Understanding Shinto

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I have edited it slightly for this blog.

In Japan, children grow up hearing ghost stories and attending festivals to honor a world of thousands of kami (spirits), which interacts freely with our own natural world. This mindset is part of everyday culture. So it’s not unusual for sophisticated and materialistic Japanese adults to say they have no religion, and yet at the same time buy omamori (good luck idols) for their car to prevent accidents, or have their land blessed by a Shinto priest before building to avoid upsetting the spirits by their use of the land. How can we become cross-cultural missionaries, and reach into this modern, but heavily Shinto-influenced worldview, with the Gospel?

Shinto purification rope

A ritual Shinto rope used to mark the boundary of a purified area

With origins dating to 500 A.D. and earlier, matsuri (festival worship) and other Shinto practices began as ritual worship of the ujigami, or local clan deity in each area and village. They sprang from a type of shamanism unique to these medieval agricultural communities. Over the centuries ancient Shinto was influenced by and syncretized with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other elements from continental East Asia.[1]

Jizo (stone idols) and vending machine

Even in big cities stone idols are a common sight on Japanese roads

Even now in Japan, aspects of syncretized Shinto worship practices are as ubiquitous as the stone idols found on corners across Japan. Surprisingly, most Japanese people do not associate these things with religion at all. Engage a typical Japanese city dweller in conversation about their participation in ceremonies, and worship of idols in shrines, temples, or the family kamidana (household altar) and it will soon become clear that these are seen as essential cultural duties. Shinto worship practices are widely seen as traditions that must be followed to honor family and country.[2]

Even “churched” Japanese are not free from the strong cultural influence of Shinto. Earlier this year a Japanese man came to my office asking for donations for a local matsuri (festival). After a brief conversation I discovered that he attends a Protestant church. I asked him why he was raising funds for the mikoshi (portable shrine for carrying a local idol) when the Bible explicitly forbids worshiping idols. His answer was that it was Japanese culture to do so. I continued to press him, explaining my hope that Japanese culture might someday be transformed so that festivals would be held to honor the true Creator God rather than idols, but he didn’t seem to grasp this idea at all. He left a bit disappointed that I would not give an offering, but undaunted in his efforts to raise money for the local matsuri.

Although Shinto has never been codified in the way that Christianity has, there are four affirmations that seem to be generally agreed upon [3] and it’s good to consider how the Bible helps us to respond to each.

Family and tradition

Tradition and family are supremely important in Shinto practice. This is often expressed through ancestor worship and even “tradition-worship”. Of course family is important to God. The Bible teaches us to honor our parents and to give importance to the family, but in Luke 14:26 Jesus clearly set honoring the Lord above all other relationships, even familial ones. I have found that the best way to approach Japanese culture regarding familial relationships is to emphasize that sincerely obeying God is the way to bless to one’s family, even if it means going against Shinto traditions in some ways.

Festivals

Another affirmation of Shinto is matsuri to honor local deities or ancestral spirits. Almost every shrine in Japan has its own matsuri, originally held to influence things like the harvest or the local fishing. Christians believe all humans were created to worship and enjoy their creator and the beauty of dance, art, music, ceremony and ritual should all be purposed to honor and thank the true God and true source of blessings. As missionaries and ambassadors of our faith we need to identify and affirm the beauty and harmony in Japanese traditions that can serve to honor God, and at the same time clearly explain why animistic and pantheistic practices are contrary to God’s will. Our human artistic expression echoes the ultimate beauty in Christ, which is what the Japanese heart is really searching for.

Love of nature

Shrine festival worship ties in with the third affirmation of Shinto, which is a love of nature. Scriptures tell us that all of creation bears witness to the sovereign power of the Creator. But the Shinto affirmation of nature elevates nature so each unusual rock or tree is given the status of a minor deity. Hence the Japanese saying, there are over eight million gods (yaoyorozu no kami).

