In Japan, a lot of importance is placed on behaving well and respecting traditions and etiquette, and nowhere are these virtues more valued than at a holy place of worship, such as a temple or shrine.
For one shrine priest in Nagasaki Prefecture, however, the lack of respect displayed by visiting worshippers has become such a problem that he’s now decided to take issues into his own hands, announcing on Twitter that he would be banning all foreign tourists.
The tweet, from the head priest of Watatsumi Shrine, which lies on the island of Tsushima, says the blanket ban on all foreign tourists is due to bad behaviour by Korean visitors, involving abusive language and aggressive conduct from tour guides and theft of talismans by tourists.
▼ The ban on “foreigners” is mentioned in the first screenshot on the left.
Tsushima’s location, in between the Korea Strait and the Tsushima Strait, roughly halfway between the Japanese mainland and the Korean peninsula, means the shrine receives a large number of Korean tourists. The priest says the shrine is currently suffering from over-tourism, with up to 30-40 tour buses dropping people off on the grounds on a busy day so they can take photos on the picturesque grounds.
While the ban covers all foreigners, the priest has specifically taken issue with visitors from Korea, one of whom was a YouTuber who filmed the grounds and people at the shrine without permission. He’s also been dismayed by tourists sitting on the side of the road eating food, as the land past the white line is said to be part of the shrine grounds.
There’s also the issue of vandalism by Korean visitors, who’ve etched their names into a wooden board dedicated to the hanging of ema votive plaques.
The priest says he’s also had a problem with the conduct of tour guides, who stand on the steps at the front of the haiden, a hall of worship, despite him asking them not to do so. On a busy day, he’s cautioned up to 40 guides, which is something he says he does from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from spring through to summer.
Some tour guides are also said to take 10 to 20 minutes to explain the site while standing in sacred entryways that block the path for local worshippers.
As a result of all these issues, the priest decided to place a ban on all foreign tourists, saying:
“Let me say, if you think this is hate or a violation of human rights, please discuss it directly with me. We cannot put up with the destruction of a site of worship.”
That still hasn’t stopped overseas tourists from visiting, however, as the tour guides are still bringing travellers to the shrine, and are said to react aggressively when the priest asks to speak to them.
▼ The priest says this tour guide said he would strangle him and told him to “die”.
There are two sides to every story, of course, and looking back at the long history of Japan-Korea tensions reveals Tsushima has been a highly contentious island for decades. Despite being a part of Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture, Tsushima is known as “Daemado” in Korean, and the South Korean city of Changwon claims the island is part of their country’s territory, despite having no official territorial claim to the land.
A number of Koreans have also commented on the Japanese flags displayed at Watatsumi Shrine, which for many represent a sense of animosity as it brings back memories of their country’s war-torn past. The priest, however, makes no apology for displaying the flags, saying it’s a traditional flag with “a beautiful design that symbolises the sun”.
Against this background, the dispute between the priest and the Korean tourists sadly doesn’t look like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon. And while vandalising property is a crime, restricting access to people on the basis of race, like Japanese storeowners and onsen operators have done in the past, is also against the law.
While we’re yet to see whether there will be any legal repercussions for the shrine and its head priest, here’s hoping a respect for religion and sacred sites on both sides of the divide will bring both parties together to discuss the issues at hand and eventually bring about a peaceful resolution. Otherwise, it won’t just be Japanese and Koreans, but people from all backgrounds who will end up suffering the consequences.