Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Does Shinto offer a viable model for environmental sustainability? My PhD trial lecture

Does Shinto Offer a Viable Model for Environmental Sustainability?[1]

Introduction: the Arne Næss auditorium

Today, I will be talking about the following question, which was given to me by my committee: Does Shinto offer a viable model for environmental sustainability? This lecture is partly based on the research I have done for my PhD dissertation, Forests of the Gods: Shinto, Nature, and Sacred Space in Contemporary Japan. But it is not a summary, and I will be exploring some new ideas today. So I will not say too much about the dissertation now; tomorrow, at the defence, there will be plenty of time to discuss it.

However, there is one aspect of the dissertation I would like to point out now: I have made an attempt to combine a discussion of Shinto today, and notions of Shinto as a nature religion, with a more theoretical analysis of religion and sacred space. I have applied this theory to a discussion of particular shrine forests (chinju no mori) in Japan today. In other words, I have tried to pay attention to the importance not only of ideas and practices, but also the space in which these are embedded – and by ‘space’ I mean both physical space (trees, buildings, roads, rivers, demarcations) and mental space (descriptions, maps, symbols, meanings).

In line with this theoretical interest, I thought that it might be a good idea to start today’s lecture with a short note on this space. You may have noticed the name of this room: Arne Næss’ auditorium. Some of you may be familiar with the name of Arne Næss, as he is one of the most famous Norwegian philosophers in history.[2] In particular, Næss is known for his environmental philosophy – and as this relates to the topic of my lecture today, I would like to start by saying a few words about it.

Arne Næss introduced the term ‘deep ecology’, and he is seen as the founder of the international intellectual movement that goes by that name (see Næss 1995 [1973]). Næss distinguished between ‘deep ecology’ and ‘shallow ecology’: he defines the latter as the ‘fight against pollution and natural resource depletion’, the core objective of which is ‘the health and affluence of people in (…) developed countries’ (1995, 3). This rests on an instrumentalist understanding of the natural environment: it is valuable, as long as it serves us well. ‘Deep ecology’, by contrast, rejects the anthropocentrism (‘human-centeredness’) characteristic of the modern positivist worldview altogether, and denies the assumption that the environment is only important insofar as it is matters to humans.

As a philosophical movement, ‘deep ecology’ is based on a holistic-organicist perspective of reality. It recognises the fact that all beings are dependent on other beings, and that everything takes shape in a field of intrinsic relations, not in isolation. Here, Næss was clearly influenced by Spinoza’s metaphysics. He referred to his own philosophy by the term ‘ecosophy’: ‘a philosophy of ecological harmony or equilibrium’ (ibid., 8).

From this metaphysical position follows his environmental ethics. Deep ecology emphasises the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings, human and non-human. According to this view, non-human actors (animals, plants, mountains, rivers et cetera) have intrinsic value, irrespective of the economic or emotional value attributed to them by us. Needless to say, when taken seriously, these ideas have profound political implications. While recognising the importance of diversity, Næss was outspokenly egalitarian, and opposed to any type of class society. He was also a proponent of decentralisation, and local autonomy. And I would argue that a worldview that recognises the intrinsic value of non-human organisms and ecosystems is fundamentally at odds with both free-market capitalism and classical socialism, with their focus on continuous production. After all, it is opposed to the ever-growing exploitation of trees, animals and other natural resources – and therefore to ideologies that legitimise such exploitation.

Næss and his followers have been criticised for a number of reasons. Some have argued that deep ecology is misanthropic (i.e., anti-human) (Bookchin 1987). However, I am not convinced this is the case: the fact that deep ecology recognises the intrinsic value of non-humans, and criticises anthropocentrism, surely does not mean it should fail to acknowledge the value of human beings as part of larger ecosystems. Næss has also been accused of being naively utopian, and of reproducing nationalist-romantic myths of the supposed Norwegian love of nature (Witoszek 1998). Having lived in Norway for three and a half years, there are a few things I could say about this topic – but I suggest we leave that for some other time.

Romantic or not, there is no denying the fact that Næss’ ideas have spread globally, and that deep ecology has become one of the main intellectual currents underlying the transnational environmentalist movement. Moreover, in the context of this lecture’s topic, is important to point out that Næss has exercised significant influence on religious environmentalism, not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Asia (e.g., Barnhill & Gottlieb 2001; cf. Taylor 2010). After all, he was an active mountaineer, who wrote extensively about his own experiences of connection and oneness with the surrounding nature, in near-mystical terms. It is not surprising, therefore, that his ideas have been embraced and appropriated by a variety of religious actors worldwide.

In any case, it may be argued that deep ecology is a good example of a philosophical system that can serve as a model for environmental sustainability. So I believe it is quite special that I am giving this lecture, and defending my dissertation, in a room named after a famous ecological philosopher who wrote extensively about nature’s sacred character. So it is in the spirit of this place, and in the spirit of Arne Næss, that I will now move on to address the question whether or not Shinto offers a viable model for environmental sustainability.

‘Shinto’ and ‘environmental sustainability’

Now, in order to be able to answer this question, we first have to address two other questions: what do we mean by ‘Shinto’? Or: whose Shinto are we talking about? And the other question is, of course, what do we mean by ‘environmental sustainability’? So we need some sort of working definition of these two concepts.

