- john barr
Izumo Taisha, Shimane Prefecture
Izumo Taisaha (Izumo Grand Shrine) is thought to be the oldest Shinto shrine still in existence. The exact year of its founding is unknown, but written records from the 8th century indicate a shrine on the site prior to that time. The current buildings however date from 1744. Prior to 1744, the shrine buildings were periodically rebuilt in the manner still maintained at Ise Jingu,* which is rebuilt every 20 years. Since 1744, partial renewal has been carried out on a rolling programme at approximately 60 year intervals. The most recent was carried out between 2008 and 2013, when the roof of the main hall was replaced.
*Ise Grand Shrine, the most important Shinto shrine and home to Amaterasu the sun goddess.
Located on the western edge of the Shimane peninsula facing the Sea of Japan, even with the benefit of today’s rail links, Izumo feels remote and it is not clear why the shrine was established there, except that Shinto shrines were often built in remote locations.
Izumo is one of the most important sites in Shinto and is central to Japan’s creation myth. All Shinto shrines house a deity (kami), and the main deity at Izumo is Okuninushi, who is held to be the creator and early ruler of the land of Japan. Later, he handed control of Japan to the grandson of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, who descended to earth to establish the divine origins of the imperial line (prior to the Second World War and the imposition of a new constitution, the emperor was held to be a direct descendent of Ninigi and, consequently, of Amaterasu). In return for his passing control of Japan to her grandson, Amaterasu granted Okuninushi primacy over the realm of the gods and, at his request, all eight million Shinto deities gather at Izumo Taisha once a year, where there are two sort of bunkhouses (Jukusha) set aside for them.
Izumo Taisha : West Jukusha : One of two lodgings for visiting deities. These sit to the west and east of the sacred compound containing the main hall (Honden) that houses the shrine deity, Okuninushi.
The Japan Sea coast can be bleak and this, along with a general sense of remoteness and the architecture itself, combines to create a sombre and impressive group of buildings. A sense of propriety descends on the visitor. This is not a place to be frivolous, and it seems unlikely that the annual gathering of the gods is a party.
The architecture at Izumo is Taisha-zukkuri (Taisha style), an ancient style that predates the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and its subsequent influence on shrine architecture. The main hall (Honden) that houses the deity is 24 metres tall and the tallest shrine building in Japan. Historical documents record it at 48 metres in the past. This was considered fanciful until 2000, when the remains of massive wooden pillars grouped in clusters of three were excavated immediately in front of the entrance to the sacred precinct around the current Honden. It is thought these supported a high platform that the original Honden sat on top of. The current Honden building is approximately 18m tall and sits on a raised platform approximately 6m high. The original structure is imagined as a similar-sized building placed on top of an approximately 30m high platform with a massive ramp leading up to it. If this was the case, it would have been a remarkable and unique structure that would have indicated the significance of Izumo within Shinto. If you visit Izumo Taisha, you can see models of the imagined structure in the adjacent shrine museum.
Izumo Taisha : Rear of the Main Hall (Honden) viewed from outside the sacred precinct. The small sculptures in the foreground are of hares and refer to an encounter between Okuninushi and the Hare of Inaba.
Izumo Taisha : Entrance to the sacred precinct.
Izumo Taisha : Sacred precinct with main hall (Honden) and outbuildings. Sombre and impressive.
The Commercialisation of Shinto
Shinto is the original religion* of Japan. It has no creed as such, and Shinto priests do not deliver sermons or otherwise advise their congregation. Their main function is to seek favour from the gods and keep evil spirits at bay. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan, the two religions coexisted, and Shinto gods were often interpreted as manifestations of the Buddha. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 however, when Japan embarked on a quest for empire that saw a rise in nationalism, the government drew a distinction between Shintoism and Buddhism. The former was adopted as the state religion,** whilst the latter was dismissed as a foreign influence.
* The term 'religion' is used here as a convenient shorthand. The question as to whether Shinto is a religion has long been debated, with secular intellectuals and Shinto ideologues both at times arguing that it is not.[i]
**The term ‘State Religion’ is again a convenient shorthand. In fact, State Shinto was officially regarded not as a religion but as a set of customs that bound the population together under the emperor and reinforced the link between the emperor and the gods.
