There are about 80,000 torii-gated Shinto shrines in Japan, many of them unassuming little roadside structures at which, from time to time, you might see a passerby pause, briefly join his or her hands in prayer and move on, enriched and refreshed in ways an outsider can hardly presume to say.

Among the grander establishments, two in particular stand out as central to the less spontaneous, more official side of Shinto. Though poles apart in terms of time, setting and ethos, they embody a shared aim — that of strengthening the state and its core symbol, a heaven-descended Emperor.

Ise Jingu and Yasukuni Jinja were both born of modernizing, statist revolutions — Ise of a seventh-century palace coup that transformed a primitive scattering of clans into a centrally governed, quasi-Chinese civilization; Yasukuni of the 19th-century Meiji Restoration that turned a languishing feudal anachronism into a quasi-Westernized military and industrial powerhouse.

The Ise shrine complex in rural Mie Prefecture is ancient and serene. Yasukuni Shrine, in the heart of Tokyo, is modern and stridently controversial. Ise traces its remote origin to a legendary wandering princess seeking a place of worship worthy of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Yasukuni was founded in 1869 by a new Meiji government intent on forging Shinto into a state cult fostering patriotism, loyalty and obedience.

At Ise are enshrined Amaterasu and an agricultural kami, Toyouke. At Yasukuni repose the deified souls of 2.5 million war dead — including, to the ongoing bedevilment of Japan’s postwar foreign relations, more than 1,000 convicted war criminals.

It was probably sometime in the fifth century that Princess Yamato-hime, daughter of the semilegendary Emperor Suinin, began her long journey. Amaterasu and Toyouke had once been worshipped at the Imperial Palace, but the Emperor, says the eighth-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki,” “dreaded the powers of these kami, and did not feel secure in their dwelling together.”

Bearing the sacred mirror, the sun goddess’ emblem, the princess set out from Mount Miwa in today’s Nara Prefecture. Twenty years’ wandering brought her at last to Ise, where she heard the voice of Amaterasu saying, “In this land I wish to dwell.” Here was built the Inner Shrine (Naiku) dedicated to Amaterasu. The Outer Shrine (Gekku), dedicated to Toyouke, is 6 km away.

Yasukuni is grim, forbidding. Its central attraction — central abomination, say detractors — is a war museum that seems to glorify Japan’s World War II role. Ise, in another Shinto dimension, has down the centuries been a place of joyous, often uproarious pilgrimage.

Yasukuni stands before us solid and imposing. Neither adjective would do for Ise, object of a remarkable ritual symbolizing the transience which the Japanese, almost alone among world civilizations, hold so dear as an essential element of beauty. Both Naiku and Gekku are razed to the ground every 20 years, then identically rebuilt on adjacent sites. This has been going on for almost 1,500 years — and will again in 2013.

Japan’s American-written postwar Constitution abolished state Shinto and separated religion from government. This placed Yasukuni, originally a government institution, in an awkward position. It was privatized, but continues to serve as Japan’s premier war memorial. Government officials officially paying tribute there to the nation’s war dead risk sparking a constitutional crisis and jeopardizing good relations with countries that see themselves as victims of Japan’s wartime atrocities.

Current Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan last year became only the second opposition party in 54 years to rise to power, has pledged not to go to Yasukuni and has spoken of setting up an alternative, secular war memorial. For now the matter hangs in quiet but anxious limbo.

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