Monday, 14 November 2011

New notes from Japan (7): Football priests

In the past decades, church membership rates in the Netherlands have decreased steadily. A majority of the population no longer attends church services, except for special occasions. This applies to Catholic churches as much as to Protestant ones. Whereas many people are interested in diffuse types of 'spirituality', they no longer feel attracted to traditional Christian beliefs and/or church services. Churches have tried to come up with new ways of attracting visitors, but most of these attempts have failed.

In the summer of 2010, Catholic priest Paul Vlaar came up with a creative strategy to attract people to his mass. It was the summer of the Vuvuzela World Cup, in which the Dutch national team made it to the final (where, sadly, it lost in the last minute of extra time because of a capital mistake of the incapable British referee). Capitalising on the football hype, the priest decided to organise an 'orange mass', in which he used football and petty nationalism as a way to get people interested in Christianity. He was very successful: his church was filled completely, which usually only happens on Christmas Eve, and his parish loved the service. The bishop, however, was not amused, and the popular priest was suspended.

I will refrain from criticising the Catholic Church now. Let me just say that I do not really understand why people would follow a religion in which some faraway, powerful yet all-too-human authority prescribes them what to do and what to believe. I guess I am a child of the Reformation, after all. Much more interesting, however, is the question as to why the orange mass seemed to appeal to the participants, and even attracted new visitors. Some of them may have come out of curiosity, no doubt, but there is a little bit more to it. Most of us have experienced feelings of excitement and passion when watching sport games, especially when watching in a group of people. During the most exciting moments, watching sports can arouse feelings that seem almost religious: heartfelt wishes, devotion and even ecstasy, if only temporarily. Hence, the association of religion and sport seems quite natural.

And why would it not? After all, 'sport' is a 19th century modern, secular, European category. Before the invention of 'sport', however, there were all sorts of competitions, celebrations, displays of physical strength and so on. 'Sport' existed long before it was categorised as such. So did, incidentally, 'religion' and 'theatre'. But for most of history, the three were not clearly separated, institutionally nor conceptually. The separation of religious ceremonies, performing arts and spectator sports is a fairly recent historical phenomenon.

"But there were already Olympic Games in ancient Greece," you may argue, suggesting that sport is not a modern invention at all. True, but those Olympic Games were not classified as sport in the modern sense of the word. They were, first and foremost, religious worship. That is, they were entertainment: primarily for the gods, secondarily for the people. They were also useful for preserving and improving relations with rival city-states, of course, or prepare for the next war - but their main significance was religious. Hence the name, for the Olympus is the mountain where the Greek gods used to live.

Likewise, there are plenty of examples of ritualised physical competitions - wrestling, running, horse-riding, fighting, swimming, archery and so on - with strong religious significance, all over the world. Even in modern times, sport often incorporates religious practices and beliefs. In Latin America and Africa, for instance, football is full of magical and ritual elements. And such practices are not limited to 'non-Western' cultures, as illustrated by the fact that Catholic priests often bless cyclists in the Giro d'Italia and other cycling competitions. The separation of sport and religion is an odd historical anomaly, their intertwinement the rule.

This fact is beautifully illustrated in Shinto shrine practices. Did you think football was invented by the British? Think again. Shrine priests have been performing a kind of ritualised football for centuries. Likewise, Sumo (the quintessentially Japanese sport that used to be broadcast live by Eurosport but in recent years has suffered from corruption and other scandals - perhaps due to its secularisation, who knows), originates in local shrine festivals, which had the dual purpose of entertaining the deities and contributing to social relations. And recently, I was invited by a shrine priest to attend the annual yabusame festival at Kamigamo shrine: a fascinating combination of high-level horseriding, archery, Shinto ceremony and popular entertainment. I greatly enjoyed it. But I would not know whether I should classify it as sport, as religion or as performing arts.

Last week, I went to Kumano. Kumano is an ancient pilgrimage centre, located in the Kii peninsula, an area in the far south of the Kansai region. It is one of the most beautiful places in Japan: high forested mountains, dramatic cliffs, ancient pilgrim trails and romantic hot springs. It is also one of the most interesting places in terms of religious history. The natural landscape evokes feelings of awe. Accordingly, it has been associated with Yomi, the underworld, as well as with Buddhist mandalas. Kumano is a traditional centre of Shugendō, ascetic mountain worship, and shinbutsu shūgō, the combined worship of Japanese deities and Buddhas, and the belief that the former are incarnations of the latter. It is also a place that has been associated with nature worship, which is quite understandable, considering its impressive physical features and centuries-old symbolic significance. It comes as no surprise, then, that Kumano is often mentioned in contemporary discourse on Shinto and the environment.

