Shinto priest: With the Pope in Japan, our efforts to serve peace
by Alberto Berra

Nabeshima Tomohisa, 52, kannushi (chief priest) of the shrine of Yutoku Inari in Kashima (Saga prefecture, Kyushu island, speaks of his hopes linked to the visit of Pope Francis to Japan (November 23-26). "Although of different religions, we have the same heart and the same desires to express: above all the gift of peace for the world". "Christianity is a religion of foreigners but Christ and Mary are like our uncles and aunts who live next to us".

Kashima (AsiaNews) - "In Japan, I would like the Pope to give us a message to place all our efforts at the service of peace": This is the desire of Nabeshima Tomohisa, kannushi (head priest) of the shrine of Yutoku Inari in Kashima (prefecture of Saga, island of Kyushu) about 60 km from Fukuoka.

In an interview with Pime missionary Fr. Alberto Berra, almost 30 years in Japan, the Rev. Nabeshima, 52, explains his vision of the Shinto religion, deeply connected to nature, which is the work of God, and of dialogue with other religions: "God is like a father and a mother. Christ and the Buddha are like the brothers of our father and mother ... Christ and Mary are like our uncles and aunts who live near us ".

Rev. Nabeshima has been cultivating relations with the PIME missionaries (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) for several decades: his three children all attended the Catholic Church pre-school in Kashima, under the direction of Fr. Lorenzo Manerba. His youngest daughter, who is finishing the three-year kindergarten cycle, expressed the desire to play Mary in the school’s Christmas play.

Pope Francis will be in Japan from 23 to 26 November. The theme of the visit is "Protect All Life". Rev. Nabeshima focuses on the value of defending life and nature and reveals that even in a secularized society like Japan, religious yearnings has not been extinguished and continuously resurfaces, even among young people.

The Yutoku Inari Shinto Temple was built about 330 years ago, and is visited by more than 3 million people a year. In the first 3 days of the new year alone it is visited by about 800 thousand people.

Nabeshima Tomohisa has been in this temple since 1993 and this year was named the chief priest (Guji) succeeding his father. While guiding us to visit the inside of the temple, he provides us with some data: in Japan the Shinto temples, large and small, number about 80 thousand and the Kannushi are about 25 thousand. In comparison, there are about 70,000 Buddhist temples, while there are around 130,000 bonzes: in various Buddhist temples there is a common life, which in Shinto is missing.

Rev. Nabeshima, can you take us through the daily life of a Shinto priest?

The activity of kannushi is to be at the service of God. In particular, every day we pray for peace, for a peaceful and prosperous life; not just me, but also all the people employed in the temple. We all gather together every morning to pray and perform the purification ritual: we need to purify our body, but also our heart.

Another activity of the Kannushi includes land purification ceremonies before the beginning of construction work (Jichinsai); the blessing of marriages (as I think you also do in the Catholic Church) and all that concerns festivals and feasts (Matsuri).

In addition to this we have the work of managing the temple with all that it entails: economics, accounting, the direction of maintenance and cleanliness of the environment, the installation of modern technologies such as wi-fi, etc. This is a service we can offer to many visitors who also come from abroad and it gives us the possibility of connecting the elderly with Kannushi.

This temple is visited by people from all over the world and from different religions. My task is also to dialogue with them.

For Japanese society it is important to continually work to keep the peace, even if we say that we are a nation currently at peace. The other day I was invited to the imperial palace to be near the emperor in the enthronement ceremony (Sokuirei Seiden no Ghi). I saw the empress wipe away her tears listening to the emperor's words about the inauguration of the "Reiwa" era where peace is underlined in the name itself. Many people interviewed expressed this desire for peace.

The Shinto temple is an environment that desires peace, promotes joy and restoring bonds between people. I think that you Christians in the churches also work for this purpose. Through this commitment and prayer we contribute to building peace in the world.

Pope Francis comes to speak of peace and dignity of life. How do you see these issues?

Life and nature are very important. In this regard, in Shinto there are three festivals related to the cultivation of rice. The first, at first true, is linked to the rice plantation, on which the blessing of God is invoked to draw nourishment. In autumn there is the harvest festival to thank God for the harvest. Finally, there is the temple foundation festival (people celebrate their birthdays in the temple).

Depending on the temple, the dates change. Here in the Yutoku Inari temple in Kashima we celebrate it in March.

Nature is the main theme in Shintoism. It is from nature that life comes. What is nature? The existence of nature is linked to God. We live thanks to nature; therefore we must protect it and preserve it for future generations. If there were industries around here, the water that visitors use for purification would not be as clear as you see. Traditionally the temple is a place of refuge in the event of natural disasters. It is therefore considered a place to protect life.

What do you hope from the Pope's visit for himself and Japanese society?

I have a great liking for Christianity and thanks to my friendship with Fr. Manerba, I think Christ protects me too. When I enter the Catholic church of Kashima I feel joy.

What I expect is that although of different religions, we have the same heart and the same desires to express: above all the gift of peace for the world.

To the new "Miko" [young virgins who assist the Shinto priest], when we interview them, we say: "From now on you will serve God. God is like a father and a mother. The Christ and the Buddha are like the brothers of our father and mother; they are like our uncles and aunts, so we must respect them ”. Christianity is a religion of foreigners but Christ and Mary are like our uncles and aunts who live near us. If you do not have this feeling of respect, you cannot work in a Shinto temple and become a Miko.

This is also for the education of children. They are educated not only by their parents, but also by their grandparents, uncles, relatives and many other people who collaborate in the education of a child. So likewise, now that the Pope comes to Japan, I hope the Japanese can listen respectfully to his teachings. Not only see him as someone from another religion, but also someone who is a good teacher. His teaching has as its purpose peace, joy, serenity. Therefore I would hope he will give us a message to place all our efforts at the service of peace.

So there is dialogue between Shinto and Catholics ... And do young people believe in Shinto?

I met faithful of the church of Notre-Dame in Paris, I met several bonzes and through Fr. Manerba several Catholics. We are all the same for Shintoism. I have a desire: that even here, in my temple, Shintoists, Buddhists and Christians can offer prayers for peace. We live in a secularized society, but even in this highly technological society there are still people looking for Shinto spirituality. In the train everyone has their head buried in a smartphone, but there are many suffer in their soul.

Of course there is the problem of young people losing their religion. Even if they are distant, when they come to the temple, they are at ease. Coming to the temple the young people say: "Finally I found a place like this!"

I always wonder how to attract young people without forcing them, finding ways to interest them. For example, recently there was the emperor enthronement ceremony that interested and excited many young Japanese and foreigners.

Let's not forget the festivals (Matsuri) where there are various attractions. This is our task here, to create these opportunities.

Recently the Kashima elementary, junior and high schools invited me to speak. I don't go to schools, but the children came to the temple. To make the lesson more interesting, I inform them about the activities of the temple and especially about the holidays. They ask, for example, how we do these festivals in places that are so high up, always facing east, etc. ... Rather than begin by dealing with the difficult issues I begin by showing them and recounting events and celebrations related to the life of the temple, the children return home happy and interested.

During the great events of the temple, especially those of the beginning of the year, the young people come and collaborate part-time for about a week: this also serves as part of their religious education.