When Japanese people want to succeed at life’s challenges, they will often visit a shrine and pray to the God therein for aid and succor. Most shrines have a designated purpose, with the God ensconced there tasked with aiding childbirth, or the accumulation of wealth, knowledge, or success in love, for example. Those who live in Japan are familiar with the culture of the shrine visit: washing our hands at the little water trough near the front, passing into the silence and calm of the shrine precinct, the sound of supplicants clapping and ringing the shrine bell, and then one’s own pause for contemplation as one bows one’s head before the God. Shrines are everywhere in Japan, from the huge rambling complexes of Fushimi inari jinja in Kyoto to tiny shrines at roadsides and car parks throughout the nation. There is even one on the edge of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho night life district, surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers and major roads, a little oasis of silence in one of the busiest places in the world – its only concession to the underworld it is situated amidst being the wire cage over the water trough. Most of us who live here come to appreciate these calm moments of contemplation in the midst of the urban bustle, and also understand the importance of countryside shrines as central markers of a traditional way of Japanese life that, despite the frenetic pace of urban existence, refuses to fade away.
But there is another side to the challenges of Japanese life that is draining and exhausting, and that those little prayers at the shrine serve to support and perpetuate: the constant obligations of a life lived communally. Foreigners in Japan can escape many of them, but Japanese people face a constant stream of obligations great and small. From the demands of everyday good manners to the struggle of working as a corporate samurai, from the scourge of wedding parties that afflicts people in their mid-20s to the tedium of workplace drinking parties and even the obligation to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day, Japanese social life is full of obligations. Most of these obligations can be embarked upon in spirit of good will and reciprocity: for example, when one finds oneself working back yet again to make things go smoothly, one can also understand that the reason the postal system is so wonderful is that someone there is also working back to make things go smoothly. People are also mutually understanding of the burden of these obligations, and do all they can to lighten the load and to be understanding of the burden of mutuality. And, of course, one can always visit a shrine, throw in 5 yen and pray for a bit of strength in the hard times.
But sometimes, those obligations carry with them a weight that cannot be wished away at a shrine, and sometimes they come with an additional, crushing challenge: the challenge of having to succeed at them even when one does not want to. The culture of ganbaru, of struggling to do one’s best no matter the difficulty, is an important part of Japanese social and work life, and worse still is the need to show that one is fighting on, even where one wants to fail. This raises the terrible prospect that one can be saddled with an obligation one does not want to carry out, but also forced to do one’s utmost to achieve it, lest one be seen to be shirking or – worse still – embarrass one’s family and colleagues by being openly seen not to want to succeed in a great goal.
It is easy to imagine these onerous tasks, because they arise often. Perhaps a man is forced to apply for a job he knows will come with a huge workload and boring tasks, that he needs to take for reasons of prestige and money but really doesn’t want: in Australia he would simply fluff the interview, but here in Japan if he was recommended to the job by his superior then he will humiliate his superior if he does anything less than try his best to get the job. Perhaps a woman has been arranged an introduction with a rich and handsome future husband, and is required to do her utmost to please him and his family, but she is secretly conducting a love affair with the Korean migrant son of a pachinko parlour owner – she needs to appear as if she wants the marriage and is trying hard, to avoid embarrassing her family and the introduction agent and to keep the peace, but she really needs this introduction to fail. Perhaps a soldier has been tasked with fabricating an international incident at the Marco Polo bridge, and failure to do his utmost to carry out the incident will lead to his punishment and possibly execution – but he knows that if he succeeds his nation will be dragged into a war that will destroy it.
It is at times like these that no amount of prayers at any shrine will save you. You need to appear to be doing your best, but you need to fail. And you know that if you do your best, you won’t fail. You are trapped.
It is at times like this that you need to visit one of the shrines of the God that Failed. You take with you a rotten mandarin, a cup of the cheapest, nastiest sake you can find, and the letter offering you an interview for the job you don’t like. Place the offerings at the shrine, burn the letter, and promise the God that Failed that you will do your utmost to succeed in this honourable task.
