Crashing Japan
Religion in Japanese Pop Culture

by Bamboo Dong, Sep 19th 2007

Religion is an important element of Japanese culture, and it shows itself readily in many aspects of pop culture. Just today, David Coulthard made the trek to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa to get his F1 car blessed for next week's race, and while it's not common to see a giant inflatable Red Bull arch next to the temple, it's an interesting way to see tradition and modern life collide.

It's not uncommon for the Japanese to believe in both Shintoism and Buddhism. Because Shintoism doesn't make provisions for an afterlife, it's popular to hold funerals in Buddhist temples. Watch any anime series and you'll see aspects of both religions in the characters' actions.

For instance, you may have seen characters pay to receive their fortunes at a Buddhist temple. At Senso-ji (which is actually next to a Shinto shrine), there are many areas where you can do this. Simply insert 100JPY into a slot, and pick up one of the metal canisters nearby. Shake it around a few times, and pour out one of the sticks inside. A number on the stick will correspond to a certain drawer, which will have a stack of fortunes inside. If it's good luck, then you're well off, but if it foretells bad luck (which this particular temple is apparently infamous for), you can tie your fortune to one of the racks nearby. At the end of the day, all of those are burned, destroying any bad luck you may have.

Another ritual that visitors to Senso-ji can do is burn sticks of incense. While these are burning, patrons reach for the smoke that arises—rubbing it on your face will give you beauty, rubbing it on your head will give you knowledge, and so forth. And of course, you can always go into the temple (after purifying yourself with water in a fountain nearby), make an offering, and pray.

For those who wish to go to a Shinto shrine, there are a large number of places to go in Japan. I ended up at Meiji Shrine, a sprawling place that was built in honor of the 122nd emperor. Trees from all over Japan were brought in and planted, making it a wonderful place for plant-lovers to go.

Praying at a Shinto shrine is different from that at a Buddhist shrine. Here, after you've made your offering, it's tradition to bow twice, clap your hands twice, say your prayer, and then bow again.

It needn't even be said how heavily Shintoism is featured in anime series. From the shrine maidens that you see in thousands of shows, to the warriors that use Shinto artifacts to fight, to the gazillions of times you've seen characters pray, it's a part of pop culture that show you just how influential Shintoism is in everyday Japanese life.

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