It is no surprise that the “Global Economic Crisis” (also pessimistically dubbed “Depression 2.0” has affected struggling Asian economies at least as severely as those of the West. What seems a little different, however, is the way ordinary Japanese have (like their American neighbours) turned to religion in difficult times.

Lost your job and looking for someone to punch up for causing the global financial crisis? A Japanese shrine offers down-on-their-luck visitors a chance to shake off the doldrums by hitting the “God of Poverty.”

The Bimbo Gami shrine is home to a wooden statue believed to be the poverty deity, a thin and filthy man who brings misfortune and impoverishment to the house it haunts. (Reuters)

Clearly some explanation will be necessary for those unfamiliar with traditional Japanese religion. The primary entities of Shinto religion are known as “kami”, generally translated “gods” in English. However, English is a language steeped in millenia of Christian philosophy and vocabulary, where a “god” is almost universally understood to be a spiritual entity of vastly superior power to man. The modern ear in particular is most familiar with the Christian and Jewish teaching of God, an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being who is the ultimate and supreme arbiter of justice and authority.

The western understanding of “gods” is coloured also by what we were taught as children in school about the ancient pagans (particularly the Greeks). Though generally related more as fantasies than the actual beliefs of a now extinct culture, we still recall the vivid stories of fickle, playful “gods” and their interactions with Man. They are considered to be optionally corporeal (that is, capable of assuming but not bound to having bodies) and having strikingly human personalities.

The Japanese concept of “kami” is far closer to the ancient pagan concept of a multitude of deities with effect over some particular natural element than the omniscient monotheos of the Jews and Christians. Even then, however, distinct differences must be observed. Firstly, there is no Zeus-like “supreme kami” with dominion over all others. The kami are not considered to have an Olympus-like “home” from which they play dice with men. Kami are also not restricted to great phenomena like the sky, the sea, the forest and the underworld – everything in the natural world is considered to have a kami, every local place, every shrine, every family. In fact, it is believed that when a person dies they leave their body to become kami, perpetually tied to a particular shrine (often a family’s household shrine) and offer spiritual patronage in return for diligent material and spiritual offerings.

In this regard, the Shinto concept is clearly not so much a “religion” as an “animistic spirituality” comparable to the practice of the early Romans (before the adoption of the Greek pantheon). People regard kami as incorporeal spirits of limited (but concentrated) power tied to a particular place or phenomenon, and while fearful of offending them, are presented with a plethora of means for placating their fury.

It is this concept of the relationship between man and kami which brings people to the “bimbo gami jinja” (Shrine of the Kami of Poverty) not to pray or offer supplication, but to beat an effigy of the  “bimbo gami”. The kami here is seen more like a malevolent spirit than an actor with divine authority, and the video in the linked article states that “the proper manners are never to worship the god”.

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