Mount Fuji

In one remote corner of Japan,
Emperor still considered a god 


(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of Nov. 11, 1990)

After Akihito formally becomes Japan's 125th emperor Monday in state ceremonies in Tokyo, he will be treated with respect, deference and perhaps even some indifference.

He won't be worshiped as a god, as his predecessors were.

But two weeks later, amid the towering cypress and camphor trees on the Shima Peninsula 300 miles southwest of Tokyo, Akihito will enter the 2,000-year-old Grand Shinto Shrine of Ise (pronounced E-say) and for two days retreat into the mists of ancient Japanese mythology.

With the Empress Michiko and several dozen Shinto priests trailing respectfully behind, Akihito will cross the graceful Uji Bashi (bridge) with its unpainted cypress planking and zelkova wood pillars, which spans the limpid waters of the sacred 13-mile-long Isuzu River. Then, dressed in 8th Century court clothing made from threads spun by special imperial silkworms, Akihito will pass stately 800-year-old cryptomeria trees and climb the stone steps leading to the carefully concealed Naiku Inner Shrine, the most venerated spot in all Japan.

Once inside, Akihito will report his coronation to his imperial ancestors, including the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is enshrined there. Amaterasu is venerated as the patriarch of Japan's imperial family and, according to Shinto beliefs, the mythical founder of this nation of 123 million.

In Ise, unlike in Tokyo where the postwar constitution defines the emperor as the "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people" — but not a divine being, as in prewar times — and where debates still rage about his role in modern Japan, the head of the imperial family is still regarded unabashedly as a living god.

"The changes in the emperor's status after the war occurred only in written form in a document," said Michihiro Okunishi, one of the white-robed chief priests sitting on the tatami floor of his spartan office. "But here, we don't recognize that any substantial change has taken place in the emperor's being. We are still the emperor's faithful servants."

Not all Japanese feel such allegiance and fondness for the imperial family. In the last two weeks, leftist radicals set off bombs in Tokyo and in three Shinto shrines in Japan, killing one person and injuring nine others.

The radicals promise to continue until the emperor and all his heirs are dead. Okunishi and the hundreds of other priests at Ise have heard it all before. After all, they point out, the servant-master relationship between Shinto priests and the imperial family dates back to earliest recorded Japanese history — about 400 B.C.

Unlike Buddhism, which was imported from China around 710 A.D., Shinto (literally "The Way of the Gods") is an indigenous religion that grew out of the ancient animistic and tribal mythology of Japan.

It teaches that all things, animate and inanimate, have their own kami or gods and are to be worshiped or revered. Included in this vast number of deities are one's ancestors — a belief that once encouraged Japanese to view themselves as "special."

Beginning around 850 A.D., a bitter, 1,000-year struggle developed between Shintoism and Buddhism. The more pragmatic beliefs of Buddhism often won the minds, if not always the hearts, of the Japanese. Not until 1868, when Emperor Meiji overthrew the powerful Shogun families who had kept Japan closed off from the rest of the world, did Shintoism re-emerge.

After Shinto was declared a state religion in the late 19th Century, its priests were elevated to the status of civil servants and the religion was used to justify Imperial Japan's attempt to conquer neighboring Asian nations.

Japan's postwar constitution clearly separates church and state, and the nation's 81,325 Shinto shrines receive no government money.

But Shinto's 2,000-year hold on the Japanese is evident during a trip to Ise.

Not only does an official imperial emissary travel to the Grand Shrine every fall to offer the gods rice from the emperor's personal garden, but some 7 million Japanese every year make pilgrimages to Ise.

First they walk the pebbled path to the Geku or Outer Shrine where Toyouke Omikami, the goddess of harvests, food and clothing, is enshrined.

Then they cross the Uji bridge. They stop to dip their hands into the Isuzu River and purify themselves before continuing up the path and through the huge wooden torii, or entrance gates, leading to the Naiku.

Only the emperor and a handful of Shinto priests are permitted to view the Grand Shrine, which is hidden behind high wooden walls.

A number of ancient rituals still surround Ise, including one that has been repeated every 20 years since 690 A.D.

Following a carefully staggered schedule, the Shinto priests of Ise summon special craftsmen to dismantle all the shrine's buildings and the Uji bridge and rebuild them exactly as before using the ancient implements and building techniques.

The only change is that the rebuilt Grand Shrine is moved back and forth every 20 years between two sacred squares of land.

"It is a process of renewal," says the priest, Okunishi. "It is a kind of prayer for the renewal of life itself, of the Japanese nation."

Editor's note: Ronald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.