Goran nasai. Watashi wa subete o atarashiku shimasu.
Ιδου καινα ποιω πάντα
Behold, I make all things new.
Revelation 21:5 KJV
Naikū 内宮, the great shrine at Ise 伊勢, Japan, is the earthly residence of the sun goddess Amaterasu 天照, who is the divine ancestor of the imperial family.
According to the Nihon shoki 日本書紀, around 2,000 years ago Yamatohime-no-mikoto, daughter of Emperor Suinin, set out from Mt. Miwa in search of a permanent location to worship the goddess Amaterasu, wandering for 20 years through the regions of Ohmi and Mino. Her search eventually brought her to Ise, where she established Naikū after hearing the voice of Amaterasu saying, "Ise is a secluded and pleasant land. In this land I wish to dwell." Previously, Amaterasu had been worshiped at the Imperial residence in Yamato, then briefly at Kasanui in the eastern Nara basin.
Strangely, the traditional establishment date of the shrine is 4 B.C., the same year as Jesus of Nazareth is thought to have been born. The first shrine building at Naikū was erected by Emperor Temmu (678-686), with the first ceremonial rebuilding being carried out by his wife, Empress Jito, in 692. It is the ceremonial rebuilding of the shrine that concerns us. The shrine buildings at Naikū and Gekū, as well as the Uji Bridge, are rebuilt every 20 years as a part of the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and as a way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next. The most recent rebuilding of Ise Shrine occurred in 2013.
The wood to rebuild the shrines comes from a sacred mountain where the gods are supposed to dwell. No one cuts wood there, except to rebuild or repair shrines or the imperial residences. The Japanese emperor is considered divine.
There are always telltale traces of the Gospel truth scattered throughout the religions of mankind, of ancient times as well as those of today. Why is this? In my view, it seems to me that this is part of the preparation of all nations for receiving the Good News of Jesus Christ before He comes to them. Just as satan plants tares among the wheat, so does our God plant wheat among the tares, hints, so to speak. He does this, so that when Jesus Christ the Son of God arrives in a culture, He isn’t a total stranger, and His words are not completely unintelligible. The Good News, in fact, reveals the full significance of the hints planted in each culture, and completes them.
There are many hints in Japanese culture, that Jesus comes to build upon and complete, if we let Him. This rebuilding of temples every generation is not done only to teach carpentry skills and as a symbol of the renewal of nature. Far from it! What this rebuilding demonstrates is the acts of the living and true God, who says, “Behold, I make all things new,” and He not only says it, He does it as well. As followers of Jesus and disciples of the Word of God, we should take this lesson to heart. Even among the ancient myths and customs can be found reminders of, and even correctives to, our faith and works. The Christian world has built mightily and in everlasting stone the temples where we worship, and this may demonstrate some aspect of God’s sovereignty. But if the Church is the people of God, and the Temple of the living One, well, I think we can learn something from the Japanese about the crafting of buildings for worship, don’t you?
In April, 2008, I was in Japan for two full weeks, and Ise was one of the places I visited. What I observed, not at the shrines but in the every day life of the Japanese people, was the pervasive, rampant and hopeless materialism of many of them. I don’t mean that there aren’t spiritual people in Japan. There certainly are those who have leisure and resources to pursue the many historic and artistic traditions that comprise their religious culture. But the majority of people are driven to work hard, almost to knock themselves out achieving, and then trying to fill what little leisure time they have with meaningless pastimes—gambling, drinking or entertainment—and their souls have no real refreshment. Life is accepted with a kind of hopeless fatalism.
Shinto is an animistic religion. Everything in the world, especially in the wild, is inhabited by spirits. The human response to this ranges from superstitious fear to veneration of what they know not, except by traditional myths. Worship consists mostly in asking for favors, and seeking oracles about the future. This goes very deep, much deeper than what we consider “superstition” in the West. We haven’t seen the likes of this in our cultures for a thousand years, and our wiccans and druids are paltry posers compared to the priests of Shinto and the devotees of the shrines. To an ordinary tourist, it adds color and flavor to a visit to Japan. But the Japanese people, who think of themselves as the only divine race and their land as the country of the gods, are in need of salvation as much as anyone. Whether they or we realise it enough, the traditional culture and religion of Japan is very close to spiritual implosion, much as Greco-Roman culture was in the time of Christ.
And our response is…?
My visit was during the Orthodox Easter season, and I attended liturgy at Nagoya’s Annunciation Orthodox church, a very small, humble community meeting in a large converted house. The service was chanted in the archaic form of Japanese that was translated by the original 19th century Russian missionaries. My friend Taka who agreed to come with me is not a Christian, but I had hopes he would hear something in the morning service of Holy Saturday that would confirm my witness to him about Christ’s power over sin and death. He couldn’t understand a thing he heard! It was as meaningless to him as were the Buddhist mantras chanted at the morning service at Kosho-ji temple. Or, perhaps he wasn't really paying attention?
The Orthodox community had purchased land in central Nagoya for the erection of a proper church. I saw the model. It was to be a replica of an 11th century Russian cathedral, an imposing cube with arches along the roof line and covered with numerous domes. This is what the people of Nagoya will see when they pass by—a Russian cultural phenomenon. That is what Christ will be for them. As of today, it appears that the new church has been built and is now in use. The blog that shows it is called Russia Ha Japan. See what I mean?
My mind wanders back to Ise, and the shrines that get torn down and rebuilt of new materials every twenty years. A religion of nature spirits is infused with hints of the Christ who makes all things new, and the faith of Jesus is overlaid with the crust of a thousand years of plaster and gilding.
When witnessing Christ to a nation without tradition, without history or roots, show them the ancient Tree and teach them how to eat of its fruit and live forever.
When witnessing Christ to a nation devoted to tradition, history and the nature gods of its ancient land, show them the living Christ who makes all things new, who empties Hades of its captives, and who walks among them, unhindered by our past, gathering His sheep.