Popular Media as Pathways to Spirituality?
The Continual Construction of “Japaneseness”

 
YUMEMAKURA Baku’s Onmyoji is an extremely popular series in Japan, including novels, manga, tv shows and movies. The protagonist, Abe no Seimei, is in fact the most celebrated onmyoji in Japanese history, though Yumemakura breathes new life into his character by reimagining him (and the Heian period in general) for a modern audience. But have fictionalized narratives about religious figures like Abe no Seimei replaced people’s actual engagement with religious practice? Or do they open up new pathways to help contemporary Japanese connect with their religious heritage?
 

A Japanese “Frame of Reference”
Situation and circumstance are intrinsic elements in the Japanese religious world, amply demonstrating its populist, pragmatic and ethnic orientations relevant to the Japanese people, their life styles, needs and environment in this world. All these elements have their roots in the enduring Japanese folk religious tradition that was based originally in a primarily agricultural society in which such actions as cyclical observances and rituals, petitions to deities for good harvests, concern for the spirits of the dead and their potential for malevolent actions against the living, and beliefs in the powers of the spiritual world to help or hinder humans in their pursuit of happiness in this life were paramount, but which continues to exert its influences in contemporary, industrialised Japan.
 
Over the centuries the folk tradition has provided what Miyake Hitoshi has termed the ‘frame of reference’ through which organised religious traditions have found their roots and grown in Japan, providing a centralising dynamic through which all the religious traditions found in Japan have been interpreted and assimilated in such a way that each has added to the overall picture, contributing to a whole that is more than simply the sum of its parts.
 
... Many of the motifs that appear in [Shinto] legends are recurrent in Japanese religious history and, remaining valid in the present day, will surface frequently throughout this book. The importance of purification, the innate powers of renewal within the world, and the disruptive influences of unnatural and premature death and its resultant pollutions are themes as vigorously extant in the contemporary age as they were when the Nihongi and Kojiki were compiled over a thousand years ago. Perhaps overriding all these is the view of this world and life as paramount and alive, with the inherent vitality of the kami as a spiritual force that permeates the world, giving life to it and upholding and protecting those that live in it. (RCJ, 23-5)
 

 
There is thus a strongly reciprocal element in the relationship between humans and kami, with the offerings and gifts of the one creating a sense of goodwill and beneficence in the other. This matrix of reciprocity, of creating obligations, receiving benevolence and responding with gratitude mirrors standard social relationships within Japanese society in general, where gift-giving and the creation and repayment of obligations have long been important.
 

 
These elements are particularly directed towards the Japanese world, for Shinto carries within it profoundly ethnic dimensions. The legend of divine descent implies that both Japan and its people are unique, existing in a relationship with an ethnic array of spiritual beings special and relevant to their situation and existence. These distinctly ethnocentric orientations have given rise to underlying concepts of Japanese belonging and identity, and indeed exclusiveness, which retain implicitly religious connotations to this day. They have constantly given legitimation to the insularity and nationalism which have always lurked close to the surface in Japanese society, on occasion coming dramatically into the open, as with the period from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries when Japan closed itself off from the rest of the world, and in the period of extreme nationalism and militarism that led Japan to war and subsequently to defeat in 1945. The importance of concepts of Japanese identity in a contemporary society that, straddling as it does a deep and strong cultural and traditional past and a rapidly changing present in which the values of the past are becoming challenged by new ideas, pressures and the culture influences of westernisation, is faced with problems of identity and orientation will surface again in later chapters, but at present it is relevant to draw attention to the Japanocentric themes that have been present from the very beginnings of Japanese religious culture. (RCJ, 27-8)
 

 
The kami, because of their situation in the natural world, as manifested by rocks, trees and so on, and because of their very Japaneseness, have always had a geographical orientation connected to the land of Japan. As guardians of the physical space of Japan both in a broad national sense and in a narrower local one they have traditionally been involved and called into play on any occasion which concerns the land and the physical space of Japan. At local levels their protective help has traditionally been sought whenever any building has been erected, a function as prominent today in Japan as at any time in history. Shinto ground-breaking ceremonies invoking the support and protection of local kami are almost invariably held during the process of building, whether for new houses, office buildings, factories, or other symbols of the modern rational world such as new university buildings. (RCJ, 39)
 

 
The diverse and numerous complexities of this composite whole are reflected vividly in Japanese spatial and physical geography: one does not have to look far in Japan to see evidence of the interpenetration of spiritual and physical worlds. Shrines and temples are everywhere, their courtyards full of sub-shrines or statues each venerating or housing some object of worship. Wayside shrines and stones depicting deities of all sorts are found along roadsides and footpaths. It is rare to walk along a mountain path that does not have one or more stone statues, most commonly of the popular Buddhist figure Jizo, the guardian of travellers and children, often adorned with small offerings testifying that they continue to be the focus of active relationships.
 

 
This is not just in the more traditional countryside, however, for the streets of Japanese cities have their fair share, with protective shrines and statues clustering around markets and shopping centers and in front of factories producing high-technology goods. The roofs of major buildings frequently house shrines to guardian deities and, sometimes, Buddhas, as is the case with the Mitsukoshi department store in central Tokyo. On its roof is a statue of Jizo, originally unearthed on the site during construction work in the previous century, but now housed in a permanent shelter provided by the store, which attracts scores of worshippers who come to seek its intercessionary powers.
 

 
At the heart of Minami, a bustling nightlife area of bars, eating houses, strip clubs and other places of raucous entertainment in the great business city of Osaka, is a small temple dedicated to the popular Buddhist figure Fudo. Many of the people going in and out of the bars and clubs around it pray, make a small offering or light a stick of incense as they go on their way, while those working at and running the bars around help in the support and upkeep of the temple, and Fudo is here venerated as a guardian and protector of the entertainment business. No one appears to find it anomalous that a religious place should be so integrated into an area devoted to apparently non-religious ends.
 
 
The spiritual is innately present in the midst of life, not separate from it: there is a basic recognition that it may be encountered everywhere, that any setting is the potential location of a kami, Buddha or other spiritual entity. (RCJ, 52-3)
 
The omnipresence of religious motifs in the Japanese world shows the extent to which, even in this day and age, basic and traditional Japanese religious views of causation and of the interrelationship of the spiritual and physical continue to be important, underlying contemporary attitudes to existence in this world. It is a view which recognises a permeating vitality, an in-built religious content to all of life: its grounding is in this world, found in streets, trains and buses, and in shops, mountain passes and homes, just as much as it is in the temples, shrines and other more overtly religious places. The Japanese religious world is not separate from the general flow of life, but an intrinsic part thereof, upholding, strengthening and giving sustenance to it. (RCJ, 54)
 
 

Popular Media & Religious Socialization
Religious socialization is an interactive process through which social agents influence individuals’ religious beliefs and understandings. People interact with a variety of different agents of socialization over the life course, and these individuals, organizations, and experiences channel the beliefs and understandings that constitute religious preferences – and these preferences help inform commitments to religious organizations. (Religious Socialization)
 

 
How do the religious themes Japanese popular media influence the socialization of Japanese youths?
 


 
How does this compare with popular media in the West?