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Ritual Understandings

Jessica Von Wendel


            A dark, ominous, lush, green idol is dripping with moisture.  I am a little nervous as I approach and wash my hands in the water collecting in a pool at its base.  I am told to fill a ladle and pour even more water onto the figure itself which is tucked away in a corner shrine down a dark ally in the middle of downtown Osaka.  My network of Japanese friends are telling me what to do next as I clap my hands twice, say my prayer, and wave the smoke from the incense over my head.

When I arrived in Japan, I was introduced to ten Japanese students from a local university who took me around Osaka and Kyoto to various temples and shrines.  I was hesitant to participate in the rituals at these religious sites since I am neither Buddhist nor Shinto, but they seemed eager to teach me the process.  Anthropologist Theodore Bestor, explains in his article “Doing Fieldwork in Japan” that one “cannot simply decide to participate and observe.”  Instead, it is through developing a local network that one learns which events are appropriate to partake in and the individual meanings of the rituals. My network was ready-made in my ten new friends.

Only after my companions' assurance did I begin to learn the proper and distinct ways of praying.  They explained that while Buddhism and Shinto are intermixed in Japan praying is still distinct.  Instead of clapping my hands twice and pouring water on the deity as described in the Shinto ritual, at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto I lit incense, made an offering, then took off my shoes and stepped up onto a raised platform.  I knelt before an image of the Buddha and put my hands together.  I bowed slightly and said my prayer.  There was also a large brass bowl off to the side that I struck with a long wooden paddle.  I asked my friends what the significance of this bowl was but they didn’t know.

I came to realize in my questioning of my new Japanese friends, that they were just as unclear on some of the aspects of these religious practices as I was.  In one conversation with a student named Yeu, I mentioned that I was agnostic and he was very surprised, and even a little relieved.  He had assumed I was Christian.  I asked if he was Buddhist and he said no.  It was my turn to be surprised.  He, as well as some others in the group, had no religion either.  I found it interesting that despite not following the faith they all knew how to pray and worship.  My fear of being intrusive was completely alleviated when I learned that they themselves were not followers. 

The rituals became more of a superstition associated with improving one’s luck than a way of showing devotion to a faith.  At every temple and shrine, whether it was Shinto or Buddhist, there was some way to make a wish or to test your luck.  I paid 100 Yen to shake a box and draw a stick.  A fortune matching the particular stick I drew was given to me by an old man sitting behind the counter.  My fortune according to Iako, another Japanese friend, was “not so good.”  There were countless other examples of ways to improve upon or determine ones luck, such as walking from one stone to another with your eyes closed to see if your love was true, or writing a wish on a piece of paper and tying it to a series of strings.  Many good luck charms for passing a test or curing an illness were also sold near these sacred places.  I would never have known why people were walking with their eyes closed or shaking boxes filled with sticks if I didn’t have my network to explain their significance. 

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