The Shrine Database: An Interview with its Creator

By James Harry Morris with thanks to @ShrineWalker and Tomiyama Aki.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will likely be aware of my interest in and ongoing collection of goshuin 御朱印 (stamps collected by pilgrims to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as evidence of their visit in books known as goshuinchō 御朱印帳). Numerous websites and blogs, mostly popular in appeal and content, including my own (a work in progress), can be accessed online, although Japanese and English language academic interest has thus far been limited. In the late summer of 2018, I became acquainted with another Twitter user and goshuin enthusiast, known as @ShrineWalker (his real name will not be disclosed for privacy purposes), who is working on a mostly unknown project that has both hobbyist and academic appeal. Indeed, since I found his project inspirational, I thought that other scholars involved in the Japanese Digital Humanities may also be interested in hearing about the project. His project involves the construction of a database which records information about the 2,861 Shinto shrines that feature in the 10th Century document, the Engishiki 延喜式. I conducted an interview in Japanese with ShrineWalker, a systems engineer based in the Kansai area of Japan, in September in order to discuss his Shrine Database. Below is a translated and edited version of that encounter.

The Interview

James: Could you explain the database and the reasons you made it?

ShrineWalker: I started creating the database because I wanted to digitize “shrine faith” (Jinja shinkō 神社信仰)…It is said that some 8 million kami 神 (deities) exist, but that is a huge number. Following an initial examination, I felt that there was a regionality to the worship of kami, and therefore wanting to digitize this data, I decided to try to create a database. As such, the database is primarily about investigating the geographic distribution of enshrined kami…Regardless of whether the kami exist, it appears that the worship and enshrining of kami is related to geography…I believe that this distribution bias and the ubiquitous shrine faith that stems back to Ancient Japan can be understood. Additionally, I am interested in investigating architectural styles…The current incarnation of the database resulted from the difficulties associated with managing my data in Microsoft Excel. It is difficult, for example, to manage multi-dimensional data in Excel…

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Data input on the Shrine Database.

James: Whilst I am familiar with the contents of your database, our readers are not. Would you be able to explain the data that your database records, and why you chose to record this data?

ShrineWalker: The source of information for the shrines in the database is the Engishiki Jinmyōchō 延喜式神名帳, which is a list of the shrines that existed at the time of its editing around 1000 years ago. About 2,800 shrines are listed therein. These shrines became the foundation for the 100,000 shrines of present-day Japan. The information available in the Engishiki Jinmyōchō is easily accessible, and it is even published on Wikipedia.

In the database, I categorize the shrines by region according to the former administrative divisions of Japan (Ryōseikoku 令制国), since the former system is more detailed than the current prefectural system. Information on the enshrined kami is also included, as well as the type of kami; water, wind, fire, military etc. I think that understanding the distribution of kami by their type, will also aid in analyzing the feelings that were historically emphasized by the people in living in each area.

Note: The Shrine Database, as seen in the below image, records numerous information including the name of the shrine, its address, the rank of the shrine prior to 1946, the year of its construction, whether it has cultural treasures, the information on the shrine given in the Engishiki Jinmyōchō including its region and name, the enshrined deities, type of torii 鳥居, type of building, information on its goshuin, parking etc.

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An entry in the Shrine Database for Kangō Shrine in Nara City.

James: How do you collect the data? Do you take notes at the shrines? Do you employ other resources such as books or the internet?

ShrineWalker: Generally, I record the information from historical writings and other written materials that I can acquire at a given shrine. However, at minor shrines where there is no shrine office, I can receive no such information so I look for the information on monuments in the shrines’ grounds. In many cases, use of the internet is necessitated, however, since the internet can be unreliable I try to make efforts to talk with the Shrine’s Gūji 宮司 (priest) or Ujiko sōdai 氏子総代 (parishioners’ representative) in order to make sure that I gather the correct information.

James: Currently you are making the Shrine Database, its data, and results, public via Twitter. Why did you choose this platform? In the future, will you seek to publicize or publish the results elsewhere?

ShrineWalker: I used to have a presence on Instagram and Google+, however, my followers seem to prefer twitter so I stopped using other platforms…Twitter is also popular in Indonesia, Taiwan, America and users from those countries regularly visit my current and former profiles. Amongst my followers, there are many people who visit shrines and who through their visits have become interested in the historical writings pertaining to them. The database seeks to display information in an accessible way. Unlike writing documents, which may be influenced by one’s mood, the database provides a framework and ensures that I gather data in a consistent manner.

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ShrineWalker regularly posts graphs and tables using the Shrine Database’s data on his twitter account.

James: In the future how will you develop your database? Do you intend to release it (or an empty version of it) for public use?

ShrineWalker: Several of my followers are requesting that I release the database. I am considering offering a version of the database without the data that I have collected, however, this really depends on whether or not there is a wide need for it…I have various ideas for development, but at present, I don’t have the time. If I had more time and a secretary it would be wonderful, but since the database is not my job it is impossible to implement many of my ideas.

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Searching the database.

James: I would like to ask you about the technical side of your database. Currently, you make it on Microsoft Access, before that you used Excel. From your experience what are the advantages and disadvantages of these pieces of software for creating databases? Was the database difficult to create?

ShrineWalker: I didn’t have the knowledge to create a piece of internet software, so I used Microsoft Access to create the database. Data can be easily managed, categorized, extracted, and developed in Access. Excel, on the other hand, is similar to a word processor, and therefore there is no hope of making progress. VBA [Visual Basic for Applications] could be used, but it’s slow to respond. It is best to be able to use queries freely to collect information. I have also used Oracle, DB2, ADABAS, but such systems are expensive. PostgreSQL is free and might be nice to use, however, in order to do make it work professionally it is necessary to have a good computer. As such, I chose Access primarily because it is affordable for individuals.

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A photograph of the inner workings of the database.

Concluding Remarks

The Shrine Database (and @ShrineWalker‘s associated Twitter account) is an interesting resource for both those with an academic interest in Shinto and Japanese religions, and those with only an informal interest. In my opinion, it is a prime example of how the interface between scholarship and digital technology can help us to cross traditional academic and layperson boundaries. For those interested in @ShrineWalker’s project, he regularly shares images from his database, including graphs and tables displaying his data on his twitter account, as well as news and details on its development. For those who want to learn more about the Engishiki, the parallel Japanese-English language version offered by the University of California at Berkeley’s Japanese Historical Text Initiative is particularly useful.

At the end of the interview, ShrineWalker asked me if I could pose a question for the readers of the Digital Orientalist to reflect upon after having read about the Shrine Database:

「あなたの国の信仰と日本の信仰の違いは何ですか?」

“What are the differences between faith (belief) in your own country and in Japan?”

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