The puzzle of prayer in secular, modern Japan

I am curious about Japanese people’s attitude towards spiritual matters, such as worship and prayer.

Is prayer simply a superstition? Does it aim to persuade the gods to intervene and do magic on earth? Or does it have a deeper purpose?

This week, a charming story appeared on the web about a 70-year-old Japanese woman named Yumiko Campbell, who lived in Australia for many years before returning to Osaka.

Divine reward

According to the Media Project website, Yumiko believes that if she tidies litter from the river near her home in Japan, the gods will reward her – especially if she finds significant objects such as children’s toys.

“We have a super strange religion,” Yumiko told the reporter Meagan Clark.

“We have a super strange religion” Yumiko Campbell

It is true that Japanese religious practice can appear strange to those from Christian societies, especially the United States.

But actually, the rituals would not look particularly strange to people from many Asian countries, where respect for the environment and one’s ancestors are central to religious thinking.

Yumiko leaves a cup of steaming green tea at her mother’s shrine every morning, then rings a bell. She was six years old when her mother died.

Spark Joy

The piece also suggests links between Japanese religion and the best-selling author, Marie Kondo. Her book Spark Joy is about how to achieve serenity through decluttering household junk. It has sold more than five million copies and has been turned into a Netflix series.

The article describes a scene from the series in which Marie Kondo enters the home of an American family, ready to help them tidy up.

“Eyes closed, Kondo leans forward onto her palms, facing backward, then folds her hands in her lap. The guys smile politely in amusement and curiosity. Kondo speaks to them through a translator she brings, who echoes Kondo’s soft, hopeful voice.

“I’d love for you to picture your vision for your home,” she says.

“Communicate that to your home.”

Shinto faith

The article suggests a link to Shintoism – an ancient form of religion in which humans seek to live in harmony with the divine spirits which inhabit everything, even inanimate objects such as volcanoes, rivers and buildings.

“Shintoism, for me, is not particularly a religion in my life, but it is a natural habit in our daily life,” Kondo told a reddit user in 2015. “Shintoism, for Japanese people, is not the same religious feeling as a lot of American people might feel, but is pretty much blended into our daily lifestyle or habits.”

Prayer for 2019

One of the national newspapers in Japan, the Sankei, provided a reminder of this in an article it published on New Year’s Day.

A celebrated calligrapher named Shoko Kanazawa has chosen the symbol for prayer – known in Japanese as inori – as the appropriate character for 2019.

The article explains says: “Prayer is very important for Shoko. She prays every time she begins a new piece of calligraphy. Her mother Yasuko – who has been raising Shoko by herself ever since Shoko’s father passed away when Shoko was just 14 years old – prays constantly, from the time she wakes up until the end of the day.”

I feel moved by those words. To ask questions about theology seems to miss the point. The challenge is to consider what place we give to prayer in our own lives and how that affects our thoughts, behaviour and relationships.