12 Lasting Values for an Uncertain World

Why Japan’s holiest shrine is torn down every 20 years

Niklas Göke
Dec 28, 2019 · 12 min read
Image via Wikipedia

On May 1st, 2019, an event took place in Japan that hadn’t happened for over 200 years: The Emperor abdicated in favor of his son.

When a new emperor is crowned in Japan, he is presented with the Imperial Regalia as part of the ceremony. The regalia are three sacred treasures, meant to both legitimize and empower the ruler of Japan. They consist of the Sword of Courage, the Jewel of Benevolence, and The Mirror of Wisdom.

The ceremony isn’t public, and only priests and the emperor see the regalia, so no one knows what they look like, and no known photographs exist. However, when Emperor Naruhito succeeded his father this May, the press was allowed to document a brief, silent, public-facing variant of the handover process.

Emperor Naruhito takes possession of the jewel, sword, and two state seals — Image via NBC

If you look closely at the image, you’ll see one of the three holy items is missing: The Mirror of Wisdom, Yata no Kagami. As with their appearance, no one knows the exact location of the regalia, but the mirror is guessed to be hidden in a shrine some 300 miles away from Tokyo.

There are over 150,000 shrines in Japan. According to the 22 ranking system, the Ise Grand Shrine in the Mie Prefecture is the highest, holiest of them all. Supposedly, this is where the Mirror of Wisdom resides.

As if all this wasn’t fascinating enough, the shrine itself is also shrouded in mystery — and a singular tradition: Every 20 years, the people of Ise tear down the shrine’s two main buildings and rebuild them. The underlying idea is that “rebuilding renders sanctuaries eternal,” and that the impermanence of everything is nothing to be feared.

Of course, such a monumental undertaking comes with a plethora of problems. For one, there are only 500 miyadaiku — the kind of carpenter who can build such ancient structures — left in all of Japan. Then, there’s the issue of getting not just enough wood, but the right wood and having it available in time. In times of economic crisis, financial aid is a problem, as are criticisms of the whole thing being a waste of time and money.

Most of all, with 20 years between each reconstruction, a whole new set of problems will have arisen by the time the shrine is next rebuilt — and a whole new group of people will have to deal with them. It all begs the question: When will it end? When will the people of Ise reach a point where holding on to their tradition just isn’t possible anymore?

The answer — and this is where you and I can learn something — is never. As long as the people choose tradition, they will find a way. They have done so for the past 1,300 years. Until today, the Grand Shrine of Ise has been rebuilt 63 times. Every rebuild was different, and each came with its own set of problems, but the process is not about rebuilding some wooden hut — it’s about the values the people of Ise uphold and how there’s always a way to do so if they’re flexible in how to live them.

This is why having values is so important. Why you and I must choose our values. Values provide us with a sense of continuity in a world where none exists. They allow us to make sense of, form, and tell a story bigger than ourselves, and that story fends off the chaos of a world that attacks us with unfairness, irrationality, and lack of meaning.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about my values. I’ve come up with 12 that are dear to my heart, that provide me with a sense of stability in both the best and the worst of times.

I can spot many of them in the good people of Ise and their tradition, and, while each of them stands on its own, stacking them together creates a foundation that makes it easier to embrace all of them at once.

Courtesy of Japan’s most fascinating tradition, here are 12 lasting values for an uncertain world.

1. Calmness

Earth has always spun around its own axis at the same speed. Time doesn’t accelerate, but we do. Life feels much faster than it did 10, 20, 30 years ago. This is a function of both our own age and civilization. As the two progress, more and more unknowns pile up in our lives, and it feels less and less possible to keep up.

The answer, I think, is to not try to keep up at all. It’s to celebrate slowness. Revel in it. Cultivate it as an antidote to the modern cult of busy. Sure, there will always be situations demanding you act quickly and decisively. But those are far and few between.

What’s more, even fast moves are best prepared in a moment of calm. Calmness is where it all starts. Always. In Ise, the wooden logs used to rebuild the shrine rest at the bottom of a pond for two years in a process called “underwater drying.”

Likewise, focusing your energy, breath, vision, and thinking on a daily basis will set you up for better decisions. It’ll also provide an aura of peace — and that’s invaluable in a restless world.

2. Rationality

Rebuilding the Ise Grand Shrine is a $500 million undertaking. With much at stake and a long time horizon, whoever calls the shots better think straight.

Being calm alone won’t always lead to rational decisions, but I rarely manage to do what’s reasonable if I’m not calm to begin with. Note that being rational is not the same as being consistent.

Most people are risk-averse. They confuse habit for common sense. Seeing the world clearly, however, is different from seeing it as it used to be. “Be reasonable,” they might say when, actually, they mean, “Don’t change.”