Because this spiritual error is deeply ingrained in the Japanese worldview, gospel teachers must clearly preach the words of Christ, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Without a clear understanding of this Japanese people may believe that Jesus Christ is another one of many gods, but miss that he is the one and only Creator God. Jesus came to affirm the true intended order of the creation by revealing Himself at the pinnacle. This truth about the ultimate authority of Christ will resound with the strong desire in the Japanese heart for harmony and proper order, if they can only see it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NASB).

Physical cleanliness

Shinto purification

Cold water purification at a Shinto shrine

The final affirmation of Shinto is physical cleanliness. Taking baths, washing the hands, and rinsing out the mouth are all encouraged because of Shinto’s emphasis on ritual purity. In the past, believers practiced misogi, ritual bathing in a river near the shrine. In recent years it is more common to merely to wash hands and rinse out the mouth in a washbasin provided within the shrine grounds. Because Jesus came to make us truly clean, there are many ways we can use this affirmation as a “redemptive analogy” for the Gospel. Imagine the impact of a sermon that contrasted ritual Shinto washing in water with Ephesians 5:26 (“washing with water through the word” NASB), or 1 Corinthians 6:11b (“you were washed… in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” NASB).

Water baptism is a big step in a new Japanese believer’s life. Although in some ways it appears similar to Shinto ritual purification rites, the Bible is clear that it represents more than just “washing” but rather a symbolic death and resurrection. Of course baptism also means a public confession of identity as a Christian and to many new believers this is a weighty decision. Because rituals are important in Japanese culture; water baptism strongly brings home the reality of a believer’s commitment to follow Jesus.

Taking the time to understand and prayerfully consider some of the influences of Shinto on Japanese culture can be very beneficial to a Christian who would like to share the Gospel in Japan. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto you can read online a paper I wrote called The Theology of Shinto at:
http://www.raymercer.net/wp/wp-content/uploads/Theology-of-Shinto.pdf.

 


[1] Dr. David K. Clark, Shinto, A religion profile from International Students, Inc., (Colorado Springs, CO: ISI, 2004), [book on-line] available at http://www.isionline.org/pdfs/Shinto%202004.pdf, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[2] For example notice the following paragraph in the “About” section of The International Shinto Foundation official website – “Those involved in establishing the Foundation shared the belief that without study that takes account of Shinto a true understanding of the Japanese people and Japanese culture will remain inaccessible.”, [website] available at http://www.internationalshinto.org/, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[3] The definitions of the “Four Affirmations” are a generalization but can generally be observed in Shinto practices and literature. See The Japan Reference, [database on-line] available at http://www.jref.com/glossary/shinto_traditions.shtml, Internet, accessed November, 2013. Also see the website for the book Religion for Dummies, Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, [website] available at http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/four-affirmations-of-shinto.html, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

Weapons against addiction

AddictionsAre you struggling to quit drugs, alcohol, tobacco. porn, video games, anything that masters you and enslaves you? Freedom comes from Jesus and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

I just saw some good advice from a former drug user who is now a Christian on how he quit. “People who have struggled quitting over the years have asked me how did I do it. I always say the same things, first Jesus said that when I pray I am to pray, ‘Lead me not into temptation.’ The second is like it. I ran from it like the plague! I avoided it and places where it can be found at all cost.” If you are struggling with addiction, please remember those words of wisdom.

Another weapon besides prayer is the Word of God. Jesus himself showed us how to have victory over temptations – even those that come directly from the devil. Speak the Word of God. I remember when I quit smoking about 30 years ago and this verse came to me when I “needed” a smoke – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Cor 12:9)

If you want to keep your way pure, then meditate on the Word of God until it is in your heart. Here are some more verses to start learning if you need some weapons against the devil.
1 John 1:7-9 (memorize vs 9)
1 Corinthians 10:13
Psalm 119:9

If you are at the end of your rope and you’ve never met this Jesus that I always mention in my posts, then please consider talking to Him right now. That is what prayer is really supposed to be, you talking to your Father God who loves you and wants to help you right now. I did this 32 years ago today and I will never regret it!

