16 April 2014

inspirations: kill la kill, state shinto, and the reinvention of divine imagery

Courtesy of Project-ICICLE
So this is a huge "rough cut." People who have seen my panels over the past month on Kill la Kill and the Transformation of Japanese Legend have been asking a lot about how that panel came into being. Well, this might be the first instance of me collecting my ideas, long before I even submitted it to Anime Boston, or began mapping the themes out for later use. It's still rough, written right after I watched episode 12 for the first time, before the third narrative slapped me upside the head, or my excitement into the series reached fever pitch. A collection of IDEAS, less one of practical explanation. 

This rumination is why I fell in love with the series, and why I adore Kiryuuin Satsuki as a character, and as a representation of a tumultuous time in Japanese history. 


As I’ve previously written, this past year will go down as a banner year for Shinto themed anime. From re-envisioning of classical myths, to fox spirits and tanuki running wild, fans and viewers curious about the nature of Japanese traditions and folklore have have a lot to choose from. But as the year winds down, and fans begin to look to the new year and new ideas, one more series debuted over the fall that might not appear to have much in the way of classical Shinto, but shares enough themes and situations to be a worthy exploration of some of the “darker times” that faith has gone through. 

Kill la Kill is one of those shows that remind 90s/00s anime fans why they got into the medium in the first place. It’s over the top, practically exhibitionist fun with little need for deep plotting, and a whole lot of explosions, skimpy outfits, and laughably horrible antagonists. Scissor blade swords, people losing the will to fight alongside their clothes, and arrogant student councillors lording their power over all the “lesser folk”- done up with style and panache by the same design team responsible for “Gurren Lagann.” What’s not to love about it? AND it’s also one of the best “f*** you” series of all time! 

Confused as to that last part? Let me explain a little bit. This will require a bit of a history lesson, so bear with me, I will try to keep this as brief as possible.

People familiar with 19th century Japanese history, be it through classes, jidaigeki films, or Rurouni Kenshin, are aware of the Meiji restoration. Thirteen years of bloody bakumatsu warfare, leading to the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate and the return of a government centered around the young Emperor Meiji. This time period is usually depicted artistically with sweeping idealogical battles, Western powers meddling in Japanese affairs, the introduction of “advanced technology” to the formerly feudal nation, and a breakdown of the “barriers” that the shoguns erected to keep Japan “strong.” As with any creative endeavors based on factual events, myths and exaggerations are a part of the storytelling, amplifying the contributions of some and marginalizing the limitations of others. 

A kami reclines
In addition to a massive change in social and economic policy, there was also a strong shift towards dispelling of superstitions and previously held folk beliefs, in favor of more scientific models of education and knowledge. Gone were the bureaus of exorcists dispelling demons and hostile magic. Gone was the fortune telling and divination that parents turned to when faced with an unruly child. Restricted were the practices of the miko and female mystics who spoke from esoteric traditions. Restricted also were the devout Buddhist shrines, falling victim to propaganda about the corruptive influences of the “Shogunate religion” and it’s role in weakening Japan over the two centuries of warrior class rule. 

What arose in its place was a new cult, built around something more than disjointed spirits and imported dogma. This new cult was centered around something as old as Japan itself, a native tradition that would at the same time elevate the nation out of regressive politics, and instill in it the fury of a galvanized Japanese people. This would be the resurgence of Shinto beliefs, long held at bay by powerful landowning families, and warrior-administrators. This was the deification of the Japanese Spirit. Gerald Figal might have put it best in his book “Civilization and Monsters,” when he said “Indeed the drive to forge a homogenous, national citizenry from disparate regional populations throughout the archipelago was accompanied by an effort to displace or identify diverse spirits with a Japanese Spirit...this Japanese Spirit was ultimately embodied by the newly constituted Emperor, a modernized supernatural being...The Meiji Emperor, who was a manifest deity, perhaps the most fantastic creature in all Japan.” (15)

As educational reforms and suppression policies stripped the formerly rich practitioners of folk and religious traditions of their status and influence, much of that same power flowed right back into the coffers of the Imperial throne. By harnessing the nationalistic spirit of Japan and magnifying/reinforcing it with neo-Confucian ideas, it allowed for a single, powerful cult to rise from the ashes of the former Shogunate, which in turn flowed through the physical and spiritual being of a man imbued with the power of the same sun goddess from which he was reputed to be a descendent. 

