Monday, February 07, 2005

Sister # 3 and Religious Freedom

I have four younger sisters and, in order to spare people confusion when I refer to them, I use a simple numbering system based on the order in which they followed me into the world—not that they were really following me per se. Sister #3 is Mary Elizabeth Elliot and she is currently majoring in Russian in Hakodate. This past weekend she took the ferry across the Strait of Tsugaru to spend the weekend in Kazamaura with me.

Since I left home once when I was sixteen, and for good when I was seventeen, hanging out with family is a novel treat. We spent the weekend together working on Mary’s term paper on religion in Russia today, with an emphasis on social and political protection of religious freedom. The research Mary was doing gave me occasion to reflect that in North America there are powerful, evolving ideas gaining ground as social code and that it will probably not be long before believers with convictions contrary to those codes will pay the consequences. And today I was reminded once again that in Japan the separation of religion and state is to a large degree international window dressing with very little grounding in public or political commitment. In this morning’s school assembly the principle casually touched on the role of certain Shinto shrines and customs pertinent to this season of high school and college entrance examinations. In the years leading up to the Pacific War the imperial government skirted the inconvenient provision in the Meiji Constitution for separation of religion and state by declaring State Shintoism to be non-religion—to in fact transcend religion. Religious congregations and organizations that submitted to State Shintoism and “veneration” of the imperial person were spared . . . . Freedom of religion has often been defined as freedom to worship as one sees fit, but far more important is the freedom not to worship “other” gods. One of the first things I discussed with my “handlers” when I came to Kazamaura was that I would not help pull the local gods in the festivals, nor partake in the veneration of ancient spirits or of the deceased. My service obligates me to submit to death rather than to worshipping anything other than the Creator, and many have met that obligation over the centuries. Admittedly, my stand in Kazamaura did not create any waves because I am a foreigner, but for my Japanese brothers and sisters the ever present pressure to carry out the outward form of worship (and that is what it is known to be, no matter what secular Westerners may make of it) on the holy days, in the festivals, and at temple funerals (a little leftover Edo era State Buddhism thrown in) is a powerful social force.

These are student “festival cloaks” hanging up in one of my village’s elementary schools. On the one hem is written the name of the school, and on the other the name of the local Shinto shrine and the god it houses. On the day I took this photograph the entire student body was gathered for a lecture by one of the shrine’s executives on the history of the hamlet’s god (how it was purchased and brought back from one of the great shrine’s of Japan in order to watch over the neighbourhood) and on the religious meaning and significance of the shrine festival that was about to take place that weekend.

On the first night of Mary’s arrival I made kimchi-chige for supper, which was fine with her until she discovered that, bachelor-like, I was set to eat it every meal until it was gone. Needless to say, she insisted on making something else for the following evening.