Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Grand Shrine of Ise Rebuilt


The rites climaxing the sixty-first Regular Removal of the Grand Shrine of Ise were undertaken on October 2 at Naiku or the "Inner Shrine" and October 5 at Geku or the "Outer Shrine."

The Grand Shrine of Ise is in fact a complex composed of a large number of branch and affiliated shrines,centered on the major shrines of Kotaijingu or Naiku, dedicated to the ancestral deity of Japan's imperial family, and the Toyouke Daijingu or Geku, which enshrines a deity of harvest and foodstuffs.

Due to its association with Japan's imperial family, the Grand Shrine is sometimes located at the "core" of the shrine Shinto establishment in Japan, and its rebuilding at twenty-year intervals, culminating with the moving of the "god-body" (shintai) in a mysterious nighttime ritual procession is considered the high point of the shrine's ritual calendar. The ceremonies on the nights of October 2 and 5 this year were each attended by over three-thousand special guests.

While the procession of some 350 priests toward the old shrine begins under the illumination of electric lights, all lights are extinguished the moment the procession begins to move with the "god body" from the precincts of the old shrine toward the new. Moving with painfully measured steps, the procession requires about fifteen minutes to travel the one-hundred or so meters' distance from the point it exits the old shrine gateway to the entry of the new shrine. Since the procession is undertaken in total darkness, with only a few fir torches to dimly light the way, the observer sees nothing but dimly flickering shadows of priests carrying the treasure items from the old shrine into the new, and the occasional flicker of light against the curtain which screens the "god-body" from the profane gaze of viewers. Overall, the impression is one of watching a shadowy, moving tableau of Japan's mythic past.

With the exception of a century-long lapse in the sixteenth century due to domestic warfare, the Grand Shrine has observed its Regular Removals every twenty years since the custom was first officially established in the seventh century. This year's rebuilding actually began with the cutting of timber some eight years ago, and was said to involve a total cost of some 32,700 million yen, the equivalent of around U.S. $305 million. This sum was raised through donations from private individuals and Shinto shrines throughout Japan.

The enormous overall cost and the scarcity of prime Japanese cedar logs required for the rebuilding of the Grand Shrine, together with the gradual disappearance of traditional Japanese craft skills has prompted some observers to question whether the rebuilding can possibly be continued, particularly given the lack of interest in Shinto by many modern Japanese. This apparent low ebb of enthusiasm for Ise and Japan's indigenous religious tradition forms one of the crucial issues confronting Shintoists today, and is leading to a variety of attempts to rekindle public interest. In anticipation of this year's Regular Removal, for example, one of the main shopping streets outside the Naiku was remodeled in the attempt to reproduce the atmosphere of the early modern town, when the folk faith centered on pilgrimage to Ise was at its peak. But it is questionable whether such "gimmicks" will be effective in drawing strong support to what, from Tokyo, tends to be viewed by many as little more than a large regional shrine. In short, it remains unanswered whether the Shinto establishment will be able to stimulate the high level of religious and nationalistic fervor required to maintain the Regular Removals, particularly against the background of an increasingly urbanized and secularized populace.

-- Oct 1, 1993, Norman HAVENS

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:43

Copyright © 2001 Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. All Rights Reserved.