Soushi describes himself as a pioneer among Shinto priests. During the day, he performs his duties at 17 different shrines. At night, he becomes the “Singing Shinto Priest,” a pop musician whose mission is to make basic Shinto principles more accessible to the public.
According to Soushi, although the Japanese often go to shrines, most of them do not know very well what Shinto is about. Alternately using humor, emotion, and poetry, the young priest is determined to make the essence of Shinto understandable to all audiences.
In his first interview for an English-language media, Soushi opens up about his role as a Shinto priest, the world of the Japanese deities, his music, and the balance between his religious duties and his private life.
The Duties of a Shinto Priest
At night, you become the “Singing Shinto Priest,” but during the day, you are a regular kannushi [Shinto priest]. What exactly is a kannushi in Shinto religion?
We, kannushi, are also called “shinshoku” [a word which means “working for the kami”]. We are in a position between the people who pray and the kami [Japanese deity]. So basically, our role is to transmit the feelings of the people who make a wish to the kami. It is our main duty.
Does it mean people should not pray to the kami directly?
A lot of people go to the shrine to pray or make a wish. However, originally, individuals are just supposed to show gratitude to the kami. The kami are looking over people and protecting them every day, so the shrines are places where to thank them.
If people want to get their prayers across to the kami, the best way to do it is through a kannushi. Of course, you can pray to the kami and ask them for favors directly, but by using us, your message will reach them more easily. That is because we work as intermediates and can use a specific way of speaking to the kami, which is called norito [Shinto ritual prayers].
What is a regular day like for you?
First of all, we need to keep the shrine clean at all times. Shrines are where the kami live, so they must be kept pure. So, my day starts with cleaning. First, I clean the precincts, then the main building where the kami resides, without leaving anything out. After that, I open the reception. That is the place where you can buy lucky charms and submit prayer requests. I perform such prayers during the day until the evening. After that, I do one more simple cleaning, and close the doors.
However, there are moments when we, kannushi, are less busy. Then, we do some planning work such as preparing for the next matsuri [traditional festival]. This also means building tents and other tasks that require strength, things that most people would usually not imagine us do. We also remove weeds from the precincts and do anything to make sure the kami feels comfortable.
When I was in high school, I thought being a hairdresser would be really cool. But, in the end, it was more natural for me to follow Shinto studies.
You were born in a family of kannushi. Did it mean you would obviously become a kannushi too?
I was not forced to. I could have done any other profession. However, since I was a child, I observed my father being a kannushi, and I participated in Shinto festivals and rituals. As a result, choosing the path of the kami, Shinto, was natural to me. I think a lot of kannushi have the same experience.
When I was in high school, I thought being a hairdresser would be really cool. But, in the end, it was more natural for me to be interested in Shinto, follow Shinto studies, and become a kannushi who can take pride in his work.
There are concerns that interest in the shrines will wane and that the shrine members will leave.
Which shrine are you taking care of?
I have been commissioned by Jinja Honcho, the Association of Shinto Shrines, to be the chief priest of Gosha Shrine in Saitama Prefecture, and I am also the chief priest of 16 other shrines, for a total of 17 shrines.
Is it common for a kannushi to work at so many different shrines?
It is not unusual. There are about 80,000 shrines in Japan, and only about 20,000 kannushi. Moreover, the number of households is even smaller if we take into account the fact that parents and children are involved in the work. Therefore, one Shinto priest will naturally be in charge of several shrines. As far as I know, there are priests who work at 50 shrines simultaneously.
What are the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Japanese shrines?
It has caused a reduction in the number of ceremonies that were originally held in a grand manner. Although the world is becoming more remote, the inability to perform Shinto rituals remotely is causing a lot of trial and error at shrines.
In addition, with the shrinking of the number of shrines, there are concerns that interest in the shrines will wane and that the shrine members will leave.
Who Are the Japanese Gods?
The kami are everywhere, and they are close to us.
In English, the kami are usually referred to as “gods,” but what are they exactly?
The first thing you need to know is that there are a lot of kami in Japan. In religions like Christianity, the belief is there is only one God. In Shinto, we believe that the kami are everywhere, and they are close to us. For example, they can be found in nature: in trees, rivers, mountains, on specific grounds and areas. In Japanese, to express that there is a great number of kami, we use the expression “yaoyorozu,” which is written using the same characters to write “eight million.”
