Torii gates are a distinctive feature of Japanese architecture, and in recent years some of them have been updated with elements of contemporary design; they’ve also become inspiration for other constructions.
Shinto is the indigenous religious system of the Japanese islands, which is broadly animist – in that everything has its own spirit or kami. Torii gates traditionally mark the entrances to Shinto temples and serve as a means of demarcating the sacred space. By passing through the gate the visitor is physically reminded that they are crossing some kind of boundary. The traditional form (see the final two pictures) is made of wood, painted vermilion and black. Stone gates are another traditional variant.
More recently, gates have been made of various metals, concrete, and other modern materials. The gates have also become inspiration for other pieces of public art and architecture, like the first few images above.
They’ve also become a pretty common symbol for Shinto (they are used on maps to mark Shinto temples) and Japanese culture more generally. They’ve been built in Second Life and used for inspiration for furniture.
I also included a picture of traditional torii gates at a shrine to Inari. Inari is the kami of fertility and industry, and it’s become customary for successful businesspeople to donate torii gates with their names on them to shrines to Inari. Thousands and thousands of them do this, producing these beautiful torii tunnels.
Japan is one of the most secularised nations on Earth – only 30% of the population professes to have a religion. Estimates vary on the number of Christians in the country, but it’s somewhere between 1% and 6% of the population. Of course, in heavily populated Japan, that’s still quite a few people! Christianity first arrived on the islands in 1549 when Portuguese Catholics came in the roles of traders and missionaries. Christianity is thus closely tied to ‘the West’ for Japanese, and to the struggle against possible colonial domination. Japanese Christians were thus persecuted under the Tokugawa Shogunate of the 17th Century, but since the 19th Century we have seen the number of Japanese Christians slowly and steadily increasing. There are organisations that are now openly trying to expand Christianity’s influence and base in the country.
In addition to its political connotations, Christianity may also seem intrinsically foreign to a Japanese audience due to its fundamental tenets. In Buddhism, the dominant religious tradition in Japan, the ‘self’ is a burden, something which must be minimised and ultimately thrown away in order to achieve nirvana, or a kind of absorption in the divine. This clashes significantly with the Christian perspective, in which the individual soul is discrete and preserved, indeed perfected, in order to reach Heaven. These notions spill out beyond the religions themselves however, and become diffuse understandings in whole societies. This could partially explain the lack of headway Christianity has made in Japan.
Having said all of the above however, there is also a sense in which Western things and Christianity hold a kind of exotic appeal for some Japanese. One of the clearest manifestations of this is the phenomenon of the ‘Christian’ or Western-style wedding, which has become incredibly popular in Japan. Brides don huge white dresses, wedding chapels have popped up everywhere that mimic church architecture, and employees officiate over the ceremonies dressed like priests.
Pop music is another Western cultural product that has been picked up by the Japanese, who have succeeded in truly making it their own. Japanese pop, or J-Pop, has developed its own distinct character. And considering that Christians are most common among younger age groups, it is perhaps not surprising that Christian J-Pop would appear. For many it is explicitly evangelistic. One website asks, “Please pray for non-Christians who are attracted to their music to know Christ, the source of the message of love and hope in these songs.” Night de Light are one such band who are trying to be a “ray of hope” in a dark world, spreading the word of Jesus.