Descended from a Sun Goddess: Japan and the Shinto Religion

At the beginning of the world, only the sea existed.

Using a long stick, a god and goddess – Izanagi and Izanami – began to stir up this sea which surfaced mounds of mud. 

These mounds became the more than 6,800 Japanese islands spotting the Pacific Ocean.

Next, the godly couple birthed three children: the god of the moon, the god of the storm, and the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu.

Amaterasu and all the gods are called kami – aka, sacred spirits that appear in the form of nature, such as trees, rain, wind, and mountains.

Similar to the Biblical passage, “From dust you have come, And to dust you shall return,” the Shinto religion teaches that humans become nature after they die; they become kami.

The sun goddess birthed her own children. When these children had children, the first Emperor of Japan was born.

This emperor, being the direct descendent of the sun goddess, holds great power.

After hearing this creation story, you might understand how the Japanese have historically viewed their emperor and the world at large.

Japanese is the World

The Shinto religion is as old as the country itself.

Notice that in its creation story, as the sea was stirred up, only Japan was created, not the world at large.

This differs from Christianity, where Genesis indicates that all the world and the universe were created by God.

The Japanese gods not only created the country; they lived there.

Again, unlike Christianity – or other religions or mythologies – where the gods often reside in otherworldly places and only visit Earth, the island nation of Japan is heaven and Earth to its people.

The nationalism felt by the Japanese can be explained by this religious belief…which can also explain some of the nation’s history.

Shinto & Nationalism

“Shinto can’t be separated from Japan and the Japanese, but in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Shinto became an established state religion, inextricably linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism.” – BBC

Being that the Imperial family of Japan was believed to be so descended from the gods, this leaves little room for questioning the authority of the Emperor and his relationship to his people, particularly after the Meiji Restoration and State Shinto was established.

Bringing the Imperial legend back into the light after it had been shunted to the side by the popularity of Buddhism for centuries, the mid-19th century saw the Emperor gain new power and the “divine right” to rule the world.

Moreover, the Japanese people, themselves, were descended from the gods and, thus, a superior ilk.

This gave rise to nationalism in Japan which crescendoed to its climax in WWII.

In 1946, in a transcript called the “declaration of humanity,” Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine repute, after which the country’s Constitution was rewritten toward a more secular separation of church and state.

David McNeill of The Japan Times writes that today, Shinto has “two faces.” 

“Spokesman for the religion’s International Section, Katsuji Iwahashi, stresses Shinto’s essentially peaceful roots and its overwhelmingly benign role in the lives of millions of Japanese as well as its modern, internationalist outlook. Organized beliefs can be used in any nation, he explains, for good and bad.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss how religion has been used across different cultures and nations, for good and bad, and what the beliefs and values of religions can teach you about culture.

“Tolerance Ends Where Harm Begins”: The Boundaries of Active Cultural Tolerance

As with everything, even active tolerance has its limits.

Certain cultural traditions are inhumane and do not have a place in today’s world (or in past worlds either).

Examples spring to mind: corporal punishment in schools; female circumcision; adultery resulting in the death penalty by stoning.

Must we apply active tolerance toward such norms in order to be culturally sensitive?

The answer is no.

The legitimization of such cultural traditions is criminal.

But, to many, where to draw the line of tolerance is not strictly defined.

The Line for Tolerance

The best definition for the boundaries between tolerance and intolerance regarding culture comes from Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times.

In his column, “The Ethicist,” he explains why we should not tolerate all norms for the sake of religious and cultural respect, writing,

“Tolerance ends where harms begins.”

Actions and behaviors do not get a free pass simply because they are deeply ingrained in a culture’s history and tradition.

While some actions may conflict with moral barriers cross-culturally – like the polygamy in certain cultures discussed in last week’s post – the question is whether or not there is explicit harm as a result of the action.

My father did see some harm in the fact that polygamy could lead to forced marriages of underage girls, and he focused on remedying that by building the affected women a shelter. However, he found consenting polygamous relationships were not, in and of themselves, harmful, so he chose to actively tolerate them, as doing the opposite would directly harm all women involved.

However, as Cohen states, harm – both physical and psychological – is where you might draw the line.

Active or passive cultural tolerance should end there.

The Line for Tolerance is Not Universal

Search Wikipedia, the largest human knowledge repository, for the term, “tolerance,” and you will find, in accordance to the many philosophers who’ve written upon the topic, the idea of the “right of man.”

The “right of man” is the basic human right to live without being harmed by others.

As there is no universal line for tolerance, you are on your own to draw it for yourself when living and working in a foreign culture.

But isn’t this where you should draw that red line?

Asking yourself whether or not physical or psychological harm is done in regards to another culture’s norm or value is the delineation of tolerance.

Keeping your personal integrity intact means knowing your boundaries of tolerance.

Staying within these boundaries will fortify your own beliefs and values while allowing for your understanding and acceptance to explore to the very edges of those boundaries.