History in the making: An unprecedented visit to Ise Jingu, Japan’s holiest shrine, to see it rebuilt under the beliefs of the Shinto religion

Japan’s holiest shrine is demolished and rebuilt every two decades in accordance with Shinto notions of death and renewal. In 2,000 years, no foreigner has witnessed the sacred ceremonies involved. Until now. The new openness is down to a remarkable resurgence in the ancient religion – and could benefit the whole world, Paul Vallely finds

Ise Jingu

Under the double-barred gateposts, by the entrance to the bow-backed bridge, a solitary figure was waiting. He was white-robed and bare-headed. He was about to make history.

The Shinto priest bowed deeply to the group of men and women who approached the most venerated shrine in Japan. They, too, were enrobed – in the rich gold-embroidered red and blue of Chinese Taoism, in glorious Hindu saris, in simple white Islamic tunics and shifts, in bright yellow Sikh scarves and turbans, in the austere cassocks of Scandinavian Lutherans, the cream vestments of African Catholics and the black and red academic robes of American Baptists.

At any time in the past 2,000 years, the job of the Shinto guardian of the Hiyokebashi bridge would have been to prevent such aliens from entering this holiest of Japan’s sacred places. But now he bowed deeply, twice, and welcomed them to enter.

History was made at Ise Jingu in many ways this month. The ancient shrine has been completely rebuilt from new wood, as it has been every 20 years since the seventh century. The rebuilding has attracted a record 14 million visitors. Yet that is only part of a remarkable resurgence of Japan’s ancient religion of Shintoism, which, in the decades after the Second World War, had reached a low point unprecedented in its 3,000-year history.

That revival has produced a new Japanese openness to the wider world. It has welcomed in representatives of the faiths of foreigners including even the Confucians and Taoists of the two great religious traditions of Japan’s historical enemy, China. Shintoism this month also hosted the first international conference in its entire history. And it has developed a new attitude to a world threatened by climate change and environmental degradation. The trees are ceremonially felled and transported down the sacred river The trees are ceremonially felled and transported down the sacred river

So much so that the United Nations chose the conference as a forum to invite the world’s religions to help to shape the global debate on the social, political and economic yardsticks that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they run out next year. The conference was named “Tradition for the Future” and its brief was to discover “culture, faith and values for a sustainable planet”.

The rebuilding of the Ise shrine is a potent symbol of that – for a paradox lies at its heart. Every 20 years, the shrine buildings are totally demolished and replaced with entirely new ones. It is thus a symbol of both change and continuity. The 20-year cycle allows ancient traditions in forestry and carpentry, thatching and weaving, metalwork and leather skills to be passed on from one generation to the next in an unbroken line. This is not a mere ritual. It is a practical necessity. Over two decades, 100 million people will cross the bridge, wearing it away to half its 6in thickness in the course of its lifespan. Those rebuilding the bridge have inherited the skills of boat carpenters practised in fitting together the floor of the bridge so that it is resistant to rain.

Shintoism is an unusual religion. It has no creeds or dogmas, no doctrines or scriptures. It is rooted in an animist belief that spirits or deities, kami, reside in objects throughout the natural world – rocks, rivers, waterfalls, mountains – as well as in animals and people, and that the spirits of the ancestors live on in the places in which they once dwelt. There are 80,000 shrines to such spirits throughout Japan.

But Ise Jingu is special. This is the shrine in which it is believed the spirits of the Japanese imperial family’s ancestors are enshrined, dating back, legend has it, to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the emperors claimed descent. After each rebuilding, these imperial deities are transferred to a new dwelling – in a ceremony which takes place at night so that profane eyes may not view the sacred objects in which the spirits reside. In this relocation, it is believed, the deities renew their power in a way that rejuvenates the strength of the whole nation.

Religion and politics have long been intertwined here but at no time more so than when Japan’s emperor in 1868 – in an attempt to end the old feudal shogun warlord culture and replace it with the thriving political and industrial models of Western Europe – created State Shinto to unite the nation. Shintoism was purged of the “alien” Buddhist influences with which it had coexisted since the sixth century. Buddhist symbols and monks were expelled, many of the statues ending up in the British Museum thanks to the intervention of a far-sighted British diplomat. The rebuilt Ise shrine The rebuilt Ise shrine

This marriage of animism and ancestor worship found its high point in Ise. Shintoism became an imperial cult in which all Japan was compelled to venerate the emperor – a state of affairs that persisted until the Japanese were defeated in the Second World War and the Americans forced Emperor Hirohito to go on radio to declare to the nation that he was no longer a god.

In the years that followed 1945, the old religion became discredited. All the more so after ultra-nationalist Shinto priests enshrined even the spirits of Japanese war criminals at the Yasukuni shrine of the war dead. Socialism began to replace Shintoism for modern Japanese. By 1998, the numbers visiting Ise had dipped below six million a year.

