Episode 4 of www.Working!! manages to incorporate Shinto, Christianity, and a realistic but humorous discussion of prayer into its comedy. So as soon as I saw it yesterday, I dropped my original blog post plans and switched to this.
Shinto, Japan’s oldest and most widespread religion, shows up all over anime. Shinto folklore is key in anime like Natsume Yuujinchou and Spirited Away. New Years visits to shrines are staple plot points in school life anime, as are trips to pray for successful exams. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen characters talk about prayer after their trips to the shrine, at least not the way I see it in www.Working!!. They ask whether prayer actually does anything—and later, Higashida learns that maybe he wasn’t praying to the right God.
Miyakoshi and Higashida visit the shrine
Like many anime girls, Miyakoshi is a deadly cook. She keeps trying to make decent chocolate, but whoever eats it hovers between death and life, where they meet St. Valentine himself. Higashida’s her latest chocolate victim, so when she suggests they visit the shrine to pray for her to become a good cook, he speed walks in. He even spots her 1,000 yen for a monetary offering, though he says even that won’t be enough to improve her disastrous cooking.
Miyakoshi puts in the money, rings the bell, claps, and makes the wish: “At least so no one dies from it… let me be good at cooking! No, forget that. Let Higashida eat my cooking for the rest of his life!”
Higashida is horrified: “Please take it back! Cancel it right now!”
“That’s against the rules. I can’t do that.”
“Then apologize! Apologize to God!”
(Note that the term for “God” here is “Kami-sama,” which, while it is the same name and honorific used for the Christian God, is clearly related to a different understanding of a divine or powerful spirit than the God Christians worship. The Shinto faith system is not monotheistic or even, really, theistic at all, in the way many Western folks would understand it. I recommend looking up information written by people more qualified than I to explain the details.)
Miyakoshi apologizes, a bit frightened by Higashida’s extreme response. Higashida, meanwhile, does damage control. He dumps the rest of his money into the offering and prays loudly, “May Miyakoshi become good at cooking!”
It’s hard to know how seriously Higashida is taking this, though for a teenager to drop that kind of money, even in a wacky comedy anime, indicates he’s not just doing it to give Miyakoshi a hard time. He must believe at some level that the shrine’s kami may intervene in life because of prayer, or that it’s at least somewhat possible, and he dare not take the risk of eating Miyakoshi’s deadly cooking for the rest of his life. I can’t tell from this scene just how deeply he believes in all this, though.
Even as I laughed and acknowledged that this is fiction, not an exact representation of how and why people pray or “wish” at a shrine, the always-serious part of me took notes and compared.
Does prayer work?
Later, Miyakoshi asks her older coworkers whether praying to “kami-sama” (translated as “God”) will make a wish come true. The answers contain the same sentiments American characters often have about praying to the Christian God.
Fumie Sayuri replies, “I don’t particularly reject that kind of thing when it serves as emotional support for people. But I don’t believe in ghosts and stuff, so I don’t think praying to God will work unless you do something to make it work.”
Note that Fumie is the only waitress to see and serve ghosts on a regular basis, although she thinks they’re just regular, live customers. So her disbelief in the spiritual realm is more than a little ironic. Yet her response is familiar, and I’ve heard it often in American contexts: “Prayer is nice and can help people emotionally, but since God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t have any real effects on its own, so you end up either fulfilling your own prayer or getting nothing.”
My response as Christian would be twofold: First, Fumie, just because you don’t believe in the spiritual realm doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your life. You just refuse to see it. Second, God does often use normal, physical means to fulfill prayer: encouraging you to act yourself, or inspiring and giving strength to others to help you out. Praying doesn’t mean you just sit back and let God do all the work. But, then again, sometimes he does bypass human means and do more heavy-handed miracles.
The next coworker to respond is the rich girl, Shiho: “It’ll come true if you make a generous money offering, Miyakoshi!” She follows up, “Although I think it’s more effective when you use it yourself or give it to someone else. Money will never betray you.”
Shiho’s felt betrayed by people before, and she prefers to put her trust in money’s influence, rather than a kami or human. If you have money, she thinks, it’s pretty pointless to make a wish to kami.
I see this in my culture as well: it’s easier to trust material means, especially if you feel you have a decent amount of control over your material state. A lot of people think it makes more sense to put all your trust in money and other things. But not everyone has the kind of material wealth Shiho does to fall back on. They don’t have much even to offer kami, let alone to invest in a more tangible venture.
My Christian response to Shiho is this: money will betray you. The things it buys will fade or be used up. Investments may fail. The people (or, I suppose, kami) it pays are likely to abandon you when you can’t pay anymore, unless they’re drawn to you by compassion. Money is a false hope. I recommend trusting in a God who gives something deeper and eternal, something that will never fade or betray you. In the long run, money and what it gets you aren’t that valuable. Please don’t put your trust in it. You’re setting yourself up for more pain and emptiness.