Let me start by saying a few things about ‘environmental sustainability’. ‘Sustainability’ has become a buzzword, which is used very often – for different purposes – but which can actually mean many different things, depending on who uses it. In fact, Japanese authorities and companies these days are very proficient at framing their own activities as ‘sustainable’ – usually without defining what they mean by it (cf. Kirby 2011, 160-192). Let me give just one example: Japanese logging companies are responsible for large-scale deforestation in Southeast Asia (the island of Borneo, for example). The Japanese state is actively involved with international lobby work to coordinate the timber trade, and prevent illegal trade, to protect Japanese business interests; it does so as one of the most powerful members of the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) which tries to monitor and control this trade (Tsing 2005, 106-111). The organisation defines itself as ‘an intergovernmental organization promoting the conservation and sustainable management, use and trade of tropical forest resources’.[3] Quite an oxymoron indeed – which shows that the term ‘sustainable’ not only can mean different things, but also that it can be used rhetorically, to discursively white-wash practices that are fundamentally exploitative. This illustrates clearly the problem of the term ‘sustainability’: everybody agrees that things should be done in a ‘sustainable’ manner, but the term means very different things to different actors. It can even become a euphemism for practices that are fundamentally exploitative, as using the term has become a rhetoric strategy for justifying such practices, employed by companies as well as state actors.

But I do care about environmental problems. I care about climate change, about deforestation, about pollution, about biodiversity loss. So I think that ‘environmental sustainability’ should not be an empty label that can be put on anything for PR purposes – it should actually mean something. In a recent article, the following definition was suggested, which I think is quite useful: environmental sustainability, it was suggested, is ‘a condition of balance, resilience, and interconnectedness that allows human society to satisfy its needs while neither exceeding the capacity of its supporting ecosystems to continue to regenerate the services necessary to meet those needs nor by our actions diminishing biological diversity’ (Morelli 2011, 23). This is perhaps not the most elegant prose ever, but it does make explicit the importance of ecosystems, and of preserving biological diversity, which I think is crucial. So let us use this as a working definition for now. The question then becomes: does Shinto provide a viable model that can somehow help us maintain, or re-establish, this condition of balance, resilience and interconnectedness? Can Shinto somehow contribute to this?

In order to answer this question, I also have to say something more about the category ‘Shinto’. When we ask ‘does Shinto offer a model for something’, we have to define what we mean by Shinto, otherwise we cannot answer that question. But it is important to point out that there are different, competing definitions of Shinto. The question ‘what is Shinto’ is not as easy to answer as it may seem. Different definitions and historical narratives correspond to different ideological positions. They include certain practices and people, while excluding others. So what does and what does not count as ‘Shinto’ is not so easy to decide.

Let me give an example. Most shrines in Japan today are affiliated with an umbrella organisation named Jinja Honchō, or the National Association of Shinto Shrines. This is a powerful organisation, which controls the education of shrine priests, which publishes a range of newspapers and books on Shinto affairs, and which is associated with one of the most influential right-wing political lobby groups in the country. However, not all shrines, and not all Shinto organisations, are affiliated with Jinja Honchō. Indeed, if you, as a non-Japanese, would start looking for information on Shinto online, you would probably come across information neither produced nor endorsed by Jinja Honchō, but by so-called ‘new religious movements’, or by non-Japanese ‘Shintoists’. For instance, if you go to and look for a book on ‘Shinto’, the second title on the list is a book entitled The Essence of Shinto, written by a man named Yamakage Motohisa (2006). The book surely contains information on shrine practices, on kami¸ and so on. But it also contains esoteric spiritual theories, and a treatise on spirit healing, that have nothing to do with what happens at most shrines in Japan. What most people do not know is that Yamakage is the leader of a so-called new religious movement, which defines itself as Shinto, but which has some not-so-mainstream ideas – including, unfortunately, the idea that there is a large Jewish conspiracy, and that the Jews are ruling the world (Yamakage 1985) – perhaps unsurprisingly, those latter ideas have not been translated in English. In any case, Yamakage’s ideas of what constitutes ‘real Shinto’ are significantly different from those of Jinja Honchō, in some crucial respects. Many people within the shrine world would probably deny that Yamakage Shinto is ‘real Shinto’. But both define themselves as such – and how can we decide who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’?

In some ways, defining Shinto is even more difficult than defining Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Those three religions all somehow trace their own history back to a legendary historical founder – Jesus, Muhammad or Gautama Buddha – and to the period in which this person lived. But when it comes to Shinto, there is very little consensus about when this religion started. Famously, Shinto has no single founder, and it is not easy to trace it to one single period in history. Some argue that it is has existed since ‘time immemorial’; according to one of most famous and widely read English-language introductions (number one on the list, in fact), it is the Japanese ‘native racial faith which arose in the mystic days of remote antiquity’ (Ono 1962, 1). Among Shinto intellectuals, there is disagreement over the question whether the tradition goes back to the worship practices of hunter-gatherers in the Jōmon period (30,000-300 BCE) or to those of Yayoi-period rice farmers (300 BCE-300 CE). Many serious historians think the tradition was shaped much later, under the influence of Chinese ideology and rituals, and of Buddhism: in the Nara period (8th century), according to some; in the late-medieval period, according to others; or even in the 18th or 19th century, as a modern invented tradition (e.g., Kuroda 1981).

