FEATURE: Supplications to the divine considered personal info in Net era


Before the Internet era, Japanese people conveyed their wishes to the heavenly powers by writing them on wooden votive plaques called "ema" at temples and shrines along with their names and addresses.

But this centuries-old tradition is now being influenced by modern life, as some consider such wishes -- such as for the safety of their family or passing school exams -- as private information and put stickers on the tablets to hide the info, while some religious entities have started introducing protective labels.

"There were incidents where people would read others' wishes and laugh or take pictures of them. We thought it inappropriate and started providing stickers as a precaution for those who want them," said a priest at a Buddhist temple in Gunma Prefecture, referring to a step taken in the summer of 2015.

Noting that today everyone has a cellphone or smartphone with built-in cameras, Isshin Hirose at Shorinzan Darumaji temple in Takasaki said, "We are living in an age where you never know when your name and address could be widely publicized."

Hirose said hiding such information may encourage people to write their wishes freely without worrying about whether someone else reads them.

"It is good to be able to write freely," said a 55-year-old woman who came to write her wish on a tablet at Yushima Seido temple in Tokyo, which has introduced "awase ema" -- a set of two ema hanging together to hide the written content inside.

The woman, who asked not to be named, said, "I wrote the name of the university my son wants to go to, with our address. I would not like our acquaintances to know if he can't gain a place at that university."

"If the content is hidden, I feel that the wish will definitely be fulfilled," said another woman whose last name is Mitsuma from Chiba who visited the temple with her family.

She, like some of the other worshippers regardless of whether they were in favor or against the practice of using stickers, declined to give her first name.

Not all Japanese favor the new way of hiding information on ema, a practice which surfaced about a decade ago, with some thinking it a strange thing to do before the divine and others feeling that it is not the real Japanese way of doing things or that it will make ema appear less attractive.

"It is nice to see that people have various desires, such as so-and-so trying for the University of Tokyo or aiming to get into medicine," said Nobuyuki Maeoka, 44, who came to the Tokyo temple with his family and was inspired by reading others' wishes on ema.

The offering of ema -- literally meaning picture-horse -- dates back thousands of years to when people offered horses to Shinto deities. The custom later changed to offering horse statues made of wood, paper or clay and then wooden plaques bearing a horse's picture, further diversifying to various other pictures.

A 32-year-old woman who visited Darumaji with her husband was not aware of the stickers and appeared against using them, explaining that covering her wish would make her feel lonesome.

"When you pray, you don't have to be practical (about privacy). I don't think anyone who reads your prayer will do any harm to you...I've not really ever thought about someone putting my wishes on the Internet," said Shimizu, who also only gave her family name.

Another 29-year-old woman, who only gave her family name as Muroka, was opposed to putting stickers on ema, saying, "I think it is wrong."

"The gods will not protect you if you do such things. It is just not pure," she said. "If your wish is that embarrassing to write, how about just not writing it?"

Miki Fukuyama, 25, does not mind writing her name since she does not think people read her prayers and said she refrains from reading others' wishes as well.

"I wrote all the companies' names when I was doing job hunting with my name. I am not afraid since I believe others are not reading my ema," she said.

But there are some people who say they are worried about having their wishes read by their relatives or neighbors in a nearby shrine or temple. In such cases, they either do not write any or only write such wishes when visiting a temple or shrine far away on a trip. Some just opt to write only their first name, with no address.

Japanese scholars say there may have been a change in people's sense of values, with many more believing those who want to keep their personal information private should be able to do so.

Keio University professor Fumio Shimpo said there was less privacy in traditional Japanese houses made of wood and paper-based walls than in European houses made of brick and rigid walls.

"The concept of privacy has been rigid in Europe where it is based on the notion of human rights, while in Japan it has been very vague," said Shimpo from the university's Department of Policy Management.

"We have recently imported the notion of the right of privacy from Western cultures, so sometimes we tend to overreact," he said.

Shimpo said that reading others' ema is not illegal as people choose themselves to put them in shrines or temples, and they can also put a sticker on them if they wish.

The Japanese government enacted a private information protection law in 2003 and it came into force in 2005, when social networking services had yet to familiarize themselves with it.

"But after 10 years, our way of handling information has changed drastically...and it has also had some effect on how Japanese protect their personal information," Shimpo said.


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