Wednesday, 13 October 2010

What is Shinto? A summary of my research project

'So what exactly are you going to do in Oslo?' several people have asked me. I have tried my best to come up with good answers, but I am not sure whether I really succeeded in explaining the contents of my research project well. That is why I have decided to write this text, as a new attempt to explain what I am doing - in plain, common English, so that all of you can understand what I am talking about. After all, one of the problems of the academic subculture is that, like most other subcultures, it has its own jargon (that is, its own specialist vocabulary). Many different jargons, in fact, as there are many different academic disciplines, which further complicates communication. Scholars and scientists always risk being accused of living in an 'ivory tower' - of obsessively studying their own particular hobbies, without making efforts to communicate their findings to the 'outside world' - and one of the main reasons is their particular vocabulary, which is not always easily translated into 'ordinary' language. However, I personally believe that it is important to share the outcome of academic research with 'society' - that is, with other people, who do not work in this ivory tower. I want my research to be relevant, not only academically, but also culturally and politically.

So I would like to tell you something about my research project. A while ago, I copy-pasted the abstract of my research project onto this weblog. It was a well-written proposal, judging from the fact that it got me my current position. However, it did contain quite a lot of academic vocabulary. Some of those fashionable concepts typically found in contemporary texts in the humanities or social sciences, if you know what I mean. You will have understood the basic topic of my research, no doubt, but in the end it might have seemed rather vague and theoretical. Words such as 'paradigm', 'narrative', 'to renegotiate', 'discourse', 'meta-perspective', 'dichotomy' and so on may ring a bell, but not everybody understands them immediately, and probably not everybody understands why I believe my research is exciting and relevant. However, I would like you to know what it is I am doing research on; I would like you to know why I believe this is a very exciting topic indeed, and I would like to tell you why my research is important, and worth spending three years of my life on. Hence this text, which is an attempt to explain it to a general audience, without using too much specialist vocabulary. It is a bit long, so I have divided it into different pieces. In my defense, it is still much shorter than most available introductions to Shinto, either academic or popular. I hope you find it interesting.

I. Work and plans

First, a short note on practicalities. I am doing PhD research, and I will write a dissertation. Hopefully, in the future, this can be published as a book or a series of articles. If my dissertation is accepted, I will receive my PhD, or doctoral degree. Until then, I am employed by the University of Oslo, which means that, luckily, I receive a salary for my work. I am supposed to submit my dissertation within three years. This is less than in several other countries; however, if you go to graduate school in the US, you will have to spend the first few years doing coursework (a second MA, basically), after which you have about three years left to do the actual doctoral research and write a dissertation - pretty much the same as here, after all. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, PhD candidates usually have four-year positions, but they are often required to do additional work - either research not directly related to their own project, or teaching. In Oslo, except for some PhD coursework and seminars, we do not have any obligations other than our dissertation. But if we finish in time, we will be employed for an additional year, during which we have the chance to gain teaching experience, get some more articles published, and work on applications for new positions. Not such a bad deal, after all.

Although I will be based in Oslo, and consider this city my new home, I will not be here continuously during the next three years. That is, I will have to spend some time in Japan. Hopefully, this spring, I can spend a month in Japan to do preparatory research and collect data; from September, then, I intend to spend half a year there. The reason I have to go to Japan is that I will look at contemporary developments and debates, and I need to go there to get a good overview of these. I will do fieldwork research, which means that I will conduct interviews, attend events and take part in the activities of local communities and/or religious organisations.

II. Popular introductions to Shinto

So what about the contents of my research? Put very simply, I will look at the question: 'What is Shinto?' Rather than trying to answer this question myself, I will study ways in which this question has been answered in the past, and recent attempts to come up with new answers. However simple the question may seem, answers have been and continue to be highly contested, normative, and political. Notions about 'Shinto' are related to notions about the Japanese nation, state, and emperor; they are related to debates concerning the meaning of the word 'religion' and the way religion relates to Japanese identity and history; and they are related to ideas about the natural environment.

