Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Idols of Harajuku

A few days ago the Winter Olympics in Vancouver ended, and it was quite a spectacle. But do you remember where the Summer Olympics were held in 1964? Yes, they were in Tokyo, and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium was one of the facilities built for those Olympic Games. That striking structure (picture here) was within comfortable walking distance from where our family lived when we first went to Japan, just two years after the Olympics.
Harajuku Station is the train station closest to the National Gymnasium, and you can see a picture and read about that well-known station here. Departing from the station, it is only a minute’s walk to the huge torii (the “gate” that marks the entrance into sacred space) in front of Meiji Shrine, the most important and most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo.
Several years ago, some missionaries and other Christians in Japan announced that there was going to be prayer-walking in front of Meiji Shrine. That was being planned, of course, because Shinto was seen as a rival to Christianity and the devotion of the Japanese people going there was thought to be idol worship.
Hearing about the planned prayer-walking, I remarked that it was my opinion that the youth culture so prominent on the other side of Harajuku Station was the real opponent to Christianity and that attention ought to be focused there rather than on Meiji Shrine.
The youth culture of Harajuku seems to be unmitigated hedonism. And in Japan the word idol is regularly used to refer to cute young women in their teens and early twenties who appear regularly in the mass media. Probably few “idols” actually go to Harajuku, but most of the young women who go there would very much like to be idols.
While I would be surprised if most or even many of the Japanese who visit Meiji Shrine actually experience God there, I would not be surprised if some of them do. By contrast, it seems to me that the hedonistic young people who frequent the streets of Harajuku are quite unlikely to experience God there—or anywhere. So, I am far more concerned about the “idolatry” of Harajuku, and the hedonism of the young people of Japan in general, than about the perceived idolatry of Meiji Shrine.

The torii (sacred gate) at Meiji Shrine near Harajuku Station in Tokyo.


  1. So we tip-toe up to the definition of "idolatry." Such a loaded word for anyone who reads the Bible. We nervously ignore some of the clearest language in the Bible, "Thou shalt not make any graven images unto thee." Yet we never seem to find a good explanation for our ambiguity.

    One modern concept is "art." Much of what once was consider idolatry we have reclassified as art. Visit any great museum and former idols are all over the place. We create photographs, paintings, sculptures, and all sorts of representations of humans and animals. Yet, we also recognize that sometimes people find being photographed very offensive. Even art is not totally safe.

    Much that might be art is more properly considered in some sense symbolic, from the majesty of Mount Rushmore to the crass propaganda of some political cartoons. This, in turn, may be in the eye of the beholder. The large Buddha statue in the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City no doubt carries little symbolic power to most viewers. For them it is art. Someone strongly polarized either for or against Buddhism may find that artistic appreciation overwhelmed by a response to Buddhism itself. Some of the rhetoric in the Bible appears fired by this kind of symbolic response.

    Magical powers are another level of idolatry. The assumption of magical powers, to me, is the main issue in the Biblical viewpoint on idolatry. For the person who fears magic powers in a photograph, the photograph is a dangerous power. Interestingly, sometimes this one seems to get inverted. An idol is attacked for its failure to have the expected magic powers. Magical thinking rarely sees itself that way, but we do tend to self-righteously find it overflowing in others.

    So I look at the beautiful photograph of the sacred gate at Meiji Shrine, and I wonder how all these categories, and perhaps a few more i may have missed, would apply to it. I can imagine a Mount Rushmore at the end of that grand pathway, or a great city zoo, perhaps even a university. Some who know it better might see theologically significant details that would color their impressions. What I feel as artistic and naturalistic beauty, some might feel as an ominous magical power. And somewhere down that enchanting path just might be an experience of God. Now, would someone like to define "God?"

  2. I have been teaching full-time at a small college in Japan for over ten years, and I can attest to the spiritual emptiness of Japanese youth. Most I encounter do realize that something is wrong on the inside, but most feel that if they get more of something, the emptiness will go away. In this way, they are not too different from the youth in America or the UK. Or even some of the older folks as well...