Ise Shrine?

There was an interesting language-related squib in the Mainichi Shinbun last month: Ise Shrine ponders changing name to Ise Temple.

The idea to change the English-language name of Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) has been floated as a way to help foreigners better understand its centuries-old institution, spokesman Tatsumi Yoshikawa told an audience of some 130 people at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) on May 24.

No need to get too upset, though:

[A]fter his lecture, the spokesman said that Ise Shrine does not anticipate any specific development on the idea anytime soon. He also declined to speculate on how a change of a popular shrine's name to "temple" in English would affect other famous shrines such as Tokyo's Meiji Shrine.

There's a Japanese version of the story at Yahoo, too, complete with poll (74% of respondents are against a change from "shrine" to "temple" in the case of Shinto). The Japanese version also includes some background:


According to [the religious corporation responsible for managing the shrine]*, the English used to translate the word jingū 神宮 has changed before. The diplomats of the early Meiji period used the word "temple" for all all non-Christian temples [聖堂] and [Shinto] shrines [神殿]. However, the Buddhist connotations [of "temple"] were so strong that the latter usage was changed to "shrine" in order to differentiate between the two.

* Apparently the official English rendering of 神宮司庁 is just "jinguushichou", i.e. a transliteration. I figured that using this wouldn't be helpful. Incidentally, the official webpage of the shrine/temple in question uses jingū exclusively, but according to Yahoo! (and pace the Mainichi story above) they have been using "sanctuary" instead of "shrine" in their explanatory materials since 1993.

It's true that temple = Buddhism, shrine = Shinto wasn't always the rule. We don't have to take anyone's word for it; we can see the lack of consistency in easily available English-language works. For example, check out this passage from the 1727 History of Japan, translated into English from Kaempfer's original (unpublished) German Heutiges Japan by Johann Caspar Scheuchzer:

Chap. II.
Of the Sintos Temples, Belief and Worship

The Sinsju, that is, the adherents of the Sintos Religion, call their Temples, or Churches, Mia, which word, as I have observ'd, signifies dwelling places of immortal Souls. They come nearest to the Fana of the ancient Romans, as they are generally speaking so many lasting monuments erected to the memory of great men. They call them also Yasijro, and Sia, or Sinsja, which last takes in the whole Court of the Mia, with all other buildings and dependencies belonging to the same.

"Shrine" appears only a few times in the History, and only with a much more specific meaning, essentially involving the storage of "relicks", e.g.:

... Nor indeed do they keep any Images at all in their temples, unless they deserve it on a particular account, either for the reputation and holiness of the carver, or because of some extraordinary miracles wrought by them. In this case a particular box is contriv'd at the chief and upper end of the temple, opposed to its grated front, and it is call'd Fongu, which is as much as to say, the real, true Temple. In this box, which the worshippers bow to, the Idol is lock'd up, and never taken out, but upon the great festival day of the Kami, whom it represents, which is celebrated but once in a hundred years. In the same shrine are likewise lock'd up, what relicks they have, of the bones, habits, swords, or handy-works of the same God.

Moving forward, Lafcadio Hearn seemed to use both "temple" and "shrine" more or less indiscriminately when referring to places of worship (for want of a better term distinguishing such from butsudan, which he referred to as "household shrines" quite consistently). Here are some examples:

It is almost the sensation received when, after climbing through miles of silence to reach some Shinto shrine, you find voidness only and solitude,—an elfish, empty little wooden structure, mouldering in shadows a thousand years old.

When one compares the utterances which West and East have given to their dreams, their aspirations, their sensations,—a Gothic cathedral with a Shinto temple, an opera by Verdi or a trilogy by Wagner with a performance of geisha, a European epic with a Japanese poem,—how incalculable the difference in emotional volume, in imaginative power, in artistic synthesis! (Kokoro, 1895)
Of whatever dimension, the temples or shrines of pure Shinto are all built in the same archaic style. (Gleanings in Buddha Fields, 1897)
In the period of the Ashikaga Shōgunate the shrine of Ogawachi-Myōjin, at Minami-Isé, fell into decay; and the daimyō of the district, the Lord Kitahataké, found himself unable, by reason of war and other circumstances, to provide for the reparation of the building. Then the Shintō priest in charge, Matsumura Hyōgo, sought help at Kyōto from the great daimyō Hosokawa, who was known to have influence with the Shōgun. The Lord Hosokawa received the priest kindly, and promised to speak to the Shōgun about the condition of Ogawachi-Myōjin. But he said that, in any event, a grant for the restoration of the temple could not be made without due investigation and considerable delay; and he advised Matsumura to remain in the capital while the matter was being arranged. (The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies & Stories, 1905)

So the potential argument that calling a Shinto shrine a temple is just illogical and historically ill-informed is a non-starter. However, the argument that it will cause confusion, essentially undoing the attempt by the Meiji diplomats above to distinguish Buddhism and Shinto, does seem reasonable. And neither of these reports has much to say about what the corresponding upside would be — just some hints about "shrine" being inappropriate because (in the Christian tradition) it often refers to a place where bones and other relics are stored, which is apparently giving people the wrong impression about Shinto. I wonder if that connotation is really so strong for the average English speaker, though; for me, the secular, non-mortuary "shrine to Kurt Cobain in my bedroom"-type meaning is much stronger.