Many forces work against our rationality around the clock, but continuing to fight them is one of most noble, rewarding, and meaningful pursuits you’ll ever engage in.

3. Commitment

It takes a commitment to rationality to see what else is worth committing to. Study where the world is headed and figure out your place in it. Once you do, you’ll feel confident, happy even, to let everything that doesn’t match your narrative fall by the wayside.

The only guaranteed path to misery is committing to nothing at all. We fear missing out so much that we let optionality toss us about like a small sailboat at sea. If we don’t snap out of this meandering rhythm, we’ll one day find the river of life has carried us to a destination we never wanted to visit — but by then it’ll be too late.

In a world of endless possibilities where whatever we master will provide us with passion and meaning, committing to the wrong quest is near-impossible. Often, it’s that we give up too soon, that we fail to bring purpose to our task, not that we weren’t compatible with our aspirations.

A commitment is empowering. It resolves many of our fears and doubts and gives us the confidence to stand our ground, even in the face of criticism.

Many have called out the Ise tradition as a waste of time, money, and precious resources, but for centuries, the large bill has been footed by a combination of private donations and tax money. As long as the Japanese government and its people believe in the tradition, it’s a price they’re happy to pay — and they don’t care what you and I think.

4. Restraint

Commitment feels liberating, but it’s not always easy. Time and again, you’ll have to choose what’s right over what’s convenient. As long as you believe in your commitment, however, deciding to do the right thing will come easy even when the act of following through is hard.

In the rebuilding of the Ise shrine and its treasures, the same methods have been applied for 1,200 years. Power tools are forbidden on holy sites in Japan, it’s all manual labor and ancient craftsmanship. The artisanal skills required are passed down from generation to generation, so each next group must acquire them anew. The young must practice discipline and restraint in learning from their older, more experienced peers to keep the tradition alive.

I’m sure many a Sunday was, is, and will be spent studying woodwork that might have been spent otherwise. But, at the end of the day, the people of Ise take comfort in knowing their sacrifice allows them to be part of something bigger than themselves. It’s the right thing to do — and that’s why it’s worth it.

5. Humility

When I set out to write 365 pieces for Four Minute Books in one year, I didn’t know whether I’d succeed nor if my efforts would bear fruit. Despite my commitment, restraint, and conviction that I was on the right path, stuff went wrong all the time. I put in 3–4 hrs of work each day, but momentum took months to kick in. I tried many promotion techniques that failed. Everyone told me I was wrong.

Success looks good in hindsight, but building it is a humbling experience. We control much less than we’d like, sometimes too little, and often nothing at all. Realizing this while doing your very best can be frustrating, but it’s the foundation of both: True success and true humility.

The Ise rebuild is one big humble-cycle. No one can really achieve anything on their own in such a big construction project. Everyone must work together. No individual stands above the mission; it’s all in service of the shrine. Even the sanctuary itself is only a vessel. A symbol with a 20-year-expiration date. Soon, it’ll be cleared away and have to make room for the new.

6. Vulnerability

With the world looming so much larger than you even when you’re at your best, all you can do is show up and be yourself. That’s scary. Every day, you’re exposing some part of yourself that you’re worried someone else might see.

What will they say? Will they laugh at you? Judge you? Detach? Sometimes. Most often, however, people will be too busy worrying about their own flaws to even notice. Better yet, a select few will take your courage as an invitation to be vulnerable themselves. They’ll see you for who you really are and offer you the same chance in return.

Tradition is always vulnerable, never perfect, and constantly under attack by younger generations. But it spans a bridge across the ages, all to connect humans with one another. That bridge is worth crossing, even if we have to tread lightly.

7. Patience

On a 20-year journey, nothing happens fast. As one lucky guest in the Ise traditional events recounts:

I saw one elderly person who probably has experienced these events three or four times, saying to young people who perhaps participated in the event as children last time, “I will leave these duties to you next time.” I believe that this is how traditions, culture and skills are preserved over time.

Imagine an 80-year-old’s smile when her daughter leads the parade that transports the timber to the renovation site. Or the pride of a father whose son will be on the on-site team of carpenters. Think of the disappointment if their children hated the festivities. Every time the elders put themselves out there, they have to wait for the youth’s reaction. Handing over tradition is a slow endeavor — and might not always work.

Being vulnerable and living to tell the tale is what enables patience. Whether you hit rock bottom or the highest highs after revealing your true colors, each time you do, you’re reaffirming your ability to survive, learning to wait what tomorrow will bring in the process.

8. Empathy

Once you’ve accepted that life is long, and that, in spite of our smallness, we’ll live to see a good future if we show up honestly, dutifully, and with reason, you’ll find you even have time to contemplate the fortunes of others. With all of us riding in the same boat, why not get to know your fellow travelers?

