This is the story of a little girl. This is the story of a girl who used to live in a world of fantasy.
She didn't have any particular talents and she wasn't a princess nor anything extraordinary. She was just a little girl, like many others, and this is her simple story.
The little girl grew up in a big and very old house. That was indeed an unusual place, surrounded by trees, at the top of a hill. That was the house of a Shinto priest. Of course that means there was a shrine just next to it, or to be more precise, the whole ground was a sacred place. The little girl grew up surrounded by mystic symbols, separated from the secular world outside. The torii, the lion-dog statues, the stone lanterns; the average city man only sees those things in rare and special occasions, but for the little girl that was part of her everyday life. That was her world.
There was a special building that she was never allowed to enter, it was the most important part of the compound. A 'kami' lived there. For the little girl that was a matter of fact. Living next to a god wasn't anything strange for her, after all spirits exist in every place. The little girl could never imagine that someone would question that. Because the little girl loved her family and more than anything else she loved and admired her father. Why would her parents tell her lies? That was unthinkable. Certainly the supernatural was without a doubt a truth. Certainly its existence had to be a well established fact.
The little girl had all the reasons to think so, she had evidences. Because people from all the neighborhood kept coming to 'her' shrine, and she saw them praying and being respectful to the kami. For her, it wasn't even a matter of faith. The sun rises from east, the sky is blue, there are seven days in a week, and spirits exist. The little girl lived in a very simple world.
But more than anything else, it was new year's eve that always filled her heart with awe and pride. That was that special day where she could see an incredible large crowd, people everywhere beyond counting, literally swarming the shrine. And they all formed large queues, and they all prayed to the kami, all following the same ritual, throwing coins to the offertory box, ringing the bell, clapping their hands twice, making a wish. Shrine visitors used to do that all the time, but it was particularly on that special occasion that the little girl could witness the entire community united in that religious practice. What could bring so many people together in the middle of a cold winter night? What could take them away from the comfort and the warmth of their futons? The little girl couldn't understand complicated concepts, but she knew that what kept bringing all those people together wasn't duty or necessity. She could tell, because she always saw them smiling, because she saw how much they enjoyed celebrating the holiday, writing their wishes on wooden planks, having their fortunes told, and all the rest.
If the shrine could bring that much joy to that many people, it had to be certainly something grand. The little girl was proud to be the daughter of a Shinto priest, she was proud to belong to that family.
When she became old enough, the little girl started attending school. There she met a lot of other children, six years old, just like her. But the little girl didn't think they were alike, she was special, because she was the daughter of a great man, and she lived in a holy ground. She could only imagine how much envious they would be if she told them, she could only imagine how much they would admire her. That was natural, because the shrine was the best place in the world, because that was where everyone gathered on special days. She was absolutely sure.
The little girl was very proud, and so as soon as she had the chance she told everyone who she was, who her father was, where she lived. She imagined that simply by stating those facts she would become the most popular girl in the school. Much to her surprise, the reactions were quite different from what she expected. The best that she got were comments like: 'cool', 'oooh', 'really?'. Once she even got an 'awesome', but it was from one of those kids that says 'awesome' for any stupid thing. In general most of her classmates were simply uninterested, to put it bluntly, they couldn't care less. Some comments were even more rude than usual:
"You live on that hill? Weird!"
"Do you need to climb those stairs everyday? What a drag!"
"Aren't you afraid of spirits?"
"So what are you, some sort of miko?"
"Do you pray a lot?"
The little girl was outraged by such insolence. At first she thought that they simply misunderstood her words, so she kept repeating the same things over and over. But no matter how many times she told them that her father was a Shinto priest and that she lived next to the shrine, the reactions would never improve, and as a matter of fact they worsened.
So the little girl begun to lose her temper, and many tears were shed from her reddened eyes. They were all stupid kids, they didn't understand a thing, she told them so. Never could she imagine that she was a stupid kid herself. Childhood is truly such a wonderful time of our lives!
The little girl then challenged them:
"What can be more important than a Shinto priest? What are your fathers doing?"
A kid promptly answered that his father was a physician. Everyone was impressed, they all agreed that a physician was indeed a very important person. A girl said that her father was a police officer. Everyone applauded that. The police is justice's ally and puts all the bad guys in jail. There was then a mother who was a teacher. Parroting their parents, the kids commented how education was necessary. No matter the job or the occupation, according to those children anything was better, more important, or more useful than a priest. Even a drug store employee held a higher place in their minds. 'He sells candies' was their explanation.
The little girl was shocked. Something wasn't right, there had to be some kind of mistake. She thought that maybe her classmates never visited a shrine before, but once questioned most of them admitted that they did. However none of them actually understood the significance of all those rituals, they simply followed and mimicked their parents. The biggest problem was that even the little girl herself couldn't explain why the shrine was so important, she just knew that it was. It had to.
A few years passed and the little kids grew up. Growing up they gradually gained a better understanding of society and its many facets. They were still inexperienced children, but at least they had a better grasp of what religion was. Unfortunately that wasn't the only thing that they begun to understand better.
