Tourists from mainland China have been blamed for a spate of vandalism at shrines across Japan resulting in wooden prayer tablets bearing messages of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong defaced or destroyed.
Visitors to Japanese Shinto shrines traditionally purchase ema tablets and write down a wish or prayer before tying it to a rack in the hope of receiving good fortune. In recent months, however, shrines up and down the country have reported dozens of cases in which ema have been vandalised.
Some were deliberately broken, while others had messages expressing support for demonstrators in Hong Kong scribbled out and replaced with pro-government comments.
"We have never seen anything like it before," said Rika Tabuchi, an official of Hokoku Shrine in Osaka.
"We have discovered one ema that was completely broken and about five or six times so far we have found that tablets with a message crossed out and other comments added.
"At first we did not know what they said because we could not read the Chinese characters but we had a woman visiting the shrine from Hong Kong and she told us what was written.
"The original message had expressed support for protesters in Hong Kong but it had been defaced with "bad comments", Tabuchi said.
香港人の祈願した絵馬に中国人による熱い修正が入ってた 絵馬で喧嘩するのやめろ pic.twitter.com/VvpiiScsaf— 看護メン (@nursemens4321) 17 November 2019
Similar incidents have been reported at Kyoto's Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kasuga-taisha shrine in Nara and Konpira Shrine in Kagawa Prefecture.
According to reports in local media, the original messages that were scribbled out included "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time", "Hang in there, people of Hong Kong" and "Listen to the people". Most of the ema that were damaged reportedly had the words "One China" or "one country" scrawled on them.
"We picked up the pieces of the ema that was broken but we decided to leave the ones that had been vandalised on the racks," Tabuchi said. "We think this is not a good thing to happen but we do not want to get involved in the arguments."
Officials of the shrine believe tourists from mainland China were behind the incidents but said none were caught in the act.
The shrine has recently installed a number of signs, in Japanese, Chinese and English, calling on visitors to respect other people's messages to the gods and to not vandalise the ema.
Online commenters called for a firmer line to be taken against anyone found damaging property in a shrine. One on the SoraNews 24 website suggested authorities should: "Set cameras. Catch them. Deport them."
A similar sentiment was posted on the Japan Today website in a message laden with irony: "Well done Chinese tourists, cementing your place as the world's most respectful tourists. Disgusting."
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.