View Full Version : Shinto stuff in America?

22nd December 2000, 14:39
Hey, all-maybe someone can straighten me out on this...I often see photos of dojo with Shinto kamidana/kamiza in them that are located in other countries.
I am certainly no expert on this, but here we go--
As Shinto is, to the best of my knowledge, intrinsically Japanese, and kami are not thought to exist outside of Japan, what's the deal with having these Shinto trappings outside of the country where they would be thought to be "effective," in a religious/cultural context? Is it just to lend "authenticity?" Am I missing something?

[Edited by CMM on 12-22-2000 at 09:45 AM]

Devon Smith
22nd December 2000, 15:23
Very interesting question, Chris. I'm no expert either (not even close) so I did some searching around the 'net to read a bit.

I found some good sites that might be of interest to anyone else whose curiosity's been peaked:


So far I haven't seen anything that would indicate the "invalidation" of Shinto outside of Japan, however.

As I don't "practice" Shinto, my answer to your question as to "why" lies in my personal interest in Japanese culture and my desire to perpetuate the traditions (including rituals, if you will) of the art I study.

Just because you asked the question I've already learned a lot through some reading...slow day at the office, you see!

Thanks for the good question.


Gil Gillespie
22nd December 2000, 15:28
Good GOOD question, Chris, and one not ordinarily forwarded. Unless the kamiza in question is the direct construction of a Japanese instructor, your second option, that of authenticity, would seem the logical motivation. In Myakka FL Saotome Sensei has lovingly and beautifully constructed an Aiki Shrine, the only one other than Ueshiba Sensei's original Iwama Shrine in Japan, maintained by Saito Sensei and his teaching.

You've raised the question of the cultural roots of Japanese budo and how to maintain them (duplicate them?) in a foreign setting. Shinto may be the most culturally rooted religious experience in human spiritual history. Not only can it not be separated from Japan and their particular socio-mythological view of their race as descended from the kami, but it somehow coincides congruently with their modern industrialized consumer society! One needs only observe a Japanese jogger at dawn pausing to bow to an ancient shrine along his path and then continue along to realize that something unique is at work here.

I may passionately sing Iranian folk songs for 50 years, but I can never be an Iranian folk singer. Therein lies the rub for foreigners seeking to duplicate a true Shinto kamiza. I have long been intrigued by American Indian pantheism, and discovered a natural cousin in Japanese Shinto. The tangible vibes (including chills, standing hair, and goose flesh)I have felt at Indian holy places reappeared in sacred Japanese shrines maintained today from the mists of prehistory.

In the late 80's I built a traditional Japanese Myojin Torii gate here in Florida. The Fu Dogs outside it and stone pagodas & lanterns within are all mossed and aged now. The bamboo is established and flourishing. My brother-in-law's grave is in the jinja (shrine). My Japanese wife observes holidays and auspicious days up there and I do my Jishugeiko (at home MA training there). Is it a real Shinto shrine? Probably not to a Shinto priest from Ise. But it's real to us. The statuary has been burglarized and vandalized twice by my redneck "neighbors." I don't know what ironic validation that represents. . .

When I trained with Mochizuki Sensei and his Yoseikan budo in my wife's hometown of Shizuoka, their kamiza was pure Shinto. A shimenawa rope festooned with hanging strands of flax. Fresh sakaki sprigs in 2 urns. A mirror hanging up inside the woodwork. (Sensei is said to regard it as inauspicious if the mirror is ever cloudy.) When they bow twice and clap twice before and after class, they are devoting their training in a genuine spiritual Shinto offering that Ueshiba Sensei referred to in so many of his writings.

I've been a part of American aikidoka clapping twice before & after class & I know 95% them are totally unaware of the Shinto roots of their training, at least on the kyu level. Ask them why they clap twice. The answers are amusing. Our style comes directly from Saotome Sensei, whose Japanese spiritual roots are undiminished. His large kanji calligraphy adorning our dojo are much more than authenticity. When training before Sensei's brushed "takemusu aiki" there is a motivation and awareness that transcends.

In all those other foreign dojos with "Japanese mannerist" kamizas there is also a training of mind, body and spirit that transcends. It's up to each budoka how real a part of his training he makes all that.

29th December 2000, 15:42
Hi everyone. I am ordering a small kamidana for my home, however it is more an object of interest than an object of worship. The Japanese themselves seem to have no problem combining religions, and in fact even owning and wearing symbols of another faith, even though they may have little interest in it. So, it will be as "functional" as my mounted kobuto.

