Interview with Miori Inata
Miori Inata is a renowned photographer based in Japan. After she worked as a fine arts teacher in Tokyo, she moved to New York City and lived there for 17 years. Her essential works include the photos taken at Ise Grand Shrine, and she exhibits them internationally along with pictures taken at holy places all over the world. J-Collabo asked her what made her take pictures of holy places and about the Japanese spirituality.
– What are your latest exhibitions in New York City?
I came back to New York City with people from the Association of Shinto Shrines to exhibit my photos for a series of events called “Millennium Forest Forum.” It was the first time for the association to promote its activities in the United States. My photos were exhibited at three places: Columbia University, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and the United Nations. At Columbia and Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I exhibited photos of the Shinto festival, Shikinen Sengu, taken at Ise Grand Shrine. I also exhibited my photos taken at holy places all over the world during the luncheon party for ambassadors at the United Nations. The Shinto priests, such as from Miyajidake Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan, performed the traditional dances of Kagura and Mai at the party.
– Have you had any wonderful experiences at holy places?
While I had an exhibition in Monaco, I decided to go to a Holy Cave called La Sainte-Baume, which is located near Marseille in France. In the cave, Mary Magdalene prayed to God and angels for about 50 years until she died after she arrived at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by boat. I and my Japanese friend and actress, Mieko Harada, left for the Holy Cave, and a heavy rain started. Though the highway and houses were flooded, and we didn’t know where we were without any maps and directions, we could make it to the cave. We were the only visitors and prayed in the quiet cave. Immediately after we got out of it, we saw a beautiful rainbow. The heavy rain had stopped altogether. It was a wonderful experience.
– What made you take pictures of holy places all over the world?
I used to live in the New York City for 17 years. It was the 10th year after I moved to the city in 1991 that the 9/11 attacks happened. I saw many ambulances coming from all directions, and the buildings collapsed before my eyes. I witnessed everything and thought that this couldn’t be just an accident. I thought intuitively that some people were doing this and wondered where, if God exists, he was guiding us. I don’t believe in any religion, but prayed to God, if any, strongly, “I will do anything to stop this tragedy.” Obviously, I couldn’t take any pictures of the tower falling down. In addition, my mother passed away three months before 9/11. After 9/11, I was too shocked to take pictures for about a year. The experiences of losing people so suddenly made me wonder what it meant to live. I was at a loss.
One day, I stopped by a bookstore at Columbus Circle and found a book of photo collections of the Southwest Native Americans. Before 9/11, I loved New York City. It provided the cutting-edge art scene, and that was why I came from Japan to live in the city. But after 9/11, strange moods were everywhere, like religious battles, and discrimination based on religion occurred. I was too shocked. But when I looked at the photos in the book, I thought that I liked this part of the United States. Then I traveled to the Southwest with a camera in my bag. Native Americans don’t have the concept of possessions, and they live as part of nature, thinking that their lands and bodies were not theirs; those were just borrowed. I was moved by this idea, and after that, I resumed taking pictures. Then I thought it was time to move on without thinking too much about the lost people, and decided to take pictures of holy places all over the world to figure out what God is telling people in each holy place, such as the one that caused a religious war.
After that, I exhibited my works in Ginza, Japan. When I was walking down the street, an unknown lady came up to me and said, “Your guardian sprit is telling you that a very important thing will happen to you in two weeks, so you should be alert, and don’t miss it.” I was puzzled. Later, a professor of Kokugakuin University told me that I should take pictures of Shikinen Sengu at the Ise Grand Shrine, and I was introduced to the Association of Shinto Shrines a week later. I didn’t know anything about the shrine, but I was amazed to learn that each shrine that enshrines Kami, “deity,” is named after nature elements such as wind and earth. I had been looking for a key to harmony at holy places all over the world, but I thought that I finally arrived at the right destination in Japan, my native country. I realized that the key I had been looking for wasn’t at a faraway place overseas; it was right inside me.
