Mieko Kikuchi is a native of Japan, who came to America when she was 24, traveling everywhere from Florida to Texas in search of a career.
Now, she works for Renasant Bank as a liason to the Japanese women whose husbands have been stationed at the nearby Toyota manufacturing plant in Blue Springs.
Speaking very little English, they bring with them to America their culture, their children and their religion.
“If you ask a Japanese person what their religion is, it will not be the same question to them as it would be to an American,” Kikuchi said.
Of Japan’s nearly 127 million people, less than one percent of the population identifies itself as Christian. The majority is a fusion of Buddhism and Japanese’s ancient, native tradition: Shintoism.
“Shintoism is older than Japan itself,” Kikuchi said. “The main idea is to coexist with nature, that everything has a kami – a soul – wind and fire, people and animals, even trees, streams, and mountains.”
She said that over the course of time Japanese people came into contact with other religions, and instead of rejecting these religions, took what principles and practices they liked and assimilated them into their own belief system.
“Since Shintoism is a polytheistic religion, it was easy to adopt things from other religions without much conflict,” Kikuchi said. “For instance, when a child is born, they are usually blessed with a Shinto ceremony, but funerals are carried out in the Buddhist style.”
When Kikuchi married an American man, they held the ceremony in the American tradition, complete with church, scripture, a white dress, and a flower girl. A year later to the day, she and her husband traded the white dress and tuxedo for bright silk kimonos for their Shinto marriage ceremony in Japan.
“We respect each other’s beliefs and acknowledge the good in both of them,” she said. “Japanese culture is the same. When we find something we like, we take it as our own.”
Kumiko Richardson, who works through BancorpSouth in a similar capacity with the Toyota workers’ wives as Kikuchi, confirmed Kikuchi’s philosophy.
“Everything we practice is passed down, and over so much time, more and more things have grown into one. So when you ask a Japanese person what their religion is, it doesn’t make sense to them. They see the good aspects of every religion as different angles on the same greater power,” she said.
She said Japan has adopted some Christmas traditions, and Halloween is growing. The biggest holiday in Japan is New Year’s Eve, which is the same day as America’s. On this day, many Japanese attend Shinto shrines to ask for fortune in the upcoming year.
“For Japanese, religion is mostly custom,” Richardson said. “Unlike churches, who hold services every week, Japanese visit shrines on occasions, like to remember a deceased family member, but also when starting a new business venture or even buying a new car.”
A shrine, she said, is marked by a gateway that separates common ground from sacred ground. Usually located in quiet, secluded locations, they are cared for by Shinto priests who mostly function as administrators for the shrines, usually around another job.
“Since the religion is so old, shrines are usually very old as well, and placed in secluded locations, like mountainsides,” Richardson said. “Industry built up around them.”
THE WORD “SHINTO” – roughly, “way of the gods” – was first coined to contrast native Japanese beliefs with the influx of Buddhism in the 6th century.
“Shinto” termed the localized superstitions of various parts of Japan under one umbrella. The Meijo oligarchy systemized the religion in the 1860s, twisting Shinto legends to unite Japan under the belief that the emperor was descended from a god. To Japanese people, this sanctified Japan as a special, chosen culture. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the emperor renounced his belief in his own divine lineage, and Shintoism returned to its original, localized style, where it remains today.