In any case, it is important to realise that there is a difference between two things. On the one hand, there is the historical reality of shrine worship, of the worship of local deities (kami) by means of ritual sacrifice and prayers (norito). These worship practices have always been characterised by great local diversity, constant change, and continuous interaction with Buddhism, Confucianism and Chinese cosmology and ritual. On the other hand, there is the abstract concept ‘Shinto’, conceptualised as a single and singular tradition, which symbolically unifies the Japanese people as a nation and which is often seen as intimately connected with the imperial institution. As my PhD supervisor Mark Teeuwen once wrote: Shinto ‘is not something that has “existed” in Japanese society in some concrete and definable form during different historical periods; rather, it appears as a conceptualization, an abstraction that has had to be produced actively every time it has been used’ (2002, 233).

But this abstract concept has not always carried the same meaning, and it does not mean the same thing for different people. There is not only the difference between the ‘insider’s view’, which holds that Shinto is the indigenous worship tradition of the Japanese people; and the more critical ‘outsider’s view’, according to which Shinto is an abstraction – and one that appeared fairly late in history. I call this latter approach the historical-constructivist approach. Most historians today subscribe to this approach: they distinguish between the abstraction ‘Shinto’ on the one hand, and the historical diversity of kami worship on the other, and they deny that there is any transhistorical essence to Shinto (i.e., something that defines ‘Shintoness’). This is different from most insiders’ interpretations, and from most popular introductions to Shinto, which usually assert that Shinto is the indigenous religious tradition of Japan – singular, ancient, uniquely Japanese, and with an unchanging core essence. That is why I call these approaches ‘essentialist’.

But there are also significant differences between various insiders’ interpretations. In particular, they differ with regard to what it is that is considered Shinto’s core essence. In my dissertation, I have distinguished between six different paradigms, according to which Shinto has been conceptualised, defined and shaped in the course of modern history. The first of these was dominant from the second half of the nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War, but it still lingers on. According to this view, Shinto is a national ritual cult focused on the worship of the divine ancestors of the imperial family; it was seen not as a religion defined by belief and personal membership, but as a collective Japanese, non-religious ritual tradition in which all citizens should take part. I have called this the ‘imperial paradigm’.

After the Second World War, this imperial ritual and ideological system (which is often referred to as ‘State Shinto’) was dismantled; Shinto was subsequently established legally and politically as a religion. Accordingly, it was privatised, and it had to be redefined. According to the dominant post-war view, Shinto is the ancient, singular Way of ‘the’ Japanese people; it is an ethnic, racial faith, shared by all Japanese in the present and the past, by virtue of their nationality. According to this view, Shinto encompasses the realm of religion, but it is much more than that: it is the essence of Japanese culture and mentality. As such, it is public and collective, not private or individual. Ono Sokyō, whom I quoted previously, is a representative of this paradigm. It has long been the view of many shrine priests. I call this the ‘ethnic paradigm’.

There are several alternative views, however. One of these is the ‘local paradigm’. It goes back to the work of the Japanese ethnologist Yanagita Kunio, who wrote most of his works before the war; in recent years, it seems to have acquired new popularity. Proponents of this paradigm challenge the focus on the imperial tradition, and of national unity, that characterises the other two. According to them, the essence of Shinto cannot be found in powerful institutions; but, on the contrary, in local, rural worship traditions and beliefs, which have nearly disappeared. ‘Real Shinto’, according to them, can be found in the shamanistic and animistic traditions of the countryside – accordingly, they profess a nostalgic desire for a nearly-lost rural Japan, characterised by social harmony and harmony with nature. This is the image of the popular film character Totoro, living in a grove near an old farmhouse, in a beautiful rural landscape (satoyama, as it is called in Japanese).

In all these paradigms, Shinto is intimately connected with the land of Japan. But there is an alternative paradigm, which has also been around since the pre-war period, and which I call the ‘universal paradigm’. According to this view, Shinto may have emerged in Japan, but it is essentially a salvation religion, which has the potential to reach out to – and maybe even save – the rest of the world. This view is characteristic of many membership-based groups, so-called ‘new religious movements’, which define themselves as Shinto. The aforementioned Yamakage Shinto is one of many examples. In recent years, this view has also been advocated by a number of Shinto priests outside of Japan, who have established shrines elsewhere – two well-known non-Japanese shrines are located in the state of Washington (US) and in Amsterdam. The last one, interestingly, was founded by a priest trained in the Yamakage tradition.

There is some overlap with the fifth paradigm, which I call the ‘spiritual paradigm’. I think it is worth distinguishing between these two, as not all proponents of the spiritual paradigm have an international agenda; some are downright nationalist. Simply put, according to advocates of this view, Shinto is a religion without doctrine, a primordial worship tradition; it can only be truly grasped intuitively, by means of a mystical experience of the divine, not intellectually. Politics, theology, philosophy – it is all peripheral, according to this view. (So basically this whole story shows that I have never really understood Shinto, because otherwise I would have argued that Shinto does have a core essence, but that this essence cannot be grasped in words.) Similar arguments can be found in other religious traditions, and they are often used as a strategy to discredit criticism – by suggesting that critics are ‘unenlightened’, for instance.