In summary, I don't have particularly strong feelings about whether the word "shrine" or "temple" is more suitable, but it will make my life more difficult if I can no longer explain to my parents that shrines are Shinto and temples Buddhist.

Popularity factor: 9

Leonardo Boiko:

> it often refers to a place where bones and other relics are stored, which is apparently giving people the wrong impression about Shinto.

I’d think this would make "shrine" _more_ appropriate for shintô, given that jinja are characterised by a honden "enshrining" a shintai.


"Yeah, but not _bones_!" -- is the impression I get from the reportage here. (I'm sure their argument is more nuanced than that in reality.)


I have found the term "shrine" increasingly irritating as a translation for Jingu, and these days I attempt to merely leave the word as Jingu in my own translations. Because "shrine" is a translation for jinja, it can refer to anything down to the tiniest old shack. But Jingu, literally 神宮 is a palace for the kami. They must necessarily be large and manned.

Something must be done to distinguish the two words in English, and "Grand Shrine" as Wikipedia has arbitrarily chosen is the wrong answer, implying 大神社; this invokes an image of an outsize shrine, like the very real 大神神社 (which has no honden, by the way), but not of Ise Jingu which is quite different. "Temple" certainly confuses the structure with Buddhism, though.

There was an interesting discussion of this on the Ise-Hakusan Do blog which I attempted to contribute to in my own special way.



Ise Shrine? Never heard of it, but I have been to the Ise ShrineS several times. That is probably the bigger problem than shrine vs. temple.

Leonardo Boiko:

Ise Basilica? Ise Hof? Ise Divine Palace? Ise Sanctuary? (the cognate is actually the standard Portuguese translation).


On that note Leo, what are the Portuguese terms for tera, jinja, jingu, etc.?


Tera is “templo”, same as “temple”. Jinja and jingu, AFAIK, are both usually translated as “santuário”, which is also the standard translation for Eng. “shrine” (etymonline says “shrine” comes from L. “scrinium” «case or chest for books or papers», which I guess must have become our “escrivaninha” «writing table, writing desk», so that we don’t have a cognate equivalent.)

That said, the Nambei Jingu guys call themselves “Templo Xintoísta do Brasil”, and the Kaminoya Daijingu at Arujá is registered as an “Igreja” (our word for “church”, from L. “ecclesia”).


Re the use of "Jingu", I can understand the desire to distinguish (definitively) between "jinja" and "jingu" in translations, but I don't really like the solution "shrine" vs "jingu". It seems to imply that a jingu is somehow discretely more alien (and therefore less expressible in English) than a jinja, and I don't think that's true. Personally, I think that "grand shrine" is an okay solution; in my idiolect, this sort of "grand" doesn't just mean "big" but can easily imply a qualitative difference in grandness. "Shrine vs Sanctuary" seems like a possibility but to me a sanctuary implies smallness and humbleness that isn't really evident at Meiji Jingu, Ise Jingu, etc. "Basilica" etc. seems too [+Classical European] for me (of course I might feel differently if I spoke a Romance language).

Dave: Oh, snap!

Leo: Thanks for the pt-BR info! Very interesting.


Hi must cnmoemt on this Bee- and I can only cnmoemt from my own perspective “the holiest place on earth” was our guide’s interpretation (in her overly dramatic way) to energize fellow Baha’is. It really didn’t ring a bell in any direction for me. For me, the beauty of the shrines, gardens, and visits to historical places relevant to the Faith were joyful, fun and informative experiences. Most of all I loved being with people from all corners of the world who were my peers – picking up on our mutually renewed spirituality and commitment. The Baha’i Faith has no clergy or churches, no one outside the Faith can donate money. The shrines, teaching centers etc. in Israel are symbolic (and useful too)There is or will be a monument commemorating the Faith on every continent (except possibly Antarctic?) And because we do not proselytize, these outward symbols are our main way of making others aware of our existence. (And hopefully attracting more members) We do have websites, books, etc. though.We never knock other religions or philosophies – perhaps that’s why I am so comforted that a few of my loved ones are Christian? – It doesn’t mean they are better than anyone else though. And I am not better than anyone else either! I try hard to live by my own personal credo: “just because I am right – and I know that I am right! – does not mean that you are wrong.” It works for me. Love Mom

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