Visitors climb up the flight of stone steps before they worship the Shinto Gods at a simple gate that stands between them an the holiest place in Japan in the inner sanctuary of the Grand Shrine of Ise, central Japan, Sept. 22, 2004. Centuries ago, the teeming masses who come to this city of Japan's central coast would have been called pilgrims. Today, they are mostly just tourists. They offer quick prayers, buy a pocket-sized charm or two and head off to their next destination.
AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi
ISE, Japan (AP) The steady crowds cross an arched bridge and follow a pebbled path into a forest of towering cypress trees, bowing before a simple gate that stands between them and the holiest place in Japan the inner sanctuary of the Grand Shrines of Ise.
Though built over a spot believed to pulsate with the power of the sun goddess, the shrine is weather-beaten and unassuming. It is made entirely of wood, except for a touch of golden gilding on the beams atop its crest. The roof is thatched and covered with patches of moss.
The masses who come to this city on Japan's central coast once would have been called pilgrims. Today, they are mostly just tourists. They offer quick prayers, buy a pocket-sized charm or two and head off to their next destination.
Such is the heart of Shinto, Japan's native religion. As old perhaps as Japan itself, Shinto is a rich mixture of folklore, reverence for all things natural and the Japanese nation itself.
But to say one believes in Shinto has become almost meaningless: For most Japanese, the worshipping side of Shinto is relegated to a small cadre of priests and their helpers, most of whom inherited their jobs from ancestors. The Japanese today ''practice'' Shinto by making wishes at the local shrine, or enjoying its autumn festivals.
As recently as World War II, a special brand of state-sanctioned Shinto was the ideological foundation upon which Japan's emperor-worshipping military machine was built. Its treatment of the Japanese people as unique and divine, its emphasis on harmony and its deep-seated fear of impurity continue to be an integral albeit not always conscious part of the national psyche.
But stripped of its official status and tarnished by the excesses of militarism, Shinto is struggling to find a place in postwar Japan.
Takashizu Sato comes from a long line of Shinto priests.
''My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather all the way back to feudal times,'' he said.
Sato went to work for a big company after college. But deciding he needed something more spiritual, he quit, studied prayers and rituals for a year, and took up duties at a shrine in the ancient city of Nara. He is now with the Association of Shinto Shrines, to which virtually all Shinto organizations and their 21,000 priests belong.
Like many priests, he hesitates to call Shinto a religion.
''Shinto has no scripture, and no founder,'' Sato said from the association's headquarters in downtown Tokyo. ''In that sense, we are very different from the major religions of the world.''
But Shinto has no dearth of gods. Its pantheon is poetically said to have 8 million deities, from Amaterasu no Omikami (the sun goddess) to Konohana Sakuya Hime (the goddess of Mount Fuji). That's just a start all dead ancestors are believed to assume a godlike status.
Along with reverence for the dead and the worship of nature, Shinto is built around a complex body of folklore, the most famous of which explain how Japan's imperial family descended from the sun goddess. Dispelling evil and appeasing the gods are also crucial aspects of Shinto not surprising in a country regularly shaken by earthquakes and whipped by typhoons.
Priests don't normally give sermons and congregations don't gather every Sunday or Friday to pray. But Shinto has a strong communal side.
Shrine festivals are big events nationwide. Tens of millions of Japanese visit their local shrines on the first three days of each year. And the country's more than 80,000 shrines not all have a resident priest serve as informal neighborhood meeting places, or places for children to play.
''It's difficult to pin down, but there is something about Shinto that is very fundamental to the Japanese mentality,'' Sato said.
Even so, the ties between Shinto the faith and the average Japanese are weakening.
The tight-knit communities that once kept local shrines alive are unraveling. Many young people at festivals have little interest in the religion behind the fun. The small Shinto altars that were once a common household feature are gradually disappearing.
''We still look Japanese, but inside we are forgetting what that means,'' Sato said. ''It's our responsibility to try to revive what makes us Japanese.''
Before World War II ended in 1945, shaping the Japanese soul was one of Shinto's official roles.
It was the only government-sanctioned religion, used to rally the nation behind modernization and then militarization. Under State Shinto, the divinity of the emperor and the special place of the Japanese people became official dogma.
At the behest of the U.S.-led occupation forces after the war, however, the late Emperor Hirohito publicly renounced the idea he was a living god. A new constitution was enacted that ensured freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
These days, Shinto pamphlets intended for foreign audiences stress the faith's respect for the environment yet Shinto's basic tenets still haven't changed much.
The coronation of Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito, climaxed in 1990 with an ancient ceremony in which the monarch is believed to commune with the sun goddess, from whom the Shinto establishment still claims he is a direct descendant. Akihito's personal priests continue to observe Shinto rituals at three shrines behind the moat of the Imperial Palace.
Just outside that moat lies Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine site of a vociferous dispute over Shinto's place in Japanese culture.
Synonymous with nationalism, Yasukuni was built in the late 1800s as a monument to Japan's military might and a memorial to its fallen soldiers. Howls of outrage from across Asia and several constitutional challenges to official patronage have not stopped political leaders from regularly bowing before its altar.
Tadashi Mizoguchi's brother is one of the 2.5 million dead soldiers enshrined at Yasukuni.
''We both fought in World War II,'' Mizoguchi said. ''Through the grace of God, I was spared. But he was killed in Taiwan.''
Mizoguchi converted to Christianity a small minority of Japanese are Christians and began to question the wartime beliefs that justified his battlefield actions. Today, he bristles at the idea that all Japanese, by birth, belong to Shinto. He has joined a lawsuit against visits to Yasukuni by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
And he wants his brother removed from its pantheon.
''How can they make him a god? There is only one God,'' Mizoguchi said. ''They are using him even in death.''
Akie Ishiguro and her husband, Takashi, toss a few coins into a collection box, ring a big bronze bell and bow their heads in prayer.
Just a week away from the due date for their first baby, they've come to one of the most popular havens in Japan for pregnant women, the Suitengu Shrine.
According to legend, a pregnant woman who was given a piece of the cloth hanging from the shrine's bell had a very easy birth. From that day on, pregnant women have come to the shrine to get similar protection which the shrine now packages and sells along with a half dozen other types of charms.
''We're basically Buddhists,'' she said. ''So we really don't believe in any of that.''
They're here, she said, not because of any particular faith in Shinto or because they want to make some sort of statement about national pride.
''It's just something that we Japanese people do,'' she said. ''It's kind of an event, a tradition.
''And you never know,'' she added. ''If there's something that I can do to help ensure that my baby will be born healthy, it's worth a try.''
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