Fukuzawa Yukichi,
educational reformer
TL;DR- Out went the “quaint beliefs” and superstitions of the past centuries. In their place was a solid, highly regimented system of belief and practice, born out of the old Shinto and “shored up” with a healthy dose of neo-Confucian nationalism and bureaucratic administration that allowed for all the pieces to fall into their proper places. The aristocracy had their place at the top of the pyramid, radiating out a holy light bestowed upon them by virtue of their birth. Below them came the autocrats and the government administrators to keep the machine working properly, and at the bottom were the workers and commoners, who devoted their time and efforts to providing fuel and labor to make the massive machine run. 

State Shinto was a theocracy of both refinement and impeccable execution. It blew away any of the attempts made by Western religious institutions to control social and economic policy. It thrived off propaganda that emphasized the power and purity of both the Japanese nation, and its infallible Emperor at the top. it preached stability, honor, and glory for the nation of Japan as a whole, not for the individual who helped it achieve that goal. State Shinto was powerful, responsive, and completely in control...or as completely as was possible at the time. 

So why this history lesson, then, when I’m writing about an anime that debuted in Fall 2013, over a hundred and twenty years after the fact? State Shinto died off at the end of World War Two, when the Emperor Showa renounced his divine status and moved towards a democratic national policy. It’s been over 60 years since then as well, years full of diverse spiritual practices and freedom, and technological innovations far beyond what might have been attained had the Imperial Order maintained its positions. 

Simply put, Kill la Kill pokes fun at the idea of State Shinto, while incorporating elements of underdog stories and rebellion into a decidedly crazy (and for this fan, visually exciting) sequence of events. 

From the moment of its opening, it’s clear that Kill la Kill is more than an over-the-top anime. From the vivid squalor of the slum district, to the perpetual light of the sun surrounding a perfectly poised Kiryuuin Satuski standing above all in Honnouji Academy, the series smacks of the formerly advocated State Shinto philosophy. All below the radiant Satsuki (which is essentially everyone in the school- teacher, administrator, and student alike) must look up to her form, but cannot see her face, obscured by the blazing radiance of the sun itself. She is the final word on everything in their world, rewarding reverence, and controlling through fear. The images in those early scenes of the show align Satsuki with the power of the sun- glorious, mighty, and incredibly imposing. Satuski is more than just the student council president, she is the patron of the Ultima uniforms, the law and the order of the student body, and the vessel through which all policy and practice are dictated. She’s just a student, but she is the most powerful person in Honnouji, and everyone knows this. 

courtesy of AJ Martinsson
Lady Satsuki is one of the more interesting interpretations of Amaterasu to come along in recent memory. Unlike the playful hikikomori Sasami Tsukuyomi, or the metaphorical giant wolf of Okami, Satsuki embodies one of the lesser- aspects of the goddess- the authoritarian ruling from above. That she is beautiful is a given- Amaterasu is always depicted as a radiant being, just as the sun is radiant in the sky. But her position also implies a bit of cruelty. Like any maternal figure, she rewards compliance and excellence with gifts and a rare smile (well, maybe not Satsuki. Have we even seen her smile yet?). And she punishes disobedience with the coldest of efficiency. Failure means dismissal, which in turn forces her “children” to work harder to accomplish goals and earn her favor. When her order is threatened, be it by roving gangs or impudent transfer students, she draws her blade and cuts it down, maintaining order and keeping a peace among the populace. This is not a duty she enjoys per se, but one she has to execute, for the “greater good.” 

