Shinto is a difficult religion for Westerners to understand. It is not organized, it has no central text or doctrine, and in many cases, both scholars from the East and West do not consider it a religion. I started studying Shinto, or “The Way of the Kami,” during fall term 2008 in anticipation of traveling to Japan with Knox students during the winter mini-term. I was first interested in Shinto because its reverence of nature was similar to what I found in my own religion, Paganism. I found that not only are the above characteristics similar between them, but its allowance of women in religious ranks, and beliefs in supernatural powers and many gods and goddesses are all natural sources of unity between them.
Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha is part of the Shrine Shinto tradition, one of the four main sects of Shinto. If you remember one thing about Shinto, it should be this: that it is very individualized, and just like in India, where Hinduism varies from village to village. Each Japanese village has its own Kami, or Earth Spirit, that protects and guides it. Everything (animals, humans, plants, etc.) on Earth is a spirit and part of the Kami, and is therefore divine. In each of these Japanese villages, the local townspeople chose something that has benefited them. For example, in a fishing village, people envisioned the Divine as a Fish God to help them with their livelihoods, and indeed, their very survival. This is not unusual; people are always giving attributes (such as black, white, woman, man) to help them understand the Divine. It is also worth noting that unlike many other places in the world, Japan has never had a war that was based on religious beliefs, because all religious figures are seen as valid.
When I came back from Japan and continued my study of Shinto, I found a shrine in Hawaii that seemed well-established and in which I thought I could get first-hand experience. I was not disappointed. Through a Richter Grant, I traveled to Honolulu and researched at Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha, participating in rituals and learning the background of the different parts of the shrine.
The shrine was founded in 1920 to perpetuate Shinto traditions in Hawaii. The shrine deity (in the form of a stick, because the Divine is in all things) was brought from Japan. Kotohira-gu, long known as the guardian deity of fishing and commerce, quickly grew in popularity and membership. In the next two decades, a community center, martial arts center, kyudo archery range, outdoor theater, kendo renbujo and sumo ring were built. However, after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, all cultural and religious activities were terminated and many of the shrine’s priests were detained or deported. By 1950, a district court ruled favorably on the shrine’s behalf, noting that its seizure by the federal government was unlawful. It was the first-ever lawsuit by a Japanese organization in the US. Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha has overcome many hardships and it offers Shinto services to the communities of Hawaii to this day.
Even the walkway of the shrine is sacred. The torii is the first test of purification. The center of the path is God, or Kami, as you walk. To the side is the water basin where worshippers purify themselves, as everyone knows there is both good and evil in humans. At this basin, worshippers wash their hands and mouths. To the other side is a guardian animal, an idea probably borrowed from neighboring China. Next, one shakes the rope, calling attention from the Gods. Some offer a prayer at this time, or next, when an offering is given to a box at the entrance of the shrine.
In the beginning of Shinto, it was believed, rice and sake were first offered, but the tradition gradually turned to money offerings. At the actual shrine, it is more precise to say that you “appreciate” instead of “pray.” In a simple ritual, both you and the priest face the Kami; neither is closer or further apart from all that is sacred around us. The priest waves gohei, or white paper strips, through the air, chanting Japanese incantations. Amidst clapping and bowing, he carries the Kami (in the form of a stick) and offers it a prayer when he sets it in its rightful place in the shrine. Though it is a simple ritual, you are allowed to experience the Divine in a personal way.
In Shinto, women are allowed to become full-fledged priestesses, and often participate in rituals. I was even allowed to dress up as a miko, a shrine maiden. Mr. Takizawa, the Shinto priest that I worked with, said that growing up with Shinto “ingrained in me values like filial piety, loyalty, respect for nature and the sacredness of life – all things living.” He stressed that both humans and nature are sacred; neither one is better than the other. Living “green” is also part of the religion; as Takizawa remarked, “Sustainability, perpetuation of nature and humanity is Shinto.”
I believe this approach to both nature and women are qualities that should be inherent in any tradition, whether they are religious or not. Shinto, though it is not an organized religion and has no dogmas attached to it, has proven through its endurance that such qualities are right and true for generations of our ancestors, and hopefully, they will continue to be for many generations to come.