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Japan is one of few countries in which the main religion is a pagan/animist one. Called Shinto, it (along with Buddhism) is practiced throughout the country, even as most Japanese people seem to identify as being “irreligious”. On special holidays, the same people go to shrines to pray, and sometimes they go to specialized shrines to wish for something — a healthy childbirth, good luck on an exam, finding a romantic partner, etc. Shintoism’s influence permeates almost everything in Japanese culture.

While I have a lot of love for the modern form of Shintoism, being raised among the traditions, there are varying problematic aspects of it that I am not as fond of, such as its connection to right-wing nationalism and how it was used to further the veneration of the Emperor and colonialist expansion in other parts of Asia. The idea of “impurities”, which is an important part of the religion often excludes women from leadership roles and treats female anatomy as being unclean, as well. Some shrines and religious areas (such as the sumo dohyo/ring) entirely forbid women from being able to enter. As with many religions throughout time, it feels like it has often been twisted and manipulated by power hungry leaders of the patriarchy to take control over the populace and perpetuate greed.

The roots of Shintoism, however, was much like other ancient religions — with a focus on nature, sun worship, and attempting to work with the natural cycles to help ease the burdens of daily life. There is said to be hundreds of thousands of gods (called kami) and spirits amongst all of us, giving supernatural life to old trees, huge boulders, mountains, and certain animals and even insects.

The very foundations of Shintoism was formed during the Jomon period — said to be between 14,000 and 300BC. It was a hunter-gatherer and early agrarian culture, likened to the Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest in terms of their cultural complexity and just how successful they were living off of the land alone. 

Since there was no written language during that time (or at least, there are very few left preserved; the Toyokuni writing I used for the cover and Woshite writing are said to be some examples with their origins in ancient times, but there is not enough documentation to say definitively) we can only speculate as to how the Jomon people were worshipping the kami. But a few clues have been left behind by them. The Ryukyuan people of Okinawa and Ainu people in the north are still said to practice cultural and spiritual traditions similarly to how things were in Jomon times, and their ways have also provided some insight.

Pottery with snake handles, Togariishi archaeological site, Nagano

Oyu stone circles, Kazuno, Akita prefecture

Left to right: 1. Vagina, Sanjyogari site, Akita prefecture, 2. Magatama carved beads: said to resemble animal claws or fetuses, 3. An example of middle period Jomon era pottery

Several objects have survived and can tell us about religious practices of Jomon people — stone henges, which look similar to the famous Stonehenge of Wiltshire, England, have been found throughout Japan and are said to have been used ceremonially. The Jomon people were also skilled at making handbuilt/coil work pottery that were apparently quite robust, having been preserved remarkably well. Many human and animal shaped pieces have been excavated, with intricate patterns adorning them — theorized to be elaborate tattoo work by some — and with a heavy focus on female figures and the reproductive system.

The figure that I drew for the cover of this zine is said to be a “Venus” figure, akin to the more famous Venus of Willendorf. The prevailing theory is that the focus on female figures in pottery, along with buried remains found of females adorned spectacularly in carved jade beads (called magatama) and bone jewelry potentially indicating the existence of important shamanesses, points to Jomon society being matriarchal or egalitarian in nature, with women often being spiritual leaders of villages.

Snakes, said to symbolize rivers and water in general — the giver of life, were an important subject of veneration. It seems like they were worshipped in many religions throughout ancient history; being ubiquitous throughout most countries, perhaps they were a common source of awe and inspiration. While they were appreciated in Japan post-agrarianism for eating mice in the grain-stores, perhaps they were also welcomed in hunter-gatherer times, as I’m sure vermin were also keen on devouring stored tubers and dried fish.​​

Some more gods which have been worshipped through the modern times which are said to have concrete ancient Jomon roots include:

  • Toyokumono, the god of clouds, written about in the Kojiki, one of the primary texts of modern Shinto.

  • Arahabaki, a serpent/dragon god of healing and wealth. Its name also is said to have been derived from terms referring to the vagina.

  • Shakuji/Mishaguji, a stone god.

A lot of other gods, particularly localized gods of smaller shrines hidden throughout Japan, likely do also have some roots from Jomon times, though it’s a lot more nebulous and I’m sure a lot of cross-pollination happened. The fact that Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess, is seen as being the most powerful of gods might come partly from the fact that sun worship was such a large part of Jomon religion.​

Jomon people met the Yayoi people, who came to mainland Japan from Korea and China in around 300 BCE. There surprisingly was not a lot of evidence of war and strife, then, and it seems like their cultures mixed together and they largely intermarried — leading to the creation of modern Yamato people of Japan, who make up the majority of people there in the present day. We all carry pieces of Jomon history with us, in our DNA, and in our culture…but so much is still a mystery. I have a lot of respect and wonder at how my ancestors lived and worshipped, and I do what I can to pay homage to them in my ritual and daily practices.

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