Where your treasure is your heart will be also…

yokosuka-pachinkoWhere are the young men in Yokosuka, Japan at 8:30am on a Sunday morning? Lined up waiting to spend their money on pachinko… But a couple of blocks away we had a great worship service at Yokosuka Grace Bible Church. This afternoon about 10 new members were added to the church. It is more rewarding than a big pachinko payout or winning the lottery to see lives changed and people following Jesus. These are the true riches!

Norenwake church planting

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I am most privileged to be married to a girl from the Aichi prefecture of Japan. Her great uncle started a well-known tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant in Nagoya. He was one of the first to serve this type of food in a Japanese style. He sliced the cutlets and served them up to be eaten with chopsticks. His restaurant specialized in making a great bacon salad with the leftover parts of the pork. And they also used Nagoya’s famous miso to make a sauce for the tonkatsu and served miso tonkatsu or miso-katsu, as it is known now. The restaurant became so successful that several of the employees moved on and started their own shops based on the same menu and style of food. Of course, each branch had their differences and reflected the personality of the individual owners, but they all had the same basic menu and most of them even used the same name.

In Japan, when a new restaurant starts with he cooperation of the existing establishment it is called norenwake - literally a “dividing of the noren”. The noren is the traditional Japanese fabric curtain which is hung in front of the entrance way of the restaurant. It usually has the name and logo of the establishment printed on it. When sending a former employee out to start his own shop, the owner will often make him a new noren to hang in front that shows the same name as the old place so he can build on the brand loyalty for the shop. He will also give him a portion of the restaurant’s sauce to use as starter for a new batch. My wife’s uncle repeated this process several times and through his leadership and guidance many new shops sprung up around the city of Nagoya. When I lived in Nagoya about 20 years ago, I got a chance to eat at one of these norenwake restaurants. The original restaurant that my wife’s uncle had built was long out of business by this time. But I still remember how good my first plate of Nagoya misokatsu was.

Our church in Yokosuka was planted this way and I believe that in the future we will also have the privilege of sending our own “chefs” out to start their own norenwake churches. We are a part of a spiritual family in Japan that has a shared mission and calling. We have the same name, the same basic “recipe” and the same “sauce” for what we serve to the people in our community who need to be fed. In fact the Holy Spirit has been sending out church planters since the first century with the same name and the same mission. Each nation and church has their own cultural distinctive and flavors. But our job is to offer that same “menu” to new believers in Japan so that, even though the churches listed in the New Testament have long since closed their doors, anyone who seeks for truth in Japan can come and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:2-3) at our norenwake church.

 

Where to find what you are looking for

I am a cross-cultural missionary and I work with three cultures daily; Japanese, Filipino and American. I find great joy in my role as a bringer of Christ because all men, no matter what their culture seeks, no matter what they think is important, find what they are really looking for in knowing Jesus.

Ravi Zacharias, noted Christian speaker, often mentions that in Bible times the Hebrew people pursued LIGHT, the Greeks pursued KNOWLEDGE, and the Romans pursued GLORY. He goes on to explain that true fulfillment in life is not found in mere abstractions like light, knowledge and glory, true life is found in a PERSON – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul addresses all of these in this verse: 2 Corinthians 4:6 “…the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. “ True fulfillment and life is found in THE FACE OF CHRIST. The answer to everything we are searching for is Jesus.

My Filipino friends often seek fun and friends. They will find true fun and true friendship totally fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. My Japanese friends often speak of a longing for peace, beauty, safety or honor. All these things are ultimately fulfilled in the person of Christ. You will find true peace, true safety in Jesus. My American brothers seem to be looking for freedom and liberty. There is true freedom only in Jesus.

Whatever your worldview is, whatever you are searching for, whatever you believe will give you fullness of life and contentment; you will only find the true fulfillment in the face of Jesus Christ. He created you and he alone knows what you need. He holds the universe together and he is the ultimate personification and fulfillment of all Truth (with a capital “T”).

Have you taken an honest look at Jesus? It will change everything.

