In Japan, Shinto followers prepare to mark disaster anniversary

Published March 1, 2012

Washington, D.C. — Shinto priests throughout Japan are preparing to hold commemoration ceremonies on March 11 to mark the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeastern coast, attendees were told at a program at Georgetown University.

An estimated 20,000 people were killed in the disaster.

The Association of Shinto Shrines has issued a suggested prayer to be read during the ceremonies. That prayer, according to the Rev. Masafumi Nakanishi, a Shinto priest, describes the calamity, pleads that there be no more disasters and asks that people live peacefully.

Nakanishi performed just such a ceremony on Feb. 29 at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs during a program titled, “A Shinto Response to the March 2011 Disasters in Japan.”

Dressed in a traditional robe with tall black hat, Nakanishi bowed, clapped and chanted before an altar, performing a four-part brief ceremony that included a purification ritual as well as an offering of sacred foods: fruits and vegetables, salt and water, sake (rice wine) and seaweed.

Of the approximately 80,000-100,000 shrines in Japan, about 4,500 were damaged, 309 were partially or totally destroyed and 243 may not be used
because of nuclear fallout, said Nakanishi, referring to the Daiichi plant damaged by the quake and tsunami. He also noted there are 22,000 Shinto priests in Japan.

Nakanishi pointed out that many of the shrines that were spared last year were built just beyond the tsunami’s reach, crediting Shinto ancestors with their safe placement.

Many of the surviving shrines were used for disaster relief efforts, with some serving as shelters following the earthquake and tsunami and others serving as collection sites for donations to assist the victims.

Kevin M. Doak, a professor in Georgetown’s department of East Asian languages and cultures, was not surprised that the shrines would be used this way, saying that Shintoists believing in helping others in the world without expectations of reward.

“I have always found the Japanese people to be very quick to help others,” he said during the Berkley program. “The Japanese have a kind of innate, intuitive empathy” that he believes “may be due to Shinto as much as to anything else.”

Giving a brief history of Shinto, Doak said that most Japanese visit the shrines to mark New Year’s Day, as well as for rites of passage that take place at ages 3, 5, 7 and 20, and for marriage.

He also noted that the Japanese version incorporates some elements of Christianity, including figures comparable to Adam and Eve and a version of the holy Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Since the 1930s, he said, the Vatican has allowed Japanese Catholics to visit the shrines and Shinto rites of passage are recognized during Catholic masses. “Some Christians have a hard time with this,” Doak said. “Some Protestants see it as idolatry.”


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