• 2018.08.30
  • Japanese Gods and Nature
I am back in Japan for a little while at the moment.

My arrival back in Japan was about 2 weeks after an earthquake in the north of Osaka prefecture with a seismic intensity of lower 6. Since I got back, heavy rain has continued falling and there have been landslides. A typhoon directly hit Japan and a record-breaking heatwave hasn't let up. What on earth is happening to Japan?!

The earthquake in northern Osaka was big, but the death toll did not top 4, and I was greatly relieved: "Just what you'd expect in Japan! But it wouldn't turn out to be a second Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, would it?!" But then the scale of the damage from the heavy rain just kept growing bigger. I watched the news casually thinking "Wow, it really is raining a lot," but cars were being washed away, houses were being damaged by landslides, and the number of deaths just kept going up as I watched.
It was really dreadful.

Japan has long experienced frequent natural disasters, so I believe the Japanese people have relatively strong mental resilience in the face of disaster. But I wonder whether their spirits might be dented by a continuous string of unpleasant experiences.

There has been an unusual heatwave for days on end, with school events being held in gymnasiums, and PE classes, even swimming, being cancelled. Even after the start of summer holidays, public announcements are advising children who play outdoors to stay indoors. Without being able to let loose outdoors, splashing in the water at park fountains, catching cicadas, and so on like in a usual summer, I wonder if kids will experience a build-up of frustration.

I think that unlike the Western attitude of overcoming and subduing nature, in Japan the ideas of coexistence with nature and a sense of gratitude to nature have been strong. That's because Japan has always had an animistic idea of nature with "8 million" gods dwelling in everything, including the water, the sky, the plants, and even the rocks.

I think the relation between Japanese people's idea of nature and Japanese culture is very deep. An easy way of understanding this is to look at Japanese gardens, and if we stick with the summer theme, you see that they have uchimizu (sprinkling water, for keeping down dust and cooling off the ground), fireworks festivals, goldfish (bowls), bamboo screens, and other clever ways of giving you a slight sense of coolness, amid the heat of summer.

All the same, I'm not talking about anything quite so laid back as municipal public address announcements like "DING DONG - It's time to make your wind chimes sound everyone," but systems that just keep on increasing the rules and put out heat readings are really not the answer.

Today I went to the main festival in the local area to see 2 mikoshi (portable shrines), treasures of the local community, being carried around the shopping district then down the main street, and back to their home shrine. With the gods dwelling in them, the portable shrines went throughout the local area sharing good fortune, carrying our human prayers for nature to the home shrine. The festival is a traditional ritual performed since ancient times to quell nature's destructive side, which causes earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.
As I watched the men carrying the portable shrines, their voices calling out powerfully, rhythmically moving as one, I simply forgot the heat and I felt good.

When I was telling my son, standing next to me, about mikoshi, he asked, "What do the gods look like?", "They have to fit inside one of those shrines, so they're not that big, are they?" Confidently replying to him that anything is possible, because in Japan people believe that the gods dwell in all natural things, I stepped onto a flower bed by the side of the road to get a better view of the mikoshi as it came near. My son pointed out, "Mom, you're stepping on the gods…" When I looked down at the ground I saw I had already trampled quite a lot of green-colored gods.


  • Megumi Ota
  • JobConservator, interpreter, and coordinator / Insitu (restoration), Kaminari-sama / Novajika, and others

I’m a conservator and preservationist living in Portugal. I specialize primarily in paintings (murals) and gold leaf design, and am involved with UNESCO World Heritage structures as well as the interior of the Palace of Belém. I derive great satisfaction from having close ties to my community in the rural village near the Silver Coast where I live. My hobby is gardening.

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