Green Shinto?

Last but not least, in recent decades, a sixth paradigm has emerged – and it is this paradigm that has constituted the main focus of my dissertation. I have called this ‘the Shinto environmentalist paradigm’. It draws on the previous paradigms – in particular, I would say, the local paradigm, but also on the universal. In addition, it is influenced by the global trend to relate religious worldviews to environmental issues. Put simply, according to this paradigm Shinto is an ancient tradition of nature worship – sometimes called ‘animism’ – characterised by respect for nature and the belief that elements of nature are sacred. This tradition, it is suggested, constitutes the foundation of the social-ecological equilibrium allegedly characteristic of ancient Japanese societies.

Proponents of this view typically argue that Japan’s current environmental problems are the consequence of the fact that the Japanese people have ‘forgotten’ this tradition – or so the argument goes. Therefore, in order to solve these problems, they should relearn and re-embrace the nature worship of their ancestors. This is not just important for Japan, some of them add, but may actually serve to teach the world how to live in harmony with nature. Advocates of these ideas argue that similar ‘animistic’, pagan traditions have existed all over the world, but unfortunately, most of them have by and large disappeared and given way to monotheistic traditions, which are blamed for justifying the exploitation of the natural environment. So according to proponents of this Shinto environmentalist paradigm, the answer to this lecture’s main question would be: most certainly, yes, Shinto does offer a viable model for environmental sustainability.

But, as this overview should have made clear: there are many different opinions as to what Shinto is, and what it is not. As there are many different opinions as to what Shinto is, and what it is not, it is not so easy to come up with a ‘neutral’ working definition. So let me just nuance the question, and rephrase it somewhat. Is there within this field, within this diversity of practices, ideas, beliefs, rituals and institutions that are defined as ‘Shinto’ by the actors involved, something that may be seen as a model for environmental sustainability? As we have seen, there is no Shinto in the singular, but there is a variety of practices and ideas referred to as ‘Shinto’; among these, is there anything that might serve as a model – either practical or philosophical – for developing environmentally sustainable ways of living in the world?

According to many people and institutions, the answer is yes. The notion that Shinto worships deities that are residing in nature, and, therefore, provides a model for protecting and respecting nature, has gained significant popularity in the last twenty to thirty years. It is now widespread, both in Japan and abroad. It is this notion that I referred to as ‘the Shinto environmentalist paradigm’ above.  Examples of this trend can be found both in Japanese and English, on the internet, and in popular introductory books and pamphlets on Shinto. I will list a few examples, with some quotations that illustrate the type of rhetoric used by its proponents, before critically examining their claims.

First, Stuart Picken is a scholar and priest in the Church of Scotland who has published widely on Shinto, embraced Shinto spirituality, and created his own version of it. He has argued that Shinto emerged spontaneously in prehistoric Japan: ‘It was not manmade, artificial, or invented. Its sentiments, beliefs, and responses were drawn from direct communion to the natural (…) [It is] a simple approach to religion that listens to nature, that enriches spirituality, and that restores purity’ (2002, 10). This way of relating to nature provides an antidote to the environmental destruction brought about by ‘modern human civilization’ (ibid., 7), it is suggested. And, typical of this sort of discourse, it is argued that ‘[t]he difference couldn’t be any greater with Western traditions, which constantly refer to the human struggle to overcome the natural elements, and those of Shinto, which call for us to harmonize with Daishizen, or “Great Nature”’ (ibid., 20).

Similarly, the aforementioned Yamakage has suggested that the ‘practical task of responding to the ecological crisis is given an ethical underpinning by Shinto, which from ancient times has seen it as the principal duty of human beings to care for and preserve their environment – to live within nature rather than attempting to dominate or destroy it. (…) From earliest times, Japan has endeavoured to preserve and nurture its abundant forests. Yet at times of upheaval and change, the forests have been damaged recklessly. Whenever this has happened, Shinto leaders have been at the forefront of campaigns to restore the forests, recognizing that they are the lungs of the nation and indeed the world’ (2006, 14). Let us say that this is a somewhat one-sided interpretation of the role played by shrine priests in Japan’s history – priests have been historically concerned with political power, with attracting paying visitors, and with controlling access to natural resources, at least as much as with preserving trees (e.g., Domenig 1997; Rambelli 2001). Moreover, notions of ‘environmental preservation’ and of trees as ‘the lungs of the nation’ are arguably anachronistic, as they did not develop until the 1960s, when environmental problems became a global concern (Macnaghten & Urry 1998).

Nevertheless, similar examples can be found all over the internet. For instance, on the website of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America – the one in the state of Washington – head priest Koichi Barrish states that ‘Shinto emerged and developed spontaneously as an expression of the deep intuitive connection with Divine Nature enjoyed by human beings in ancient Japan. Shinto as natural spirituality is based on this harmonious primal relationship with the “infinite restless movement of Great Nature,” rather than on the written or revealed teachings of human beings. Realizing that each single component within Nature possesses Divine Spirit giving us joy and benefit, we renew our close ties to Mother Nature and pray for renewal and refreshed life’.[4] These are the texts one comes across when looking online for information on Shinto. No wonder that, in recent years, increasing numbers of Anglo-Saxon spiritual seekers have professed an interest in Shinto ‘nature spirituality’, and created their own versions of ‘Shinto’ as some sort of Oriental neo-paganism (as illustrated by facebook groups, popular blogs and so on).

