Thursday, July 28, 2016

Daily Superstitions: How Secular is Japan, Really?

Calendar showing auspicious and inauspicious days for August
What is the main religion of Japan? Buddhism? Shinto? Work? Stability? Japan itself? I should stop before I get in trouble.

Some recent English-language articles going around the internet wax eloquent on the wonders of the Japanese education system for being so successful (literacy rate is 96.7%) and secular. Obvious bias there, but anyway...

Just how secular is Japan? Religion 宗教 is a modern term that is used exclusively to define organized religions, the big ones in Japan being Christianity and Buddhism, and their off-shoots: various “new religions” that borrow concepts from all kinds of traditions. It is true comparatively few people in Japan claim membership in any of these major religions. In western countries, there either is a God or there isn't (even the fact that we use the capital G when having this debate is telling), and you either are or you aren't religious. There's even “agnostic” for people who don't know which one they are yet. Japanese thinking about gods, the supernatural, and the afterlife is quite syncretic compared to the West, and the line between religious or not is blurry. Perhaps the question as to whether one really believes or not is not such an important matter as is simply performing rituals when circumstances demand it. However, besides obvious traditional ceremonies like Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals, and “god-shelf” altars for ancestors in private homes, there are many things the Japanese do in daily life that strike me as very much about the supernatural. If not exactly religious many Japanese are at least superstitious. Here's what I've noticed.

Praying at shrines
Almost all of my students go with their families during the New Year's holidays in a hatsumode visit to a Shinto shrine for health and luck in the new year. Praying entails tossing a few coins into an offering box, clapping the hands twice or ringing a bell, and and bowing with hands clasped for a silent moment to make your wish. Shrines are not just for private family visits. There are certain shrines in Kyoto whose resident gods specialize in academics and the passing of tests, and children on school-sponsored field trips are taken there to pray for success in their endless exams. Japanese companies as well sometimes do annual company trips 社員旅行 that involve visiting a shrine to a god of rice (ancient money) or business to pray for business successes. Yuya got dragged along to one of those last year, and my company went this year (without me, ha) to Ise Shrine. JAXA, the Japanese equivalent of NASA, organizes prayers at certain shrines before every mission. Politicians visit shrines to pray for success before they're elected. After they're elected, they make headlines and anger their Asian neighbors by making official, public visits to Yasukuni Shrine where WWII war criminals are enshrined as gods. Domestic travel programs on TV highlight regional shrines for praying for the prevention of certain maladies or help in situations (gods of love and match-making are popular). When Yuya was job-hunting, his mom went to several shrines to pray for his success and told us “I prayed to your guys' God too for good measure!”

Good-luck charms and talismans (talismen?)
My students all carry bags and backpacks filled with the Japanese school-child's paraphenalia. Almost all have attached a little cloth talisman from a shrine for things like “safe commute” and “passing exams”. Schools do not discourage or prohibit them. A peek into a local politician's office during election season will reveal a talisman or two. The boss at my previous workplace taped a kind of miniature wooden arrow purchased for the purpose from a shrine to the ceiling; “it will help our business” she said. Check the wrists of businessmen on the train and count how many have glass and stone “power beads.” You know the empty lot nextdoor has been sold and will be built on when it's roped off in a square with Shinto paper streamers to purify the ground and placate the resident god before digging the foundation. Outside many buildings you can find tiny dishes of salt on the right and left sides of entrances. Salt is purifying and keeps away evil spirits and ghosts, apparently. When I moved in to my room in a shared house, a dish of salt was there on a shelf. I didn't think salt in a dish did anything but take up space, so the dish ended up returned to its mates in the kitchen cupboard.

The calendar
Every calendar day in Japan is marked in a cycle of six auspicious or lucky days and unlucky days called 六曜 rokuyo. The unluckiest is 仏滅 butsumetsu, commemorating when the Buddha died. So many Japanese worry about scheduling important events on lucky days that the entire bridal industry is heavily discounted if you book on a butsumetsu day. Japanese Christians often choose these “unlucky” days because wedding venues and rentals are much cheaper! My non-Christian sister-in-law made sure to get her marriage certificate at the city hall on January 10, or 1/10. The Japanese words for one and ten together sound like ito, “thread,” making it an auspicious day for the binding of contracts, couples, and marriages. Her wedding, of course, was on a “lucky” day.

Somewhat related to the calendar, there are many foods the Japanese connect to luck, good health, fertility, etc. if eaten in certain ways on certain days. For the best luck ehomaki sushi, sold during the ancient calendar's reckoning of the new year at the beginning of February, must be eaten in silence while facing the lucky direction for that year. 2016 was south-southeast. Kyoto people eat minatsuki rice cakes on the last day of June to purify from half a year's sins. My first-grade students ate it on the day because it was served in their school lunches. The last Saturday of July is a day to eat eel so as not to be sick during the summer. On Toji, the longest night of the year, some people add yuzu citrus fruits to their baths for health in the winter. Apparently the previous or next night's bath just won't do. New Year's food osechi has symbolic, superstitious meanings in every bite. There are many, many, countless more food-related superstitions, with endless regional variations.

You can find palm readers and fortune-tellers at any large mall and sometimes even street corners, and of course all over the internet. Lest you assume it's relegated to the newspaper horoscopes that people chuckle at, many people actually go to fortune-tellers before they make big decisions like what to name their children. Japanese names are written in kanji which often have a heiroglyphic meaning as well as several permissible phonetic readings. Parents worry about choosing an auspicious name with a lucky number of strokes (for example this simple kanji has two strokes while this one has fifteen) and shades of lucky meanings in combination with the last name. A co-worker wrote her name with a kanji I'd not seen in a girl's name before. “Yes,” she said, “the fortune-teller my parents went to said this one was best for me so that's what they chose.”

These are all just a few of the superstitious customs that have a say in Japanese lifestyles. Not all Japanese follow all of them to the same degree of course, but they are very present as well-loved fixtures of the mainstream culture, visible in everyday life at schools, in government, on TV, and in private homes. None of them are present in my house, or in the lives of Japanese Christians either. For a lot of people, these and others are probably performed simply because one will be thought odd for not participating, or to demonstrate that one cares or is grateful about something or someone. In any case it seems to me living life here that many Japanese are not as free from having their daily lives and decisions influenced by beliefs about the supernatural as the media would have us believe. It's true these superstitions are your garden-variety that stem from ancient fears of disease, curses, and bad luck more than from the teachings of an organized religion. Though they answer to the contrary on surveys and display a modern  materialism, I find Japanese the people religious in many ways. It takes one to know one, as they say. We can say we don't believe in the supernatural or subscribe to this or that creed, but I don't think any human is ever entirely free from worship. Who, or what, do you worship? 

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