Japan’s colonial adventures eventually led to it entering the Second World War and ended in defeat, occupation, the demotion of the emperor to a figurehead, and the imposition of a new constitution that separated state and religion. More background on all of this can be found in my book, 20th Century Japan in 20 Buildings (see post dated March 1st, 2022 for details).
Izumo Taisha : Detail of construction in Taisha-zukkuri (Taisha style).
The loss of state funding meant that shrines and their priests had to become financially self-sufficient. Shrines essentially became businesses, selling blessings and purification ceremonies to ensure the success of all manner of enterprises. Many smaller shrines are family businesses. The position of head priest used to be hereditary and, although the hereditary system has been abolished, some shrines still practise it through choice, with the position passing to a son or widow, and the role of miko (variously described as shrine attendant, shrine maiden, or shrine virgin) sometimes being fulfilled by the priest’s daughters. Shinto priests do not perform funerals, but weddings are a major source of income.
Many Japanese are remarkably casual about religious affiliation, often saying that they don’t belong to any particular religion, while making use of Shinto, Christian and Buddhist practises to suit the circumstances. Buddhism is popular for funerals as it holds the promise of reincarnation, whilst Shintoism and Christianity are both popular for weddings. Some couples opt for both ceremonies, with a quick move from shrine to chapel and a quick change of costume in between. Specialist venues such as hotels and ‘Wedding Halls’ have proliferated to cater to this type of flexibility, with shrine, chapel and reception party all accommodated within the same building. Many larger shrines have opened such Wedding Halls, with some offering both Shinto and Christian ceremonies.*
*None of these ceremonies has any legal standing. The only legal definition of marriage in Japan is the document registered at the town or city hall in which the couple both attest that they agree to be married to one another.
An article by Klaus Antoni in the journal Japanese Religions gives more detail on the whole subject of the Japanese wedding.[ii]
Whether the venue is a shrine, hotel or other commercial enterprise, the Shinto ceremony requires the presence of a Shinto priest, who requires to be paid, and weddings have become a main source of income for many shrines - perhaps none more so than Izumo Taisha. Okuninushi, the deity at Izumo, in addition to building Japan and hosting all the other Shinto gods once a year, is also the god of good relationships and marriage, and so Izumo is seen as the most felicitous venue for a Shinto wedding. The shrine has been alert to this and the publicity for its own wedding hall puts great emphasis on Okuninushi’s ability to cement conjugal relations.[iii]
Izumo Taisha : Main approach. Offset from gatehouse to the sacred compound, which itself is slightly offset from the centre line of the Main Hall (Honden).
The fact that Shinto priests don’t preach but rather offer a paid service, combined with a laissez-faire approach to the services they offer, has led Helen Hardacre to write that Japanese society now sees Shinto as ‘ethically and intellectually bankrupt’.[iv] I can’t say whether that is true, but my own experience suggests that many Japanese are at least skeptical about it. And yet, most Japanese continue to use Shinto priests to bless any new venture and continue to make visits to shrines, where they seek specific blessing or general protection from misfortune. There is an element of superstition involved in this, much like Westerners ‘touching wood’ or 'crossing fingers' to help ensure a desirable outcome. We may not believe in it, but we see no harm in doing it - just in case. Whether we believe in it or not, we feel reassured that we have taken every possible precaution against a negative outcome.
There is certainly some of that thinking in the Japanese use of Shinto, but I believe it is also based on habit or custom, on a desire to maintain traditions, and on Japanese people, even if they don’t believe in Shinto, maintaining its rituals as one of the things that defines them and binds them together.
All images by John Barr unless otherwise noted
© John Barr 2022
[i] Hardacre, Helen. Shinto and the State. Princeton University Press (1989). p.160 [ii] Antoni, Klaus. ‘Religion and Commercialisation: The Shinto Wedding Ritual (shinzenshiki) as an “Invented Tradition” in Japan’. Japanese Religions Vol.26, No.1. January 2001. pp.41-54. [iii] Ibid.
[iv] Hardacre. p.143.