Home Japanese values Spiritual but not religious: Why Japanese Shintoism is attracting American followers and growing online

Spiritual but not religious: Why Japanese Shintoism is attracting American followers and growing online

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At 35, Cox works as an electrical engineer and enjoys riding his bike and playing the piano. While her interest in Shintoism was first sparked by her love of Japanese popular culture and media, practicing Shintoism isn’t just a phase or a fad for her.

For more than 15 years, she has worshiped Inari Ookami, a Shinto deity or “kami” linked to agriculture, industry, prosperity and success. After several years of study, Cox received a high honor from Fushimi Inari Taisha, one of Japan’s most popular Shinto shrines. She was entrusted with a “wakemitama”, a physical part of Inari Ookami’s spirit, which is now housed in a sacred box and enshrined in the altar of her house.

Additionally, Cox became a leader within a relatively small but growing community of Shinto practitioners scattered around the world. Its objective: to help the “indigenous” religion of Japan to globalize.

As a Japanese religious anthropologist studying the spread of Shinto around the world, I met Cox where most non-Japanese interested in Shinto do it – online. Over several years of studying social media posts, participating in live streams, and conducting surveys and interviews, I have heard the stories of many people about what drives them to practice Shinto and how they overcome the difficulties of doing so outside of Japan.

What is Shintoism?

Shinto has many faces. For some, it is a reservoir of local community traditions and a way of ritually marking milestones throughout the year and in one’s life. For others, it is an institution that attests to the Japanese emperor’s divine status as a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu or a life-affirming nature religion.

But at its core, Shintoism is about the ritual veneration of the kami. These myriads of deities can take different forms. Many are associated with features of the natural world, such as lightning and the sun, while others deal with human concerns, from marital relationships to passing college exams.

One of the main concerns of Shintoism is the management of spiritual impurities through ritual purification. According to Shinto thought, impurities accumulate simply as a product of living in this world, as well as through contact with sources of impurities, such as death or disease, and by committing inappropriate acts. Because spiritual impurities offend kami and are capable of threatening social order and people’s well-being, Shinto priests must purify them regularly through rituals.

Besides purification, Shinto also provides what contemporary Japanese religious experts Ian Reader and George Tanabe Jr. call “practical benefits.” These innumerable benefits include good health, prosperity, and security. At Shinto shrines and other sacred spaces, priests and common people from all walks of life perform rituals to express their gratitude for the deities’ protection and pray for their continued blessings.

Why do people choose Shintoism?

Although Shintoism is often referred to as the “indigenous” religion of Japan, it is not limited by geography, nationality or ethnicity. Non-Japanese have received certification as Shinto priests, and Shinto shrines can be found around the world, including the United States, Brazil, the Netherlands, and the Republic of San Marino.

Global practitioners point out that, unlike many organized religions, Shintoism has “no founder, doctrine or sacred texts”. The majority identify as “spiritual but not religious”, a growing category of people who define spirituality as “personal, heartfelt and genuine”, as opposed to the hierarchy and dogma of institutional religion.

For people of Japanese descent, Shinto rituals often provide a way to maintain relationships with ancestors and a connection to their cultural heritage. As I discovered during my field research, non-Japanese practitioners find Shinto particularly appealing for a number of reasons.

First, Shintoism reflects their values: a positive outlook on life, an emphasis on gratitude and harmony, concern for the environment, and compatibility with other traditions. Members find the community welcoming to people of diverse gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.

Second, they appreciate Shinto’s emphasis on ritual. Cox jokes that if she were to be a Christian, she would probably be a Catholic for the rituals. Shinto practitioners describe rituals as an opportunity to reflect, reconnect with the divine, and renew or refresh their own spirit.

Third, Shinto offers a way to engage more deeply with Japanese culture. Many practitioners first encountered Shinto through anime, video games, martial arts, or tourism. Some Shinto priests even use popular culture as a teaching tool, performing rituals and giving talks at cultural events and fan conventions.

What does the online Shinto community look like?

To my surprise when I started my digital research, I discovered that online Shinto communities have existed since the birth of the Internet as we know it today. In 2000, the “Shinto Mailing List” was created on Yahoo Groups (now defunct) as a space for over 1,000 people to discuss Shinto with like-minded people. Fast forward 20 years, and Shinto communities number between six and 10,000 members hosted on multiple Facebook groups, other social media platforms, and even virtual worlds.

As my research shows, Shinto priests and lay practitioners use social media to talk about their experiences and ask questions. The most common questions asked by new members are “Is it okay to practice Shinto as a non-Japanese person?” and “How exactly do we practice Shintoism outside of Japan?” They also create and share resources, such as guides for ritual practice at home, recommended books and other media, and instructions on how to contact and support Shinto shrines.

While internet-based religion is considered taboo by the majority of Shinto shrines in Japan, some overseas shrines, such as the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America and the Shusse Inari Shinto Shrine in America, have created their own vibrant online shrine communities. They share news about upcoming events and live stream monthly and annual rituals and festivals. They both have an active social media presence, and the Shusse Inari Shinto Shrine in America is even exploring alternative forms of fundraising through crowdfunding sites like Patreon.

a day in the life

Since most practitioners outside of Japan do not live near a Shinto shrine, their daily ritual practice focuses on worshiping Shinto deities in their homes on an altar called a kamidana or “kami shelf”.

In the morning, Cox greets Inari Ookami with a series of deep bows and applause. She recites prayers called “norito” and offers traditional offerings of rice, water and salt in gratitude for the kami’s blessings. In the evening, she removes the offerings and consumes them. This practice aims to bring humans and deities closer together by sharing the same meal. It’s also a great way to avoid wasting food.

Some offers may be difficult to find outside of Japan. In these cases, Shinto practitioners may offer similar local substitutes, such as oats instead of rice. They can also make creative additions to their shrines, customizing the space and their relationship with the kami.

Others find it difficult to source the materials needed to set up a Shinto shrine, especially the sacred “ofuda” talisman, which must be received from a shrine. They can build their own shrines or pay homage to a digital shrine in an app. What is most important, according to Cox, is respect for tradition and the sincerity of one’s intentions and actions. Slowly but surely, as Shinto spreads around the world, practitioners make it their own.