The Real Deal: Discovering Shinto with Masatsugu Okutani

Interview JUSTIN ROSS
Photography BERT SPANGEMACHER

Masatsugu Okutani, the only Shinto officiant outside of Japan, explains the ancient practice, its origins, and modern incarnation. In a world filled with distractions, Shinto has something to teach us about getting back to our roots and discovering what are the essential qualities that matter the most. Not confined to the culture where it originated, Shinto philosophies form the basis of a whole swath of practices that are gaining ground worldwide, from the minimalist approach to design, changing consumer behaviors, and even Marie Kondo’s new hit show on Netflix promoting cleanliness and order, Shinto presents an opportunity not just to cut out the clutter in our lives but to understand the world in a whole new way. Masatsugu Okutani is at the forefront of bringing this type of thinking to the western world, advising prominent companies like LVMH, as well as governmental organizations and creative agencies on how Shinto practices can make their businesses more meaningful and successful. 4SEE asked Masastugu Okutani to share with his insights gleaned from his decades of experience as a Shinto officiant and as an advisor and educator of Shinto all over the world.

Masatsugu Okutani shinto raw studios Bert Spangemacher
Masatsugu Okutani

An ancient practice, time-honored traditions that span centuries and generations, a spiritual incubator that spawned a way of thinking so unique it is still difficult to put it into words—Shinto is somewhere between a philosophy and a religion. It is a collection of worldviews that link humanity with nature. It is, put simply, a way of life. And for Japanese people, it is so inextricably linked with their language and culture that it is at the heart of their way of thinking when it comes to everything from the design to food and from architecture to everyday life.

In fact, the ancient Japanese practice has an uninterrupted history that far predates written record: the unbroken chain of rites and rituals has been passed down, from generation to generation, by families devoted to continuing the Shinto practice. And now, for the first time, Masatsugu Okutani, a Shinto officiant from the mountainous region of Nagano Prefecture is bringing these practices to the Western world—first in Paris, and now in Germany.

Who better to learn about the ancient and often mysterious practice of Shinto than Masatsugu Okutani. As the only Shinto officiant living and carrying out Shinto practices outside of Japan, he is uniquely qualified to offer a glimpse into what makes Shinto so compelling and how its essential characteristics can apply in a western context and in our technological world.

Masatsugu Okutani comes from a long line of Shinto officiants. He is the 25thchief officiant (or leader) of the Yabuhara Sanctuary, which traces its history all the way back to 680 AD. After studying Japanese classics, history, and Shinto ceremonies at the Kokugakuin University in Shibuya, Tokyo, Masatsugu Okutani or Masa-san joined the association of Japanese shrines before embarking on an unusual educational path for a Shinto officiant by traveling to the UK for an MBA. But it was probably exactly this experience that made his skills so unique and invaluable to the organization.

Upon returning to Tokyo, he joined one of Japan’s largest and most famous shrines, the Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo. Due to its location and fame, he came into regular contact with the throngs of tourists curious about the site, using this as an opportunity to begin to explain to them about Shinto. He quickly realized this was no simple task and so he decided to develop his methods further at the Meiji Jingu Research Institute—where he studied how foreigners, and Europeans especially, viewed and could relate to the core principles of Japanese culture.

Eventually, Masa-san felt like it was an important step to put his research into practice by bringing the Shinto principles to all new audiences in a completely different context abroad when he moved to Paris in 2011. Now living in Hamburg with his wife and newborn son, I had a conversation with Masa-san to try to understand the fundamentals of the deeply complex system of beliefs that is Shinto and discover what makes it relevant outside of Japan and in our world today.

Masatsugu Okutani shinto raw studios Bert Spangemacher
Masatsugu Okutani

Did you always know that you were going to be a Shinto officiant?

My family job is to be an officiant of Shinto. It has been handed down for more than 800 years, it is quite a long history. We have a family tree and portraits of the ancestors and descendants. We hand down from generation to generation all the stories and history.

My father told me you can do whatever you want to do with your life but my parent’s home is just next to the sanctuary (jinjain Japanese) and so I saw my entire life what my father was doing. Growing up in a small village all the people saw me as a future officiant of Shinto. So, for me it was quite natural to become an officiant of Shinto and I wanted to ever since childhood.

Is it very common for Shinto to be practiced outside of Japan?

There is only one officiant outside of Japan: I’m the only one.

There are some fundamental characteristics of Shinto—there is no founder, there is no sacred scripture like a bible or text, no doctrine and teaching, no theology and philosophy, no concept of belief or non-belief, therefore also believers or non-believers and no provision of good or bad. We don’t have a missionary approach to convert believers.

So, what drives you to raise awareness about Shinto in Europe?

If we can reach the core values of Shinto, the cultural context or traditions don’t matter. If you see people who work at the jinjaor shrines, of course people think it is Japan. People see only the surface, but deeper down it doesn’t matter what it looks like, in fact.

