Mikoshi

Mikoshi (Palanquin for spirit beings, or kami) / 神輿

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Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, is unique in that it is one of the few indigenous religions to survive industrialization and modernization to be actively practiced by a large portion of a major world power. It bears no small resemblance to many other indigenous religion’s ideas of humanity’s relationship to divinity. Shinto may look formalized and formal, with the neat clerical garments and the constantly renewed temple grounds, but underneath the surface is something familiar to one who knows the attitudes of the people who lived in North America before the arrival of Europeans. The world is alive, both to Shinto and to Native American lifeways. In the Shinto tradition, spirits live everywhere, inhabiting both the cities and, in a much stronger way, the wild places that remain in Japan. Some spirits are guardians of various species of animals. Some spirits protect families and individuals, or particular livelihoods. But everything, animate or inanimate, natural or man-made, possesses a spirit that should be respected and honored. This is, in part, the reason the Japanese people take such great care of their possessions. Visiting a used bookstore in Japan will reveal books that look brand new, even if they’re decades old. Folktales tell the Japanese from a very young age that if they do not treat all things with respect, those same things may come back to haunt them as youkai (evil spirit creatures).

Unlike Native American traditions, the myriads of spirits in Shinto can live in homes built by humans, either as a temporary sojourn or permanently. In the new year’s celebration, oshogatsu, the bamboo and pine arrangements that are placed near the front door, known as kadomatsu, serve as guide posts and a resting place for Toshigami, a Shinto deity associated with prosperity. The term toshigami can also serve to refer to spirits of the ancestors who return to visit during the New Year’s celebrations. Shinto shrines are more or less permanent homes of spirits, including the legendary beings who figure extremely prominently in the Shinto mythology. At festivals, spirits are transported from a shrine to a temporary “home” in a mikoshi, a type of portable shrine modeled after the palanquins carried by bearers who would ferry very important people around, first in ancient China, then also in Japan and Korea. The mikoshi are taken around the town in processions, often times very raucous affairs in which members of the local community bear the shrines around the neighborhood and others shout encouragement to them.

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Most mikoshi are made of the finest materials one can think of, and are kept sparkling and beautiful. Nothing but the best for the kami! However, a very unique mikoshi was constructed by the survivors in Ishinomaki, one whose like had never been seen before. The mikoshi you see in our film, carried by celebrating Ishinomaki farmers and fishermen, was made of debris left by the tsunami, primarily items that had to do with the industries the people of the city had worked at for generations and which had been disrupted by the tragedy of 3/11. Perhaps not very traditional, but an expression of the indomitable will of the people of Ishinomaki. They had survived, they had lost much, but they were not defeated. It is a note of triumph; the perfect ending to our film.

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