Then, failure is guaranteed.
The shrines to the God that Failed are not the usual calm, cheerful devotional spots, established long ago and broadcast to the world through their red torii gates and colourful roof. Rather, they are themselves monuments to failure, hidden in plain sight, just as is the failure that their supplicants seek. There are many such shrines, but they can be very difficult to find: the dirty toilet of the convenience store in Japan’s poorest and most crime-ridden suburb, perhaps; or an abandoned shrine just around the corner from Japan’s lowest-ranked and lowest-achieving community college; or a little waving cat statue in a broken self-storage unit, owned by a failed spam-forwarding start up company. These shrines are never far from anyone, but finding them is in itself something of a pilgrimage, a combination of internet searching, rumour-hunting, and then following one’s own innate spiritual sense for discerning failure and sadness. Also, perhaps, one has to be careful in one’s observances to ensure one is not discovered or seen: not only do prayer’s to the God that Failed have to be conducted in the strictest secrecy, but the shrine must be known only to those that seek it – discovery of religious observance by those who do not seek failure can bring down a terrible curse upon the supplicant.
Many argue that the God that Failed is Japan’s weakest and most aberrant god, but it is possible that actually it is the most powerful. Not only are its shrines everywhere, but it has many followers. While supplication of the God that Failed is always difficult, ordinary daily worship is easy, in a way that the other Gods of Japan do not allow. Ordinary Japanese Gods do not allow one to pray to them from home, or just anywhere, but the God that Failed is aware that many of its best worshippers do not seek anything in life, and it takes their devotion where it can. To worship the God that Failed it is enough to drop out of work and school, and stay home all day on the internet in chat rooms and on 2-channel. It is sufficient to waste one’s money and time in a pachinko parlour, where the whir of the machines serves as a devotional hymn to the God that Failed, your soul slowly leaking through the storm of pinballs into its possession. Worshippers of the God that Failed may not even realize they are in its thrall, but they are everywhere: pachinko junkies, NEETs, that ageing Host who has to work just that little bit longer every morning to make ends meet, that English teacher in the second-rate company who works nights doing skype lessons for sad shift workers … all the silent failures in life who struggle to succeed in a task that everyone else knows is already a lost cause. They flock to the God that Fails, though they don’t realize they are its worshippers, and through the repetitive daily rituals of failure they slowly lose their souls to it. And with the power of these lost souls, it grants the wish of failure to those who are otherwise successful, guaranteeing continued happiness to the successful by robbing the souls of the already-lost.
If the God that Fails has a grand design outside of the ordinary spiritual precincts of Shintoism, no one knows it. It seems reasonable that the very nature of this God would preclude any greater purpose than to leech on second-rate souls. But it is possible that in its army of followers and its calm, epochal dedication to the cultivation of failure, it actually has a deeper and more evil purpose. Who is to say what grand movements in Japanese history and culture are due to its meddling? Who is to say that it does not have power in the halls of the high and mighty as well as the low and feeble? Were the spiritually aware to notice its designs, perhaps they would uncover a great and evil pattern, that only the very brave and courageous would dare to unravel …
This deity would be suitable as an adversary or an ally in a Shadowrun- or Feng Shui-style campaign, or perhaps a far Eastern version of a Cthulhuesque horror. It might be a subtle adversary, its influence underlying more obvious criminal and spiritual cliques that use less subtle techniques. Its efforts might manifest through hacking, accidents, suicides and economic ruin, and establishing the pattern of its attacks would thus be very difficult. It is also a perfect excuse for that GM who needs to destroy the plans of an overly powerful group, but hasn’t figured out a detailed storyline for why they came apart. Missed money transfers, transport plans that fail, contacts who don’t show, NPCs who commit suicide just when you most need them – look in those plot moments for the sinister movements of the God that Failed. Should you be afraid, or scornful? Only time will tell …