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Once, Kameido Katori Shrine was where warriors sought divine favour before battle. Now, Japan’s competitors go there to ask for help in an Olympics unlike any they’ve seen before

Satoko Matsuda and her daughter Tomoko pray at the Kameido Katori Shrine in Tokyo. Olympic athletes and parents of children who play school sports come here to seek the help of the shrine's Shinto deity, Futsunushi no Kami.

More belowVideo: On the ground at Kameido Katori Shrine

The wooden sign at the Kameido Katori Shrine contains four simple instructions: Bow twice. Clap twice. Bow once. Pray with all your heart.

For the more than 13 centuries since statesman Fujiwara no Kamatari came here to lay down a sword before a Shinto deity, the shrine has been a place of supplication. Generations have come to pray for victory – samurai, courtiers and, more recently, baseball dads and Olympians.

Among the handwritten ema – votive tablets – hanging inside the shrine today is one from swimmer Rikako Ikee. “I will get a gold medal in Tokyo 2020,” she has scrawled in black ink on the wooden tablet. “I will be a woman of my word.”

Ms. Ikee did not win a medal. But her presence at the Olympics was itself a kind of victory, after she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, underwent chemotherapy and 10 months of hospitalization – then resumed training. She swam in three races at the Games.

Her story has mirrored that of the Tokyo Olympics: stricken by illness, then pieced back together into an unexpected kind of success. Japan’s athletes have exceeded all expectations, with 24 gold medals, far better than the country’s previous best of 16. COVID-19, which has hit record case counts throughout Japan during the Games, has affected relatively few people inside the Olympics themselves. Even Simone Biles was able to will herself back into competition and a bronze medal.

The Kameido Katori Shrine, in Tokyo's Koto City ward, is about 10 kilometres east of the main Olympic stadium in Shinjuku. GOOGLE EARTH

For the Japanese public, the Olympics have surpassed dim hopes. For the priests and the pious of the Kameido Katori Shrine, they have been an answer to prayer. Each night of the Games, in a show of support, the shrine has illuminated 50 lanterns containing “words of the soul” of Olympians and Paralympians.

Futsunushi no Kami, the deity of the shrine, is a warrior god. For most of its history, people came here to seek victory in battle.

But after Japan formally renounced war in 1947, “changes were made,” said Kunihiko Katori, the shrine’s chief priest. The god of war was reconceived as the god of sports. Now “people who want to win in sports come here,” he said.

Stewardship of the shrine is hereditary, and Mr. Katori, 64, is the inheritor of a lineage that claims roots in the 14th century. A high-school marathon runner, he sees a natural link between athletics and armed conflict. “Sport is not as bloody as battle, but it is a battle with your own mind and a battle with your opponent’s mind.”

Before the Tokyo Games, the list of visitors to the shrine included table tennis player Miu Hirano and skateboarder Yuto Horigome. Ms. Hirano’s women’s team took silver after losing to China. Mr. Horigome won gold. And Ms. Ikee’s team made the finals of the women’s 4 x 100-metre medley relay, although they finished last in a race in which Canada claimed bronze.

Kunihiko Katori, 64, is the chief priest of Kameido Katori Shrine.

Each night of the Games, in a show of support, the shrine has lit 50 lanterns with 'words of the soul' of Olympians and Paralympians.

There is a financial element to the benediction of sport. Fans of figure skater Daisuke Takahashi paid for Mr. Katori to conduct a ceremonial prayer for him. Such a prayer can cost $100. Ninety-five kilometres away, on the Pacific shore of Hebara Beach, the Takiguchi Shrine sells votive tablets in the shape of a surfboard. It is located 20 kilometres from the beach where Japanese surfers Kanoa Igarashi took silver and Amuro Tsuzuki won bronze in the sport’s Olympic debut.

Like others in Japan, Takiguchi has been remade for modernity. “In the old days, samurai clans used to pray for victory in battle. Nowadays people come here to worship for luck, to win sports competitions,” said chief priest Naoki Kobayashi.

At Takiguchi, sub-altars enshrine the deity Susanoo, god of storms, and Tsukuyomi no Mikoto, god of the tides. It is a natural place to bring maritime hopes and anxieties.

Even if it has no formal connection to the Tokyo Games, “as a priest, I myself conduct a small ceremony for the safety of the Olympic Games every morning and every evening,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “Then I go support the athletes on TV with my family.”

Shinto has no formal dogma, no text designated as sacred, no quantifiable ledger of deities. It is a practice of polytheistic worship whose rituals of reverence for gods and spirits predate the sixth-century introduction of Buddhism and the much later arrival of Christianity.

Its history is tightly interwoven with that of Japan. From the mid-19th century until the Second World War, State Shinto was a government-administered cult that deified the Emperor – a religious adjunct to a period of warring nationalism. Abolished by the Allies after the war, State Shinto then gave way to a spiritualist practice whose rituals have given inspiration to figures such as Marie Kondo and whose rites still give shape to life for many in Japan.

Shintoism is a polytheistic religion that has shaped Japanese life for centuries.

At the Kameido Katori Shrine this week, office workers and parents with children brought prayers to the shade beneath the shrine’s gabled roof. The university rugby season begins in September, and piano teacher Noriko Ooishi, 52, came to pray for victory and her son’s safety. This will be his last season, and “when you think about what you can do for athletes, all you can do is come to the shrine to pray.”

So, too, for the Olympians, whose health has worried her. Like many in Japan, she didn’t want to see the Olympics held this year. She found it galling to see Japan open its doors to international athletes while, elsewhere in Tokyo, a state of pandemic emergency forced the cancellation of children’s sports.

Watching the Games unfold has changed her mind. “Seeing these athletes doing their utmost at the Olympics – that’s given me power,” she said. “I want to achieve my best in life, too.”

Hiroki Baba, 50, comes to the Kameido Katori Shrine ahead of major baseball games played by his teenage sons. Here, he can give voice to the depth of his feeling.

“It’s our custom,” he said, even if he shied from any suggestion that divine intervention had elevated Japanese athletes to so many Olympic podiums. He had a less supernatural explanation.

“The way athletes train has changed a lot,” he said. “They now rely on sports science.”

Hiroki Baba prays for good fortune.

Even Mr. Katori, the chief priest, said his greatest hope lies in something beyond mere athletic achievement. Olympic organizers conceived of the Tokyo Games as an act of national restoration after a devastating decade of earthquakes, typhoons and a nuclear disaster. The pandemic badly tattered the intended symbolism of renaissance through sport. For a time, the Games looked more like the latest national setback, with enormous bills to pay, no tickets to sell and a public that wanted little to do with it.

But the Olympics have avoided immediate catastrophe and demonstrated national resilience. The best Japan can hope for now, Mr. Katori said, is that somehow the Games can bring together the people who have been kept apart, watching them in their own homes.

To him, that’s something worth praying for.

“I hope the traditional Japanese feeling called Yamato-damashii, the samurai spirit, will be revived,” he said. “I want to see strong ties between people, like we used to have.”

With reporting from Naoko Mikami


On the ground at Kameido Katori Shrine

Take a look around Kameido Katori Shrine in Tokyo, where visitors pray for success in sports to a war god turned sports god, Futsunushi no Kami.

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