Japanese Firewalking Festivals


Japan has a well deserved international reputation for having some of the most lively, bizarre and dangerous festivals in the world.  Most of these are organised by various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and typically involve receiving blessings which can be channelled into all kinds of practical, or devotional, benefits. However, despite the ubiquitous nature of Japanese festivals, and their general high attendance levels, Japan consistently ranks amongst one of the lowest countries in the world for overt religious belief, coming last in this 2012 survey by Gallup. This seeming paradox can be resolved in a number of ways; one solution is to argue that Japanese festivals aren’t really religious just ‘cultural’ but this seems to be somewhat contradicted by the high level of involvement of religious authorities, the array of religious images and motifs and the fact that most events take place at, or near, temples and shrines. Another alternative is to emphasise that religion in Japan is much more concerned with practice than personal belief and hence, while most people may be personally non-religious they are practically religious, as and when is culturally appropriate. This explanation is more compelling to me but I would add to it that, while Japanese people en masse show a lack of engagement with official religion, there is certainly no shortage of ‘folk’ beliefs in supernatural forces (such as ghosts or spirits) or pseudoscience (i.e. blood type is widely believed to determine personality) in Japan.

Regardless of the motivations underlying people’s participation in festivals, what is indisputable is that a large amount of Japanese people chose to participate in the events every year and thus, as a researcher working on the social and psychological effects of collective ritual participation, Japan provides a rich environment (indeed, that is a large part of why I now live in Sapporo). From amongst those that attend festivals, a much smaller amount also chose to participate in extreme ritual events, such as cold water immersion (misogi 禊) and firewalking (hiwatari 火渡り), and these are the events on which I am currently conducting research. Motivation for participation in such events can be framed as due to some form of religious devotion but obligation and tradition have been more frequently invoked, at least by the participants I’ve spoken to. However, seeking any single explanation for participation is inevitably a doomed endeavour, as motivations are always multifaceted and many operate below the levels of conscious awareness. As such, it’s often valuable to look not just at what people report but also what they do. This is why my current research attempts to collect both behavioural and self reported data. I won’t go into details in this post about the specific measures I use but there are some recent studies which provide useful illustrations of how behavioural measures can be productively employed in this area.


Is there Religion in Japan? (Round 2)

The current debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess of the sun.

The ‘religion’ in Japan debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess.

A number of years ago I wrote a blog post about a lively debate between Timothy Fitzgerald and Ian Reader concerning whether it was appropriate to speak of ‘religion’ in Japan and whether the concept had any coherent significance prior to the arrival of the Western colonial powers and their ideological baggage. From my perspective a clear winner emerged from these exchanges (*spoiler* it did- see my previous post for details) but I’ve just become aware that, while working on my PhD, I seem to have missed a more competitive second round that has been taking place over the past few years, due in large part to the work of Jason Ānanda Josephson.


Japan’s Pick and Mix Religions

Explained below...

Explained below...

One of the first statistics that someone who is researching religion in Japan will come across is that when statistics are collected the total membership of the main religions when added together equates to almost double the population of Japan. So for instance, in 2006 the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs reported that there were 106.8 million Shinto adherents and 91.2 million Buddhists while the total population of Japan was 127.8 million people.

The explanation for these strange statistics is very straightforward- in Japan most people do not regard religions as exclusive and this includes the various temple and shrine authorities who collect the statistics. This attitude is illustrated quite nicely by the fact that it is common in Japan for a person to have Shinto ceremonies shortly after they are born and at certain ages (3, 5 and 7) throughout their childhood, have a Christian wedding when they get married and have a Buddhist funeral after they die. It is also relatively common for individuals to be unaware of what Buddhist sect they and their family belong to until after a close relative dies and they need to contact a temple and summon the relevant priests.