Aloha Team 3

Doing hula with the children in Fukushima.Doing hula with the children in Fukushima.
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Doing hula with the children in Fukushima.27-Jan-2012 16:28, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D70, 3.5, 28.0mm, 0.067 sec
Most of the team trying to stay warm with a kerosene heater and swedish fish.Most of the team trying to stay warm with a kerosene heater and swedish fish.
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Most of the team trying to stay warm with a kerosene heater and swedish fish.27-Jan-2012 18:53, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D70, 3.3, 28.0mm, 0.02 sec
Hirofumi and Masahiro at our host church in Kurihara.Hirofumi and Masahiro at our host church in Kurihara.
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Hirofumi and Masahiro at our host church in Kurihara.28-Jan-2012 07:35, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D70, 9.0, 28.0mm, 0.002 sec
 
Doing the "Hukilau" in a Tohoku old-folks home.Doing the "Hukilau" in a Tohoku old-folks home.
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Doing the "Hukilau" in a Tohoku old-folks home.28-Jan-2012 10:30, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D70, 4.5, 28.0mm, 0.033 sec
First service in Ishinomaki. Pastor Kishinami is sharing.First service in Ishinomaki. Pastor Kishinami is sharing.
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First service in Ishinomaki. Pastor Kishinami is sharing.29-Jan-2012 10:57, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D70, 3.3, 28.0mm, 0.04 sec
Hiro-san passing out some of the hand-knitted items to a grateful lady in Tohoku.Hiro-san passing out some of the hand-knitted items to a grateful lady in Tohoku.
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Hiro-san passing out some of the hand-knitted items to a grateful lady in Tohoku.29-Jan-2012 11:18, NIKON CORPORATION NIKON D70, 3.3, 28.0mm, 0.02 sec
 

For intellectuals only – resources for answering arguments

Understanding worldview is important but I think this article brings up an important point that intellectuals need to understand, “You can’t think your way to God.” A great quote, “What you love you worship and what you worship you will love.” Reminds me of Matthew 6:21…
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/may/you-cant-think-your-way-to-god.html

“This site animates select C.S. Lewis essays to make them easier to understand…”
http://www.youtube.com/user/CSLewisDoodle

Great site inspired by a master of apologetics, C.S. Lewis:
http://www.apologetics.org/

Ravi Zacharius answers “How can God be good if…?”
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=902520087497301262

I love Ravi’s podcasts – check his website:
http://www.rzim.org/ 

Moshe Averick answers Dawkins
http://www.aish.com/sp/ph/The_Design_Argument_Answers_to_Atheists_Objections.html

 

EN Team #6 (April 2nd-4th, 2011)

For Men Only (resources for the battles all men fight)

Whether you are fighting a battle against lust or trying to encourage a friend who is drowning in pornography, you are facing a “giant” which is no less terrifying than the biblical Goliath was to a young God-worshipper named David. The only way we can fight the fire of lust is with the white-hot passion of true devotion to God. The Bible explains that when Jesus Christ (the God-man) humbled himself to become a mere mortal and took human flesh, he experienced all the temptations of a man. Don’t be ashamed to take your struggle to the Lord. He really understands how hard it is to remain pure. But He did it and He can help you do it too!

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.
(Hebrews 4:15 )

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalm 51:1-2 David wrote this psalm after his sin with Bathsheba led to tragedy in his life and others…)

Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
We are far too easily pleased.
(C. S. Lewis)

Sexual immorality is a symptom of something deeper (John Piper)…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDlrBQbWaoQ

Avoiding sexual sin – Part 1 (Mark Driscoll)…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyTN8cCPazM

Avoiding sexual sin – Part 2 (Mark Driscoll)…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bel7HxYW5T4

Masturbation is a sign of passive manhood (Dennis Sy)…

http://www.dennissy.com/uncensored-porn-and-masturbation/

Resisting pornography (Perry Noble)…

http://www.perrynoble.com/2005/08/17/thought-on-pornography/

Porn-Again Christian free e-book (Mark Driscoll)…

http://relit.org/porn_again_christian/toc.php

The biblical standard for Christians never changes:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.
(Ephesians 5:3)