Two case studies in Japan involving Christians and Shinto shrines

Case study 1: Neighborhood celebration at a Japanese Shinto shrine

Her neighbors were getting upset with her. Should she go? Should she give the expected monetary donation?

dawing of Shinto shrine gate

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Henry Thompson looked at Mrs. Sato. He was uncertain about what to say to her. The neighborhood celebration was tomorrow. So, there was no time to call a church meeting to discuss Mrs. Sato's questions. What should he say? Would her participation in that event at the Shinto shrine violate her Christian commitment?

The Thompsons had moved from the U.S. to Japan three years earlier. After studying the language, Henry and his wife moved to Tokyo to plant a church. They carefully built friendships with people in their part of the city and had started Bible study groups in their home. It was from these groups that their first converts to Christianity had come. Mrs. Reiko Sato was one of those converts. She had grown in her faith and had been baptized six months previously. She was now a staunch member of the small Christian congregation led by the Thompsons.

To this point, Henry had known little about Mrs. Sato's life, except that she was the only Christian in her neighborhood and that she was a widow. Now, as she came seeking his advice, he was to learn more about her. She told him that her neighborhood, like most neighborhoods in Tokyo, had an association in which everyone was expected to participate. Throughout the year, that organization raised funds for worthwhile projects and held neighborhood friendship meetings. She explained to Henry that it is not so much that everyone in the neighborhood is expected to attend those neighborhood meetings. Unless someone were very ill, it would just be inconceivable for them not to go.

This year was different, however. Normally, Mrs. Sato's neighborhood held its year-end party in a public hall. This year, neighborhood leaders had arranged for the celebration to be at the local Shinto shrine. Since the shrine site needed refurbishing, they had also decided to call on all the participants to make a sizable donation to the refurbishing fund.

Upon hearing where the event had been scheduled, Mrs. Sato regretfully decided she should not attend. One of her reasons was that space inside a Shinto shrine is considered sacred ground. Each shrine is dedicated to a specific kami, a divine personality who responds to prayers. If Mrs. Sato went to the celebration at the shrine, she knew she would have to pass through a torii — a special gateway of the kami or gods. A torii is considered the demarcation or separation point between the finite world in which humans live and the infinite world of the gods.

Thinking that Mrs. Sato had somehow misunderstood the invitation to the association's annual meeting, the neighborhood leaders sent several women to talk to her. Mrs. Sato explained to them that she would not be attending this year's party because it was being held in a Shinto shrine where nature deities were worshiped and where ancestral spirits were invoked.

A few days later the chairman of the neighborhood association came to Mrs. Sato's door. When Mrs. Sato told him she could not attend the festivities in the Shinto shrine because she was a Christian, the neighborhood chairman became angry.

"What is wrong with being a good Japanese?" he asked. "You can be a Christian, but Shinto represents our national spirit. Refusing to attend this year's festivities in the shrine is tantamount to rejecting our country."

Even in the face of such pressure, Mrs. Sato remained firm in her decision to refuse to attend the celebration. In the days that followed, community pressure on her increased. People looked at her with suspicion. Friends and neighbors openly questioned her loyalties to Japan. She found herself hating to go out of the house for her daily shopping and errands. In the end, she went to Henry Thompson for help.

"What shall I do?" she asked him. "Would it be so wrong for me to attend this year's neighborhood celebration even though it is being held at the Shinto shrine? And what should I do about the donation to refurbish it?"

Henry realized that it was hard for him as a foreigner to understand all that it meant to become a Christian in Japan. The neighborhood association leader seemed to be saying she should embrace Shintoism as well as Christianity. Even though Henry felt his foreignness at that moment, he was Mrs. Sato's pastor and he felt he had to show some spiritual leadership in the situation.

He recalled Paul's exhortation to the believers in Corinth to be all things to all people in order to win them to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). However, he also remembered Paul saying in his second letter to the Corinthians that Christians should not be associated with idols (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Was Mrs. Sato right in thinking this was a boundary she should not cross? Henry thought a moment, and then he said to Mrs. Sato . . . .

The original version of this case study appeared in Case Studies in Missions, Baker Book House. It may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35-cent per copy royalty to Baker Book House, PO Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

Case study 2: U.S. President's visit to a Shinto shrine in Japan

drawing of gateway to Shinto

News story put together from several sources

Read this news story and the e-mail which came in reaction to it. How would you respond?

While in Japan for economic talks with the Japanese Prime Minister, the U.S. President is planning to visit the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo to experience part of Japanese culture. Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan also toured Meiji Shrine during visits to Japan.

Although the American President is coming to Japan as a guest of Japanese leader Koizumi, the prime minister has said he will skip the visit to the shrine because it would be politically awkward for a Japanese prime minister to lend official status to a place where ruling emperors once were worshiped as divine.

The Shinto shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, the grandfather of Hirohito, the Japanese emperor during World War 2. Emperor Meiji played a major role in transforming Japan from a feudal state into a modern industrial country. There are three imperial shrines in Japan; the one to be visited by the U.S. President supposedly has the dead emperor's soul enshrined in it. The shrine was destroyed in World War 2 by U.S. bombings and rebuilt in 1958.

White House sources say that the President will follow the common etiquette of sanpei at the shrine entrance, clapping once and bowing. He will also sign the shrine's registry book.

E-mail from Japan in reaction to story

In reaction to the story about the President's visit to the Meiji shrine, I received the following e-mail. Suppose I asked you to help me compose a response to this e-mail. What would you suggest that I write?

Praise the name of the Lord!

I am a Japanese Christian. We Japanese Christians are shocked to hear that the U.S. President will visit the Meiji Shrine and pray to the Shinto gods while he is staying in Japan.

Our pastor preaches that we should have no other gods before the Lord our God. Each New Year's Day, ordinary Japanese go to the shrines and pray to the Shinto gods. In Japan we Christians have a special New Year's Day service at every church in order to keep us from going to the shrines at that time. In Japan, it is not easy to be a Christian. The American President's planned prayer to the Shinto gods will become a heavy hindrance to our evangelistic outreach. Please understand our situation and pray for us.

May God bless you!

Takahiko Yamada

What would you say in response to this Japanese Christian?

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Background information on Shinto


arrowTemple or shrine: Which is it?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Background on Shintoism

Shintoism, often simply referred to as Shinto, is an indigenous religious and spiritual belief system in Japan. It's deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and history, influencing various aspects of daily life, rituals, and traditions. Here's an overview:

Shintoism continues to be an integral part of Japanese society, providing spiritual guidance and a sense of connection to the natural and divine world for millions of people in Japan and around the world.

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