Finally, Kouno, the blond cook, pipes in, hoping to revive Miyakoshi’s spirits: “Girls, you make it sound like a really cold world! Don’t destroy this child’s dreams! It’ll be okay! Your wish will come true!” He assures Miyakoshi, “If wishes didn’t come true, there wouldn’t still be temples and shrines around! I’m sure it will come true! Not that I have any grounds to say it…”
Kouno doesn’t exactly believe in the power of prayers and kami himself, but he thinks the hope is valuable. This goes back to Fumie’s prayer-as-emotional-support thing, just in a more enthusiastic way. It’s a bit paternalistic, like supporting a child’s belief in Santa: “I can’t believe in him myself, and I have no proof of it, but I don’t want to take the magic out of the life of those who still have faith.”
My response to Kouno? Don’t diminish the significance of spirituality and prayer. You’re trying to give hope, but you’re missing out on the richness of what true religion can offer. I think temples and shrines are still around not because the Shinto beliefs are correct but because there are spiritual beings out there, and because there is a God who cares and answers prayers—sometimes, I think, even prayers from those who don’t really know who he is, only that he must exist. That’s not to say that all religions lead to salvation and right relationship with God—definitely not! But those who sincerely pray to kami as they understand them in Shinto terms have something right: there’s more to the world than meets the eye.
I find it interesting that the secular comments on Shinto prayer are so similar to the secular comments on Christian, Jewish, or Muslim prayer.
Whoops, wrong religion
Break room metaphysical discussions aside, prayer to the wrong spiritual entity is unlikely to reap any benefits that don’t begin with emotion and action. We find out just how ineffective the shrine trip was when Miyakoshi, inspired by Kouno’s encouragement, makes chocolate for Higashida and brings it to work the next day.
Higashida bravely eats it without protest… and collapses, as expected. As he hovers on the edge of death, he meets St. Valentine, just like he did the last time he ate Miyakoshi’s chocolate.
“This is no good, Higashida-kun,” St. Valentine says, “You left a monetary offering at the shrine, but that’s not my religion, so it’s out of my jurisdiction.”
“Oh come on,” Higashida says. In the realm of the living, he briefly sits straight up and yells, “Typical bureaucrat!” and collapses again.
“I did want to do something to help you out, but after all, I am a priest. It’s not like I’m God, and it’s not even close to Valentine’s Day…”
Again in the realm of the living, Higashida yells, “I was careless!” He, or at least his body, continues yelling in anguish for a bit.
Whoops. Guess Higashida and Miyakoshi should have tracked down a Catholic church—or at least some kind of Christian church—and learned about prayer from a priest or pastor instead.
Thankfully, St. Valentine has more power in the Working!! universe than in reality, and he’s concerned that if Higashida dies there, “it will ruin love and peace.” So he returns the teen “to the other side,” alive and only slightly traumatized.
The first takeaway from this episode should be laughter. Even I know better than to take it seriously.
But, like all good comedy, www.Working!! draws on reality. In this case, that includes real misgivings about God and religion in general. It includes real questions, like where to find support, which religion is right, how the religions interact, and whether you can find help in one of them or multiple.
So it has me thinking about how God works in the lives of those who don’t know him. I believe he’s everywhere. He knows the troubles and joys of everyone, including restaurant staff in the heart of a secular country with Shinto roots. He gives them breath, and he offers them eternal life. He knows when they pray, and he wants them to pray to him, to seek his loving arms and the eternal treasures he offers. He has compassion on those like Shiho, afraid to trust anyone or anything except their own money. He’s active in the lives of those like Fumie, who experience the effects of spiritual reality daily, and will benefit from his presence all the more if they’ll acknowledge him. And he’s eager to redirect the enthusiasm of those like Kouno and Miyakoshi to the pursuit of truth—and the sacrifices of those like Higashida to a greater cause than a failed chocolatier’s ego.
I can’t share my understanding of prayer with fictional characters, but let me share it with you: No matter who you direct your prayers toward, it’s not your will, your words, or your monetary offering that makes a difference. It’s God. I pray because I believe in God’s power, not mine, and because I seek relationship with him. He does answer prayers. Sometimes, his answer is “no,” “not now,” or “okay, but you can take action on this matter yourself while I work out other details.” Sometimes, his answer is to redirect our prayers and desires to something that will benefit us more. And sometimes, not always, his answer is effectively, “Yes, my beloved child, I’ll give you this.” I trust him, in my life on earth and in the life to come. I expect to get to “the other side” and, instead of saying, “whoops, wrong religion,” to enjoy God’s glory, love, and grace.
Now, readers, I’d love to hear from you:
What are your thoughts and experiences with prayer? Do you you identify with some of Miyakoshi’s coworkers’ responses? Are you willing to consider that there might be something more to prayer than emotional support? If you don’t want to get personal, I’d love to hear any insights you have into prayer’s role across religions—Shinto, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or anything between.
A note on learning about Shinto: I’d give you links, but really, a quick Google search will help you find the shrine visitors’ guides and various wikis that have given me the basic understanding I have so far. I’d rather let you discover more sites on your own, and I encourage you to do so. You can also explore the “Shinto” tag and “Shinto/Shintosim” category this post is under for more about Shinto and anime.