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One Woman's Opinion

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1965: A year in Japan: Part 7

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Urbanna, Va.— It was now January, 1964 and husband Chip had been accepted to the College of William and Mary Law School to start in September. But President Johnson, expanding the Vietnam War, was talking of “freezing” all military, which meant Chip would not be able to attend law school when his 4 years of Navy duty ended over the summer and he would have to stay on his ship.

I felt at the time as so many military people do . . . that we were caught like flies in a spider’s web and that we were totally in the hands of politicians. Our very lives were on hold and it was a horrible, helpless feeling.

Meanwhile, life was a continuing learning experience in Japan. I discovered there was a Shinto shrine right next to our home. I first noticed stone steps up the mountain at the rear of our house and I would see women dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos going up and down the steps.

I decided to go up the steps to see what was there. To my amazement I found a Shinto shrine at the top of the hill. Already exposed to the great Buddha shrine in Kamakura, I still knew nothing about Shintoism. There was no Google in those years, but only the U.S. Naval Base library in Yokosuka for resources.

I learned the term “religion” was not the proper word for Shintoism. “A Way of Life” was a better way to describe it as there were definite nationalistic and patriotic overtones to Shintoism, which were very different from our fundamental American belief of separation of church and state.

Shintoism originated long before Buddhism or Christianity. It started as a primitive religion that explained the origins of Japan and its people based entirely on the feeling of “awe” one felt at a particularly beautiful site of nature. Examples were a mountain, lovely rock formation, waterfall, majestic tree, etc. Eventually, these sites where people experienced these aesthetic feelings became sacred, and soon shrines and temples were built on such sites to honor their beauty. 

It was believed that “Kami” (object or force of nature) dwelled in these inspirational sites and people began to visit the shrines to pay their respect to the gods. Sometimes the original beauty which inspired the shrine may have long ago disappeared but I imagined the shrine next to our house, which was now hidden by overgrown trees was certainly built because of the majestic view of Sagami Bay and Mount Fuji on the distant shore. It fascinated me that without knowing about Shintoism, I chose this site to live for the same breathtaking view, just as people had thousands of years ago.

Shintoists believe when a person dies his spirit continues to live on earth although invisible to mortal eyes. The spirits of prehistoric Imperial ancestors became known as sacred or supernatural, and also took on the meaning of “Kami.” Consequently, the Emperor of Japan was not only the head of the state, but was also the official high priest of Shintoism. 

He came to be looked upon as a god. At one period of the history of Japan he was considered so sacred that he wasn’t even allowed to show his face to the public. The Emperor was a prisoner in his own palace! (What a sad predicament for a “god” to find himself in!) After WWII, however, the Emperor announced he was not a descendant of God.

Shinto has no creed or doctrine, as Buddhism or Christianity has, nor does it offer rewards or punishments after death. This is why it is easy to be a Shintoist or Buddhist or Christian at the same time. Our chaplain from the USS Mars explained this “dualism” posed great difficulty with Christian missionary workers. They converted the Japanese into Christians but could not convince them to remove the “Kami shelf,” which was a family shrine located a few inches below the ceiling in the living room. These family items were dedicated to some ancestor of the Imperial family, i.e., local guardian spirit, and family ancestors. Perhaps expecting the Japanese to do away with Kami shelves would be like asking Americans to give up television.

My exposure to other world religions was having a definite impact on me. I was beginning to understand all people in the world had a religion or belief system of some sort to explain mystery and origin of life as best they could according to knowledge of the times. I saw that Shinto expression of the Japanese people was similar to Old Testament Bible accounts of the Jewish people.

How tragic differences of religion have triggered such bloodshed across the centuries. If only we could understand our differences are simply cultural and not a reason for warfare. Life in Japan quickly taught me that developing tolerance and respect for another man’s beliefs were the keys to peace.


posted 05.03.2018

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