This vision of the autocratic kami folds itself into State Shinto, where she was the divine ancestor- the cold parental figure who was distant, but also widely respected. The Imperial Order, of which the incarnate Emperor was the pinnacle, must do what it must to keep Japan strong- it was a duty less than a privilege, and one that the commoner was expected to respect. In return, the Imperial family would provide the sacrifices and watch over the harvests, keeping the nation strong and maintaining centuries old traditions for the behalf of the entire nation. Which is ostensibly what Satsuki is supposed to be doing- uphold the glorious traditions on Honnouji Academy, and ensure that everything is operating smoothly. 

This has been her goal all along- to restore the once prestigious Academy to its former splendor...or at least how one reading of the show can view it. Whether or not Honnouji existed before Lady Satsuki cleared out the rabble has yet to be seen, but what can be inferred from the story as it is presented runs not too dissimilar from the Meiji period: gangs composed of fighters allied with the captain of the kendo club (samurai, much?) encounter Lady Satsuki and her supporters- all three of them. With a skill that belies human ability, this young upstart vanquishes all the rabble, and lays down their leader, when then spends his life attempting to match her in skill. This is all open to debate, but sounds eerily similar to how the “patriots” of the Meiji era swept away two centuries of rule by warrior-class rabble, who drove Japan backwards while hoarding their own power. It was not until the restoration of the Emperor, and by association, Amaterasu, did that former rabble be cleared away and replaced with a much older, much purer leadership that had Japan’s best interests in mind, rather than family goals and the accumulation of wealth and power. Satsuki’s defeat of the “warrior class” allows for her own order to ascend and ensure stability and a greater glory where one might have existed once, but not anymore. But as I said, that’s just one reading of it. 

Mori Arinori
Themes such as these were commonplace in the early years of educational reform- the government (and by extension, the Emperor himself, if common belief was to be taken literally) dictated what students learned, and that education was central to the elevation of status within Japan, and within the bureaucracy. This was hardly a Meiji-specific practice- as far back as the Heian period, education was a mighty force hovering above all other facets of life as the key to success- but it was only with the 1891 reforms of Mori Arinori that a standardized curriculum, based around science and the new cult, that established the academy as a powerful tool of Japanese nationalism. Students were taught sciences to increase their viability in the workforce, and were taught State theology which emphasized the honor and responsibility of using those skills for their Emperor’s benefit. 

Lady Satuski takes this idea to new heights: club presidents, the administrators who hold the keys to many specialized skills and abilities, are all part of her system of government within Honnouji. They are far more powerful, both politically and physically, than “no-star” students, who are all seen by them as pretty much a single, homogenous unit that exists to serve their whims and interests. Honnouji itself is portrayed as the top of the proverbial mountain- the keeper of the knowledge that is paramount in this world the students live in. Excel at the skills Lady Satsuki decrees are important, and be rewarded by her. Gain the power, and the right to live in the district directly under the Academy. Fail at those skills, and live among the slums, your usefulness existing only as fodder for those who have excelled. It’s a meritocratic system, one that has been utilized in Japan, in other countries, and even in other video games and shows prior to this one. But Kill la Kill is one of the first to mix this idea of political education with a figurehead who is herself associated with the sun, and thereby with Amaterasu herself. 

From the context of the series narrative, we do not know much about this world, how it came to mirror this system, and how it was organized into such a class-conscious ordering of both dwellings and peoples. All we can truly do is speculate how this world works, based around what we glean from the layout, and how the people interact. Gurren Lagann was based very heavily on the community, building autonomous units and dwellings deep into the earth- the exact opposite of the world Kill la Kill inhabits. They build up, not down, and focus on hierarchy, not group survival. The emphasis on hierarchy alone is one of the markers that tie it in with a general representation of State Shinto, as is how much attention is paid on marking the leaders of this group as “evil.” Not evil in the classical definition, but evil in their execution of ideas, and preoccupation with honor, veneration of a human vessel, and building their “empire” on the backs of the faceless student body. Their motives, while still mysterious, perpetuate this system of practice, and leave viewers with strong empathy for the population Matoi Ryuuko finds herself among. 

