Towards a Contextualized
Christian Practice
of Hatsumode ()
 
 
 
 
Matthew Ropp
 
 
 
MT510, Doing Theology in Context
Dr. Dean Gilliland, Spring 1998
Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission
 

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
The Problem(s)
Components of Hatsumode
Detail of Various Components
Meanings of Hatsumode
    Social and Family Identity
    Protection From Evil (Power I)
    Blessing, Prosperity, and Luck (Power II)
    Personal Introspection
    Continuity with the Past and Future
    Towards Contextualization of Hatsumode
    Not Contextualized
    Over Contextualized
    Contextual Solutions
    Change the Form
    Change the Meanings
    A Compromise
    Additional Considerations
References Cited
 

The Problem(s)

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Components of Hatsumode

    Most Japanese families gather together for the New Year, usually starting on the 31st of December. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January are national holidays. Throughout the country, the majority of Japanese participate in hatsumode, a custom in which one goes with the whole family, family members, or friends to a Shinto shrine. Hatsumode literally means "first visit to the shrine/temple," and most people go to a shrine close to their home, but many make special trips to famous shrines or to shrines where the kami (Shinto deity) is associated with a particular type of blessing or prosperity such as making good marriages. "It is estimated that over 80 per cent of the Japanese take part either regularly or occasionally in hatsumode, " (Reader 1991:10) Traditionally, women will dress up in kimono for this custom, and some young women still do this, contributing to a festival atmosphere. The shrines are often surrounded by shops and special food stands which also contribute to this holiday or festival feeling.

    At the shrine usually each person does some combination of the following. Those items marked with an * are done by almost everyone. The others are more optional:

 
wash hands and rinse mouth for purification 
approach shrine and clap hands or ring bell *
throw in monetary donation *
bow and pray *
buy omamori (charms) or hamaya (arrow for protection from evil spirits) 
buy and draw omikuji (fortune)-tie it on a tree 

Some people also stop at the local Buddhist temple (which may even be next door) on the way home.

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Detail of Various Components

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Meanings of Hatsumode

    When evaluating hatsumode, many problems addressed by, themes running through, and values underlying this custom arose out of my readings and interviews. To try and get at the deeper meanings underlying these problems, themes, and values, I have asked the questions, "What does it give people?" and "What does it do for people?" The answers to these questions tell us really why the Japanese participate in hatsumode-what it means to them. In each section, the scriptural view of that meaning or need will also be considered.

Social and Family Identity

    One of the major needs and meanings of hatsumode for the Japanese, perhaps the most important, is the strengthening of social and family identity through family or group participation in this custom. Most children grow up going to the shrine at the New Year with their families and may later go with friends as a teenager, with fellow workers as an adult, or with other small business owners. Apart from and for many people more important than its religious significance, hatsumode is a time for socializing with both family or friends and the larger community. It helps to cement family togetherness. The festival atmosphere usually surrounding the shrines is also just a time for celebration and fun together as a family or group. "Many Japanese take part in hatsumde because of its strong social and cultural nuances, because it is customary to visit shrines at this time of year with family and friends" (Reader 1991:11).

    What does the Bible have to say about this need? It is strongly on the side of the family. There are festivals, for example, celebrated throughout the history and annual calendar of Israel which provide group consciousness, identity, and relationship with God. God covenants with the family or clan rather than just an individual beginning with Abraham. The Ten Commandments instruct us to "honor your father and mother" (Ex 20:12). We see entire families come to salvation together in various New Testament accounts. God has created the family to meet our innate need for togetherness and to teach our children to follow Him (Gen 18:19). One passage in Deuteronomy speaks of a festival or feast situation in which the family honors the Lord together: "And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you" (Deu 12:7, NRSV). It is also clear, however, from passages such as Lk 14:26 that the family is not to have higher allegiance than the Lord.

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Protection From Evil (Power I)

    The next two meanings of hatsumode deal with spiritual power. In this section we will consider protection from evil and in the next section the discussion will focus on blessing, prosperity and luck. In connection with dealing with evil or negative affects of spiritual power, there is first of all a belief (at least for some people) that you will have bad luck if you do not participate in hatsumode. There may also be a fear of punishment of some kind. Thus one goes to the shrine to avoid punishment and/or bad luck. The larger connection to protection from evil, however, is more explicit. When prayers are said at the shrine, protection is asked for. In addition, as described above, omamori, hamaya, and other talismans or amulets are bought for protection of the household, cars, and children.

    God protecting His people is a very prevalent biblical theme. Sometimes bad things do happen to them, of course, but God ultimately protects. God did not allow Job, for example, to be overly harmed. In general, we know that the Lord is with us and that He protects those who take refuge in Him. The Psalms are filled with acknowledgements of God's protection from enemies, for widows and orphans, from evildoers, and from the wicked. More specifically, in Jn 17, Jesus prayed for believers to be protected from evil. Our Lord intercedes for us so that we may be protected! Jesus also cast out demons, bringing freedom to those oppressed. Believers are given the armor of God-truth, righteousness, readiness to proclaim the gospel, faith, salvation, the word of God (Eph 6:10ff)-to protect them from the forces of evil. 1 Jn tells us that those born of God are protected and the evil one does not touch them.

