Shintō Comes to America

On Alpine Avenue in Stockton, California, not far from the University of the Pacific, is the site of the original Tsubaki America Grand Shrine. While there had long been Shintō shrines on the islands of Hawaii, where many Japanese lived for over a century, this Shintō shrine was the first to have been built in mainland America. In 1992, the priestsA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... of the Tsubaki shrine in Stockton conducted a ceremony at Rocky Mountain DharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, to enshrine four kamiKami, often translated as “god,” “deity,” or “spirit,” are manifestations of divine presence or awe-inspiring power. The kami rest upon or dwell in a particular place, especially in natural settings of unusual form or stunning beauty. They are... in a newly constructed Shintō shrine there in the mountains. The priests carried four white-wrapped boxes into the shrine, each symbolizing the spirit of the kami. The principal kami enshrined here is Amaterasu OmikamiAmaterasu, the “Heavenly Illuminator,” is often referred to as the Sun Goddess. She is the divine ancestor and tutelary deity of the royal family of Japan and is understood to be the protector of Japan and its people. Amaterasu’s shrine is at Ise, o..., the Sun GoddessGoddess is a term used to refer to the female deity, either in the singular as the supreme divine reality, or in the plural as one of many particular or localized feminine deities. In the Hindu tradition, the Goddess refers to the very powerful, even supr.... That same year, Kannagara Jinja was established by Rev. Koichi Barrish in Granite Falls, Washington. It was here in 2001 that Kannagara Jinja and Tsubaki America merged and became the new home of the Tsubaki Grand ShrineTsubaki Grand Shrine is located in Japan’s Mie prefecture, 300 miles west of Tokyo. It is one of the oldest Shinto Shrines in Japan, with a 2000 year history. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine is the first Shinto organization to have sent priests to the United S... in America. 

In the early days, the house on Alpine Avenue in Stockton appeared to be an ordinary suburban home. Inside, however, at the household altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said., called a kamidanaA kamidana is a small domestic Shinto altar or shelf for the tutelary kami of the house. Offerings of food and drink will be made at the kamidana at the start of each day. A Japanese home may contain several kamidana as well as a butsudana, or Buddhist al..., the Shintō priestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... would make daily offerings to the kami. And behind the house, the distinctive torii gateway marked the path toward the Tsubaki Shrine, located in the garden. A sign at the gateway read:

The name of this shrine in the Tsubaki (English translation Camellia) House is Tsubaki America Grand Shrine. It is a branch shrine of Ise District One Shrine, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, located in Japan’s Mie prefecture, 300 miles west of Tokyo. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is one of the oldest ShintoShinto, the “way of the kami” refers to the indigenous Japanese religious traditions which focus on the worship of kami. Initially, rituals devoted to kami took place outdoors in natural surroundings. Later, wooden structures were constructed to house... Shrines in Japan, with a 2,000-year history.
Japanese culture is based upon Shinto, and the purpose of the house and garden shrine is to serve as a place of cultural exchange and cooperation. Heart to heart dialog, a harmony that will brighten relations, and the mutual understanding of each other’s culture are among our fundamental objectives.
The five kami enshrined in this garden shrine symbolize this philosophy. They are: the Kami of Pioneering, The Kami of the Sun, The Kami of Harmony, The Kami of the Land of America, and the Kami of Source of Life.

Each part of the wooden garden shrine was sent by boat from Japan and assembled in Stockton. The anniversary of its opening was celebrated every year in the early summer, one of three matsuri (or festivals) held each year. Today, the Grand Shrine in Granite Hills host several matsuri, including the fall and spring festivals.

At the Tsubaki Shrine in Stockton, the occasion of the anniversary ceremony began with a rite of purification, all the offerings and participants were purified by the priest using the haraiHarai (honorific: oharai) are rites of purification in the Shinto tradition. wand flowing with white paper strips. The priest would bow deeply to the kami, open the door of the shrine, then dedicate food offerings to the kami. He recited the Shintō prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. called norito. The priests and all those present then offer branches of evergreen, called tamagushi. Finally, all the offerings were removed from the shrine and the door once again closed. 

Rev. Iwasaki, one of the first priests of the Stockton shrine, underscored the challenge of building shrines for the kami in America. “In Japan, most of the shrines were there when people were born, so the idea to build a Shintō shrine did not occur to the Japanese,” he said. But in America as well there is a spiritual sensitivity to the land, especially among the native peoples and those who cherish the natural environment. “There is something spiritual in places like Yosemite and Tahoe,” he noted. It is this reverence for the spirits that rest and abide in the whole of the natural world that provides the most fertile soil for the appreciation of Shintō in America. 

In America, as internationally, there seems to be a special relationship between the Shintō and Unitariana belief in one God that rejects the three persons of the Trinity that has much in common with the belief in the early Christian church about the superiority of God over Jesus and the Anti-Trinitarian writing that emerged during the Protestant Reformation... (later, Unitarian Universalist) traditions. In California, that relationship was strengthened through dialogue and exchange between the Tsubaki Shrine and the Starr King Theological School, part of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. A course on Shintō has been taught at the seminary, and students from the seminary are eligible for a Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship which allows them to visit the Grand Shrine in Suzuka, Japan. This is part of a much wider spiritual sharing. Shintō representatives from both Japan and America have attended the Unitarian Universalist AssociationThe Unitarian Universalist Association came into being in 1961 through the union of two communities of faith: the Unitarians who stressed the oneness of God and the Universalists who insisted on universal salvation. Both movements became popular in 18th- ... Assemblies beginning in 1993 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Reverend Teiji Ochiai conducted a Shintō ceremony for world peace at the Charlotte meeting and provided a workshop for those who wanted to learn more of the Shintō tradition.

It might seem that the Unitarian emphasis on the unity of the Divine and the Shintō appreciation of the myriad kami would find no common ground. A Berkeley student asks just this in a workshop. “If kami are everywhere, why do you need to pray to call them to descend?” The response of the Shintō priest was not theological, but ritual. He said, “If I don’t call the kami, how can I conduct the ceremony? I ask him to here, to this altar. If I didn’t call down, how could I know where to make the offerings?” It is perhaps this locative emphasis, specifying the “where to make the offerings” amidst the vastness and beauty of nature, that balances the universalist vision with a particularist ritual sensibility.


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