Within this underclass of underclassmen, there still exists a framework for community survival. The masses rely on each other, or at least we are led to believe that they rely on each other, until something in the story proves otherwise. Instances of backbiting for the sake of social climbing are rare, and usually shown as futile acts. The “no-stars” need to work together to survive Honnouji- the fact that the back alley doctor’s sign is so visible while still ostensibly a “secret” shows that the people themselves are more appreciative of him, even if the establishment is not. And even if he and his family are but a single example of passive resistance and community cohesion, it is one based around assistance and aide, two of the hallmarks of communal culture. 

Further Reading:
Gerald Figal, "Civilization and Monsters" (1999)
Marius Janssen, "The Making of Modern Japan" (2005)


  1. I think you might have read it wrong. I think Kill la Kill actually parallels Buddhism, not Shintoism.

    For one, the Student Council members are referred to as the four devas, ie the Four Heavenly Kings in Buddhism, who are said to be protectors of Lord Sakra, living atop "Mount Sumeru" (the center of the Buddhist universe) which you'll find looks similar to the design of the strange mountain that Honnoji Gakuen sits atop. Mount Sumeru is said to be populated with terraces where different levels of Sakra's followers reside, similar to the star system in the series.

    Honnoji Academy is a reference to the Honnoji Incident in 1582, where Nobunaga was betrayed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide at the Honnoji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This is alluded to when student council member Sanageyama directly quotes Mitsuhide's famous "The enemy awaits at Honnō-ji!" speech. Ragyo = Nobunaga, the daimyo trying to unify Japan (Ragyo trying to take over the world), and Satsuki = Akechi Mitsuhide, the general that betrays her at Honnoji (the same place that Satsuki betrays her mother in the series). This also fits with the idea of the temple sitting atop Mount Sumeru, since Buddhist temples are often architecturally designed to invoke the imagery of Sumeru (you will also find images online that show Honnoji Gakuen, when seen from afar, is designed to look like a Kamui uniform with it's arms in a round circle, relating to the Buddhist meditation position where practitioners bring their hands in a circle in front of them and imagine themselves as Mount Sumeru).

    The light seen emanating from Satsuki and Ragyo is a reference to the "rainbow body" phenomen, a state of spiritual realization in Tibetan Buddhism, wherein light is said to emanate from practitioners as they reach higher levels of understanding. In the most advanced state, where one is said to have attained complete knowledge, rainbow colors are seen. Not only does light emanate from Satsuki and Ragyo, but Ragyo also exhibits rainbow colors, and at one point even specifically refers to herself as "one who knows all the truths in this world." You'll also note that during the bath scene with Satsuki (which Ragyo refers to as a "ritual") at the climax of the scene Satsuki's chakra (specific energy points on the body) are very clearly shown as being opened.

    The story of Kill la Kill may be a reference to an ancient Tibetan apocalypse mythology, that predicts a war in which foreign invaders will be defeated by a king from a distant land that joins forces with the gods of Mount Sumeru to bring peace and understanding to the world (something to that effect), which is possibly a reference to Ryuko joining forces with Satsuki to defeat the aliens. More generally speaking though, the story I think focuses on Ryuko's personal "path to enlightenment" (i.e., the Way she's not supposed to Lose), and how she's helped by her Kamui (god clothing) to come to an ultimate understanding (or Nirvana) about herself and the nature of her existence, and to be at peace with it. This is most notable in that Ryuko defeats Ragyo at the end of the series, not by destroying her, but by "Absorbing" her with Senketsu. "Absorption" is a state known as jhana (meditative absorption) and is the last of the eightfold paths in Buddhist practice needed for attaining Nirvana. There are many other possible references, including what looks like a lotus blossom (very important Buddhist symbol) during the Absorption, Senketsu possibly being a Boddhisatva, and a visual nod to Nirvana (snuffing of the flame) in Senketsu's death scene.