Unfortunately, there are some serious inaccuracies in these English-language interpretations of Shinto. I will not discuss this in detail, but let me just mention one, which is crucial for the purpose of this lecture. This is the notion that Shinto is holistic, that it sees ‘nature’ as a whole as sacred or divine, and that, accordingly, it worships ‘Great Nature’ or ‘Mother Nature’ as some sort of divine entity. Some modern Japanese religious movements may use such terminology – but then, these are influenced by Christianity and European nineteenth-century esoteric movements as much as by Japanese traditions of kami worship. Generally speaking, shrines are, and have always been, concerned with the worship of gods, of kami. Priests perform ritual, offer food and recite prayers in order to maintain a good relationship with these gods. Some of these gods may be believed to reside in natural elements such as trees or mountains, but they do not equal nature. Nor, for that matter, is nature as a whole considered sacred; only certain designated parts of nature are. Mountain X or tree Y may be associated with a particular deity, and subject to worship practices; that does not mean all mountains and trees are considered sacred.

So shrine priests and practitioners do not commonly worship some sort of abstract divinity that is equated with nature as a whole. Generally speaking, worship traditions historically associated with the category ‘Shinto’ are neither holistic nor pantheistic: they are particularistic, they are place-based, and they are concerned with concrete, local, personal deities rather than abstract transcendent principles such as ‘Divine Nature’.

Of course, these traditions are not static. In recent years, some Shinto theologians have made attempts to reinterpret Shinto as some sort of holistic-pantheistic tradition of nature worship. For instance, well-known Shinto scholars such as Kamata Tōji and Sonoda Minoru have compared Shinto to Deep Ecology, and argued that there are great similarities between the two (Kamata 2011; Sonoda 2007). Kamata has even referred to Shinto as ‘Japanese ecosophy’ (which he translated into Japanese as seitaichi). So it is quite possible that, under the influence of these scholars as well as foreign ‘Shintoists’ such as Picken and Barrish, Shinto more and more becomes a holistic tradition concerned with the worship of some sort of ‘Divine Nature’. My point is that this is a recent invention, and most certainly not ‘the ancient Shinto worldview’ or any such thing. Identifying such modern religious-environmentalist ideas with prehistoric (or even pre-modern) Japanese worship traditions is completely anachronistic. Moreover, for the time being, these ideas remain fairly marginal within the Japanese shrine world; it remains to be seen whether they will ever become mainstream.

Jinja Honchō and Ise Jingū

But the suggestion that Shinto can offer a viable model for environmental sustainability is not only made in these popular English-language introductions. It is also suggested by Jinja Honchō. For instance, in one of their pamphlets, they stated that

Shinto regards the land and its environment as children of Kami. In another word, Shinto sees that nature is the divinity itself. (…) [However, t]he Japanese spirituality inherited from the ancient ancestors has been gradually lost or hidden somewhere deep in to unconsciousness. It might not be too exaggerated if we said that not only environmental conservation but also all problems of the modern society have been caused by the lack of awesomeness, reverence, and appreciation for nature that ancient people used to have and taught us about. (…) So, Shinto suggests to shift a point of view and to look our environment with the spirit of ‘reverence and gratitude’ (Jinja Honchō not dated).  

That sounds very sympathetic, but the inevitable question is: how? How does a spirit of ‘reverence and gratitude’ lead to environmentally sustainable behaviour? As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has rightly pointed out with regard to China: despite the existence of Taoist notions of interconnectedness and holism, China has a long history of environmental destruction and resource depletion, long predating the advent of ‘Western’ technology (Tuan 1968). The same can be said about Japan, which has gone through periods of serious deforestation (Totman 1989). Or, my own experience: I have travelled around areas where people worship spirits residing in sacred trees; in the Mekong Delta, for instance. Yet those same people who worship trees also litter everywhere, and throw their garbage in the river. Why? Because they do not care? Or because they do not know? Or because the veneration reserved for certain sacred trees does not apply to other parts of nature? That is hard to say without first engaging in systematic field research in the area, but the point is that it is clear that the worship of particular natural elements does not automatically lead to environmentally friendly behaviour. The assumption that a belief in divinity present in nature, or even a spirit of reverence for nature, leads to sustainable behaviour is hopelessly naïve. Environmental knowledge must be acquired by means of education – and religious values or practices may play a part in that – but it does not follow naturally from a religious worldview. Any religious worldview. Nor, for that matter, do ‘Abrahamic’ religious worldviews automatically lead to unsustainable behaviour, as some historians have argued (e.g., White 1967; see below). Religious doctrine may be used to legitimise environmental exploitation, or, on the contrary, to prevent it; but human behaviour does not follow deterministically from a worldview or ideology.