    The big difference between what happens at hatsumode when Japanese people pray to kami for protection and buy charms and the protection from evil that Christians have is the source of that protection. As a Christian, I must believe that the gods Japanese believe they are praying to at Shinto shrines are actually dark angels, emissaries of Satan. Satan and his forces are masquerading as benevolent deities and offer "protection," when in reality they will enslave those who pray to them. The protection Christians receive, however, is from the one true God and is true protection from all evil. Sadly, however, the church often has not and does not even recognize the need in people's lives for protection from evil. Christians often are not taught to claim the authority they have as God's children and to pray in spiritual warfare.

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Blessing, Prosperity, and Luck (Power II)

    Opposite the need met in hatsumode for protection from evil is the need to receive blessing, prosperity, and luck. This may be either a general blessing for prosperity or happiness or relate more specifically to business needs, help for entrance exams, a safe pregnancy, et cetera. Although perhaps not conscious, there is in this search for blessing and prosperity often somewhat of a mechanical or automatic overtone. Something like, "If I go the shrine, make my donation, pray to the kami, and perhaps buy a charm, the kami are obligated to bless me and answer my prayer." This whole thing may be somewhat casual and not really have a "religious" connotation for those involved. Again, however, regardless of the seriousness of intent of the participants, they are petitioning the Satanic power for blessing.

    Biblically, God blesses his people if they are obedient. Throughout the Old and New Testaments it is clear that God desires to bless His people. When they disobey, however, they deny this blessing. Ultimately, God has blessed all the peoples of the earth, as He promised, through Abraham's seed, Jesus Christ. Followers of Christ should be free to ask God for blessing: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him (Mt 7:11, NRSV)"! God gives good gifts and all good things come from Him (Jas 1:17). With Christian blessing, however, blessing and prosperity are not guaranteed in a mechanical sense. Rather they flow out of a submissive relationship with God through Christ and we know that we are blessed in order that we may in turn give to others.

    Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phl 4:6,7, NRSV).

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Personal Introspection

    For those who take their visit to the Shinto shrine less casually than most, hatsumode can be a time for sincere personal introspection. The visit is seen as a time for self-reflection, purification, and renewal. One thinks deeply about the previous year and about life in general. The washing of one's hands and rinsing of the mouth when entering the shrine area is an important part of purification for those who take this seriously. The evil and bad things of the previous year are done away with.

    Is there a place for this kind of introspection in Christian experience and practice? Certainly! We are told to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts (Jas 4:8), to have a good conscience and sincere faith (1 Ti 1:5), and to examine and test ourselves (2 Co 13:15). David cries out to the Lord, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps 139:23, NRSV). Believers will often have such a time of self-reflection when reading scripture, which is "able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (He 4:12). Perhaps the most poignant time for personal introspection in which Christians take part regularly is in partaking of the Lord's Supper. We are commanded through Paul, "Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Co 11:28, NRSV).

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Continuity with the Past and Future

    A fifth and final meaning of hatsumode presented here (like personal introspection less common than the first three) is providing continuity with both the past and the future. Because hatsumode takes place at the New Year, it is naturally a time for looking forward and back. Continuity is sought with the good of the past year (or years), while anything bad is consciously broken off so that it will not continue into the new year. Hatsumode also links its participants to the past and the future, because as a long-standing custom it is an identification with tradition and what it means to be Japanese.

    Tradition and continuity with the past can also be seen in the Bible. The most important points of continuity are the word of God and God Himself. Ps 102 tells us that though the earth and the heavens will perish, the Lord will endure and Isa 40 that the word of the God will stand forever. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (He 13:8). The Lord also identifies with our human need for tradition and continuity, when throughout His dealings with Israel he identifies Himself as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Christians must be careful not led adherence to tradition get in the way with their relationship with or true obedience to God, however. This was the case with the Pharisees when Jesus told them, "So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God" (Mt 15:6).

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Towards Contextualization of Hatsumode

    So what should the church's response and attitude towards hatsumode be? Hatsumode meets many deep-level needs of Japanese people, needs which are, as we have seen, largely consistent with the Bible. The church should meet these needs in some way, while seeking to avoid problems of syncretism or idolatry. There are many possibilities for how this can be done. First the two extremes, both of which are probably practiced today, will be considered. Then I will present some possibilities for more contextual approaches.