I have heard that people can become kami too.
Yes, in some cases, human beings can become kami. For example, in Japan, there is the imperial family, and emperors become kami. Great people who have accumulated a lot of virtues can also become kami. Some ancestors, like mine for example, who have helped Japan, can become kami too.
Is there a kami who is more important than the others?
The most precious kami resides in the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie Prefecture, and is called Amaterasu Omikami. That is because she is the kami of the sun. Many Japanese people have a kamidana, a Shinto altar, in their homes. Amaterasu Omikami is worshipped in all of them.
The Reason for Becoming the “Singing Shinto Priest”
How did you start your career as a musician?
Kannushi rarely leave their shrine. That is because in Shinto, there are no missionary activities. Religions such as Christianity or Buddhism are based on doctrines, so their priests go outside to transmit it to as many people as possible. It is one of their duties. There is no such thing in Shinto, because there is no doctrine. I think very few people have ever seen a Shinto priest outside of a shrine.
However, times are changing. Now that we have social media, it is expected from everyone to show what they are doing. I asked myself how I could explain to people what Shinto is about, and I realized that music is part of everybody’s life. Even in shrines, there is a special kind of music called gagaku. I started making music because I wanted to tell everybody what the role of a kannushi is, and what Shinto is about.
Until then, I was not practicing music much. I just sang a little bit of jazz.
A majority of people say they do not really know what Shinto is about.
Do you feel that Shinto is not well understood by Japanese people nowadays?
Yes. In Japan, shrines are everywhere and a part of daily life. People have been going to shrines on New Year’s Day since they were children, and they also go for ceremonies such as Shichi-Go-San, weddings, or exorcisms. However, a majority of people say they do not really know what Shinto is about. That is why I thought I might as well try to explain.
Generally, you are the one writing the melody and the lyrics for the songs, in which you explain the basics of Shinto religion using cool imagery or humor. How did you decide on this style to convey your message?
At first, I thought a lot about which genre of music would be best and came to the conclusion that pop music had the best potential to reach most people. It is easy to listen to.
Also, Shinto words and beliefs are very complicated, so I have decided to explain them using the simplest words possible. Making them easily accessible is my main objective.
Explaining the Essence of Shinto through Songs
In the video for your song “Jinja Funk,” which explains the basic manners at a Shinto shrine in a fun way, there are subtitles in English. Is there a specific point of information you would like foreigners who live in Japan, or who visit Japan, to know?
A lot of foreigners seem very concerned about the correct gestures and ways to follow. Of course, there is a correct way to bow and clap your hands, and also a correct order to do things. Us kannushi need to follow the exact methods to do things, but for people who pray, the most important thing is your intention. Manners are important, but the intention of not disrespecting the kami is more important. The most important thing is to remain quiet and humble in front of the kami.
A few months ago, I interviewed a Shugendo monk, who also explained that in his religion, being humble was the most important.
I think being humble is a very important virtue for the Japanese.
Your music video called “Ooharaikotoba” is more serious and seems especially popular among the foreign audience.
Yes. Actually, I did not create it with the foreign audience in mind, but it got a lot of views, and there were a lot of comments from foreigners, asking “What is he saying?” and “What does it mean?” Thanks to that, I realized that what I am doing can also arouse interest outside Japan.
I would like to take advantage of this interview to explain what Ooharai is about. On the last day of the months of June and December, shrines organize Ooharai ceremonies. During this period, you can see large straw rings installed in shrines. Ooharai are big exorcisms.
Even if human beings try their best at being a good person, they still commit faults every day. I am not talking about crimes such as stealing something, but tiny faults we all do, myself included. Examples of such are getting angry while driving your car, or getting angry with someone for no good reason. In Shinto, it means accumulating impurities within yourself.
We believe that human beings can have good lives only if both their bodies and hearts are clean. So, when accumulating too many impurities, it provokes an imbalance between the heart and the body, and you may get sick, or something bad may happen to you. So, Ooharai ceremonies are designed for people to purify themselves by reading Ooharai words, called “Ooharaikotoba” in Japanese.
Shinto priests are rather free and we do not build walls between us and Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.
