Academic Post #6
Genze Riyaku: Buy Two Benefits, Get One Free
So today I'm going to do something a little bit different and talk about an important concept in Shinto studies (and, in fact, Japanese religious studies as a whole): genze riyaku.
Genze riyaku (現世利益) literally means "this-worldly benefits." The term can be used to refer to good luck as a whole, but is most commonly used to refer to material benefits such as success in studies, protection from traffic accidents, and safe childbirth, as well as less tangible benefits such as familial harmony and marital happiness. Generally you can split genze riyaku into two categories: kaiun (開運) and yakuyoke (厄除け). Kaiun (literally “opening luck”) refers to any benefit which beckons in good fortune, such as the aforementioned success in studies and familiar harmony benefits. Yakuyoke (normally translated as either “warding off evil” or “prevention of danger”) refers to benefits which prevent bad or evil forces from influencing one’s life—for example, protection from traffic accidents.
Why is all this important? Well, pretty much every shrine you will visit will offer some sort of genze riyaku. Benefits can be gained in a variety of different ways:
- Praying to the kami
- Asking the priest to pray to the kami and/or perform special services for you
- Buying an omamori
- Writing on an ema
- Buying an omikuji (a fortune) and tying it up
Okay, you say, but why is this important? The short answer is that it’s important because People Have Strong Opinions about it. Many religious scholars—and the National Learning scholars, for that matter—are of the opinion that genze riyaku “cheapens” Shinto. People visit shrines, they argue, solely for the purpose of receiving benefits. They only pray to the kami when they need something, and so they don’t really believe in Shinto. They’re just going through the motions to get what they want and then they don’t come back. Genze riyaku, they argue, is turning Shinto into a commercial enterprise, not a religion.*
Even when people aren’t arguing that genze riyaku cheapens Shinto, they are arguing that all practices that people perform at shrines—buying omamori, praying, writing on ema—are intended to induce genze riyaku. One of the main scholars in this camp is Ian Reader, who, in response to scholars and even Japanese people who deny that their behavior is religious and, in fact, it falls more solidly under custom, responds that all practices that take place at religious centers are inherently religious, whether the practitioner sees them as religious or not.
There are, of course, a whole lot of problems with both of these arguments. Let’s look at some of them:
1. These scholars are making a value judgment. “Genze riyaku is worse than no genze riyaku!” they cry. “Commercialized Shinto is worse than commercialized Shinto!” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe they’re just different. But if from the outset you’ve decided that one is worse than the other, you’re not going to be giving a very objective view.
2. Not everybody wants genze riyaku. Sure, there are people who visit shrines to receive genze riyaku. But there are people who may be visiting shrines and engaging in what Reader calls “benefit-seeking behaviors” without expecting to receive anything in return. These people have a relationship with the local kami, and they are dropping in to say hello, in a sense. For example, Kasulis gives the example of businessmen stopping at a shrine on their morning rush to the train station. Despite their obvious haste to reach the trains, they “not only slow down but walk up to the shrine building, stop at the trough to wash their hands and mouth, then go up to the shrine, clap their hands, bow formally with hands held together in prayerlike form, clap again, and then leave the shrine grounds. As soon as they leave the precincts, they again break into a run.” When these men were questioned about their motives for their visits to the shrine, the discussion often followed this form:
“Why did you stop at the shrine?”
“I almost always stop on the way to work.”
“Yes, but why? Was it to give thanks, to ask a favor, to repent, to pay homage, to avoid something bad from happening? What was your purpose?”
“I don’t really know. It was nothing in particular.”
“Well, then, when you stood in front of the shrine with your palms together, what did you say, either aloud or silently to yourself?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
Are they performing “benefit-seeking behaviors”? Yes, they’re praying. Are they actually seeking benefits? No. You can “visit” the kami of the shrine and pay your respects before work in the hope that someday, if disaster strikes and you need something from the kami, the fact that you already have a relationship will prompt a more efficacious response. Or you can just drop in to say “hello” or “thank you” or “it’s a really nice day” without expecting anything in return.