    There are other references throughout the series, so I think that it makes sense as being a Buddhist parallel, maybe not Shinto.

    1. This is definitely one of those shows that can be picked apart a dozen different ways. The fun part about it lies in that when it comes to Japanese experiences of sacred practice, they managed to integrate a lot of Buddhism in with Shinto over the 1300+ years of their co-existence. Japanese Buddhism and Shinto are so integrated with one another that even the major shrines no longer try to tell them apart…or sometimes hold to a stance that's been around a while while not denying/supporting anything. They spent so much time together, that it's practically impossible to separate them.

      The concept of the Shitenno, for example, ties in with the 4 devas, who were listed as both kami AND bodhisattvas, as per ryobu-Shinto from 590. Two of the Shitenno- Nonon and Sanageyama- incorporate images of kami themselves: in the case of Nonon, she parallels heavily with Ame-no-Uzume (kami of dance, art, and music) in her control of the culture clubs, while Sanageyama parallels Sosa-no-wo-no-Mikoto, with his challenging of Satsuki's ideals, his belief that he should lead Honnouji, and his "blinding" when he fails, which are all instances referenced in both the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. (plus the entire sequence with Satsuki "hiding" in her tower, while her subjects fight is a central part of the State Myth, and quite a few other popular tales). Gamagoori, meanwhile, is definitely Buddhist, particularly Hachiman, in his actions and activities. The very concept of the "best four" were espoused in secular storytelling, Buddhist legends, and Imperial founding myths, which were themeselves a syncretic expression of an eternally confusing sacred landscape in Japan.

      On the case of Honnouji, there are plenty of references to Nobunaga's advancement across Japan (pretty much the entire school trip arc, which culminated in the moment of rebellion), and the kanji used for the name reference the "Temple of the True Mind," which is both Buddhist and Shinto in its application. Specifically, the idea of true enlightenment, which was always relative to the time frame it was employed (which is to say, during Meiji is was highly reflective of the ascendant Emperor).

    2. The elements of resistance that lead to Satsuki challenging Ragyou are literally ALL OVER THE PLACE- at one point it even parallels the idea of Japan standing against America during WWII, while still being tied in with the 1970s anime that Trigger spent the bulk of the series commenting on.

      We see Ragyou in her introduction spouting the book of Genesis (at which point it was pointed out that the rainbow light she gives might have something to do with the light of salvation through her will, especially given her obsession with nakedness and impurity…which ties back in with fighting unclothed…and the circle continues. If she's spouting Genesis and talking about Honnouji existing to serve her, that sounds a whole lot like the US chastising Japan in the 30s for its expansionist policies that ran in conflict to Western interests) while he daughter preaches something more akin to self-reliance or a community mindset while the light of the sun shines over her, a sun that she seems to personally command in those early episodes when it moves behind her as she decrees things…that's imagery inherent in State Shinto, or at least the state shinto that, were it to be believed literally, was a blend of metaphor tying the future to the idea of a single personage.

      Later on, Ragyou spews the same global rhetoric that led to Japan walking out of the League of Nations yet she decides to transform herself into Izanami in episode 24 (complete with gabled robe from the mythology) for the final battle, which is itself a mess of philosophy that needs to be appreciated for what it is, part of which being a massive transformation story that advocates, among other things, leaving the past behind in a very Foucault-like moment of clarity.

