Saturday, 7 June 2014

Forests of the Gods

In August 2013, I finished and submitted my PhD dissertation, entitled Forests of the Gods: Shinto, Nature, and Sacred Space in Contemporary Japan. The dissertation was approved for defense by my PhD committee in December. On February 27, I gave my PhD trial lecture on the topic 'Does Shinto offer a viable model for environmental sustainability?'; on the next day, February 28, I successfully defended my dissertation and earned my doctoral degree.

For those of you who are interested in my research, below is a short abstract of the dissertation. In the future, I hope to publish an adapted version of this dissertation as a book. For a short summary in Norwegian, click here.

Abstract of Forests of the Gods: Shinto, Nature, and Sacred Space in Contemporary Japan
In recent years, the notion of Shinto as an ancient tradition of nature worship, said to contain important solutions for overcoming today’s environmental crisis, has achieved paradigmatic status in academia and Shinto institutions. This has led to the transformation of Shinto self-definitions and shrine practices. However, the development of this ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’ has not yet been subjected to systematic, in-depth research. This study constitutes a first attempt to fill that gap. It consists of four parts. The first part is dedicated to a discussion of theoretical issues related to ‘religion in Japan’, processes of secularisation and sacralisation, and sacred space. The second part consists of an examination of the development of the ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’. This paradigm, I argue, rests on three pillars: notions of ‘the Japanese experience of nature’ that were developed as part of the modern nation-building project since the Meiji period; existing notions of Shinto as the primordial, indigenous ritual tradition of ‘the Japanese’; and the global association between religion and environmental issues. The third part consists of a more in-depth examination of recent discourse on ‘sacred forests’ (chinju no mori), and ways in which they relate to popular understandings of Japan’s civilisation and natural environment. The fourth part, finally, looks at concrete ways in which abstract notions of Shinto, nature and sacred forests are given shape and negotiated at shrines today. Based on ethnographic research in Japan, I discuss four cases of shrine-based forest conservation, followed by four cases of cultural and educational practices related to shrine forests. The significance of chinju no mori, I argue, extends far beyond ecological issues: they have come to possess profound symbolic capital, representing continuity between the (ancient) past, the present and the future. As such, they have become the focal points of various discursive and spatial practices, the purposes of which range from environmental advocacy to national resurrection.