Of Serenity and Lapses: Japan in a Priest's Eye

PROFILE: Shinto Priest Chisato Uesugi

A search for the "soul of Japan" might take you to the spare executive suites of its global corporations or the lush, tightly packed paddies of the countryside. You might sit in an artisan's workshop or prowl the stylish districts where urban teenagers chase trends.

Or you could save some time and visit a shrine devoted to Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion. A fine choice would be Suwa Shrine, a venerable place of worship in the southern city of Nagasaki, where a wooden placard reassuringly attests that Shinto shrines manifest "the Japanese national spirit."

Any traveler knows to apply great skepticism in reading English signs at tourist sites in non-English-speaking countries, but in this case there is truth in advertising. A visit to Suwa and a conversation with its chief priest open a window on the challenges that the country faces in what most Japanese feel is an era of national aimlessness.

Chief priest Chisato Uesugi has done much to raise Suwa's profile, solidify its financial underpinnings, and popularize Shinto festivals in Nagasaki. His prosperous shrine is the subject of a new book by American anthropologist John K. Nelson called "A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine," an intimate and readable account of Suwa's people and practices.

But like religious leaders elsewhere, Mr. Uesugi mixes an enthusiasm for his view of the divine with a palpable sense that he thinks society has strayed far from the proper path.

His explanation of what Shinto is all about offers insights - as the placard suggests - into what being Japanese is all about. And Uesugi's views of history are a reminder of the great unfinished business of 20th-century Japan: finding a common understanding of this country's conduct in the decades leading up to World War II.

A primer on Shinto

At least as early as the 6th century, cults arose in Japan based on worshiping the gifts of nature - rice, trees, and mountains, among other things. These rites were later influenced by the arrival of Confucianism, which promoted the veneration of ancestors, and Buddhism, which contributed some philosophical ideas to Shinto.

Beginning in the 16th century, Chinese ideas about imperial worship also took hold, and in the second half of the 19th century Japan's leaders declared Shinto a state religion, tried to eliminate Buddhist influences, and sought to generate a devotion to the emperor that would eventually serve Japan's war machine. After World War II, the emperor renounced his divinity and the new Constitution sought to sever the Shinto-state connection. Nonetheless, the bonds are strong. The key event of Emperor Akihito's enthronement in 1990 was a government-funded Shinto ceremony, and leading politicians routinely draw criticism for visiting a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead.

Shinto has no central text and is not a religion that attempts to promote a moral code. The main work of temples is to organize rituals and festivals to honor gods or spirits called kami. The idea is to bring good fortune and forestall its opposite.

The point of visiting Suwa is to absorb "atmosphere and serenity," not to ponder wordy concepts or use the logic of human understanding, says Uesugi, an authoritative, grandfatherly sort who wears both formal kimonos and business suits with equal ease. "There are no commands or rules in Shinto."

The nature of Shinto explains why Japanese are comfortable with the unspoken and the merely inferred in conversation and decisionmaking. This is the sort of attitude that has frustrated countless American trade negotiators, who have pounded conference tables in efforts to have their Japanese counterparts agree to specific goals. In all but one or two instances, vagueness has carried the day.

Talking about the groups of schoolchildren who are often brought to Suwa, Uesugi says, "I want those Japanese children to revive their Japanese mind, their Japanese spirit, through the kami and this shrine." Here, he adds, "people can really feel the true Shinto spirit - to live together with nature."

Changing attitudes

Uesugi says a lot more people need to revive their Japaneseness. "In the prewar period, the Japanese had a special mind or spirit. They had consideration and thoughtfulness, kindness and piety. They saw all meals as offered by the kami, and they never wasted food." Nowadays much of this respect for food has been carted to the dump with the uneaten leftovers generated by Japan's affluence.

The attitudes Uesugi remembers also seem to be increasingly discarded. Japan's young people are demonstrating a listlessness and lack of hard work that have older generations gnashing their teeth with worry about the future. Pundits and parents alike wonder how the country can prosper if young people lose the cohesion and sense of self-sacrifice that have long been Japan's hallmarks.

The priest blames Japan's postwar education system for these lapses. Dominated by communist-oriented teachers' unions, schools teach children about equality and rights and duties, but not about respect for kami or their parents, he says. "People have lost a sense of gratitude for the fact that they were born, that they are alive, and that they are able to serve others' happiness. Now young people tend to think of worldly benefits."

Uesugi chooses to fly a very large Japanese flag in front of Suwa, an act that suggests a political conservatism shared by many Shinto priests. He says Japan's installation of a puppet ruler in Manchuria was "not illegal" and blames American pressure for forcing Japan to invade China and resort to war.

These attitudes place the chief priest at the far right of the Japanese political spectrum. Many of his fellow citizens, not to mention Chinese and American historians, would dispute his assertions.

His comments illustrate the lingering divide over Japan's imperial past. Many Japanese have no problem asserting that the emperor and the militarists who acted in his name were wrong. But others reject this view, in part because it effectively incriminates the "soul of Japan."

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