August 12, 2013

Sacred Lines and Symbols: A Journey Through Japan

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

One of the first things I noticed when walking around Shinagawa-ku, an area in Tokyo, were these folded paper ornaments outside of many homes and businesses. They looked like this:

Jw 1

I later learned that these paper streamers, called shide, were hung in preparation for a Shinto festival. A piece of paper might not be a particularly religious object and yet, folded in this fashion, it became a significant symbol to believers. 

I started thinking about these folded ornaments in terms of how different cultures in cities overlap onto public spaces. Walking around Tokyo and Kyoto, I was astounded at the presence of the sacred layer in public. Despite being a very secular society, with over 70% of the population reporting no religious affiliation (compared with 15-20% in the U.S.), Japan’s urban public spaces are punctuated with lots of symbols, statues, and little shrines.

Kyoto’s older Higashiyama neighborhood, for example, is filled with little statues that reminded me of the Roman Catholic pantheon of patron saints who supposedly intercede with God on a believer’s behalf for seemingly any situation (e.g., Bartholomew the Apostle for excessive twitching, and St. John of God for those who suffer from skin diseases, etc.). On a guided walk of these objects I came across two statues of historical couple Hideyoshi and Nene. A little sign instructs passersby to rub their heads at the same time for a happy marriage. (Nene was Hideyoshi’s primary wife but not his only one, as was the custom in 1500s Japan).  I then came across a temmangu ox, which, rubbing with your right hand, will bear your burdens for you. There were other statues too. 

In Kyoto I took a picture I felt captured the everydayness of little wayside shrines, called hokora, as well as a melding of key concepts in Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life­. It is of a small shrine in what is now a parking spot for a Suzuki motorcycle. In some of these shrines, I’m told, house a statue of Jizo, the protector of travelers, but in this one there are two ghost-like figures dressed in white (the color of death and purity), one bigger than the other.

Durkheim saw religion as a system that separates the world into the sacred (i.e., objects with spiritual significance) and the profane (i.e., objects that are mundane and everyday). The distinction between the two guides human thought and activity, even if the objects in question are not explicitly religious.

For example, my students get nervous when I talk about how New Yorkers felt the World Trade Center was banal, crass, and ugly building and yet, through the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the once profane icon of American commerce has been transformed into a sacred symbol. (The lesson over symbolism, particularly Al Qaeda’s mission to attack symbols of American military and economic power, was mostly lost in the discourse about what occurred that day.) All this is to say that the definitions of sacred and profane, at times, change and can even cause a little emotional distress when thinking through them.

Jw2Take, for another example, the engraving in front of this shrine. It’s a swastika. At first, it is as disorienting to see something that gives me a visceral turn of the stomach due to its association with Nazi Germany. It is, however, an ancient symbol used throughout Asia that meant “to be good.”

Thinking about the multiple uses of the symbol reminds me of a story a friend told me. Traveling through Vietnam, my friend knew clothing would sometimes have a swastika on it and carefully inspected several shirts before buying them. Back in the U.S., after spending the entire day walking around Manhattan with one of her new shirts, her husband noticed something, saying, “I think we missed one.” It turned out that a large swastika pattern was only visible when you looked at the shirt from a distance, and she was mortified to have walked around so in public with it. Meanings, she painfully learned, change and are based on context.

From my sociological readings and particularly western upbringing, I grew accustomed to a pretty clear Durkheimian demarcation of the sacred and the profane. But the Shinto religion is a rather eclectic one, which includes the belief that the sacred is hidden throughout the natural world, making for lots of curious juxtapositions in public space.

The Japanese paper streamers were often hung from straw ropes, believed to attract good spirits and they reminded me of another sacred symbolism in New York, the eruv. This is a symbolic boundary denoted by a wire hung overhead, sometimes even a translucent fishing wire, used in Jewish communities to demarcate of a zone wherein certain activities are permitted. Although it’s a little more complicated than this, essentially on the divine day of rest (Shabbat) observant Jews are forbidden to work, carry things, or even push a baby stroller in public spaces, but the eruv allows these activities to be conducted within its boundaries. The wire is hung over sidewalks and streets in a continuous loop, making public areas, sacred ones. I learned about it in Harlem, when a tour guide used it as an example of how lots of interesting urban phenomena are hidden in plain sight.

Thinking about the Japanese shrines, I looked up the Manhattan eruv, to see how many blocks were designated as this kind of religious zone. One block? Five? Ten? I was surprised to learn that most of Manhattan is encircled by an eruv. It is visible sacred culture, if you know where to look for it. (Here’s a Google Map of it, and here’s a list of eruvin that might include your community!)

Why do all these symbols and lines matter? Well, there are secular and religious purposes, from eruvs and property lines, and they are significant, whether they matter to you or not! My travels allowed me to question the secular public sphere, and even gave me a new way of thinking about another layer of symbolic boundary-making in cities. If these symbols and boundaries don’t matter to you, perhaps you can think about those that do concern you and your particular worldview.


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