      At the end of the day…really, there are maybe a dozen ways to read into this story, and all of them are tied in with the POV of the person. When I wrote this, I was on a huge State Shinto kick, and saw it all over the place in the organization (which itself was cobbled together from both Heian administration and Tokugawa city-planning: the idea of the sacred mountain belonging in particular to a Japanese mindset as a whole, organized by proximity standards advanced from 796 onwards) and in the characters. Meanwhile, other people saw warnings against technology, or loving tributes to old anime, or conflicts between generations. All of which Trigger replies to with a shrug and a smirk.

      So adding a Buddhist reading to the series? Why not.

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  2. Kill la Kill does seem to be a hodgepodge of different influences. References like the Christian overtones with Ragyo's crucifixion during Satsuki's rebellion, or Ryuko's first form armor showing inspiration from Mazinger, or her second form armor from Mazinkaiser, the various references to other Go Nagai works like Kekko Kamen and Cutie Honey, or shows like Sukeban Deka, music from the showa era, or Western works like Terminator or Pulp Fiction, I guess those weren't things that factored into my consideration when I was writing the previous post, so I do want to say that I agree Kill la Kill shows influences from a broad variety of sources. I guess what struck me about your perception of the Shinto state parallel was that in the end, for Satsuki at least, the totalitarian approach was technically a facade, and so in my mind I was wanting to search for a deeper foundational meaning to the series, which is what the Buddhist references to me seem to lean towards.

    The story revolves around Ryuko, who's deeply upset about her father's death, and later about the realization of her true nature/existence as being both clothing and human. But at the end of the series she accepts the nature of her existence and doesn't let it affect her anymore. As a thematic central message, that sort of character progression seems to resonate with Buddhist belief, that the world is filled with suffering born from a lack of understanding/acceptance of the nature of reality and one's self (dukkha), and that peace is achieved from coming to understand and accept that nature, and not allow it to affect one's self (nirvana). While Ryuko at the beginning of the series is confused and angry by the death of her father, at the end of the series she can think back to Senketsu (who also had passed away) and smile knowingly (the fact that her father and Senketsu both share an eyepatch seems to make the parallel all the stronger). Ryuko's "way" was the path to her coming to accept the nature of life and of herself, which is why the Buddhist imagery seems an appropriate a thematic umbrella.

    I think you mentioned in your article that it didn't seem too clear why there was such a strong class-structure to the town Honnoji Gakuen sits atop. In the context of Mount Sumeru though it seems to actually make a good fit, since Mount Sumeru is said to have 5 peaks (maybe a tie-in to the 5 star system) where different separated classes of beings live. Mount Sumeru is also said to be surrounded by the sea, which is similar to the town in Kill la Kill.

    Also tying into the parallel between Akechi Mitsuhide and Satsuki, was that prior to marching his armies on Nobunaga, Mitsuhide spoke a signature line of poetry during a renga session, "Toki wa ima, ame ga shitashiru satsukikana", or "the time is now, the fifth month when the rain falls" which might be the source inspiration for Satsuki's name, maybe reflecting the essence of her eventual rebellion in the series.

    Anyways, looking back it does seem that Shinto imagery may have played a part in some of the references displayed at various moments in the series. But I think as far as a central sort of overarching message, traditional Buddhism seems to be somewhat more of a primary foundational focus that the series may have been aiming to allude to, which maybe seems harder to see from a Shinto perspective (though if you were able to glean a Shinto sort of message from the show I'd be interested in your thoughts). My understanding of Buddhist and Shinto practice in Japan is a bit mixed, as I've been of the understanding that Japanese people practice both religions in different contexts (that Shintoism is practiced in life events, and Buddhism in death, something to that effect), and that more generally, Japanese people practice more out of tradition than necessarily an actual belief in either one.

    1. I need to make a point of context: I DID write this in January of last year, before much of the imagery explosion hit. I was focusing very heavily on ideas reflected in the first 5 episodes or so, which smacked of State Shinto, especially given the allusions to WWII that appeared here and there. Since then, I’ve had a chance to refine the idea (for pretty much ALL of 2014), so more context leads to more readings.