The little girl occasionally engaged them in discussions about the importance of Shinto in Japanese culture, and to a certain degree her classmates even recognized that she was right. Even the teachers were on her side. But there was a wall, an invisible barrier that she was never aware of before and that she was now constantly bumping on.
So why do so many people go to the shrine, pray to the gods, respect the rituals, and everything else, and then they go back to their lives as if all of that was none of their concerns? Why do they remember that religion exists only on a few special days and then they simply ignore it completely? How come most of them can't even tell the difference from a Buddhist symbol and a Shintoist one? Why do they all celebrate Christmas if they aren't even Christians? Exactly what is religion for them?
To the little girl none of that made any sense, but she really was the only one who couldn't understand. Her classmates were far ahead of her on that matter. Even if they couldn't really put that well into words, they more or less knew how it worked. Bit by bit the little girl came to understand their position, she only needed to piece together their words.
"Well, you know, religion is nice and all, but it's not like it's really necessary."
What exactly did they mean by that? What is necessary? What it isn't?
"I mean, it's not like I'll die if I don't visit a shrine."
That was a ridiculous argument. A lot of things aren't strictly necessary for survival. What about art then? What about books, movies and paintings?
"But that's more or less the same thing, those are things that you enjoy for a bit and then move on."
The little girl couldn't help but feeling that there was some kind of communication problem. She didn't mean to say that art and religion are the same thing. Enjoying art doesn't entail a direct participation, it doesn't require adherence to a faith.
"Well, it's not like I really believe in all that stuff."
That came out of nowhere, an absolutely unthinkable statement. In fact, that was plain stupid. If one prays to a god, that means he believes that that god exists. If one buys a protective charm, that means he believes in its power. If one asks for his fortune to be told, that means he believes in fortune telling. Why would people do all those things if they thought it was just garbage? Ridiculous.
"Seriously now, do you actually think that spirits exist? I mean, honestly."
Of course spirits exist, what kind of question was that?
"But that's totally unscientific. That's just a bunch of superstitions."
The little girl really hated those science freaks. They always used that word, 'unscientific', to reject anything that wasn't empirically demonstrable. How can you prove that something beyond the material world exists if you start from the assumption that it must be validated through material means?
But those weren't the guys that bothered the little girl the most. What she really couldn't understand was the general attitude of most of her peers. Their actions and words told her that they had a certain interest in the supernatural, however whenever she tried to initiate a serious discussion about the spiritual world, they reacted as if they thought she was weird or even crazy.
That didn't make sense. They seemingly had no problems accepting that a charm could bring good luck, but they freaked out if she talked about exorcisms and curses. Why?
"You're not supposed to take those things that seriously."
That was something that the little girl definitely couldn't accept. If that was true then what was her father? A living joke? Naturally she could only take offense by that.
She decided to make them face their own inconsistencies. For example, it seemed that they did believe in Shinto whenever there was some kind of wish involved or whenever they needed something to give them luck or protection against evil.
"Geez, to be honest I don't actually think that this thing will bring me good luck. I mean, I'm not sure if it works or not, perhaps it does. I guess it just doesn't hurt to have it."
That was really a superficial attitude.
"Yeah, I wrote my wishes on those wooden planks too, and I prayed the kami to make those wishes become true, but that's just like wishing upon a star and the likes. That's what people do. Who the hell thinks that their wishes will be granted just by that?"
But it made no sense. Do people actually do stuff without a reason? Just because everyone else does? Just because it's fun or something? Out of boredom?
"Take astrology, for example, everyone knows their signs and all, but who actually believes that billions of different humans can be divided in just twelve groups where everyone shares the same personality and the same destiny?"
At that point it's not like the little girl didn't understand, she didn't want to. She didn't want to accept that all that she admired and that she believed in was just a gigantic farce.
"If this spiritual world is real and important as you say, then how come they don't teach that at school?"
That was a very a good question. The little girl had to face it, it wasn't just her classmates, it was the whole society. In the world she lived in religion didn't have that much importance at all. Only a minority actually believed, for the rest it was just a set of traditions. And so the little girl slowly and bitterly came to a realization: everything is illusion, everything is make believe.
Those people that always flocked to her shrine on new year's eve never celebrated a religious occurrence, they only pretended to. What they actually celebrated was the holiday itself. What made them happy wasn't faith or a belief, it was the festivity. That's why Christmas was fine too, they didn't need to believe, they only needed an excuse to celebrate something.
It never crossed the little girl's mind that from the perspective of the common man there was absolutely nothing wrong with all that. For her, it was simply pathetic, pointless, worthless.
The little girl's heart was no longer filled with pride and admiration, in their place there were only hatred and bitterness left. She despised the whole world for being so deceptive and dishonest, she despised it for its triviality. But there was a feeling that burned with even more intensity deep inside her. It was a feeling that she couldn't consciously accept, so she always repressed it.
The little girl felt betrayed. She could never forgive her father for not living up to her expectations. Deep inside her, she started despising Shintoism and all that it represented. Of course she never recognized that, she never admitted it, she always denied it.
By that time she had already grown up, and so the story of the little girl tragically ends here.