Let me illustrate the difficulty of the question. You may well have a book in your bookshelf entitled Religions of the World, or Introduction to World Religions, or Religions Today, or something similar. You once bought it at the remainder books section of a bookstore, or you may have got it as a Christmas present. The book is well-written, easy to read, and filled with beautiful illustrations. It is divided into chapters of more or less equal length, each devoted to one particular 'world religion' - suggesting that these 'religions' all belong to the same category, and are therefore essentially similar, equal, and comparable. The first five chapters are about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as these are generally considered the five main 'world religions'. They are probably followed by chapters on Taoism (or Daoism), Confucianism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. In addition, there may also be chapters on 'new religions', 'New Age', 'shamanism' and/or 'indigenous religions'. Finally, it is likely that the book has a chapter on Shinto (possibly referred to as Shintoism).

It is not my purpose here to discuss the problems inherent in such an approach to 'world religions'. Let me just point out that, despite the practical advantages, the problems caused by the projection of the concept 'religion' onto a wide variety of traditions are significant. But now I would like to draw attention to the chapter on 'Shinto'. If you are lucky, the chapter will pay some attention to historical change; if you are not, it will present Shinto as a static tradition, virtually unchanged since prehistoric times. Even if it does recognise some historical developments, the chapter is highly likely to define Shinto as the 'indigenous' religious tradition of Japan - a claim as common as historically problematic. Furthermore, while the chapter is likely to mention 'State Shinto', the emperor-centred state religion created and controlled by the Japanese government in the first half of the twentieth century, it is likely to dismiss this as a political ideology that ought to be distinguished from the 'real' religion.

Next, inevitably, there is some reference to 'Shinto' creation myths, but they are presented as fixed stories, rather than historical constructs that have changed over time. Of course, several of the main rituals and events are described, but without any reference to their Buddhist or Taoist origins - rather, they are portrayed as fixed, unchanging, and similar throughout the country. More importantly, Shinto is probably described as a 'nature religion' - fundamentally based on people's beliefs in forces of nature (trees, rivers, mountains and so on) which have come to be enshrined and venerated. This, according to most popular introductions to Shinto, is the core essence of the religion. And this core essence, which has supposedly remained pretty much the same since primordial times, is considered to constitute 'the' core spirituality of 'the' Japanese people. The term kami, used in Japan to refer to deities, is considered untranslatable, and presented as some Japanese conceptualisation of divine nature - easily overlooking the fact that many kami are in fact historical persons or legendary heroes who became deities after they died, or 'Shintoised' gods and bodhisattvas from mainland Asia, that have little to do with natural phenomena.

These, then, are the basic ingredients of most popular introductions to Shinto in European languages. Naturally, they may differ somewhat in their formulation and emphasis, but their basic structure is the same. While not entirely false, the most important problem of such descriptions is that they tend to present Shinto as static and homogeneous, rather than dynamic and diverse - and accordingly, as a rule, do not really take the historical, political and local dimensions into account.

III. A typical definition

Let me illustrate this point by considering the following definition of Shinto, presented by that universally accepted, 'democratic' source of knowledge, Wikipedia. At the time of writing, the popular online encyclopedia defined Shinto as
... the indigenous spirituality of Japan and the Japanese people. It is a set of practices, to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present day Japan and its ancient past.
At first sight, this definition may seem rather accurate, and not very biased. However, there are some underlying assumptions which are all questionable, and which become clear if we look at the definition word by word. I will attempt to do so in order to show how difficult and complicated the issue is.

Firstly, perhaps the most problematic and common assumption is that Shinto is 'indigenous' Japanese. This term presupposes that Shinto is purely and originally 'Japanese', in contrast to 'foreign' religious traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. The term reflects the use of 'Shinto' in modern Japanese history as a marker of national identity; that is, a symbol to distinguish between Japan and the outside world. This distinction, however, is highly artificial. Historically, Shinto developed within the framework - theological and institutional - of Buddhism. Later, after the institutional separation of Shinto and Buddhism around 1870, Shinto was constructed anew as an independent, national(ist) religion - paradoxically, however, this 'indigenous' religious ideology was profoundly influenced by Confucian values such as loyalty to the state and filial piety (love for one's ancestors). In addition, many so-called Shinto-rituals in fact go back to yin-yang (or 'Taoist') practices. Thus, Shinto as it exists today is a relatively recent construction, based on elements from a variety of traditions, many of which are in fact originally Chinese.

The second term, 'spirituality', is hardly less problematic. Why not refer to Shinto simply as a religion? The reason is probably that throughout modern history, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Shinto should be considered a religion or not. Anyone who is familiar with Clifford Geertz' famous definition of religion as a system of symbols* (or any similar all-encompassing, pluralist understanding of 'religion'), may be surprised by this question, and argue that it is quite obvious that Shinto, with its symbols, myths, rituals and supernatural explanations, is a religion indeed. Don't worry, I will not go into the linguistic and ideological jungle that constitutes contemporary academic discussions on the concept 'religion', but it is important to point out that the discussion regarding the religious nature of Shinto has little to do with scholarly nitpicking. Rather, it reflects highly political concerns regarding the relationship between Shinto, the Japanese nation, and the emperor. In the late nineteenth and, especially, the early twentieth century, the argument that Shinto is not a religion has been used to legitimise its development into a state cult (usually referred to as 'State Shinto'), and to force all citizens to participate in Shinto-derived nationalist rituals, while maintaining the constitutional freedom of religion. Thus, the argument that Shinto is not a religion was initially employed mainly for pragmatic reasons, the nature of which was legal and political more than anything else.

According to the postwar constitution, Shinto is a religion just like Buddhism or Christianity. Officially, there is no state religion in Japan. The reality is a bit more complicated, however, as local governments continue to finance Shinto rituals, and politicians worship at the infamous Yasukuni Shrine where soldiers who died in the war are enshrined (including a few convicted war criminals). These issues have caused emotional debates within Japan, and have at times complicated relations with China and Korea. Whereas Shinto is officially and legally considered a religion, the view that it is not continues to be widespread - or, rather, the view that Shinto does in fact have religious aspects, but is much more than merely a religion. According to this opinion, advocated by influential postwar scholars such as Sokyo Ono (whose work Shinto:The Kami Way for a long time was one of the few English-language books available on the subject), it is the original, all-encompassing, essential 'Way' of the Japanese people, including ritual, morality, public life, aesthetics and so on. Needless to say, this view reflects nationalist fantasies and is not based on any critical historical research; yet, it continues to inform and influence most popular explanations of Shinto. The choice of the anonymous Wikipedia-author(s) to call Shinto a 'spirituality' in stead of, say, a 'religious tradition', reflects their indebtedness to this nationalist, unhistorical view, even though they may not be aware of it.

We have seen the assumptions underlying the simple notion of 'indigenous spirituality'. 'Japan and the Japanese people' is not less problematic. As any modern nation, 'Japan' is in many respects a fairly recent construction - certainly, in the medieval period there were notions about the country 'Japan' and its meaning, but these were significantly different from modern-day interpretations. Where does Japan begin, and where does it end? What about Hokkaido and Okinawa with their distinct cultural traditions, what about local shamanist cults? What about the Shinto shrines built in colonial Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria, what about the shrines in the US? Those are not 'indigenous' expressions of Shinto, it may be argued - but then, what is?

And who are 'the' Japanese people? Are they defined by their passport? What about immigrants, expats, 'half' Japanese? Who decides who belongs, and who does not? Besides, I am pretty sure a significant proportion of the Japanese population - Christians, Buddhists, adherents of new religions, socialists, atheists and others - would strongly disagree with the notion of Shinto as 'their' spirituality. Japanese society is diverse and heterogeneous, and there is no single unifying spirituality, no matter how much some Shinto priests and scholars would like to believe there is.

Next, Shinto is defined as 'a set of practices, to be carried out diligently'. Funnily, this second part of the definition is at odds with the first part. If Shinto is a 'spirituality', it is certainly much more than a simple 'set of practices'. Baseball is a 'set of practices'; so is, arguably, one's personal morning ritual. A 'spirituality' on the other hand encompasses not only ritual practices, but also a worldview, belief, symbols and, possibly, religious experience. Let's say this strange discrepancy between the first and the second part of the definition reflects the problematic nature of Wikipedia, where anybody can edit and add to anybody's entry. It is but one of the many inconsistencies and contradictions in this particular entry.

Finally, the last part of the definition suggests that Shinto practices are carried out 'to establish a connection between present day Japan and its ancient past.' Obviously, present-day rituals and ceremonies are very different from rituals in the ancient past - in terms of meaning as well as actual ritual behaviour. It is true that the notion of continuity is strong, as we have seen, and many Shinto priests and scholars would probably claim that the essence of most contemporary rituals goes back to prehistorical times. The problem is of course the word 'to' in the definition, which suggests that the purpose of carrying out these practices is establishing this connection. Not primarily. Shinto rituals are carried out for a variety of reasons: preventing people from bad luck and disease, assuring good harvests or profits, pacifying dangerous spirits, generating income for priests and shrine employees, and often, quite simply, for habit's sake. 'Establishing a connection with the past' is probably not in many praying people's minds.

IV. 'Shinto' and Shintos

You may be a bit confused. I may have convinced you that common definitions of Shinto tend to be problematic and unhistorical, and reflect particular ideological agendas, but I can imagine your next question: 'so what exactly is Shinto, if it is not what it is usually said to be?' That is a legitimate question. I must disappoint you by answering that, first, I don't know; and second, I don't really care, as the topic of my research is exactly the different ways in which people have defined and re-defined Shinto. In particular, I will look at the contemporary trend to point to its alleged animistic roots, and re-define it as a 'nature religion', as I will explain in more detail shortly. I am not interested in coming up with a definition myself, as I am more interested in studying the ideas of others.

It is important to bear one thing in mind. We should make a distinction between 'Shinto' and Shintos. What I mean is that there is an abstract concept called 'Shinto', which, as we have seen, has been the subject of much heated debate, is related to nationalism and identity politics, and has a legal meaning. This abstract concept, however, is not very important to the fast majority of 'followers' of Shinto. What matters to them is the particular reality of shrines, deities and rituals. They don't necessarily distinguish between 'Shinto' and 'Buddhist' rituals or deities. One day they may pray at a Shinto shrine, the next day they may pray at a Buddhist temple, they serve fruit to their ancestral spirits, and they might even attend a Christian church service occasionally, without experiencing this as inconsistent. 'Shinto' is not a real and independent entity in Japanese history, at least not before 1868. Shrines, deities and ceremonies, however, are real and concrete - and some of these have indeed existed since ancient times, even though their meaning may have changed quite a bit. Thus, conceptualisations of 'Shinto' do not necessarily corresponds to the diverse reality of shrine and kami-related practices and beliefs.

V. Why bother?

I guess the eternal challenge of academics - especially those in the humanities - is to legitimate the fact that taxpayer's money is spent on their seemingly useless activities. Sadly but undeniably, we live in a highly utilitarian period, in which everything is judged and valued based on their usefulness (which all-too-often means profitability), even such inherently valuable things as fine arts or the natural environment. Thus, artists and scholars are constantly demanded to 'proof' their value in utilitarian terms, which violates the very nature of their jobs - the pursuit of beauty or, respectively, knowledge, for their own sake. One has little choice but to give in, play along, and try to come up with some good reasons.

First of all: I like Japan. My main reason therefore is a subjective one. I enjoy being in and studying Japan. I also enjoy studying religion, as it continues to fascinate me - it has done so from the first time I visited Japan, so in that sense it is only natural that I study Japanese religion. I am also interested in studying politics, as I believe it is important to understand how power structures operate, and how they are legitimised. Analysing and understanding the underlying motives in religious and political speech contributes to my awareness of how these power structures work behind the surface, and empowers me (that is, it makes me feel stronger intellectually) - as an individual citizen, and as a scholar. I hope that one day my work may help others to understand a bit more about the relationship between religion, politics and identity, in particular (but not only!) in the context of Japan. I can only pray that it will. Skeptical though I may sometimes sound, deep inside I am an idealist.

So far my own, subjective reasons for doing this work. They should be sufficient legitimisation, but I am afraid many utilitarians would not agree. Well, then, let me cite the following paragraph, written by a leading scholar in Shinto studies, which makes clear why the study of Shinto is relevant socially and politically:
[H]ow we approach, understand and most importantly teach about Shinto is not an issue of merely 'academic' significance. The political aspect of Shinto has often been ignored by Western writers on Japanese religion. (...) [T]here is a continuing debate inside and outside Japan about Shinto's relationship to Japanese nationalism and national identity, a debate which has not only domestic but also international ramifications because of the global economic power wielded by today's Japan. Shinto is currently promoted outside Japan by elements of the Shinto establishment as an environmentally-conscious tradition with a special regard for nature and with a universalist potential, rather than as a tradition which is narrowly Japanese.
(Brian Bocking; original text here)

VI. Shinto and nature

In the past twenty-five years or so, classical notions of Shinto as described earlier have been challenged by a number of historians, and great progress has been made in the study of shrines and kami worship in Japanese history, as well as the development of 'Shinto' in prewar modern Japan. However, postwar Shinto has received remarkably less serious scholarly attention. There are some anthropological studies of particular shrines and cults, but little has been written about overall institutional and ideological developments. One of the most striking issues is the last observation in the quotation above: that Shinto is actively promoted as a nature religion (or even as an environmentalist religion). This is a development often observed, but, thus far, never systematically investigated.

It is often asserted that Shinto represents an inherent love of nature and the environment. In fact, it is one of the main points made on the website of the Association of Shinto Shrines (on its English website, that is - there is no reference to environmental issues on the Japanese site). Several English-language books on Shinto advocate this view, and so does the main Shinto shrine in the US, which states on its website that "Shinto is the Natural Spirituality or the practice of the philosophy of proceeding in harmony with and gratitude to Divine Nature," making it sound like a loosely organised New Age or neo-pagan movement. The list is endless (just google 'Shinto' and 'nature', and you'll see what I mean).

What all these notions have in common is not their historical accuracy - the widespread concern with environmental issues is of a very recent date, for instance - but the fact that they all draw on existing myths regarding the inherently Japanese 'love of nature' and the importance of 'harmony with nature'. Notwithstanding the large-scale destruction of the natural environment in modern Japan, this myth has been used extensively and repeatedly by writers to claim the unique character of the Japanese nation, their sophisticated spiritual aesthetics, and moral superiority. These claims have been uncritically copy-pasted by 'Western' scholars, fascinated by the 'uniquely Japanese' mix of harmony, nature, sincerity and simplicity in such cultural expressions as Zen, the tea ceremony, origami, garden architecture and cuisine. They are strongly related to normative and nostalgic notions of an idealised, idyllic, 'authentic' Japan - which, of course, never really existed.

An interesting (and probably highly influential) recent expression of these notions is the work of Hayao Miyazaki. His films are very well made, highly enjoyable, and multi-layered. Importantly, they are also extremely popular, in Japan as well as abroad. Four of his films in particular employ idealised notions of a 'traditional' Japan, spirits and deities residing in nature, and an environmentalist critique of modernity: My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I will discuss these films in more detail some other time. For now, suffice to say that they seem to have been very influential in shaping contemporary notions on Japanese identity, religion and spirit belief, and the natural environment.

Not surprisingly, then, given the persistence of the notion of Shinto as a 'green spirituality' on the internet and in popular imagination, several scholars have argued that Shinto could serve as a blueprint for environmental ethics. They tend to project Orientalist fantasies of Eastern holism and some sort of ecological mysticism onto Shinto, and overlook the fact that, until recently at least, Japan's record in environmental issues has been very poor, and that as a rule Shinto organisations have not shown much awareness of these issues either. But, fair enough, there are some promising recent developments - for example, a number of shrine-related organisations is now active in forest preservation and environmental education (for an example, click here). Thus, perhaps, texts and media images in which Shinto is re-defined as an environmental tradition do serve as some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, and inspire shrine priests and parishioners to become active in local environmental protection. The question is of course how widespread and substantial these initiatives are - to what extent are they PR, to what extent do they reflect actual activities and challenges to authorities. And, furthermore, one might wonder whether this is just a short-lived trend, as there are so many in Japan, or a constructive innovation that will really change the meaning of 'Shinto' and its position in contemporary Japan. These are questions that remain to be answered.

To be continued.


* According to Geertz, a religion is: "(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." For further explanation, see here.

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