      I am loving your Mt Sumeru analogy, because the more I look at it, the more it fits. One of the ideas that was running through my head did rely heavily on the Heian idea of proximity- the more use you had to the ruling family (be in Emperor, Fujiwara, Taira, et al), the “higher up” you lived in the city plan. Those living closest to the seat of power were the ones who proved their use the most. This practice continued pretty much until the modern era. And the mountain? Well, Fujizan was a kami in his own right, and was probably the second or third most important symbol in Japan at the time. Combine city planning with state imagery, and you also get Honnouji. So now the viewer can reach the proverbial summit from two different sides.

      The Shinto message I gleaned from the series was primarily the State cult. Research into the state cult showed a blend of traditions that heavily emphasizes the Yamato myth (which was less a basis for Shinto and more a justification for rule by one clan) and Neo-Confucianism (the case for national pride). What passed for Shinto in the Meiji wasn’t really Shinto at all, it was a crafted system that served to elevate the Emperor. And while the Meiji decried the hell out of Buddhism as being corrupt, it was so ingrained with ritual that it could never be fully excised. Scholars at the time even admitted they knew next to nothing of old Shinto, and borrowed the images where it saw fit to elevate their (mostly) secular system. It was namely the scene where Satsuki stands at the apex and shouts down, followed by the movement of the sun, that made me think “Amaterasu,” and the rest fell into place from there- the military uniforms, the emphasis on duty, the indoctrination, all of that was a consequence of the State cult.

      As for Ryuko...she is probably my favorite inspiration right now for peeks into Japanese history. If you have the time (and the access to JStor), I recommend you take a gander at Babrbara Ruchs and Chieko Mulhern’s articles on the otogi-zoshi folktales. This was a relatively recent endeavor of mine, but when you look at the structuring of those tales (which were Buddhist/Nobility extolling in their execution), you see a good deal of elements revolving around revenge, righteousness, abuse by parents, utopian societies, and warrior battles, that when held up alongside KLK, parallel it even better. It adds a lovely reading to Ryuko (and her relationship with Mako) that will likely make you snicker. It also tempers this essay quite well, because while I see Satsuki following the State model, Ryuko’s challenge to that order as something more nuanced.

    2. Satsuki's name is the old name for the fifth month in the lunar calendar year; the kanji match up precisely. So satsuki-hana also means the flower of May (or a kind of azalea).

      In any case, in terms of Japanese sacred practice, Buddhism and Shinto are... not really seen as different, unless you specifically identify yourself as a devout Buddhist - and even then, introducing yourself to the local shrine is seen as good (spiritual and community) manners to do. The kami are seen as guardians of people and spirits of the land, even though they may still not be fully enlightened beings, after all. But to the person anxious about employment, or about passing an exam? They would go to a shrine or a temple known for wish-granting, or a particularly famous one (Meiji is a popular one for New Year's, but anyone can go to any shrine or temple they see fit) and ask for an omamori or some kind of charm. Whether it was Buddhist or Shinto, wouldn't matter - it would still be seen as spiritually powerful.

      The main differences lie in that Shinto doesn't have defined scriptures, or anything really about the hereafter; it's just a hazy "over there", so Buddhism really shone in detailing a hereafter, and that got incorporated in. A famous proverb is "Born Shinto, die Buddhist" (now amended to "Born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist" with the popularity of Western style wedding ceremonies) as while there are Shinto funeral rites, they are nowhere near as developed or as fulfilling as what Buddhist traditions brought to the Japanese table. The relationship between the two major traditions is a fuzzy one, I'll grant, and the history of Japanese sacred culture and the intertwining of Buddhist and Shinto influences certainly don't help in de-fuzzifying it at all, either. There is no such thing as a "pure Shinto" (i.e., without any Buddhist or other influences) in Japan; one could argue there is no such thing as a "pure Buddhism" in Japan either.

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