I hope that Mr. Gillespie comes across this post, or someone else that is knowledgable in Shinto. What should I put in it's chamber? Even though it's only for decoration, I would still like it to be reasonably authentic looking. Surfing the web and reading various posts, I get the impression that it should contain either:

1. A type of mirror
2. a picture of an ancestor or teacher
3. an amulet obtained from a Shinto jinja
4. nothing..only kami reside there

I even have read of one simply having a small Japanese flag painted inside.

What would be correct?

I was originally going to put a small funerary urn within, containing some of my father's remains. However, I have been advised by Mark Brecht of Japanese Treasures that this is very inappropriate, as anything related to death is done under Buddhist rites. A quick look at some Shinto sites on the web bear this out. In fact, one is not even supposed to visit a shrine while one is mourning, death is considered so impure. In many different places it says that death is considered "evil" in Shinto, so I was interested to see that Mr. Gillespie has the grave of his brother-in-law within his jinja.

It does seem strange that a religion like Shinto would consider death "evil" rather than a wholly natural occurance.

Anyway, I hope someone can tell me what's in a kamidana, and hopefully forgive my gross ignorance.

12th January 2001, 07:54
Hello, i'm not sure of your rules for this forum and i'm sorry for jumpong in but i have read your posts about tthe kamidana and although i am young and don't have a lot of experiece in shinto i do study many religions and i am a japanese culture enthusiast. i may be able to help you with your questions. from what i know kamidana are sacred places of reverence and are attended to daily,at breakfast, with an offering of water, salt, and rice(water in the middle, salt on the right rice on the left) Other foods might be put on the shrine on special days.The kamidana should face south or east in a light, high clean place. It should never face North or West.At the centre of the shrine stands the taima, an inscribed board from the main Shinto shrine at Ise, which represents a universal kami. On either side are various paper amulets that have something to do with local gods and ancestral spirits. The kamidana may also include a shimenawa, a sacred rope of twisted rice straw traditionally used to demarcate a sacred area.

13th January 2001, 11:54
OK-Thanks for the good replies, everyone. I am disappointed with the amount of traffic it seems comes through this forum (that's why I originally posted it in the Member's Lounge).

Let me state for the record that I am comfortably familiar with the details of Shinto ritual and artefacts; while I appreciate the effort, I don't need the "mechanics" of them explained. I am more interested in the cultural phenomenon of "Westerners" importing or building such trappings in their dojo and the implications of it.

Perhaps an anaology will be helpful in demonstrating my perception of this phenomenon.

If I build a mosque next to my house, it's a nice gesture, but as I am not Muslim, it is kind of strange, and arguably disrespectful. How similar is this (rather farfetched) analogy to the mounting of a kamidana in a dojo in Oklahoma?

Now let's take the analogy a step further-let's say I am a devout Christian and a professor of Islamic Studies at some university (this is a fabrication, of course). I would presumably be very well-versed in Muslim dogma, ideology, and history, even though I did not believe in it. Now, under these conditions, is my hypothetical construction of a Mosque, even if predicated by a true interest in the things it represents, any more "valid" or any less "weird?" I think not. I repose the question: how similar is this (now outlandish) example to putting up a kamidana in Maryland, etc.?

I'm not trying to be snotty with all of this; I am truly interested in the reasoning behind peoples' implementation of singular elements of religious systems (though this is perhaps a distinction of dubious merit, when it comes to Shinto) while discarding the whole; using exotic, highly-visual representations of established religious systems while not being "believers" of them.

Looking forward to (any) future responses!

Joanne Miller
13th January 2001, 12:59
Hello David,

Sorry if it's not relevant to the thread I thought I might reply to David Craik post

What is actually put behind the doors of the Kamidana (in the Chamber so as to speak) is something known as O-Fuda. The O-Fuda are wooden tablets wrapped in paper with the name of the kami on it. The O fuda represents the Kami. The whole purpose of the Kamidana is to hold O-fuda.

O-Fuda are avaliable at Shinto shrines in Japan and they usually cost about 1000 Yen ( It depends on the size most are about 25 cm they can be larger or smaller). There is no "standard" O-fuda. Each shrine sells their own unique O-fuda. For example Katori O-fuda is only sold in Katori Jinja or Fushimi Inari O fuda is sold only in Fushimi Inari Shrine and so on. However for Ise no kami O fuda one does not have to go all the way to Ise shrine to get it. Certain Jinja sell Ise no kami o-fuda.