You have been doing live shows with VOWZ BAND, a band formed by Buddhist priests from different sects. With their vocalist Mr. Fujioka, you have even formed the duo Shinbutsu Kyodai, called “Japanese Shinto and Buddhist Brothers” in English. How did this collaboration start?
Actually, it was a Christian acquaintance who told me, “Do you know about these funny Buddhist monks?” and introduced me to them. We immediately hit it off, because they had been making music in order to make people understand Buddhism better. I could only sympathize with them, and we instantly became good friends. That is how we decided to do live shows together, and make music together.
Is it common for Shinto priests to get along well with priests of other religions?
In Japanese, we have the saying “Kuru mono wa kobamazu,” which means “Refuse no one.” In Shinto, we do not judge other religions badly, probably because as I explained earlier, we do not have a doctrine. We are rather free and do not build walls between us and Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, for example.
Life and Love of a Modern Kannushi
Until now, I have heard only good reactions regarding what I do! [laughs] Most of the time, people tell me what I do is very modern. Even fellow kannushi tell me what I do is interesting. People are very understanding because I do it for Shinto, and I am a kannushi before anything else.
Naturally, there must be people who do not agree with the fact that a kannushi sings in front of people. Especially because I am the first one to do such a thing. However, I have never been told anything negative directly.
I am human, so of course I fall in love, but I have this tendency to be abstinent.
Your song “Koiwazurai” is a sad love song in which things do not go well, but you thank your loved one for reviving feelings you had forgotten. Is it difficult to conciliate your life as a kannushi and your private life?
Yes. Even in my private life, the fact I am a kannushi is always in the corner of my mind. I live my daily life being careful about a lot of things. I am human, so of course I fall in love, but I have this tendency to be abstinent. Of course, I am not saying all kannushi are like me. It depends on people. Even regarding music, there is a part of myself that is very stoic.
So, there was that time when I fell deeply in love, and I realized even I, the kannushi, was still able to have such feelings. Thanks to that, every day became fun. In the end, my love story did not go well, but I still feel a lot of gratitude towards this person. That is what the song is about.
What are your next projects and goals?
Now that I think about it, I have not fixed a big goal for myself. What is most important for me is to continue my activities as the “Singing Shinto Priest” for as long as possible. I am working a lot on new music and music videos. I want to keep collaborating with the monks from VOWZ BAND and motivate each other, and let more people know about my music. However, I do hope to be able to play in front of a larger audience someday.
I will be releasing two new songs very soon on YouTube, titled “Kaze ni Nosete” [Going with the Wind] and “Umi” [The Sea]. I wrote them because nature is a very important element of Shinto. Also, I wanted to express feelings regarding the new wind that is blown by the new era we are now living in. “Umi” is about the wonderful power of the sea, which can receive and accept any of your feelings.
[Since this interview took place, “Kaze ni Nosete” was released, so here it is:]
Shinbutsu Kyodai will be releasing a new song very soon too, which is called “Sora” [Sky]. The wind, the sea, the sky… [laughs]
The whole world is going through very hard times right now. We wrote “Sora” as a message of love to all the people whose hearts and bodies are exhausted.
Since it took place during the state of emergency due to the pandemic, this interview was done remotely via the internet. Probably calling me from one of the shrines he is taking care of, Soushi appeared on the screen dressed in full Shinto priest attire. That is when I realized that having lived in Japan for almost 10 years, it was the first time I was having a real conversation with a kannushi, other than a short exchange to buy a lucky charm or ask for a goshuin. Soushi spoke to me in a very polite and gentle manner, reminiscent of the character he is playing in the Shinbutsu Kyodai duo.
The other day, I was showing one of Soushi’s videos to a friend, who asked me, “Is that some kind of marketing scheme?” However, after talking with the young priest for about an hour, I can assure you he is not doing music hoping for fame or money. During our conversation, he kept asking me if what he was saying made sense. After the interview, he even wrote on his social media that he had realized again how difficult it is to explain Shinto in an easy-to-understand way.
There is no doubt Soushi is highly determined to use music in making Shinto understandable for all, and why not have a little fun along the way? After all, when Amaterasu Omikami was hiding in a cave, the only thing that managed to lure her out was a dance performed by the goddess of dawn, and the laughter of the other kami who watched it.