Accordingly, some scholars have expressed scepticism vis-à-vis Shinto’s supposed environmental concerns, or its practical applicability. One of them was Arne Kalland, an environmental anthropologist from this university, whose scholarship on Japanese imaginations of ‘nature’ has been a great source of inspiration for me. Contrary to popular belief, Kalland suggested that Asian worldviews might actually be harmful rather than beneficial for the environment: for instance, he has pointed out that the nature appreciated and venerated in Japanese cultural and ritual traditions is an idealised, culturally mediated version of nature, not the ‘wild’ nature associated with environmental preservation practices (Kalland 2002; 2008). You may love ‘nature’ in its cultivated shape (‘cooked nature’, Kalland calls it) – such as gardens, ikebana, cherry blossoms, poetic imaginations of nature and so on – but that does not mean you care about the natural environment as a whole (which Kalland calls ‘raw nature’). He has also questioned Shinto’s supposed environmental character, suggesting that Jinja Honchō’s attempt to redefine the tradition as such has more to do with institutional PR than with a genuine concern with environmental problems: they ‘have discovered the legitimacy implied in the religious environmentalist paradigm. Rather than being associated with a discredited imperial system of pre-war years, Shinto ideologues and scholars can now attach themselves to an honourable global environmental discourse’ (2012).

This is an important point: ‘Western’ religions (in particular Christianity) are widely associated with, and blamed for, environmental destruction, as they supposedly sanction human superiority and exploitation of Creation. This argument goes back to at least 1967, when historian Lynn White published a famous article in which he argued that the Judeo-Christian worldview is the root cause of the environmental crisis (1967). Not surprisingly, in the past thirty years a variety of ‘non-Western’, ‘Oriental’ and ‘indigenous’ traditions have been reinvented as ecological religions for purposes of identity politics and differentiation: it is a way to blame the ‘evil West’ for environmental problems worldwide, and to assert the superiority of one’s own tradition vis-à-vis Christianity. Paradoxically, negative images of Christianity notwithstanding, (progressive) Christians have been among the most active proponents of religious environmentalism. They have also supported the conservation of non-Christian ‘sacred sites’ worldwide, ideologically as well as, presumably, financially.

Likewise, John Breen, one of the leading scholars of contemporary Shinto, has questioned Jinja Honchō’s priorities, pointing out that environmental issues only figure in its English-language, not in its Japanese publications. In fact, Jinja Honchō does repeatedly assert the importance of shrine forest conservation, also in its Japanese publications; but, according to Breen, they are primarily seen as symbolic resources that may serve to teach children the importance of reverence for ancestral traditions and the ‘country of the gods’, Japan – rather than, say, important ecological resources (Breen & Teeuwen 2010, 209).

This is an important point, but it is not the full story. Jinja Honchō is a powerful institution, and it clearly has a conservative and nationalist character, placing much emphasis on the role of the emperor, state patronage of the controversial Yasukuni shrine, and so on. But it is perhaps less uniform than it may appear from outside, and different actors within the organisation may well have different agendas. In recent years, some young members of this organisation have actively contributed to international PR, interreligious cooperation, and a growing focus on environmental issues. This is illustrated by Jinja Honchō’s cooperation with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), a UK-based non-profit organisation which defines itself as ‘a secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices’,[5] and which works together with the UN, the WWF and so on. For instance, Jinja Honchō has been involved with the development of a so-called ‘Green Pilgrimage Network’, ‘a global network of pilgrim cities and sacred sites around the world wanting to be models of green action and care’.[6] This June, there will be a large interreligious conference in Ise, one of Shinto’s most sacred sites, devoted to this topic.

So Jinja Honchō’s involvement with environmental issues seems to be about more than just PR, and there well may be some genuine concern for environmental problems. That does not mean, however, that the organisation provides a ‘model for environmental sustainability’. And it certainly does not mean that Jinja Honchō has overcome its concern with other issues: the re-establishment of imperial symbolism; the nationalisation of Yasukuni shrine, where the national war dead are enshrined; the rewriting of history, and the establishment of a more ‘patriotic’ curriculum for national history education; and fund-raising for rebuilding the shrines of Ise, every twenty years.

In fact, it may be interesting to have a quick look at this topic, the periodical rebuilding of Ise Shrine, because recent discourse on this topic is illustrative of the re-branding of Shinto as a ‘green religion’. As you may know, Ise is widely seen as Shinto’s most sacred sites. The area houses two large shrine complexes, one of which is devoted to the sun goddess Amaterasu, and many smaller shrines. I will not discuss historical or theological particularities now, but it is important to point out that Ise is famous for its architecture. The shrine complex is made up of simple, wooden buildings, which have been praised by architects worldwide, and which are supposedly still built today as they were 1300 years ago. What is even more special is that these buildings are completely demolished, rebuilt and ritually inaugurated every twenty years, which costs a lot of money and timber. This ritual rebuilding event is called shikinen sengū in Japanese, and the last time this happened was last year (2013).

Some might argue that this is a waste – not only of financial but also of natural resources. Why not just preserve those buildings better? But Jinja Honchō and the Ise shrine management have successfully re-framed the practice as ancient ‘sustainability’, called it ‘recycling’, and suggested it contains important lessons for living in harmony with nature. For instance, some of the wood from dismantled old buildings is used for other shrines, elsewhere in the country. Moreover, the foresters of the shrine are said to ‘have taken a conservation approach by preserving the natural resources of the area’ (Public Affairs Headquarters for Shikinen-Sengu 2010) – despite the fact that, for many centuries, deforestation was a serious problem, and wood had to be imported from other parts of the country.

