Untangled: How Should a Christian React at a Japanese Shrine?

In our Untangled feature, we answer questions posed to us from our readers.  Today’s question/comes courtesy of Hannah, who dives into anime, animation, and writing on her site, Lady Hannah Beth:

I take the martial art aikido in California at a Christian dojo, however, I am moving to Hawaii very soon and I would like to keep doing my aikido. I’ve looked at pictures of the new dojo in Hawaii on Facebook and my current Sensi says that the have a shinto shrine in the room where they practice. I heard Japes on the last podcast as he passed many shrines and buddhist graveyards on his walk while in Japan. My question is, as Christians, what should our reaction be when we come face to face with a shrine or we feel we are in a situation that seams spiritually off?

Japes seems to be the appropriate person to respond to this query – here’s what he had to say:

Hi Hannah,

This is a very common problem for many Christians who either have an interest in Japan, or end up going there for some other reason. I may, perhaps, be a bit on the liberal end of the spectrum in my answer, so take it with a grain of salt, but I can offer a bit of what my experiences have led me to believe.

When I visit these places, shrines (Shinto) and temples (Buddhist) in particular, I narrow down my response to two main influences:

  1. Am I compromising my beliefs?
  2. Am I compromising my community?

In answering the first question, everyone is a bit different. I’ve met Christians who believe that they feel a demonic presence at, for instance, Shinto shrines, and refuse to walk through the torii (the iconic Japanese gates) for fear of demonic influence. It is beyond the scope of this post and beyond my personal ability to judge whether or not these feelings are “accurate,” but I know that I feel differently. I personally LOVE visiting Shinto shrines for much the same reason I like visiting parks or gardens: they are purposefully placed in beautiful locations and kept to maintain some sense of that natural beauty. When I visit, I feel that I can thank God for the beautiful nature that He has created.

Similarly, I did some field work investigating tourist locations with a class at the Japanese university where I am working, and we stopped at a Buddhist temple. After a small tour by the priest, we were led to the garden outside and instructed in the proper method of Buddhist prayer for this temple (circle three times, locate and stop by the statue that represents the animal of your birth year, and then stop by the Buddhist statue at the entrance to pray for a wish for the coming year). I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little uncomfortable, but I went through the majority of the rites, however praying not to the statue but to God. I did not breach my own conscience, though I know others might be different.

The tricky part with the aforementioned situation is answering question two. Would someone think you were compromising your beliefs if they saw you going through that rite and would that harm others in your Christian community? That is something that you must absolutely consider. I surveyed the professor and the other students in my group and decided that it was not a compromise for me, and I also made it obvious by my demeanor that I did not truly believe in the Buddhist prayer.

I think if you can answer the two of these questions satisfactorily in such a way that you do not believe that you are compromising your Christian beliefs, practicing at that new dojo should be no problem. However, that is my personal response and I am not you.

Thanks for the question, Hannah, and for the response, Japes!  Let’s open this up to our readers as well – what are your thoughts on Hannah’s situation?

13 thoughts on “Untangled: How Should a Christian React at a Japanese Shrine?

  1. As a part time seminary student, I’ve delved into this subject personally. I even took a couple of classes on the history a Buddhism through the institute for Buddhist Studies. I know I rather annoyed the teacher with my observations of the similarities in rituals between Christianity and Buddhism, but I have come to believe there are some fundamental constants in the way humans relate to their God(s). Of course, I also don’t believe that Christianity has all of the answers, just many of them, and there are truths to be learned from other faiths.

    1. You should submit a question to the podcast for Sean! Sean has a lot of interesting ideas that I think parallel some of yours (though your conclusions may differ).

      Regardless, I agree with you that there are definitely a lot of parallels! Thanks for reading!

  2. I’ve puzzled over this question myself and how I think I would respond if I was in Japan and saw shrines. In anime, I actually really like seeing characters/the culture be respectful to or around shrines or the idea of being respectful of those older than you, because I don’t see that type of respect here in the US that often. So in a weird sense that respect is comforting to me to see, even though they are praying to the wrong thing. Great post, I really like how you look at the topic.

    1. Thanks for your response! Yeah, I still sometimes wonder how I should act in certain situations here, but I find that the approach I outlined in the post seems to help. It also helps that many Japanese (not all, of course) don’t genuinely believe in the rituals they are performing, but are more or less carrying them out as tradition. With that mindset, I have far less issues.

  3. My three maxims when considering whether to do anything I’m unsure of are simply (in the order given):

    1) Is it beneficial to God?
    2) Is it beneficial to others?
    3) Is it beneficial to me?

    The first obviously requires prayer, but that’s the point. I would never properly evaluate a choice without consulting God first, and the consultation is first on whether what I’m about to do pleases/glorifies him.

    The issue with evaluating something with a system wherein ‘everyone is a bit different’ is that you’re entering into a kind of situation ethics rather than finding an absolute answer from the Lord. I might be able to answer such a criteria satisfactorily but keep on sinning, being unaware that my satisfaction does not line up with Scripture.

    Seek Him first, and he’ll lay straight paths for you to walk on. 🙂

  4. To me, the problem seems very simple: is one going into the Shinto or Buddhist shrine to worship or to admire art and architecture? The first is obviously wrong. The second is simply like sightseeing anywhere else. Of course, if one’s scruples are agitated by visiting a Shinto shrine, it’s better not to visit someplace which disturbs one’s peace.

