Sunday, March 22, 2015

Temples Aren't Scary

Living in a foreign country for two years has changed me a lot. I think I've changed more over the last two years in Japan than I changed all four years of college. And college changed me a lot! There's too many things to list, but one thing that Japan changed about me is I'm no longer uncomfortable around temples, shrines, or religious works of art.

Sure, I've seen paintings of saints before. You can't throw a brick in most of Europe without hitting some centuries-old cathedral. And all art museums are pretty much divided into art depicting Greek mythology and paintings of the Virgin Mary.

But it's all Christian, of course. (And Greek pagan, but we don't count those as idols because ART. Also white people did them.)

"As it should be!" a lot of my friends could counteract. Yeah, I suppose. When I was a kid I felt really weird looking at any depictions of deities or religious figures that weren't Christian. Those were weird idols and maybe they were evil too.

I guess if anyone had asked me I would have said that 90% of the world religions were worshiping thin air. But it was always possible that demons might muck things up just because.

Coming to Japan was the first time I'd been in a country were all the cool cultural stuff was part of a non-Christian religion. Everything's either Shinto and Buddhist. Luckily, by this point was I was adult enough to appreciate temples and shrines for their aesthetic appeal and not be put off by the fact I didn't share that culture.

Still, at the beginning I felt a little awkward. I went to a shrine on new year's and wondered if it would be sacrilegious to throw a 5 yen coin into a little box because that was a pagan ceremony. I still did it but felt weird at the same time.

Then after about a year, I realized that I had stopped feeling weird. The atmosphere of the little shrines was simply a part of what I loved about Japan. Seeing them tucked away into the city, going there for festivals and getting a paper fortune. There was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. The only power was the power of tradition--which for real can be powerful and scary--and I could appreciate it without guilt.

Honestly, even though I felt uncomfortable around religious symbols in the past, that wasn't limited to non-Christian ones. I felt so awkward seeing a blue-eyed Jesus staring soulfully at me from someone's wall. And seeing an artfully draped near-nude emaciated corpse held up for veneration in a cathedral. Gives me the creeps.

So now my opinion on religious places is they have exactly as much power as people give them. If your faith is strong, I don't think appreciating a different religion will really affect you. (And if you're a skeptic to start with, you won't be jumping at shadows.)

I don't think Japan is a "dark" country or a "spiritually oppressed" country. It is a strongly secular country. Which means that most people value religion as part of their culture and not as something that tells them exactly how to live their life. Which honestly I like. No one's raised an eyebrow when I say I go to church. (They usually just ask me "Are you protestant or catholic?" which is hard to answer....There's a lot more than just two, guys!) The important thing is getting along with your friends and coworkers.

There's lots of different folks in the world, but that's what makes it interesting. Honestly I feel much more out of place when talking to people who hail from the Bible Belt portion of America. "You believe....What?" But this is a culture too. It's not my culture, but that's why I have to learn about it respectfully and not go in with a perspective of fear.

So this is how my view of religion changed in Japan. I'm really glad I got this chance to live in a foreign country!

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