The main deities enshrined here are the mythical ancestral deities of the Japanese imperial family and, ultimately, the nation, whose stories are told in the Kojiki: Izanagi and Izanami, the primordial brother and sister whose sexual intercourse produced the islands of Japan; Amaterasu, the sun goddess and symbol of imperial power; and Susanoo, god of the underworld. The three main shrines are Hongū Taisha, located in a valley surrounded by mountains and a famous pilgrimage destination; Nachi Taisha, where a beautiful tall waterfall is worshipped; and Hayatama Taisha, located near the place where the river meets the sea. Needless to say, when I received an invitation to join some people from NGOs trying to promote traditional culture on a trip to these three shrines, which would give me the opportunity to meet the head priests, I did not have to think very long.

However, last September, the area was hit severely by a typhoon and floods. The world did not notice, as mass media internationally had got bored of natural disasters in Japan and were busy reporting other hypes. But the damage was severe, and dozens of people were killed. Embarrasingly oblivious, I was shocked to see entire parts of mountains washed away, hundreds of trees uprooted, completely destroyed houses and deforested river islands. But reconstruction work was going on everywhere. Banners and people proudly declared that the rebuilding of the entire nation would start here, in Kumano. Shock had given way to optimism. Kumano will overcome the difficulties.

In Japan, Kumano is not only famous for its ancient pilgrimage trails and recent natural disaster, but also for football. In particular, it has come to be associated with the national football teams (M/F). The gods of Kumano have become the protective deities of these teams. The reason is prosaic: the man who introduced modern football to Japan in the early twentieth century was originally from Kumano. Looking for a symbol of the national football association, he opted for a famous symbol from his native region: the yatagarasu, or three-legged crow. Thus, the crow of Kumano was appropriated by modern sports, or vice versa. Today, at any of the Kumano shrines one can buy amulets, talismans and other religious souvenirs with the logo of the national football team printed on them. Few people seem to perceive this as problematic. Shinto traditions are pragmatic, after all, and subject to change and reinvention - one of the reasons they have survived the storms of history.

Last summer, the Japanese national team became world champion women's football. The Dutch did not notice, as they are a bunch of sexists who collectively ignore women's football, but the Japanese did, as they are a bunch of proud nationalists who like any sport in which a compatriot excels. Nobody had expected the Japanese team to win, so it was a great surprise, which was celebrated widely in their home country. Upon return, the players visited Kumano, where they met with the head priests and donated some signed shirts and footballs, carefully monitored by accompanying journalists.

The relics of this visit are kept well. In a prominent place in the middle of the visitors' room of one of the shrines hangs a large picture of the football captain and head priest - signed by the former, of course. More problematic, from a secularist point of view, might be the fact that the worship hall is full of signed footballs and shirts. It is a somewhat alienating experience - sitting on your knees in the worship hall (a place ordinary visitors are not allowed to enter, as it requires official ritual purification) attending a ritual ceremony with centuries-old prayers and spirit-arousing percussion, while looking at football paraphernalia. The sacred is a category that is open to reinterpretation, let's put it that way.

The most interesting experience, however, was the conversation we had with the head priest of one of the other shrines. An old man, he must have lived and worked there for decades, but few moments in his long career were as interesting as the visit of the female football players, last summer. He excitedly recounts (I paraphrase, based on my notes):

"I couldn't watch the game, really. I was too nervous. Boom-boom-boom, my heart went. Next morning, they told me we had won. I knew it. You know why? Because I had prayed and performed a ritual to Amaterasu-no-Oomikami. Really, a special ritual! That's why they became champion, thanks to me. And then they visited me here! The team captain talked to me and thanked me for my support. She said she wants to get the gold medal at the Olympic Games, too. I will pray for them. I am sure they will get it. The TV journalist was here, too. It was broadcast on national TV, did you see it? But you know, I knew they would become champion. They are the best. They have the true Japanese spirit, the spirit of our great nation, Nippon. No country in the world can defeat Nippon. We are number one. We are the best in the world."

I felt somewhat alienated. But I did manage to resist the temptation to remind him of the fact that at the 'real' world cup football, last year, my country defeated his by 1-0. Perhaps, at the time, Paul Vlaar's prayers were more effective than his. Perhaps the Holy Virgin is more football-minded than the Sun Goddess.

How I love studying religion.