    As for the shrine in the Aikido dojo, I’d probably watch a practice session first to see whether one is required to make an obeisance toward the shrine. There’s nothing wrong with making an obeisance toward O-sensei (I’m a former aikidoka), reverencing him for his mastery of martial arts and passing down his teachings. But, to reverence a false god? That cannot be tolerated!

  5. From my experience with Japanese martial arts, you might be expected to bow to other competitors, judges, instructors or the dojo/art, but I would be surprised if a dojo tried to impose any religious interpretations on you. Try discussing your worries openly with the instructor at the new dojo to see what role the shrine plays in the dojo.

    At the end of the day, do respect your own feelings on the matter.

    I’m in the same situation as you (probably worse) exceedingly often, so I know how you feel. Poland is ostensibly Christian (Catholic), so I end up invited to church ceremonies for family occasions all the time. Can’t say I feel comfortable about it, but you can’t avoid it without cutting ties with your family. You can change your dojo, but not your family members xD.

    I think it is important to consider the spirit of things, too. In my case, the majority of the people holding the celebrations in the church don’t actually attend church in their daily lives. So the religious rites are carried out not because of religious feelings, but mostly because of tradition. It is not so much that somebody is trying to force their religion on somebody else, they just don’t pay much attention to the religious angle in the first place.

    …not that I’d call that the perfect situation, obviously -_-.

    Japes, may I ask how exactly did you “make it obvious by your demeanor that you did not truly believe in the Buddhist prayer”? Since your level of social obligation to take part in the ritual was extremely low, I sure hope you did not do something which could be considered insulting to other people taking the prayer seriously.

    1. Well it helps that I was extremely confused because the people giving me the instructions were giving them in a level of Japanese beyond my level, and the only people who tried to help me later did not speak any English. Because of that I only actually successfully completed the first half of the ritual, but I’m pretty sure it went relatively unnoticed due to the number of people in our group.

      I wouldn’t worry about my insulting the Japanese. I have enough self-consciousness (too much such that I am sometimes accused of being more Japanese than gaijin) and love for the Japanese people and customs to not intentionally do that.

      In that particular case it wasn’t really intention as much as confusion so I didn’t really have the issue. However, I have made it known that I am a Christian and my ignorance of things such as my birth animal (apparently it is the dog!) should have led to the natural conclusion that I am treating it as nothing more than a rite.

      For those who would doubt that, they need simply ask me. As I mentioned, I don’t feel particularly bothered by situations like these, at worst only uncomfortable (similarly to your experience in Catholic churches, I’m sure). Finding a balance between respecting the beliefs of those around you while not compromising your own is a tricky one, to be sure!

      1. I don’t know how it’s like in other countries, but there’s usually lots of singing, position-changing and recitation in Polish churches. I’m not used to those procedures and always feel left behind xD. I just concentrate wholly on keeping up with the people around.

        Though I’m being a bit too self-conscious on the issue, I think only a third of those present knows the words to the songs, so there isn’t anything to really worry about. So yeah, our experiences match in various ways ;).

        1. If it makes you feel any better, as a Christian, I have the same issues at Catholic churches as well, lol.

          I attended an Anglican church for a little while, which was extremely similar to a Catholic service, but I must give them credit that they did a much better job of explaining what to say when, when to kneel, etc. I still felt out of place from what I was used to doing (strictly culturally speaking), but at least I didn’t feel left out!

  6. Is this any different to praying on the train or in the park? Pray to your Father and not to the idols and I think you are in a good place, spiritually: there is no requirement to be on consecrated ground to pray! If you want to be “subversive” pray for God’s presence to be felt and recognised in the lives of the priests and visitors to a shrine or for your fellow students and sensei at the dojo! You might want to consider about making an offering though – that is a public gesture to an idol. Not that you’d be doing that in a dojo I expect…

  7. I should throw in my own story. When traveling to Korea about eight years ago, I knew we were going to visit the gravesite where relatives of my in-laws were buried. I was very worried about whether our actions would constitute ancestor worship. Ultimately, it was clear for my wife and I that we would have to refuse, even if family would become angry (which we expected), if we felt the actions went beyond veneration.

    Thankfully, the ceremonial rights were much more akin to veneration than worship and we spared wrath of our family, though in a weird way…I think I might have welcomed the confrontation as a bit of sharing in the suffering of being of the faith and showing our allegiance to Christ above family, in a culture where family reigns.

  8. In Japan almost all aspects of life are considered part of the spiritual which includes Shintoism. (Sumo, Aikido, Judo, Temples, Restaurants, even Japanese parks and businesses!) The United States on the other hand has a distinct separation of church and state. This separation does not exist in the Japanese mind at all. So, “Christian Aikido” is non-existent. If you study the aspects of Aikido you will see that it is all basically a form of ritualized Shinto worship. I think you would do well to avoid temples or anything distinctly Shinto in order not to ‘grieve the spirit of God’. I ask myself this question when encountered with potentially difficult issues in Japan, “Am I helping my fellow Japanese-Christians by going to this temple and participating or am I helping myself to feel comfortable?” Think about the Japanese Christians, and the example that you are setting for them. Are you helping them to resist the spiritual darkness in their country, or are you participating in it?

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