Christianity, Tokyo style

Unlike many countries, Japan has a wonderfully relaxed, carefree attitude towards religion. It’s simply not an important aspect of daily life for the majority of the population. Nor does it play any real role in regards politics or public morals. And while temples and shrines may well be everywhere, it’s arguable that for most people, visits are more out of superstition and/or custom, rather than any real sense of spirituality.

Christianity, on the other hand, is a little different. Adherents have actually sought out a religion that is not associated with Japan. A belief system that for a long time was actively repressed, with those outed as followers persecuted, sometimes even killed. Of course that’s not the case now, but Christians still make up less than 1 percent of the population, and as such they have to try a little harder when it comes to finding a place of worship. But churches are out there. They just aren’t always that obvious that’s all. Neither are they especially beautiful.

Tokyo church

Military uniform wearing worshippers at Yasukuni Shrine

Tokyo’s Yasukuni Jinja is often referred to as the capital’s ‘war shrine’, and, as 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined there, it’s a moniker not exactly unwarranted. An element that makes any official visit hugely controversial, resulting in increased tension between Japan and its Asian neighbours.

At the same time, however, it is where almost two and a half million of Japan’s war dead are also enshrined. Young soldiers and citizens who, like countless others all over the world, served their country. Many not because of ideology or desire, but out of duty. Men and women who quite rightly deserve the respect of their families, comrades and country people.

The only trouble is, the aforementioned controversy that surrounds the shrine, and the far-right groups that use it as a rallying point, often make it difficult to distinguish between honour and hostility, prayer and propaganda.

‘Yasukuni

Ningyo kuyo: A Japanese doll funeral

Dolls feature fairly prominently in Japanese culture, from the ornamental hina ningyo of Girls’ Day (Hinamatsuri), to kokeshi, a popular souvenir. An importance that, along with the kanji for doll literally meaning ‘human form’, means they are very often treated differently than regular toys or ornaments.

Being a part of the family for years, as well as an integral element of a child’s upbringing, it is thought by some that dolls hold memories, or even have souls. As such, disposing of them can be very difficult, with many people feeling incapable of simply throwing them away — even believing there’ll be spiritual repercussions of some sort if they do. So ceremonies like ningyo kuyo — a kind of doll funeral — help owners say goodbye in a more dignified way. Prayers will be said. The dolls will be purified. And then the shrine or temple will deal with the disposal.

An event that makes for a slightly odd sight, as thousands of old companions and former family treasures are brought, displayed one last time, and then rather touchingly said goodbye to.

Ningyo kuyo a Japanese doll funeral