The Heart of Japanese Culture, Part 2 -

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The Heart of Japanese Culture, Part 2

By Janet Houck     April 26, 2007

Spirited Away
© N/A

In today’s column, I’ll be continuing on from last week. Be advised that you might want to read that column if you haven’t yet. 

Unlike major world religions, Shinto has no fixed dogma, moral practices or scriptures. This explains the ease that most practitioners have at adapting Buddhist and Christian beliefs and practices into their own religious life. As Shinto is such a part of Japanese culture, to the point of being part of the Japanese lifestyle, it plays an important role in anime and manga, both in plots and the characters themselves. 

Shinto revolves around the worship of kami who personify all aspects of nature (sky, mountain, spring, rain, sun, etc.) and natural phenomena (rainbow, an unusual boulder or tree). Sacred objects, such as trees or rocks, are adorned with shimenawa ropes and white paper prayer slips. The focus is more on celebrating life and maintaining a good relationship between yourself and the various kami, including ones’ own ancestors, who become lesser kami upon death. 

Humans are thought to be naturally good in Shinto; evil spirits cause people to do bad things. Therefore, most Shinto rituals center around keeping evil spirits away through purification, and offerings and prayers to kami. Purification rituals often involve the priest waving a wand with long white slips of paper attached at the end and chanting, and prayers are often written on slips of paper and tied to a sacred object or silently recited before ringing a bell at a shrine. 

Formal Shinto rituals take place at shrines, which feature the distinct torii gate at the entrance. Many matsuri (festivals) originate from Shinto shrine-based rites of thanksgiving, purification and offering food and valuables, as well as serving to show the shrine’s kami the world outside. (Remember that shrines are seen as houses for kami. Even gods need to step outside once in a while!) Many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films feature kami, in particular Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. This article presents the Shinto influence in Spirited Away in very thorough and technical terms, but it is very enlightening if you’d like to learn more about Miyazaki’s philosophy that can be found in all of his works to one degree or another. The anime series Kamichu! centers around a middle-school student who suddenly becomes a kami, without knowing anything at all about her powers or responsibilities. 

The sanshu no jingi (Imperial Regalia) are holy relics that appear in ancient Japanese myths that prove the legitimacy and divine authority of the Emperor. They consist of the yata no kagami (the sacred mirror), stored at Ise Shrine; the kusanagi no tsurugi (the scared sword), stored at Atsuta Jingu shrine in Nagoya; and the yasakani no magatama (the sacred curved jewels), at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The original sacred sword was lost at the Battle of Dannoura in 1185. 

According to myth, the sacred mirror was used to lure the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami out of hiding in cave, where she went to escape her brother Susanoo no Mikoto, the ocean god after an argument. After she emerged, the heavenly deities presented her with the sacred jewels and sealed the cave, so that the earth would never be without sunlight again. The sword was removed from the tail of a serpent by Susanoo and given to Amaterasu as a sign of his submission, as he was banished from Heaven and descended to Earth to become a hero. Tenchi Muyo (among many other anime titles) and the video game Okami feature sections of this legend. 

Many Shinto ceremonies are ingrained in daily life in Japan. Marriage ceremonies are often performed in shrines, building plots are purified before construction begins, and even new cars are blessed for traffic safety. Talismans are widely available at shrines for good exam results, business success, safe deliveries and more. Most homes have a kamidana (god shelf), along with a Buddhist butsudan (buddha altar). Frequently, Shinto is associated with life changes, such as births, marriages, coming-of-age ceremonies, and New Year celebrations, while Buddhism is used for funerals and burials, as death is viewed as an impurity in Shinto, requiring ritual purification. Many times, the Buddhist priest is portrayed as overly serious and mean, while the Shinto priest is easy-going and free-spirited in anime. 

The long-standing anime tradition of sakura (cherry) blossoms falling comes from the concept of mono no aware, which encompasses the idea of perfect beauty disappearing at its peak. As flower-viewing season is very short and normally spent with friends and family, sakura blossoms make an excellent natural metaphor. When two people suddenly have pink blossoms floating down around them, it illustrates a moment of perfect connection, which will inevitably fall into disarray and miscommunication. 

The Shinto ideal of harmony can be found in the Japanese arts of ikebana (flower-arranging), garden design and architecture. Venus Versus Virus and The Snow Queen uses ikebana to convey information about the relationship between the main characters, and garden and house design plays a subtle role in the disconnection and lost memories of the main character in Tsukihime. 

Shinto rituals use mantras and mudras (chants and hand gestures) to invoke the favor of good kami. We see this in countless anime series that feature magic; some examples are Card Captor Sakura, Descendents of Darkness and Fate/Stay Night. Because the “good guys” uses these words and gestures, we know that they are using “good magic,” and this is often critical in understanding which characters are truly on the side of Good. 

An argument can be made that the Japanese emphasis on proper, formulaic greetings and respectful phrases in conversation is a secular extension of kotodama, the belief in words having a magic effect in the world. Alice the 19th takes this belief into reality, where words really do have magical effects, with affirming words healing and doing positive actions, and demeaning words having destructive power.  

Shinto priests often live on the shrine’s grounds, and both men and women can become priests, as well as marry and have children. Priests are assisted by young women called miko in rituals and shrine duties (such as sweeping), performing omikuji (fortune telling) and ritual dances and manning the shrine’s souvenir shop. Miko must be unmarried (although exceptions have been made) and they wear the chihaya, which includes a dark red hakama (wide, pleated skirt), a white komono shirt with long, wide sleeves, and tabi socks. Oftentimes, they wear red or white ribbons in their hair and are frequently the daughters of the shrine’s priest. (Welcome to the family business!) 

In anime, there are two stock character types of miko. In romantic stories, miko are attractive, yet stuffy and temperamental, due to their lack of exposure to boys. However, in most stories that involve miko, they are the heroine, fighting demons and ghosts with their magic rituals and sacred objects. They usually also know martial arts and are skilled at traditional Japanese weapons, such as archery or using a katana. Miko can be seen in Sailor Moon (Rei falls under both of these miko categories), Shrine of the Morning Mist (which also features the Kuro Miko, a “Dark Miko” who is the opposite of a good miko, practicing demonology and black magic), X, Mugen Spiral, Shaman King and Inu Yasha, to give you a few titles off the top of my head. 

You don’t need to convert to Shinto if you want to watch anime or read manga, but a little knowledge does go a long way in understanding the motivations of characters and the meaning behind their actions. I hope that this mini series has helped to make your next Japanese media experience a little better!


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galaga51 4/27/2007 4:45:36 PM
Nice articles. I'm only now expanding into anime beyond the prominent films of Hayao Miyazaki; I'm sure to appreciate certain aspects even more. Thanks.
snallygaster 4/27/2007 6:20:40 PM
Yes Janet, thanks for the primer on Japanese religion and culture, and its influence on anime. I'm also something of a novice in anime fandom, and probably will never get into it as wholeheartedly as some do, but your articles are particularly helpful in getting a better understanding of Miyazaki's films, as well as the Inuyasha TV series (the only anime series I watch on a regular basis).


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