Others have pointed to the traditional building techniques involved in the construction process, and to the ‘spirit of gratitude’ supposedly expressed by labourers because they perform certain pacification rituals when felling trees (Adams 1998). But why these practices are ‘sustainable’ remains unclear. Fascinating though this ritualised rebuilding may be, in the end it does require an enormous amount of resources, and it would be utterly impossible and unsustainable to use this as a ‘model’ for other buildings.

So based on what I have discussed so far, it would appear that the answer is ‘no’ – that Shinto cannot provide us with a viable model for environmental sustainability. At least the arguments we have seen so far were not very convincing. However, perhaps we should not focus on abstract philosophical or ethical ideas; and perhaps we should not look at large, powerful organisations such as Jinja Honchō. What if we look at small-scale ideas and practices? What if we look at individual shrines, shrine priests, and local communities? Let us zoom in. 

Chinju no mori

In fact, there are some clear examples of actors within the shrine world who do make attempts to practise what they preach, also with regard to environmental issues. For instance, there have been a few cases of local shrine priests who have engaged in environmental activism and opposed construction projects that would lead to the destruction of shrine forests or sacred mountains. Not all of these priests were supported by Jinja Honchō or other umbrella organisations. In some cases, such activism caused conflict within local communities, as some community members (including shrine patrons!) were in favour of construction projects for economic reasons. In other cases, activist shrine priests have received local media attention, and have received praise. In any case, this type of Shinto activism is the exception rather than the rule; since the 1950s, a large number of ‘sacred’ shrine forests have given way to buildings, roads or factories, but only a handful of priests have protested.

However, in the past ten, twenty years, there has been an increasing interest in these sacred shrine groves, or chinju no mori as they are called in Japan. In my PhD dissertation (Rots 2013), I have discussed this topic of chinju no mori at length. For now, let me point out that these shrine forests have become the number one focal point of shrine-related environmentalist practices – and other practices as well, for that matter. Accordingly, a nationwide conservation movement has emerged for the purpose of protecting these shrine groves. Ecologists and environmentalists want to preserve them because they are said to be among the last remaining areas of ‘natural forest’ in Japan – forest that is neither planted nor used for wood production – or because they are often the last remaining areas of green space in Japan’s urban concrete jungles. Shinto scholars and leaders want to preserve them because they represent continuity with the ancestral past, and have become symbols of the connection between kami, people, and the physical landscape. Some city dwellers want to preserve them because they are seen as remnants of ‘traditional Japanese culture’, or simply because they are a good place for firefly-watching. And shrine priests want to preserve them because they are part of the shrine’s territory, because they constitute economic and symbolic capital, or because they are seen as the dwelling place of deities. These people have joined forces in local non-profit organisations, as well as in the nationwide Sacred Forest Research Association (Shasō Gakkai).

Now, the question is: do these chinju no mori preservation initiatives constitute models for environmental sustainability? Yes and no. Yes, because some of these shrine forests have become focal points – physical as well as symbolic – of environmental education, allowing city children to play in and learn about nature. Yes, because they bring together environmental activists, conservative nationalists, and apolitical local volunteers, representing different things to different people – but allowing them to join forces and shape temporary coalitions around the shared goals of tree-planting and forest maintenance. Yes, because they are reinvented as local community centres, whose value is ecological as well as social – and ultimately, environmental sustainability starts at a local level, with people learning to have an awareness of and to be concerned with their local ecosystem, of which they are a part.

Or not? No, because they confirm what I have said about Shinto being local and particularistic rather than holistic: a concern for the preservation of a small, clearly demarcated area of sacred woodland unfortunately does not appear to lead to a concern with environmental degradation at other places, further away – i.e., places that may not be considered ‘sacred’. Chinju no mori environmentalism is (not-)in-my-backyard environmentalism: a concern with local environmental issues which affect one’s life, but a lack of interest in more abstract issues, the effects of which are not immediately noticeable. No, because for all its focus on the preservation of small forests, the chinju no mori movement and shrine priests thus far have by an large failed to address environmental issues that are not directly related to shrines: problems with (toxic) waste and pollution; climate change and energy issues; environmental destruction caused by Japanese companies abroad, and so on. And no, because the majority of shrine priests and volunteers involved with this movements are arguably too concerned with symbolic issues, and have little or no knowledge of local ecosystems. They plant trees and plants which have symbolic value, but which may not be suitable for the local ecosystem; they are working hard for the return of fireflies, as these are very popular, without paying attention to species diversity in general; and they are by and large unaware of the environment around the shrine forest.