In Shinto there is a concept called musuhi. Musuhi is the vital force including the meaning of birth, propagation, and interconnection, the formation of an organization and the creation of networks. It is the force guiding constructive and sustainable evolution and development and creating harmony at the end. This is the meaning of musuhi—a central value of Shinto; vital force of the human being as a part of nature.

Shinto jinjasare a space or place to maximize the vital force. It is like when you use an iPhone or a gadget you have to charge the battery, otherwise it doesn’t work. It is just like that. To charge the vital force, it is the role of the jinja.

In Shinto, we do lots of Harae, orceremonies of purification in English, to purify the human or a place. This is because things that can weaken the vital force are called Kegare. Ke is like the spirit in Japanese, and kare/gareis like when you don’t give water to flowers and the flower gets weaker and weaker until it dies. This is kegare. We try to remove this kegare as much as possible. The biggest kegareis death—the opposite of the concept of musuhi. Kegareis death, arrested growth and development, and illness or abnormality in the life force—anything which diminishes beauty: objects that are neither sufficiently beautiful or useful (like in Paris, (laughs!)).

Masatsugu Okutani shinto raw studios Bert Spangemacher
Masatsugu Okutani

Speaking of Paris, how is it that you ended up working with some major retailers to integrate Shinto philosophies with their brands?

In France, I did ceremonies in boutiques, for example, and they would bring their dogs or small babies. In Japan, we shouldn’t bring animals to sanctuaries but I couldn’t say no to them. But interesting things happen when I start the ceremony. A baby may be crying, or a dog barking, but just after I start the ceremony they become really quiet and calm. This is because the baby and the animals have no rationality, only sensitivity, so they can feel the space and place change suddenly with the ceremony.

From my experience working with French companies and Shinto, working with major retail brands and fashion labels, they have boutiques but they are worried that this won’t work in the future because people simply come with their money and exchange it for products. So, these companies want to create some kind of place that is more experimental or experiential, which is quite similar with the idea of a jinja. If I can do something to create a space for the consumers, not only to exchange money but a bit more than this. It is going to be more interesting if I can produce something that when people come, they can feel the origin or activate their sensitivity in the space.

What could you teach them about Shinto that is important for us all to know?

In one word, I can say it is all about back to the roots. There is a concept called honmono, which is translated into English as ‘genuine’ but my understanding is a bit different. Honcomes from ki or tree. Honmono consists of two Chinese characters as well as ideographs, honand mono. The derivation of the word hon is the mark on the thickest roots of the tree, therefore honmeans origin or source. Monomeans all energy of all material visible and invisible. People translate it as things, but in Japanese things is shina. Actually, you could write a series of books on the meaning of mono, there are very diverse meanings. From these meanings of the two words, the definition of honmonois an entity which contains and or shows the source. The opposite of honmonois nisemonoor fake. It is a combination of two Chinese characters of human and nasu, which means to do something intentionally. This means using rational thought.

When people say nisemono, it is something people do intentionally. The opposite of rationality is sensitivity. The original meaning of this word honmonomeans natural providence. Nature is honmonobecause it is created with no artificial elements at all. It also means there is no pretense in nature. In other words, fake doesn’t exist in nature. Artificial elements are a function or action of rationality.

Humans have both rationality and sensitivity, but nature doesn’t have rationality. And sensitivity is directly connected to the vital force. In this sense, I worked as an officiant of Shinto from Japan, but these kind of things—sensitivity and rationality—they don’t relate to culture or background so I can communicate them anywhere.

Masatsugu Okutani shinto raw studios Bert Spangemacher
Masatsugu Okutani

How is it that Japan and Japanese culture continues to be incredibly influential and yet still mysterious at the same time?

One of the reasons that Japanese culture attracts western people is because geographically Japan is the end of the Silk Road. Many things arrived in Japan and we ‘japanized’ these things. Especially during the Edo Period, we closed the country. This period was kind of a period of fermentation for Japan—to accept something new, modify it to fit Japanese people, and then innovate something different.

Does this have anything to do with the reason why Japan is considered the absolute top place in the world for manufacturing eyewear?

Japan is a small island and in between Japan and continental China there is a sea, but the sea is quite an aggressive one. In a way, Japan is a bit like Galapagos. That is why subjectivity rather than objectivity is more important.

For instance, Japanese swords, in the world of antiques, only Japanese swords have value for cutting. Other swords from western countries or China, the value is always in the saya, which is the case, because they put jewelry to adorn it. The logic [in Japan] is different. Japanese are more inductive and Europeans are more deductive.
People with a deductive way of thinking, they are very good at strategy and they are curious about theory. But people with an inductive way of thinking, they are really bad at strategy but they are really good at techniques, so they can go to the details a lot.

Is this one of the reasons that you chose to live abroad and bring your knowledge of Japanese culture to a foreign context?

When people say diversity, for example in companies, and they speak about countries or backgrounds, it doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me to generate dynamism is collaboration between inductive and deductive ways of thinking. They have opposite approaches but when it works it creates dynamism.