Friday, July 11, 2008

Religion in the Japanese Classroom, 神鉛筆

Every year the 3rd grade students at Washimiya's public junior high schools 鷲宮町立学校, along with the rest of Japan's junior high students, take a three day class trip to Kyoto 京都, the cultural capital of Japan that was once the capital of Japan. (For reference, Japanese junior high 3rd graders are the same age as a freshmen in American high schools.) Some of the students along with teachers who chaporoned the trip brought me back some great souvenirs.

By far, the most interesting of the souvenirs I recieved was a pencil. Not just any pencil, a special pencil sanctified by the Japanese god of scholarship, Tenjin 天神, who makes his home at Kyoto's famous Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine 北野天満宮.

This auspicious pencil should help the 3rd graders ace their upcoming high-stress high school entrance examinations; examinations that very well could determine the rest of their lives.

The pencil is part of a special academic combo package the shrine sells to visiting student groups looking for a little extra help with their exams. The 5,000 yen ($45) package includes a pencil and bookmark for each student in the class, plus a sanctified wooden tablet to hang at the front of the classroom so its blessings can rain down on the student's study-weary heads.

These pictures are from Ms. Hirano's homeroom class. On the right of the tablet is written the school's name: Washimiya Junior High 鷲宮中学校, and the left is written the class's name: 3rd grade class 2, 3年2組.

I'm not exactly sure how this thing works, hell, I'm not sure anyone really does, especially the students. I asked some them if they believed the tablet would help their test scores. While a few of them believed it would, most of the students were of the opinion that it sure couldn't hurt any.
Even though I don't follow Shinto, I am a pragmatist, and I think my pencil just might help me on a future test (maybe doctoral comps or teacher examinations?), and because the pencil is a high quality #2 Tombow *HB* I can use it on pesky fill-in-the-bubble answer sheets.

Whether the academic combo pack works or not, the very smart and business savoy shrine is making bank off these packages by appealing to traditional Japanese religious sensibilities and offering a dash of godly help to scared shitless students.

Most Japanese people "follow" Shinto 神道, the native religion of Japan that, in a nutshell (literally) holds that all beings, and I mean all beings are endowed with spirits 神; from ancient moss covered boulders to a your fresh out of the showroom new car. Of course you and I and other animals have spirits too.

There isn't a lot of literature about Shinto in the west and what little of it there is makes it all sound new-agey and fruit-loopy, like worshiping tress or dancing in the forest naked. But in reality, Shinto seems to function more as a cultural constant that organizes Japanese life. Gods really aren't worshipped but they are prayed to, and that's when it's nice there's a god just for your test scores!

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