On July 2, at the lowest tide of the year, my neighbors and I prayed to the goddess of the sea. The islanders call her Benten (also known as Benzaiten), and she lives on her own special island, just off the coast of Shiraishi Island. Here she convenes with the sea and brings us luck, prosperity (well, most of the time) and protects us from evil.
It is at this time every year that Benten extends an invitation to us to come and worship her in her own little festival. This very low tide exposes a sandbar that connects her island with ours, and serves as a walkway adorned by a stone lantern that appears to be floating when the tide is high. On normal days, even at low tide you have to trudge out in knee-deep water to get to Benten Island. Perhaps this is to keep out the paparazzi. Goddesses are pretty hot stuff after all.
Nature gods and goddesses are numerous in Japan and reflect a mix of Buddhism and Japan’s folk religion of Shinto. And when you live on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea vulnerable to typhoons and high seas, some of your best friends are gods. We rely on them to protect us.
It is said there are over 9 million gods in Japan, and I can count at least 171 gods living on Shiraishi Island. And those are just the ones with physical representations of stone effigies or those housed in shrines and temples. Every step you take on this island is likely to put you in the path of some stone deity. Makes you wonder if there might be a niche market here. For sunscreen, for example? Or how about selling “godgets”: gadgets for the gods. Things like lotus leaf pedestals, the occasional staff, and cans of vermilion paint for the torii gates.
When we hear about “raifutaimu employment” in Japan, it seems like a good thing. But it depends entirely on how long your life is. The gods in Japan have been working for thousands of years — lifetime employment to the extreme. It’s not easy being a god in Japan.
Yet they continue to protect us, and we continue to pay them protection money in the form of these festivals and offerings of fish, sake, vegetables and money.
The gods probably have a nice tidy retirement package and their own fund manager. Should they ever get the chance to retire, that is.
And so during the Benten Festival, we worship, pray and throw money to the goddess of the sea. Benten is also the goddess of the arts and music (and a few other things), but the islanders here mainly pray to her for good fortune, especially for their businesses on the beachfront.
The Benten Festival is the only day of the year the doors of her small shrine are open allowing her to look out and us to look in.
I took this opportunity to look in and ask her some questions I’ve always had about Benten.
I poked my head into the opening:
“There are so many Bentens in Japan. How can you be in so many places at once?”
“My family has been in Japan since the sixth century, so I have many sisters,” she explained. “We all have the same name, but we differ in certain ways. Some of my sisters have eight arms like I do, but others have only two and play the lute.”
“And you all have your own islands?”
“My family has always been into real estate so we chose to live in beautiful spots on the sea.”
“I notice you have many godgets in your hands. Could you explain them?”
“I have eight hands and each holds a weapon to protect: A bow, an arrow, a sword, an ax, a spear, a long pestle, an iron wheel, and a rope.”
“Wow, that should cover you in almost any circumstance. Have you ever had to use them?”
Not yet, she said.
Noticing a bit of impatience with my silly gaijin questions, I thanked her for her time and left as quickly as possible.
After all, for a goddess, she is well armed.