In all Kamidana one must always place Ise no Kami (Amaterasu) O-fuda. The other patron dieties of your ryuha are then placed.If one has a 3 door Kamidana. Ise no Kami (Amaterasu) O fuda is placed in the center. The other are your patron dieties. However if one has a single room kamidana one can actually placed other O fuda behind one another but Ise no kami must be in the front.

In a normal household usually the patron diety of the area (Ubusuna) is put in the kamidana. In Budo context, the type of O fuda used in the dojo depends on the ryuha or style. Most sword schools use Katori & Kashima O fuda ( Plus the must have Ise no Kami o fuda :) ). Other dojos I visited use other o-fuda such as Hachiman Kami , Hayashizaki Kami , Atago Kami so on and so forth.

I noticed in your profile you list you do Iaijutsu if you are practicing a Hayashizaki line Iai then Hayashizaki o fuda is what you might want to get. The O fuda is avaliable at Hayashizaki Iai jinga located in Yamagata. Actually you should ask your teacher what O-fuda are used in your dojo. Those are the ones which you might want to get.

On a final note about O-fuda. There are actually good for 1 year only ! :) And every year one has to changed ( note: re purchase ;) ) the o fuda. One can't throw away the old O-fuda. You actually have to return it to the Shrine. ( There is a small place somewhere in the Jinja where you can return old O-fuda)

I read your post and you said you intent to get a kamidana more of an object or interest. Hmm.. in my humble opinion unless you intent to worship the deities or intent to follow the traditions of your ryuha ,I feel it is not appropriate to get a kamidana for aesthetic reasons. It is just not proper to make a Kamidana to be a "decoration" it is basically a religious altar. :)

I will type in a separate post regarding things about the kamidana if you are still interested in reading more it.


[Edited by Joanne Miller on 01-13-2001 at 08:45 AM]

13th January 2001, 16:37
Thanks Ms. Miller and Baio! I can definately understand your opinion regarding my use for a kamidana, which was kind of what this thread was about anyway. My intent is certainly not to offend or make the trappings of a religion into something kitch.

The kamidana I am getting I consider to be a work of art. I would liken it to perhaps having a sculpture of Vishnu displayed in the home..just for artistic value, not because one is Hindu. I have several Buddhas and a hand-sculpted copy of La Pieta as well, although I am agnostic. But I am sensitive to how a Japanese person may feel if they were to notice it, so I asked a Japanese friend. She said that they would probably not think much about it at all, except possibly that it was a little unusual for a gaijin to have one. She said that they would most likely think the same of my framed Zen poetry and a quote from Kato Kiyomasa, as well as a bookshelf that sags under the weight of books on swordsmanship (and can't imagine what they would say if they realize I wear fundoshi!). Concern for how it may be thought of is part of the reason I want it properly displayed.

When one thinks about it, there are many things that are routinely done that have or had religious significance, although the "doer" does not adhere to that religion. How many Occidental aikidoka have clapped and bowed before the start of class, just as a Shinto person would before a jinza? For that matter, how many traditional dojos have kamiza and kamidana that all students bow to prior to class, even though they don't follow Shinto. How many observe Halloween and Easter, and yet are not pagan? How many have Native American God's-Eyes, dreamcatchers, sand-paintings, etc. but are not followers of the Great Spirit? I even have a sand-painting that was made into a clock face by a Zuni indian. The Japanese (particularly in centuries past) were very spiritual people..religious meaning is in many objects and places. The sword is a good example. They were made with religious rites, tangs were sometimes inscribed with dedications to a particular shrine or temple, tsuba, fuchi, kashira and menuki had sometimes religious images. The sword itself was often considered to have a kami of it's own..in the sword.
Many people display swords all the same, even old heathens such as myself.

I can see your point though, as I said. If I did something really odd like put it on the wall and set a couple of "ninja" action figures on it then I could see that it would be disrespectful. I don't want it so that I seem "more Japanese" or "authentic". I have several Kukris displayed in another room, but I don't claim to be a Gurkha. I have a lot of Samurai-related things, like the Kobuto mentioned before, but I certainly don't fantasize that I am one.

There is a similar conversation to this in the Japanese Treasures forum ("Kamiza or Kamidana?"). Mark Brecht doesn't seem to think that any offense would be taken, so I don't know. Perhaps if I am slain by vengeful kami shortly after hanging it, we'll have our answer.