On Shinto, from Nyri Bakkalian
Shinto, the religion indigenous to Japan, is an old, diverse and incredibly multifaceted thing. Its precise beginning is unclear. The various shrine networks devoted to particular kami, or deities, have rituals and rules and common practices but is not so clear on any sort of unifying dogma of the sort other religions possess. What we call Shinto today is more of an aggregate of connected traditions than a single entity, only under one umbrella now because of the nationalists and nativists who forcibly tore it from its older, more closely tied syncretic state with local forms of Buddhism in the 1870s. Any practitioner inside or outside of Japan, solitary or not, would do well to mindfully square with this, and with the legacy of nationalist-coopted state Shinto and its role in Japan’s empire building from 1868 to 1945. Those of us outside of Japan must also understand that the indigenous spirits of our places of residence are not the gods of Japan.
But even with these things understood, being a Shintoist outside of Japan is a challenge. In a sense, as a Shintoist in the eastern United States, I suppose I’m adrift. Shinto is inclusive of non-Japanese people but does not proselytize, so its spread outside its native soil is relatively limited compared to other world religions. My religious minority is a minority in the extreme in North America. If I wanted community in person, I’m on the wrong end of the continent for it.
The nearest properly staffed Shinto shrine is Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, 2500 miles away in Granite Falls, Washington. There’s another, newer shrine, Shusse Inari Shrine of America, just being organized in Los Angeles. A third, usually unstaffed shrine stands in Colorado. While sect Shinto has its own places of worship in North America, for shrine Shinto, these three are all there is. Connecting with their affiliated parishioners has helped, to a point. Ultimately, though, none of these enshrine Hachiman-himekami, the goddess of battle and motherhood enshrined by the Date clan, who is my tutelary deity.
I have the advantage, thanks to my graduate-level training in history, of advanced Japanese language skill. I also have the advantage of prior history in Japan, though it was over a decade ago now. I keep a home altar as best I can, offer what offerings I can, and observe the festival days of my home shrine, Sendai’s Kameoka Hachiman Shrine, as observantly as I can.
These practices and contacts too, only go so far. The simple fact of the matter remains: I am thousands of miles away from my nearest place of worship. So in a sense, I suppose I’m adrift.
So, without a shrine and without in-person community, what’s a solitary, fish-out-of water devotee to a Japanese spirit of battle and motherhood to do?
A basic tenet of Shinto, beyond its well known reverence for nature, is its belief in the fact that all things, living and inanimate, have a spark of the divine in them. It is, thus, unsurprising to me that shrines big and small are everywhere in Japan. They’re seamlessly mixed in with both urban and rural surroundings: in forests and atop skyscrapers, in little corners beside shopping arcades and in parking lots beside universities. With such ubiquity, they’re part of the everyday. Folktales further underline this: they tell of gods in the streets. Far from standing aloof on clouds or atop mountains– though yes, some of them do– by and large, they live beside us and walk among us. They drink the same booze, eat the same food, and breathe the same air. Sometimes, they take on human forms and discreetly interact with our society even more closely. Though they can do things we can’t, they are our neighbors the same as humans or animals.
This all seems, to me, to point to something fundamental in my faith: the sacred and the mundane are inextricably intertwined. This is not to say that purity, especially ritual purity, is not a concern– rather that although there are dedicated sacred spaces where the gods call home, they are no more contained to them than we are to our homes.
Realizing this interconnectedness, in turn, opened the door to an exciting new range of possibility for me. For after all, if the sacred and mundane are so intertwined, doesn’t that mean there is seemingly endless opportunity for putting faith into action?
It’s been nearly nine years. I have yet to return to Sendai and pay my respects at my home shrine. Yet there are any number of things, now, where I can see the influence of my faith in the actions I take in the world in general and my local community in particular.
I find that environmental destruction– be it corporate polluters pushing deregulation, or careless locals littering my neighborhood’s sidewalks and the little forest nearby– offends my religion. If there is a spark of the divine everywhere, if we are neighbors with the gods in this world, I cannot tolerate environmental disregard. There’s less I can do directly about industry lobbyists, though I speak as directly and as forcefully as I can to government officials about these issues, in the perhaps vain hope that they’ll listen. More immediately than that, I can, and do, clean up neighborhood trash and keep a modest garden.
I take involvement in my local LGBTQ community seriously, too. Being a queer woman myself, this is already in my interest, but as I pray to a goddess whose purview included protection of same-sex couples, I also find advocacy and involvement in community activities have an added dimension of spiritual significance. By going the extra mile in calling out institutional discrimination and advocating for new policies, by being a listening ear and offering support and advice, by helping facilitate as simple a safe space as a community game night, and even by simply being visible as a queer woman, I see myself as doing the work of my gods in the world around me.
Another concept my faith teaches me is the importance of harmony (wa in Japanese): harmony between humans, harmony between humans and the divine, and harmony with nature. So I do my utmost to teach, to connect, and to build bridges in the world around me.
It may be a long time before I can return to Japan and pray in the place my guardian deity calls home. In the meantime, I plan to have something to show for it when I do.
Nyri A. Bakkalian, Ph.D. is a queer Armenian-American by birth, a military historian by training, and a proud Pittsburgher by choice. Her writing, art, and photography have appeared in Gutsy Broads, Metropolis Japan, The Copperfield Review, Con course, The Raven Chronicles, Inklette, QueerPGH, and other venues. What’s her secret, you ask? Garlic and Turkish coffee. But really, mostly Turkish coffee. Follow her blog at sparrowdreams.com , support her writing at shiogamawaves.com, and come say hello to her on Twitter at @riversidewings