Catholic regular at Shinto shrines to visit pope at the Vatican

July 3, 2009

yasukuniPope Benedict has been criticised for his handling of relationships with the world’s other religions. On Monday Tuesday, he is due to receive at the Vatican Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso, who has little difficulty with mixing and matching various faiths.

Though an avowed member of Japan’s tiny Roman Catholic minority, Aso regularly pays respects and offers gifts at Shinto shrines. Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto is polytheistic — its doctrine says the world is crowded with divinities, mostly in natural phenomena such as the sun, moon, wind and mountains. Combining this with Christianity’s monotheism may sound like a contradiction, but it is something many Japanese Catholics take in their stride.

(Photo: Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, 31 May 2007/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Aso’s visits have in the past included trips to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which is dedicated to war dead and to 14 people judged by an Allied tribunal to be Class A war criminals. Many in Asia see it as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. But Aso has stayed away since becoming prime minister last year, probably more to avoid offending China than for religious reasons. For more on Aso and his faith, see our post about him when he took office.

Whether visits to Yasukuni overstep the boundaries of Catholic doctrine is a difficult question, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan. “This a very delicate problem,” a spokesman for the conference told me. “There is the issue of how far the Vatican understands the real nature of Yasukuni.”

In the 1930s, when visits to Shinto shrines were made compulsory by the military government, Japanese Catholics asked the Vatican for advice on whether this was acceptable. The reply was that the visits were an expression of patriotism and loyalty, and therefore permitted, the spokesman for the conference said, adding that this may have been an attempt to avert a repeat of the persecution that all but wiped out Christianity in Japan in the 16th century. A second request for instructions from the Vatican after Japan’s World War II defeat and the official separation of religion and state got the same answer in 1951.

aso-jerusalem“But the problem is that Yasukuni shrine treats those who died in the war as gods. The Catholic teaching is that people cannot be gods,” the spokesman said. “So worshipping is not allowed. It is not forbidden to go there to think of those who died, but worshipping is not allowed.”

(Photo: Taro Aso visits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on 14 Aug 2007, when he was Japan’s foreign minister/Ronen Zvulun)

“It is the same for other Shinto shrines. As far as we are concerned, there is no god other than the Holy Trinity,” he added.

Visits by ordinary members of the public to Shinto shrines do not usually require the recitation of any prayers, which would be beyond the pale for a Catholic because they would be prayers to gods that Christians do not believe in. Visitors usually conduct a ritual purification by washing their mouths at a well outside the shrine entrance, then clap their hands and bow at the entrance to an inner courtyard, often throwing offerings of money into a box, or buying good luck charms at shops within the compound.

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