Not Contextualized

    One alternative is for the church to completely distance itself from hatsumode. Indeed this is the most common traditional response. Underlying this option is a view of hatsumode as completely pagan or idolatrous, with no redeeming qualities. Or even if there are redeeming qualities, they are seen as so tightly integrated or wrapped up in the negative aspects that Christians should not be allowed to participate in this custom in any form. There is a great fear of syncretism and accommodation of Christianity with Shinto belief and practice.

    This alternative, is not from a contextual point of view, at all attractive, however. The church is simply shutting the door on the value of this custom for Japanese people. The needs that hatsumode meets for them will go unrecognized and the deeper meanings and heart desires for fulfillment unaddressed. This will likely result in isolation of Christians from their family members and social group as well as resulting in a syncretism of the heart when they seek other ways to meet these unaddressed needs.

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Over Contextualized

    The flip side of rejecting hatsumode completely is to accept it without question or evaluation. Because of hatsumode's obvious religious elements, when Christians simply participate in it in this fashion, this is overt syncretism. Christians cannot maintain true allegiance to God if they also go to a Shinto shrine and pray to kami. The word of the Lord is clear, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me" (Ex 20:2-3). This alternative is also obviously not acceptable!

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Contextual Solutions

    All the following proposals for contextual solutions to hatsumode are very preliminary and hampered by my very limited research and my identity as a non-Japanese person. They are just that, proposals. The meanings that I have identified in this custom need to be evaluated by Japanese Christians under the guidance of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit. These proposed solutions must also then be discussed and accepted or rejected by the Japanese church, whether as a whole, or within various traditions and local congregations.

Change the Form

    One possible solution is for the church to provide an alternate form, a new Christian custom to replace the traditional Japanese custom of hatsumode. This custom could possibly still be referred to as hatsumode, but would not involve going to the Shinto shrine. Instead Christians would come to the church building during the first three days of the New Year and participate in new rituals/customs designed to meet the needs of protection, blessing, introspection, and continuity. These should be developed in community by Japanese Christians who know their own needs and can design appropriate ways to meet them. Perhaps prayers could be said for blessing and protection for the coming year and a special communion service could provide a time of self-reflection. A New Year's offering could be made to the church, not in a contractual or magical sense for blessing or protection, as at the shrine, but simply as a gift to the Lord. Perhaps a festival atmosphere could also be developed outside the church building, similar to that surrounding the shrines, with food booths, et cetera.

Strengths: completely avoids any kind of idolatry; provides Christian context for satisfaction of most deep needs

Weaknesses: no family/group identification; danger of associating Christian God with kami so that he becomes just someone to pray to somewhat mechanically for blessing or prosperity

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Change the Meanings

    Another alternative is for Christians to still participate in hatsumode at the Shinto shrines, but to change the meanings of any religious connotations. The person could still go to the shrine grounds with one's family, approach the shrine, and bow and pray. The believer would not pray, however, to the Shinto kami, but to the true God. The Christian in this context may or may not participate in ritually purifying him/herself before approaching the shrine and in clapping and ringing the bell at the shrine. S/he should not buy omamori or hamaya or draw lots for omikuji, because of their very specific empowerment and connection with the kami.

Strengths: the believer participates to a very high degree with his/her family or friends and is not in this way isolated; Christians are seen to participate in traditional customs and are thus not seen as strange or outsiders by non-Christian Japanese; deep needs are met

Weaknesses: non-Christians will probably assume the Christian is still praying to the kami; possibly spiritually dangerous as well-deliberately going to the shrine in order to pray to God may be interpreted by the enemy as spiritual warfare, in his territory.

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A Compromise

    A third possible contextual solution for hatsumode is a combination of the above two approaches. In this compromise, the Christian believer goes to the Shinto shrine grounds with his/her family. If his/her family or associates usually do so, s/he may purify him/herself by washing his/her hands and rinsing out his/her mouth. The believer does not, however, approach the shrine itself, pray to either the kami or the true God there, and does not buy any charms or fortunes. S/he participates with his/her family in the act of going to the shrine and enjoying in the festival atmosphere, but does not participate in anything with more religious connotations.

    After going to the shrine with one's family, the believer then proceeds to the church building for his/her own rituals, as outlined in the first proposal above. Ideally, the family will come with the Christian believer and a comfortable, non-threatening atmosphere will be provided for them to be there, while not being forced to participate in the Christian rituals themselves. Even if the family will not come with the believer, s/he has participated with his/her family and then can have the other needs met at the church. Again, a festival atmosphere outside the church or on the church grounds (there seldom are any, however, in crowded Japan!) can be created.

Strengths: identification with family/group; meet all deep level needs; non-Christian family members may have an experience in Christian context and are not separated from believer

Weaknesses: going both places may seem like a comparison or competition between Shinto and Christianity or the shrine and the church; the person's family may not be willing to come to the church with them.

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Additional Considerations

    When talking with students at Fuller the following additional considerations were raised: (return to Table of Contents)

References Cited

Holy Bible: The New Revised Standard Version.
  1989    Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Reader, Ian
  1991    Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
 
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