About a month ago, I went over to Daniel’s (pseudonym) apartment to interview him. The apartment is in Homi Danchi, the biggest Brazilian enclave in Japan located in Aichi Prefecture with roughly 3,500 Brazilians (and I live there as well, following the “live with them” principle of anthropological fieldwork). The apartment was full of huge moving boxes that could easily fit computers and televisions with large screens – the things Brazilians make sure to bring back to Brazil due to the high price of electronics there. “God told me that my time in Japan is over,” he said after a delicious dinner cooked by his fiancée and an hour of interviewing. “Time to go back to my country.” His fiancée, a Nikkei Brazilian who also converted to evangelical Christianity here in Japan, smiled and nodded in agreement. They are going back to Brazil, but with a big change that they are sure of keeping even after their return. They are now crentes. As one pastor put it eloquently, “You came to Japan to ganhar o pão (earn the bread to put on the table) but instead you found o pão da vida (the bread of life).
So basically that’s my research, the place of Christianity – especially Pentecostalism – in the lives of Brazilian migrants here. But for this post, I’d rather focus on some reactions made by my Brazilian friends toward the dominant religions in Japan, particularly folk Shintoism.
After the interview, Daniel and his fiancée started talking about this strange festival in Komaki, a city one-hour drive away from Homi Danchi. The festival took place the previous week (on March 15) and they came across its footage online. Hōnen Festival at Tagata Shrine（豊年祭 田縣神社）is best known for its 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus. While the wooden phallus is carried around on the street, a number of people try to touch it as it is the embodiment of prosperity, bountiful harvest, and fertility.
“Nossa! These women flock to the phallus and try real hard to touch it! They think they can get pregnant that way!”
Me, laughing hard at the whole comicalness of this festival and loving it, said, “Ah, c’mon, it’s just fun, that’s why most people try to touch it, I think. Do you really think these Japanese women believe it?”
This exchange got me thinking afterward. It was the same restlessness I felt when I was asked by an American (naturally in English, my second language), for the first time in my life, whether I was a “believer.” I understood that he was asking if I was a Christian but was still taken aback by the way he phrased it. Believe? Throughout my childhood and adolescence in Japan, during the numerous visits to Shintoist shrines and Buddhist temples, I was never once asked if I believed in any of the deities that were supposed to reside in such territories or in Buddha. Belief was not mentioned nor even encouraged. My parents, instead, disciplined me to behave in a respectful way, on one hand, and to enjoy the whole spiritual playfield with the “as if” mentality, on the other. “Let’s play as if gods were really there because it’s more fulfilling that way.”
Two weeks ago I took my mother to Nachi Shrine （那智大社）in Wakayama because she had been wanting to go for some time. The object of worship (or literally “god’s body,” goshintai 御神体) at this shrine is the magnificent Nachi waterfall itself, with a drop of 133m. She stayed there and prayed for a long time. Does she believe in the waterfall deity? Most likely no. But praying before the sheer splendor and beauty of this waterfall does bring about a lot of peace. Or, did I believe in the divine power of the wooden amulet I bought at the Ise Grand Shrine （伊勢神宮）to give to my mother, which now protects her new car? Well, knowing how the word believe (in god/God) is typically understood in Christian culture, I’d say no. But the amulet is a perfect medium to make my love for her more tangible and real, and it’s better for it to be sacred than mundane.
So, coming back to the gigantic phallus that perplexed my Brazilian friends. Do all these women actually believe in the divine impregnating power of this object? Perhaps. Who knows. But equally likely, they were immersed in the “as if” frame of mind, acting as if its power were actually there, because oftentimes playing becomes fun, fulfilling, and real. Playing is believing.
Suma Ikeuchi is a cultural anthropologist and doctoral candidate at Emory University in Atlanta, USA. Her interests mainly focus on religion and well-being among Brazilians in Japan. Click here to see her profile.