Without ever talking to them, you can imagine what people feel. You can think their thoughts, visualize their experiences, and see the world through their eyes. None of this has to match reality to be valuable. Sometimes, it is even more so if it doesn’t.

Beyond getting to know their neighbors, elders, and youths, with each iteration of the Ise tradition, every participant gets to ponder the lives of their ancestors, some dating back over 1,200 years. What did they do? How did they feel? What were their struggles?

We’re all humans facing the same demons. Empathy is how we remember.

9. Compassion

The procession moving the logs to the rebuilding site takes several hours despite covering only a short distance. The carrier carts are connected with ropes, and children and participants walk in between them. Every few meters, a good-natured tug of war erupts.

People push the ropes from either side, trying to force the other party to move away from them, the younglings scurrying about in the middle. People sing, laugh, and compete. It’s a resilience exercise.

Of course, sometimes, people get hurt. A child might fall over, a cup of tea might spill. These are chances to practice compassion. To help keep the parade going, to lend a helping hand.

Like the ropes tying the carts together, empathy and compassion are deeply connected. Once you make an effort to know someone, you’ll see they’re not so different from you — and that makes it easier to be kind and forgiving.

10. Acceptance

Rebuilding the Ise Grand Shrine takes about 17 years. Preparations start 6–7 years before the ceremonies, renovations take another 8–10 years after. That means there’s only a brief period of time with no preparation or construction before the next renewal begins. Along the way, countless things go wrong.

After WWII, the rebuilding had to be delayed for four years due to bad economics and uncertain politics. 90 years ago, shrine officials had to craft a 200-year forestation plan to combat the declining supply of wood. Finally, each member participating for the third or fourth time must face the fact that this might be their last rebuilding.

The only way to deal with all this is acceptance. Empathy and compassion are two great enablers of this value. Understanding that everyone else is similar to us in one way or another is how we forgive. And only if we learn to forgive others can we start forgiving ourselves. Our values form in cycles. Similarly, outward compassion makes it easier to turn that same virtue inward.

At the end of the day, we’re all human. We all make mistakes, and we can’t fix everything. Remembering that we share this vulnerability is comforting.

11. Hope

The symbol on Superman’s chest means ‘hope.’ As his father once told him:

“Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good.”

Acceptance breeds hope. Once we acknowledge the status quo, no matter if it’s good, bad, or we can’t put our finger on its meaning quite yet, we can imagine something different.

Hope is another word for ‘faith.’ When you value hope, you trust that you’re not alone, and that whatever you’re going through is part of something much larger than yourself, even if you can’t see it.

Hope is the highest value of religion. Different religions have different ways of getting there, but, ultimately, they all aim to provide hope.

In case of the Ise rebuilding, roughly 30 Shinto rituals span an arc of hope across a 20-year-period. It’s not about rules or beliefs or even tradition. It’s about embracing the circle of life, the impermanence of everything, and trusting in a beautiful tomorrow, even if you might not be there to witness it.

12. Love

Calmness, rationality, commitment, restraint, humility, vulnerability, patience, empathy, compassion, acceptance, hope.

Love is an amalgamation of all the above. It’s a single word, noun, verb, that contains all of the best concepts a human can embody. Why does love rest on top of hope? Love allows you to see future versions of yourself and others and cherish them even though they’re not here yet.

Love is not loud, yet it is our greatest strength. Love is invisible, but everyone can feel it. Love transcends time. Love is when we take our memories and our imagination and use them to reach out. Forward. Backward. And then, as a species, we chain it all together to create a forever forward-stretching motion.

Love extends the circle of life. Love is the best thing we do.

Soon, the 2013 rebuild of the Ise shrine will be completed. Not too long after that, preparations for the 2033 rebuild will begin.

We don’t choose lasting values to stay rigid. We choose them to instill a sense of continuity in a world that demands constant change.

Change happens with or without our consent, but if we want to thrive — not just survive — in a dynamic, often even chaotic environment, we must embrace that environment. Welcome it. We must learn to love change.

Values are the foundation of managing this transition well. They’re a tapestry on which you can pin your many transformations.

Choosing your values is picking your own story. Once you do, you can weave everything that happens in your life into one, coherent, infinitely extending thread — even the parts that don’t make sense, defy logic, or feel unfair.

Whether you choose a really old story, like the people of Ise, or a brand new one, like the list of 12 values I just gave you, does not matter. All that matters is that you choose.

Like you, your list of values will keep changing. The point is that you uphold them to your best knowledge and ability at all times.

As long as you do that, like the people of Ise do with their shrine, you’ll gladly rebuild yourself again and again. You won’t even want to wait 20 years each time you do it.

Thanks to Michael Thompson and George J. Ziogas

Niklas Göke

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Writing for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists since 2014. For free reading and more personal updates, be my email friend: https://niklasgoeke.com/friends

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