Living Shinto Tradition in Japan

A short report on research done in the Omihachiman region

By Nold Egenter

This report was published in the German language by 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung' in its illustrated weekend part on August 25/26 1979. It gives a condensed view of ethnographical work done in Japan and its implications for myth research. The whole tradition of this region is documented in: Nold Egenter, Semantic and Symbolic Architecture - An architectural-ethnological survey into hundred villages of central Japan. 1994. Editions Structura Mundi, Lausanne (250 p., ca. 1000 illustrations, US$ 56.-)
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Again and again in Japan we find ourselves in this nearly dreamlike domain between history and reality which makes us ask: did time stand still here? In our own cultural circles, what tells us of long gone things are usually written sources or material remains of past life. In Japan somehow in contrast to this life is still there, restricted though on certain aspects, certain types of religious behaviour for instance. It has often been noted, this strange capacity of Japan to preserve parts of earlier life into our modern times, not just as material substance, but in the form of something specifically human and surprisingly vital: as tradition.

Paradoxically, in the framework of Japanese cultic behaviour we find things - annually produced in the same form - which we know from the representation of most ancient cultures: symbols in which deities are dwelling, pillars, huts, life trees, built with plant materials. Only a few know in the West what Japan invests into its sacred tradition. For centuries the main national sanctuary at Ise has been reconstructed again and again in exactly the same form, and similarly, customs and objects are preserved within the framework of folk religion. As cyclic traditions, they can be understood as a continuous link from the most ancient times into the present. In the following we will discuss this subject in more detail.

In contrast to historical sources, tradition under ideal circumstances offers a great advantage. It can be observed as a vital complex of meanings. Even if this complex of meanings has been changed through the times, there is a chance - given a relatively high density of traditions in a thematically limited frame - to reconstruct the developments of a phenomenon and thus come closer to its essential meaning. In this sense ethnological surveys may provide us with new hypotheses that might be fruitful for cultural history cross-culturally.

Around the beginning of this century early Japanologists had already become aware that cultic traditions, considered primordial in religion, were still practised in Japan. Cults performed in the open air, often in mysterious woods and forests, or cultic veneration of certain trees or stones and many other early cult types, were and still are practised widely in Japan. Very ancient religious concepts are usually very difficult to reconstruct using history or by piecing together highly fragmented objective remains of pre-Christian times. In Japan such concepts are still widely alive. Very unscientifically, japanology at that time misjudged such cults in the theological framework of the Eurocentric value system (high/low religion). In addition, early japanology was dominantly philological work, thus focused on official historical Shinto. Cultic arrangements or cultic processes were described only in very secondary ways, and only those of historical shrines in urban areas related to urban life around the beginning of this century. In short, the idea of Shinto thus formed was essentially that of the official Shinto, or what was formerly called state-shinto.

However, there is another Shinto in Japan: the Shinto of the people. In contrast to the official Shinto, the popular Shinto is immensely rich and manifold, a highly differentiated collection of very ancient local developments, a surprisingly vital objective and behavioural tradition handed down from time immemorial. Thanks to the enormous progress in Japanese folklore studies, it has become possible to distinguish this upper, historically based level from the broad basis of a popular Shinto. Within the framework of this popular Shinto we find a particular type of cult which is still widespread and which clearly expresses very ancient categories. At the centre of these cults we find the erection - often also the destruction - of tectonic symbols produced with fibrous plant materials. Using primitive construction technologies such as binding and tressing, huts and freestanding pillars are built with grasses and twigs. Annually built anew in the same form, using freshly harvested materials, they designate particular spots in the spatial organisation of the local cult system. At the end of their cycle they are usually left to decay. In a more recent version they are ritually destroyed soon after construction.

Studying this enormous wealth of available data in the case of Japan makes it evident that such traditions are not simply some sort of invalid customary behaviour, something primitively irrational. On the contrary, festivals of this type are extremely complex. The events appear in the framework of a very ancient social and territorial settlement structure. The signs in the landscape indicate something which is doubtless deeply rooted in human existence. They structurally define the organisation of environmental space. What is most striking in view of their forms is that their expression can be read from their material, constructive and spatial conditions. They are buildings without any domestic functions, they are signs, symbols, topological markers. As signs they imply the coordination of producer, form and a specific place (topos). As markers they structure the environmental space. And as cult symbols they express a philosophical principle through their structural conditions (categorical polarity).

Our pictures show sections of a region in Japan where in about one hundred villages such cult symbols are built on the occasion of annually cyclic festivals. Often of considerable size and artistic form, they decorate the public spaces of these settlements for some time. Within the framework of dynamic nightly fire-festivals, they are then used as torches and thus destroyed. Evidently these torches are not just 'fuel' as the term fire-festival suggests. The cultic markers show definite symbolisms. If these symbolisms are described objectively, the descriptions clearly allude to mythical verbal traditions. In this context, they are of a highly illustrative nature because they appear in close relation to factual empirical symbols: did myths describe such cults and rites? Do they seem irrational to us because we did not know the content of their terms? Maybe the figure captions related to the pictures can communicate this to the reader.

Mircea Eliade, the well-known historian of religions, once said that the basic problems of metaphysics could be seen in a new light if we had a better knowledge of archaic ontology. This is a very important statement. But, is it correct if we project our own modern world views onto archaic concepts of time and space, concepts which were formulated more than 2000 years ago? If we assume - with clear reasons - that similar symbols were frequently and widely used in ancient cultures, the following gains in plausibility. Namely, that mythical ideas which we understand only in a poetical sense today and which we often interpret as fantastic images of a so-called 'prelogical' world, could have had their 'real' nucleus in cultic procedures of the type mentioned. We could then, for instance, question the interpretation of myths relating to concepts like the unity of heaven and earth, or the cyclic renewal (or burning) of the universe. Did they, originally, not relate to our modern concept of the world? Were they focused on empirical artefacts, on sacred symbols which had an important meaning as models of a very limited local world, a local world which was essentially conditioned by its own sedentary 'history' or corresponding developments?

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