But then things began to change. The next generation had grown up without the demoralisation and guilt that the war had brought. Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and, because the date changes in Japan with the advent of a new emperor, the feeling of a new era dawned. The events of the 1990s only compounded that: Japan’s property bubble burst, leading to a long decade of deflation and stagnation. The old Shinto traditions, with their simplicity and piety, seemed an antidote to the failed consumerist materialism of the Japanese Dream. Unable to afford foreign holidays, people stayed at home and pilgrimages to the ancient shrines revived. At Ise, the numbers climbed, to eight million after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and to 14 million this year.

The ritual of transferring the sun goddess to a new shrine building is part of that. But there is something more. In 2000, Shinto representatives attended a conference of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in Kathmandu. There they had a revolutionary epiphany. They declared that they now realised that spirits and deities did not reside just in natural phenomena in Japan, but all over the world. Shinto has joined the global ecology movement.

The acceptance of Shinto into the alliance of world religions prompted the United Nations to piggy-back on this month’s event in Japan to have some faith input into the Sustainable Development Goals, which it is hoped world leaders will sign at the UN General Assembly in September 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals are to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which were the benchmarks for international attempts to reduce poverty in the developing world since 2000. They expire at the end of next year.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a good deal more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals, which applied only to poor nations, and succeeded in some countries more than in others. The new benchmarks will cover all nations and include targets for curbing climate change with a rising world population. They will be more expensive and harder to agree on.

The UN has decided that the world’s religions can help here. It flew its Assistant Secretary General, Olav Kjorven, out to Japan to tell religious leaders that the shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals were in part due to the fact that they had been drafted by technocrats and economists, whose focus was narrowly materialist. A Shinto ceremony of dedication A Shinto ceremony of dedication

The faith leaders will have some time to offer their input. But their initial responses were instructive. Some were uncompromisingly austere. “It’s about greed versus nature,” said one of the Chinese Taoist masters, Lei Gaoyi. “We need to stop taking carbon that’s taken hundreds of millions of years to create and spewing it into the atmosphere, upending the delicate balance that Taoism teaches us is required for humanity to flourish.”

This was an interesting take from someone from the country which is the largest producer of greenhouse-gas emissions in the world. But it may be a sign that things could yet change, even in China. Ren Xuehua, 23, a Chinese Buddhist, confided that there were many among the children of the country’s affluent entrepreneur class for whom material prosperity had not brought happiness. She was at the conference with her father, Ren Ping, a Confucian, who is the chief executive of a £500m hydroelectric company. “Young people now want values,” she said.

The UN may be looking for more than values. It wants help from religion with implementation. That is a realistic expectation. “Some 75 per cent of Kenya’s schools are run by churches or faith groups,” said Abdalla Kamwana of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims. “If the religions had been involved in devising the MDGs, they would have been better delivered,” agreed Bishop Frederick Shoo, of Tanzania.

Dr Husna Ahmad, the Secretary General of the World Muslim Leadership Forum, said: “The UN needs a global workforce of volunteers who are altruistic, and passionate about saving our blessed planet for future generations.”

“Faith leaders have the trust of the people,” added Bishop Nathan Kyamanywa, of Uganda. “What a religious leader says has weight.”

This is not just talk. Religious leaders involved with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation have, for more than a decade, been running major projects to improve farming, land management, health and sanitation, and to curb the illegal wildlife trade. But religion has more to offer than mere delivery. The chief shortcoming of the Millennium Development Goals was that “they lacked passion”, said Bishop Walter Thomas, a US Baptist, “they were just tasks on a tick-list”. Faith, said the Kenyan environmentalist Dorcas Otieno, “would’ve put emphasis on attitudinal and moral change.” Foreign pilgrims perform ritual ablutions before entering the shrine Foreign pilgrims perform ritual ablutions before entering the shrine

The rebuilding of the Ise shrine offers a living symbol of that. Each 20-year renewal needs centuries of preparation, and takes eight years to complete. More than 12,000 cypress logs are required, many of a thickness which requires them to be around 200 years old. The wood for the columns on either side of the shrine, 4.5ft in diameter, is from trees some 400 years old.

The last time any timber was taken from the shrine precincts was in 1391. Eight hundred years of deforestation followed. Wood had to be imported from elsewhere. But in 1923, Shinto’s Shrine Precincts Preservation Committee set up a 200-year plan for replanting the shrine’s own forests. It will be another 120 years before most will be ready to be used. But this year, for the first time, around 20 per cent of the smaller trees used in the rebuild came from the replanting.

Perhaps ancient religions have a lesson to teach the rest of the world. If they have not left it too late.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick