Wednesday, 19 October 2011

New notes from Japan (6): Research summary

In a previous post, I mentioned the weblog Green Shinto as an example of the current environmentalist trend in Shinto. The author of the weblog asked me to write a short piece about my research, which he posted here. As I have not posted any summary of my research recently (the last one dating from October), I thought it might be a good idea to post it here as well. This is what I wrote:
In my PhD research I am trying to ‘map’ the variety of definitions and conceptualisations of Shinto that exist, and analyse the contemporary discourse on Shinto and ecology. (...) ‘Shinto’ is, I believe, an abstraction – an ideological construction, projected upon actual places and practices. That does not make it less real, of course – concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘society’ are also abstract categories, yet they are very real as they structure our thought and policies. It does mean, however, that abstract notions considering the essence of Shinto do not necessarily correspond to the concrete concerns, beliefs and practices of local priests and practitioners. Accordingly, rather than trying to come up with an alternative definition myself, I will try to give an overview of the various existing definitions, and analyse ways in which they relate.

While taking into account historical factors, my research has a strong contemporary focus. Until recently, most research on Shinto and kami worship focused on their development in Japanese history. The postwar period, however, received little scholarly attention. This seems to be gradually changing. In fact, in the past sixty-five years shrine Shinto has gone through some significant changes. One of these is the reinvention of Shinto as an ancient, primordial tradition of nature worship and animism – and, accordingly, the assertion that Shinto worldviews and practices are fundamentally ecologically friendly, and may even be employed as a blueprint for new environmental ethics. Some critics have argued that such ideas are little more than PR, and pointed to the lack of any significant attention to environmental problems on the part of the Shinto establishment. Their critique is certainly justified, yet it is an undeniable fact that in recent years more and more attention is paid to Shinto, nature and environmental preservation – if only in academic discourse.

In Japan, the ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’ has been developed by scholars from a variety of disciplines. They include Shinto scholars Sonoda Minoru and Ueda Masaaki, philosopher Umehara Takeshi, ecologist Miyawaki Akira, architect Ueda Atsushi and religious studies scholar Yamaori Tetsuo, among others. These men argue that ancient Japanese society developed ways to live in harmony with nature, which have been largely forgotten in the modern period; thus, much of their work is characterised by a nostalgic longing for this ancient past. Central to their ideas is the notion of chinju no mori: sacred shrine forests, which supposedly have been preserved for many centuries. Accordingly, rather than engaging with abstract issues such as pollution, climate change or deforestation in foreign countries, most environmentalist practices by shrine priests and organisations focus on the preservation of local chinju no mori. Several projects have been developed to protect these, and contribute to environmental awareness among visitors. High-profile examples include Tadasu no Mori Zaidan, affiliated with Shimogamo Jinja in Kyoto, and NPO Hibiki, affiliated with Meiji Jingū in Tokyo. Meanwhile, much necessary expertise on forest preservation and ecology is shared by the umbrella organisation Shasō Gakkai, by means of forestry trainings and symposiums.

In the coming two months, I hope to be able to collect more data by interviewing shrine priests, visit chinju no mori, and learn about shrine projects. I am sure there are many more local initiatives, with which I am not yet familiar. I welcome any comments or suggestions.

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