3. The kami will not magically fix everything for you. If you buy an omamori for success in examinations, you still have to study for the examination or else you will fail. Nobody believes buying an omamori gives you a free pass. In fact, shrines often emphasize the effort needed to achieve your goals; Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine’s ema for education success include a picture of Thomas Edison and his famous saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” If you don’t study your brains out to pass that test, you might as well not buy the ema at all.
4. Some people don’t wish for anything at all. Somewhat related to the last point, but a surprising number of people use the act of writing on an ema or buying an omamori to reinforce their commitment to studying (or creating harmony in their household or being a safe driver). For example, while many ema wishes are written in the form “may____” (“may I enter XYZ high school,” “may I find a good boyfriend,” “may I be protected from traffic accidents), others are written in the form “I will____” (“I WILL enter XYZ high school,” “I WILL find a good boyfriend,” “I WILL be a safe driver”). Are these requests? No, they’re public statements of intention. By displaying such a message, these people are expressing their desire to enter a high school or find a boyfriend or be a safe driver in front of the kami as well as everyone who comes to the shrine to read the ema. Similarly, by buying an omamori for success in examinations, a student may be expressing his or her commitment to do well in the examination.
5. The majority of omamori are bought for other people. Let’s say your mom gives you a success in studies omamori. What’s she saying to you? “I am giving you a divine object to help you pass your exams”? “You better do well in those exams or else; here’s a handy reminder of how important these exams are”? “I know you’re working hard to pass your exams; here’s a present to remind you I’m behind you one hundred percent”? Maybe it’s all of the above. Or maybe you go out with your soccer team and write on ema at Shirahime Shrine (oh man, you remember those pictures I took?). You could say that you’re looking for help from the kami, but you could also say that you’re reaffirming your commitment to achieving your common goal while stressing the importance of teamwork. Therefore, you can’t say buying an omamori or writing on an ema is a solely religious (or materialistic) practice—there’s also a lot of social communication going on, reinforcing the bonds that tie people together and reminding people of their obligations to their family/team/friends.
And thus concludes my (very) brief introduction to genze riyaku.
Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan by John K. Nelson
Although not specifically about genze riyaku, he does talk about alternate interpretations of "religious" practices in modern Shinto.
Religion in Contemporary Japan by Ian Reader
A general overview of religion in Japan...in 1991. Needless to say, it's slightly out of date.
Practically Religious by Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe
As can be surmised from the title, this is THE genze riyaku book. Lots of interesting information on contemporary practices, even if you disagree with the interpretation.
Kurozumikyo and the New Religions of Japan by Helen Hardacre
Has a section specifically about genze riyaku in the New Religions and why the purely materialistic interpretations fail. With some tweaking, the argument can be expanded to the established religions as well.
Articles (all of these can be accessed through JSTOR):
Reader, Ian. “Letters to the Gods: The Form and Meaning of Ema.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 18.1 (1991): 24-50.
Exactly what it sounds like. Reader wrote an article about ema and genze riyaku.
Anderson, Richard W. “What Constitutes Religious Activity? (I).” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 18.4 (1991): 369-372.
Then Anderson wrote a response to Reader's article saying Reader was wrong.
Reader, Ian. “What Constitutes Religious Activity? (II)” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 18.4 (1991): 373-376.
Then Reader wrote a response to Anderson's response saying Anderson was wrong.
Swanger, Eugene R. and K. Peter Takayama. “A Preliminary Examination of the ‘Omamori’ Phenomenon.” Asian Folklore Studies 40.2 (1981): 237-252.
Specifically about omamori. Talks about omamori use to strengthen social ties.
Zeng, Kanming. “Prayer, Luck, and Spiritual Strength: The Desecularization of Entrance Examination Systems in
East Asia.” Comparative Education Review 40.3 (1996): 264-279.
Specifically about practices to ensure success in examination.
*It’s worth noting that the same argument is made about the New Religions. I.e. the New Religions are focused solely on attaining material benefits and thus aren’t religions at all but more like elaborate cons. It’s also worth noting that a lot of these arguments come from priests in the established religions (i.e. Shinto and Buddhism). Definitely no bias there.