Foreign Student (hereinafter FS): Most Japanese seem to visit a shrine or temple in the New Year. Are the Japanese that religious? Teacher (hereinafter T): Though people usher in the New Year by making wishes at a shrine or temple, for the majority this is a New Year’s event, rather than something religious. FS: I understand that temples are Buddhist, but who is worshiped at a shrine? T: Shrines are Shinto buildings where deities are worshiped; these range from the Sun god to the spirits of impressive natural features such as mountains, rivers, rocks, and forests, to animals, and even great human beings – anything that inspires awe or a sense of mystery in human beings. The population of Japan is about 130 million, and it is said that over 90 million people visit temples or shrines. FS: Are there any Shinto shrines in Tokyo where humans are honored? T: Of course. The most famous of these is the Meiji Shrine near Harajuku Station. With more than three million visitors in the New Year each year, it is the most popular shrine in Japan. Worshiped here is the Emperor Meiji – the symbol of the Meiji Restoration that led Japan to modernize. Togo Shrine is also located nearby. There Admiral Togo is deified. Admiral TOGO Heihachiro surprised the world by defeating the Russian Baltic fleet – at that time the world’s most powerful naval force – at the Sea of Japan Naval Battle. He was revered as a hero just like British admiral Horatio NELSON – who defeated the allied forces of France and Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar. FS: Are there any other such shrines in Tokyo? T: The Nogi Shrine is located in Akasaka. Commander NOGI Maresuke – who like Togo led Japan to victory in the Russo-Japan war – is honored here. The battle of 203-Meter Heights on a hill above Port Arthur – Russia’s most strategically important military base – was fierce. He impressed the people of the world by not disgracing his vanquished foe Russian General Anatoly Stoessel in accordance with the bushido code of honor. By killing himself and his wife after the death of the Emperor Meiji, he is also known for being a loyal retainer. FS: Every time ministers visit Yasukuni Shrine, it sparks an international controversy. Who is honored there? T: This shrine was built to enshrine dead soldiers from the Boshin War and other wars that took place during the Meiji Restoration, later however, those who died defending the nation were also included. Soldiers who died in the Second World War were also prayed for. It was considered to be an honor to be enshrined here, even though the government used this to boost public support for the war effort. As Prime Minister TOJO Hideki and others who were condemned as class A war criminals at the Tokyo Trial were also enshrined later on, China and Korea – countries that had suffered in the war – raised their objections to this. On the other hand, there are members of congress and other people who say that visiting the shrine is an internal issue and a question of personal choice, and that it is only natural that the nation and its citizens display respect for those who died for their country. Putting this into context is the Japanese view of life and death; that the dead cannot be blamed after they pass away. In any case, you might say that the New Year’s visit to a shrine or temple is an important event that reflects Japanese polytheistic religious beliefs.
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