Misogi (禊) can loosely be translated as ritual purification by cold water and is a practice most strongly associated with Shintoism. It is also performed by practitioners of Shugendō, a syncretic ascetic sect with a long history in Japan, and by martial arts groups, such as Aikidō practitioners. The precise practices involved vary; at some locations the misogi is performed by immersion in streams/pools and at others by sitting or standing under waterfalls, sometimes the event involves collective practices by large groups (up to 200) and sometimes it is a solitary performance. But despite such diversity a clear unifying thread to all misogi practices is the endurance of cold water in order to purify oneself and by extension the surrounding community.
I’ve now participated in two misogi events: the first was held last year, in a small town called Kikonai in Hokkaidō in Northern Japan and the second was performed just last week, at Teppozu Inari Shrine in a suburb of central Tōkyō. Both events were spectacular and I was extremely fortunate to be invited to take part. However, these two events were also very different and I think they serve as a good illustration of how a single ‘type’ of ritual can be expressed differently, even when performed within the same country (Japan) and ostensibly within the same tradition (Shinto). In this first post, I’ll focus on my experience at the misogi in Kikonai last year, then in the next post I’ll make some comparisons with my experience at the recent event in Tōkyō and finally, I’ll relate both experiences to some important theories which I think help illuminate and explain some of the psychological aspects of these ritual performances.
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.
Naval Battle in the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895: Reminiscent of Hokusai’s famous woodblock of the Great Wave (神奈川沖浪裏)
War is horrific, but for most of history, unless you were a direct participant or a victim, you would not be fully aware of this fact, as those in power were able to control the presentation of conflicts and, thus, censor the images and stories that were presented to the public about the war. Such monopolistic control remains firmly in place in many states but it has always been partial, as demonstrated by the popularity of the war poets of WWI and the Vietnam war veterans who become public protestors after their return. More recently however, the true horror of war has become even more accessible due to 1) the growing ubiquity of camera phones across the world and 2) online media distribution. Two recent illustrations of such trends are the tragic images of dead and injured children that spread across the world during the conflict in Gaza and the gruesome beheadings shown in ISIS’ terrorist propaganda. Such images are admittedly presented in heavily edited versions in traditional media but their full unedited horror is now easily accessible to anyone with internet access and the required motivation.
A photographic image of Japanese soldiers from the 1894 Sino-Japanese war
A new web exhibition of Japanese and Chinese propaganda prints depicting the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, jointly created by the British Library and the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (JACAR) in Tokyo, illustrates just how far the presentation of conflicts has been transformed over the past 100 years. The images in the online exhibition are stunning and reflect how the events of the war were depicted and recorded by people at the time (although mainly those commissioned by the relevant authorities). The presence of prints from both the Japanese and Chinese sides also enable us to see clearly just how interchangeable heroic and villainous motifs are and how readily they are applied. Although photographic technology existed at the time of the conflict and there were photographs produced (see one example above), it was prints that were the main news media of the time. The prints were primarily produced using traditional woodblock technology and this lends them something of a historical/classical atmosphere when viewed today. Yet despite their undeniable beauty it is always important to remember the real horror and suffering that lurks behind such stylised representations.
Below I’ve selected some of the images that I found most striking but I would recommend that people take the time to view the full collection and read through the exhibition site for themselves. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that the majority of the images are from the Japanese side so there is an unavoidable imbalance in the images below and the exhibition itself.
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.
So it’s 2010. Time to put those new year resolutions into practice and get myself organised and in this futuristic decade what better place to start than my hi-tech internet blog. Granted it is now almost a week since New Years day but since I am technically still ‘on holiday’ in Japan I think getting the blog back in order at this early stage of the year can almost pass for an achievement!
Being in Japan at the moment I can’t help but feel like I am missing out on the predictable collapse of society that occurs in the UK following any unexpected weather. However, I can at least console myself by enjoying the sites of Tokyo and visiting the various bizarre cafes and bars that are littered across the city. This post is about one such venue called the ‘Christon Café’ which aside from being a nice place to eat also provides a pretty good illustration of the paradoxical attitude towards religion found throughout Japan of widespread indifference alongside a fascination with religious iconography and aesthetic.
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.
Agon Shu’s Hoshi Matsuri… one of many religious ceremonies in Japan
At first glance the question of whether or not religion exists in Japan seems like it is rather straightforward and may be even a slightly silly question to ask. I mean how could anyone doubt there is religion in Japan? Just look at all those Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples! And what about all those famous Zen monks or those new age religions? Aren’t those clearly signs of religion in Japan?
My answer would be yes… but despite this seemingly straightforward answer, the question continues to raise its ugly head in both academic papers and, more recently, in the comment section of my blog (in particular any time ‘religion’ is mentioned alongside the topic of ninjas)!
The basic arguments presented in both cases are almost indistinguishable. Which means that I can address the arguments of both the ninjutsu practitioners and the academics in one fell swoop… (or at least that’s the idea!)