Studying Shinto in Hawaii - Lewis N. Clark
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Studying Shinto in Hawaii

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Shinto, or “The Way of the Kami,” is a difficult religion for Westerners to understand. It is not organized with an authority at the top, it has no central text or doctrine, and in many cases, both scholars from the East and West do not even consider it a religion. 

It began at least 5,000 years ago, but it was around the 6 th century, with the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, that the Japanese truly began to identify and define their own distinct faith traditions.

If you can remember one thing about Shinto, it should be this: that it is very individualized, and just like in India with Hinduism, it varies from village to village. Each Japanese village has its own Kami, or Earth Spirit, that protects and guides it. Everything on Earth, including animals, humans, plants, etc., are spirits and part of the Kami, and are therefore Divine. 

In Shinto’s formative years, each community likely chose something that they could personally relate to. For example, in a fishing village, people envisioned the Divine as a Fish God, which directly related to their livelihoods, and indeed, to their very survival.

The Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha shrine is part of the Shrine Shinto tradition, one of the four main sects of Shinto. It was founded in 1920 to perpetuate Shinto traditions in Hawaii, and at that time a Gobunrei, or shrine deity (in the form of a stick, because the Divine is in all things) was brought from Kotohira-gu, a Shinto shrine in Japan. The deity from this village has long been associated with seafaring, and it seemed a natural fit for Kotohira Jinsha. The shrine quickly grew in membership, and in the years since, many other Gobunrei have been offered to Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha from shrines throughout Japan.

In the next two decades, a community center, martial arts center, archery range, outdoor theater, Japanese language school, and sumo ring were built. However, after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, all cultural and religious activities ceased, many of the shrine’s priests were forcibly detained or deported, and the shrine was confiscated by the government.


Almost a decade later, after a protracted legal battle, a district court ruled favorably on the shrine’s behalf, noting that the federal government’s seizing of the property was unlawful. It was the first ever lawsuit by a Japanese organization in the US. Enduring many hardships, Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha has managed to overcome all of them, and it again offers Shinto services to the community of Hawaii to this day, including seasonal festivals, private ceremonies, new year celebrations, baby blessings, and more.

(Photo courtesy of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha)

With the help of a grant from my university, and Reverend Masa Takizawa’s generosity, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the shrine and participate in one of its rituals. From the moment you enter the property, all aspects of the grounds are sacred, and the white torii along the walkway is your first test of purification. The path under the torii is God, or Kami, as you walk. 

(Photo courtesy of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha)

To your side is the water basin where you purify yourself. (A quick distinction should be made that Shinto does not hold that humans are inherently evil, but that they simply need to be cleansed every so often.) At this basin you wash your hands and mouth. To your other side is a guardian animal.

Next you shake the rope, calling the attention of the Gods. You can offer a prayer at this time or when you put an offering in the box at the entrance of the shrine. (In the initial years of Shinto, it was believed that rice and sake were first offered, and then people gradually began to offer money.) At the actual shrine, it is more precise to say that you “appreciate” instead of “pray.” 

In a simple ritual, both you and the priest face the Kami; neither is closer or further apart. A drum, often used to quiet the audience in the beginning of a ritual, begins to beat and you become more fully immersed as it seems to beat through your own heart.

(Photos courtesy of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha)

Using a gohei, or a wooden wand with white paper strips wrapped around it, the priest waves the strips through the air, chanting Japanese incantations. Amidst clapping and bowing, he carries the Kami (in the form of a stick) and offers it a prayer when he sets it in its rightful place in the shrine. 

(Photo courtesy of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha)

Soon you are invited yourself to approach the God and offer it a plant, a symbol of the sacredness of nature. Though it is a simple ritual, you are allowed to experience the Divine in a personal way, one that you can carry with you throughout the day.

Another unique aspect of Shinto is that women are allowed to become full-fledged priestesses, and female worshippers often participate in rituals themselves. I was allowed to dress up as a miko, or shrine maiden. Miko help with the daily tasks in shrines in addition to performing sacred cleansing and sacred dances.

Reverend Masa Takizawa, who has been the shrine’s priest since 1994, said that growing up with Shinto “ingrained in me values like filial piety, loyalty, respect for nature and the sacredness of life - all things living.” In addition, he stressed that both humans and nature are sacred; neither one is better than the other.

In asking about how people of the Shinto faith “live green,” he replied that it is an ancient, rather than a modern concept for the Japanese. He elaborated, “Sustainability, perpetuation of nature and humanity IS Shinto. The world is now attempting to foster a sustainable planet by changing the way humanity thinks by developing a more sustainable consciousness. The Japanese are re-visiting ancient Shinto concepts to revive the spirit of reverence and gratitude towards all of great nature.”

(Photo courtesy of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha)

Shinto offers its practitioners ways to personally connect with the Gods, find the Divine in the world around us, and much more. Throughout the last century, the Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha shrine has sought to provide not only spiritual guidance, but to provide a sense of community as well. If history is any lesson, it will continue to serve the local Hawaiian community in the centuries to come.