In case you were wondering what I will be doing the next three years: below is the abstract of my research project. For those who find this abstract too abstract, I am also working on a longer summary in easy English, which I intend to post soon.
The question ‘what is Shinto’ is not an easy one to answer. A distinction must be made between, on the one hand, those practices and institutions (plural), in past and present, to which the term supposedly refers; and, on the other, the abstract notion of ‘Shinto’ as a more or less coherent, independent and ‘indigenous’ Japanese religious tradition or spiritual worldview (singular). Even when we focus on the latter, we see that in the course of modern history the concept of Shinto has been defined by a variety of paradigms, closely related to social and political developments. Different notions of Shinto are intertwined with different notions of national and ethnic identity, as well as with normative notions of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’, that are constantly challenged and renegotiated.
Briefly put, the main problem of the proposed research project is the question: what are the main paradigms by which Shinto has been, and continues to be, defined (in modern and contemporary Japanese society, by scholars as well as representatives of Shinto institutions); and what are the political subtexts underlying these competing paradigms? In particular, how do existing notions of 'nature' and 'nation' resonate in contemporary developments and debates? In order to answer this question, I will look at the ways in which notions of ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ have influenced the discourse on Shinto; at the influence of political developments on definitions of Shinto, and vice versa; and at different ways in which in contemporary, twenty-first century Japanese society Shinto is being redefined. Adopting a meta-perspective, I will examine the views of scholars and ideologists, deconstruct them and analyse the identity politics underlying their views. In addition, I will also look at the ways in which these views have given meaning to and transformed concrete religious practices and identities.
Whereas the topic of the reinvention of Shinto in nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan, and the relationship between Shinto and state ideology, has received considerable scholarly attention, so far little research has been done on postwar institutional and ideological developments. With this research, I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the complex dynamics of redefining and representing Shinto in postwar Japanese society. In this, particular emphasis will be put on the recent trend, advocated by some representatives of the Shinto establishment as well as some foreign observers, to define Shinto as a nature (or even environmentalist) religion. This trend, which may be interpreted as a strategy of depoliticisation, seems to reflect a wider concern with nostalgia and 'authentic' culture as expressed in, supposedly, mythology, rural traditions and 'animist' beliefs. It may be argued that the environmentalism thus advocated is based on rhetorics rather than actual political activism; nevertheless, it does influence popular imaginations of Shinto and change the way the tradition is perceived. The question is, of course, how this popular reinterpretation of Shinto relates to more traditional, nationalist definitions; and how, possibly, a re-emerging discourse on Shinto and 'nature' is employed in the context of institutional power struggles in contemporary Shinto.