When I paid respects at Naiku, the main shrine in the Ise Grand Shrine, I was allowed to go deeper inside the shrine. I wept there. I felt like someone was saying, “Welcome home,” and prayed that I would do anything for peace. Later, when I took pictures of the ceremony of Shikinen Sengu, I saw the sister of Emperor Akihito and a Shinto priest getting down on their knees at a beautiful purified place by river. It was a very beautiful scene. Since I started taking pictures there, nine years have passed quickly.
– What do you think about the Japanese spirituality?
What I was impressed the most at the Ise Grand Shrine was the belief that nature protects us, and we are part of it, whereas in some foreign countries people say things such as “save the earth” and “protect our environment.” The Japanese believe that countless individual deities are everywhere, such as in trees, leaves, lands, lights, and air. So the Japanese celebrate Chrismas Day, ring bells at temples on New Year’s Eve, pay respects at shrines on New Year’s Day, and marry at churches in Western styles. Since I was little, I had been wondering how these things were possible, but now I think that this mindset on religion helps to cooperate and live in harmony with people of other religions. This must be challenging for people who believe in monotheism. The Japanese can pray to any God at any holy place without feeling discomfort.
What impresses me at the Ise Grand Shrine is Shikinen Sengu. It is a ceremony held once every 20 years and countless craftsmen remake shrines (homes of deities) at alternate sites and sacred treasures dedicated to the deities. It has a history of 300 years. The craftsmen have been producing highest-quality products for every Shikinen Sengu. I think that the Japanese have this kind of mindset in their DNA that they would make every effort to make the highest-quality products so that they won’t feel embarrassment before deities. That is what I learned at the Ise Grand Shrine.
– What are your latest works, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions?
There is too much information in our society, so everyone is at a loss what to believe. In this day, young people can’t have any dreams. I was also influenced by the flood of information, but after I got to know the Ise Grand Shrine, I learned how precious our everyday lives are. I feel peace, and there is no need to rush. I saw lots of modern art scenes in New York City and worked hard, but I was always struggling to make up the emptiness I had been feeling in my heart. This feeling completely disappeared after I knew the graceful spirituality of the shrine. It seems that the world now is heading into a tough era, and this process is accelerating. Many changes occurred in the past 50-60 years. Though humans are intelligent, they kill each other. I felt hatred towards humans at 9/11, but I realized that they are also a part of nature created by Kami-sama, the divine energy. I was surprised to learn from a Shinto priest of the Ise Grand Shrine that light can’t exist without deep darkness, which is called jouan in Japanese. I think the Japanese can be that light since they possess the spirituality that transcends the beliefs of monotheism and respect nature with awe. They have solutions for the world issues within them, and I feel it is meaningful to put them out to the world. People will stop listening if someone talks about one specific God, but they will listen to a story of how we can live together as global citizens since it is a universal issue.
– What are your latest works, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions?
II exhibited my photos in London and Paris in 2014. Three years ago, I created a water project and took pictures of the Tanggula Mountains in Tibet, which are the water source for one billion Asian people. I would like to exhibit photos of the Ise Grand Shrine more around the world and put important messages out through my works.
– Do you have anything else you would like to say?
I think the Japanese have an important role in this world. Many people around the world were amazed that the Japanese behaved well during the tragedy of Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. I feel that it was not taught by someone else, but it was inherently within them. Of course, I know many great New Yorkers and Europeans, but I think the Japanese can contribute to connect people and guide them to respect each other.
After graduating from Tama Art University in Japan, Miori Inata worked as an art teacher in Tokyo. In 1991, she moved to New York City where she lived and worked as a photographer for 17 years. After witnessing the terrorist attacks of 9/11 from her apartment in Manhattan, she started to take pictures of holy places all over the world, such as in Israel, Palestine, Mexico, Greece, Ukraine, France, Cambodia, and Native American lands in the United States, to find a key for harmony. As her lifework, she has been taking photographs of the Ise Shrine in Japan. She has been exhibiting her art extensively in different places all over the world, such as at the United Nations, Columbia University, Tokyo National Museum, Shanghai science-and-engineering University, and Israel Museum. She is the author of two Japanese books titled The sacred place of water and Forest, Ise Jingu and For sacred places.
More information can be found at http://www.mioriinata.com/main_e.php