So I have to apologise: my answer to this lecture’s main question is neither a wholehearted ‘yes’, nor an absolute ‘no’. Shinto may not offer a complete ‘model’ for environmental sustainability – not yet. Yet within this social field that we call ‘Shinto’, there are certain ideas and practices, which may not have been fully developed yet, but which possibly contain the seeds for such a model. The Shinto environmentalist movement is growing up, and some of the criticisms which I have discussed today are taken seriously by actors within this movement. For instance, there is one very promising development, which has really only happened in the last two or three years, as a result of Japan’s nuclear crisis. That is, some shrine priests have interpreted the shrine grove’s role as ‘community centre’ in a whole new way, using it as a place where renewable energy is produced for the neighbourhood or village. For instance, two years ago, I read a short article in the Shinto weekly newspaper about a shrine in Hokkaido devoted to the sun goddess Amaterasu. This shrine had placed solar panels on its roof in order to get electricity from the sun. The head priest said that Amaterasu gives us her light, is a life-giving goddess – so why not use this divine gift to produce sustainable electricity? And he is not the only one: I have heard of some other cases like this. There is one scientist in particular who is actively involved with the chinju no mori preservation movement, and he has spread this idea of shrines as community centres both socially and in terms of the local production and distribution of renewable energy (Hiroi 2011; 2012). This is very recent, so I am not sure to what extent his ideas will materialise – but I think it is quite an interesting development.

Conclusion: the story of a thousand-year forest

I would like to conclude this lecture optimistically, by telling you a story. It is not a model, but it may be considered an interesting example nonetheless. This is the story of Mr. Sakurai Takashi, who is the priest of a fairly small rural shrine called Gosho Komataki Jinja. It is located on the north side of Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture, about two to three hours north of Tokyo. This is an old shrine: this year, they celebrated their one thousandth anniversary. It has some old, pretty wooden buildings; some small sub-shrines for different deities; it has graves on the shrine precincts, which is fairly uncommon as these are usually near Buddhist temples; and it is surrounded by lush, abundant green forest, moss, ferns, and a small stream. Near the forest is a rice paddy. What is also quite interesting is that there are several stone statues around the shrine, some small, some big. The area is known for its stone craft; one local stonemason has donated a small wooden statue that immediately reminds one of a creature from a Miyazaki movie. It is quite a magical place.

But it was not always like this. When Sakurai become shrine priest, in the 1970s, the shrine was surrounded mainly by pine trees, many of which died because of pollution. Sakurai believed that the forest is the dwelling place of the deities, and he started studying forest management. Meanwhile, he also worked at the nearby rice paddy. He came to realise that, ecologically speaking, the rice paddy and the forest are interconnected; together, they are part of a larger ecosystem, as well as a single hybrid nature-culture landscape. Sakurai then developed several activities for forest replanting and conservation, rice cultivation, and nature education, in which local volunteers and school children participated. In 1991, he founded the Sennen no Mori no Kai: the ‘thousand-year forest association’.

Sakurai told me that twenty, thirty years ago, his activities were frowned upon by other priests. Shrine priests should perform rituals and ceremonies instead of going out into the forest for pruning and weeding, or so they argued. They even called him ‘a communist’ – which is not a compliment in those circles. But things have changed. In 1997, Sakurai took part in a large international conference on ‘Shinto and Ecology’ at Harvard University – together with some famous Japanese and foreign scholars (and, interestingly, Tanaka Tsunekiyo, who is the current president of Jinja Honchō). Since that time, Sakurai’s activities have received positive feedback in Japan, and people started seeing him as a pioneer. He gives lectures, he sometimes appears on TV, and young shrine priests look at him as an example. According to Sakurai, there has been an important shift in the shrine world, as young priests are increasingly aware of, and concerned with, environmental issues. He applauds this development.

There are three things that make the Sennen no Mori no Kai different from activities employed by other shrines. First, Sakurai actually appears to be knowledgeable when it comes to forest ecology, and knows what sort of things do and do not work; he is not only interested in the shrine forest as a symbol, but as a living ecosystem. Most other older shrine priests simply do not have such knowledge. Importantly, Sakurai also shares this knowledge with children who come to participate in the activities of the Sennen no Mori no Kai. Second, unlike most other shrine priests, Sakurai is fully aware of the fact that his shrine forest is part of, and dependent upon, a much larger ecosystem – including the rice paddy, the mountain, the houses and their gardens, and the surrounding fields. He criticises other projects for being too local, for only focusing on the trees surrounding the shrine; by contrast, he tries to contribute to the preservation of the forest as part of a wider landscape. And third, interestingly, contrary to many of his colleagues he actually does have a very holistic approach – not in an abstract, philosophical sense, but by displaying something that we might call place-based practical holism: practical knowledge of the interconnectedness of environmental, social, economic and religious problems at a particular locality. For example, he talks about environmental degradation, growing unemployment, a lack of social cohesion and cultural activities, rural depopulation and, significantly, a lack of reverence for and faith in the local gods of the forest – and he sees them in their mutual interaction. This may actually be something that we, scholars specialised in our own narrow fields with our own fragmented knowledge, can learn from.

So, is the Sennen no Mori no Kai representative of Shinto shrines in general? Most certainly not. Not yet, at least. But who knows, this may be one of those best practices that will be followed by others, and that serves as the basis for a future model – a model for environmental sustainability, informed and inspired by Shinto. It may not have fully developed yet, but the seeds have been sown.

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[1] This is the text of my PhD trial lecture, which I gave on February 27, 2014, at the University of Oslo. The title was given to me by my PhD committee.
[2] For discussions of Næss’ philosophy and the deep ecology movement, see Drengson & Inoue 1995; Haukeland 2008; Næss 1989.
[3] From (last accessed: February 22, 2014).
[4] From (last accessed: February 22, 2014).
[5] From (last accessed: July 31, 2013). 
[6] From (last accessed: July 31, 2013).