May 07, 2015

Pop culture Shinto


Shinto grew organically in Japan, inventing itself and its mythologies along the way. The first references appeared in the eighth century. In the official histories, the Imperial Court traced its ancestry back to Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Jimmu is said to have ascended to the throne in 660 BC. Emperor Sujin, who purportedly reigned from 97 BC to 30 BC, is the first Japanese emperor believed to not be complete fabrication. But the genealogies aren't considered trustworthy until the fifth century.

The "mists of time" can be awfully useful when it comes to the "evidence of things not seen." Sure, you can't prove any of it happened. But you can't prove it didn't! What the heck, it doesn't hurt to play along. As Wikipedia explains,

Shinto does not actually require professing faith to be a believer or a practitioner thus a person who practices any manner of Shinto rituals may be so counted, and as such it is difficult to query for exact figures based on self-identification of belief within Japan.

When the queries are done, the number of believers always add up to significantly greater than the total population. Japanese don't see religious affiliation or belief or even "atheism" as a zero-sum game. Why believe in just one? Cover your bases! Accept Pascal's Wager for all the gods!

Shinto in genre fiction typically has about the same relationship to its theological roots as a Marvel Thor flick has to Norse mythology. It's more about the ballpark verisimilitude, and as source material for compelling superheroes and cool characters.

This makes Shinto a deep well that manga and anime can draw from time and again, with little fear of offending anybody no matter how wild a tangent the story takes from the religion's theological roots.

The live-action Onmyoji, for example, casts the real Heian period court diviner Abe no Seimei (921-1005) as a superhero exorcist. Similar historical settings and tropes show up in anime like Otogi Zoshi.

Outside Japan, the Studio Ghibli classics Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and the lesser-known Pom Poko are the best-known explorations of Shinto metaphysics. While opaque to western viewers, most of the religious references would be familiar to Japanese audiences.

Shinto is more commonly known for the miko (shrine maiden) and the ever-popular inari (fox god). Shrine of the Morning Mist casts the miko as superheroes. In the more subdued Gingitsune, the daughter of a Shinto priest has inherited her mother's "spirit sight."


The inari and its kin are recurring characters in Japanese fairy tales, often transforming into human form. Thus a little supernatural matchmaking will get you a romantic comedy. The best-known rom-com pairing is Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha. Inuyasha is a half-demon inugami (dog god).

Unlike the semi-divine inari, the ranks of the inugami and shikigami are populated by the ghosts and goblins of Japanese mythology. They, in turn, are ruled over by the kami, which loosely translates as "the gods," whose job it is to keep the divine rabble in line.

Those gods can turn up in the most unlikely places.

Kamichu! begins with a junior high school student in a small fishing village in Hiroshima. Yurie wakes up one morning to discover she's turned into a minor Shinto deity. Rather than causing great alarm, she's treated more like "hometown girl makes good."

The focus instead is how Yurie comes to terms with her "godhood" with the help of her friends and family, and, in turn, keeps the local shikigami in line.

This brings to mind comparisons with Bruce Almighty, except that Bruce Almighty is monotheistic while Kamichu! is unapologetically polytheistic. The gods of Shinto aren't omnipresent or omnipotent or monotheistic or even worth worshiping sometimes.

In Noragami, Yato is a Shinto god (with a dark past) in need of a shrine, which means amassing followers by doing "good deeds." In other words, this god's charitable acts are entirely self-serving. Well, a bad boy with a good heart is a character arc that practically writes itself.


Shinto-based genre fiction tends to be more devil-may-care than the more "serious" Buddhism. Shinto does have a sober side, name in the connection to State Shinto.

State Shinto was abolished in 1945. It effects still persist in the politically sensitive symbol of Yasukuni Shrine and the Shinto temples and accession rites tied to the Imperial Household (much the same way the Church of England is to the throne in the United Kingdom).

A "bamboo curtain" of church/state separation is usually tactfully drawn between the political and sectarian function, but now and then it slips in curious ways, such as when a politician makes an "official" to a shrine. Prime Minster Abe has avoided Yasukuni but has visited Ise.

Princess Noriko (the emperor's grandniece) married the eldest son of the head priest of the Izumo Taisha grand shrine. This sort of thing is treated with a degree of deference unimaginable by Japan's tabloid press on any other subject.

In these specific church/state contexts, Shinto becomes a subject actually more off-limits than Buddhism. Royalty in Japan are a low key bunch to start with, and the very imperious Imperial Household Agency makes Buckingham Palace look like the cast of Monty Python.

As the Christian Science Monitor put it a while back:

The most secretive agency in Japan is not its intelligence organization. It is the Imperial Household Agency . . . . The agency tightly controls the flow of information about Japan's monarchy, not only to the public but to the rest of the government.

The Imperial Household Agency has gone so far as to close down archaeological digs that might possible put past historical events in the "wrong" light (such as revealing that early emperors were the descendants of Korean princes fleeing civil wars on the peninsula).

The fanatical right (still fighting WWII in spirit) doesn't give a fig about theology as long as you leave the modern-day emperors (and their origins) out of it. Steer clear of that minefield and the sky's the limit. Shinto can be as weird and goofy as you want it to be.

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