiny shrine nestled between two shops. It was so small it came up to a schoolboys knee, and I could tell this clearly because there were two schoolboys giving a little prayer as I rode past. The difference, I think, is that Japanese people do not wear their beliefs or feelings on their sleeves, and mistake people who show their emotions for people who have commitment of belief (and we all know what the truth of that can be, don't we Mr. Haggard?) In any case, Mr. N believes that modern Japanese people are indifferent to Shintoism. When I told him that foreigners generally regard Shinto as one of Japan's two state religions he laughed and said "Shinto is not religion, it is culture." So from the horse's mouth, if you will, even the Priest does not believe his own religion is, well, a religion. This country is, truly, a contrary and strange place at times...


Blogger Cracklypork said...

I much rather the Japanese way of religious observance. Less instrusive and very personal. Not at all flashy in the way of "Lookatmee! Lookatmee! I'm HOLY!!"

7:48 AM  
Anonymous ひろきhiorki said...

I have many opinions about shinto!
Because I am reading 'Kojiki-monogatari(story)'

As you say, Japan is sometimes strange. By the way,do you know 8million gods in this country?

I think that this Japan's 8million gods are different from another country's origins.

The keyword is "Izanagi","Izanami".

1:04 AM  
Blogger Sir S said...

I shall read about "Izanagi", Mr. Hiroki. Welcome to my blog!

3:09 PM  

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