Shinto Controversies Course — 7th Lecture

Today, the Kokugakuin Shinto controversies course restarted after the summer break. Today’s lecture had two main parts, and an introduction.

The introduction was Professor Okada telling us about his summer holidays. One of the things he did was visit an archaeological dig in Hamamatsu (I think), where a number of festival-related items had been unearthed. One was an an, a rectangular table with eight legs, four in a line along each of the short sides. It was all but identical to the ones used in virtually all shrines in Japan today.

It dated to the fifth century.

This raises one feature of contemporary Shinto: its emphasis on the importance of following and preserving traditions, of continuing the rituals in the same way as they have always been done. Professor Okada said that this was the standard approach of most people in Shinto today.

However, other discoveries from the same dig made him, he said, think a bit differently about it. A number of iron implements were discovered among the items offered to the kami. In fifth century Japan, iron implements were the height of advanced technology, imported from the continent. The modern equivalent might be a liquid crystal television. He reflected a bit on the need for Shinto to adapt to changing times, or die. It sounded as if this visit had brought home to him the fact that even the most ancient tradition was an innovation once. This is one of those facts that’s obvious once stated, but which can be remarkably easy to forget.

The two main topics of the lecture were Shinbutsu Shugo (Shinto-Buddhist syncretism) and Toshio Kuroda’s view of Shinto.

The last four lectures of the course will look at the medieval and later periods, which means that Shinto-Buddhist syncretism is central to understanding what is going on. From the eighth century to the nineteenth, Shinto and Buddhism in Japan were deeply enmeshed with one another, and neither existed fully independently. However, Professor Okada insisted that they had always been conceptually separate; Shinto priests and Buddhist monks had different roles, even when they participated in the same rituals, and people could distinguish the two in general terms.

There were, according to Professor Okada, two basic forms of syncretism.

The first was syncretism for the sake of the kami. This took the form of reading Buddhist sutras to the kami, or founding temples at shrines to pray for the kami. He argued that this was, essentially, an extension of the way that the kami had always been worshipped; the new rituals that had come from the continent were used in an attempt to calm angry kami, or to increase their power. Certainly, the evidence suggests that the very first reaction to Buddhism was to treat it as just another foreign kami; there are some foreign kami that are now a standard part of Shinto.

The second was syncretism for the sake of the buddhas. The most prominent form of this was the founding of shrines to protect temple complexes. The most famous example is probably the Hachiman shrine that protects Todaiji in Nara (the one with the giant Buddha), but virtually every major temple from the ninth century on seems to have had an associated shrine. One reason for the popularity of Inari is that Fushimi Inari was closely associated with Toji in Kyoto, an important Shingon temple, and so Inari shrines were often founded as the guardian shrines for Shingon temples.

An important difference between the two forms, apparently, is that in the second case Shinto priests were not involved. The shrines were entirely managed by the Buddhist monks. Indeed, although monks going to shrines to read sutras for the kami was common, the reverse, Shinto priests going to temples to read norito, was unheard of. To the best of Professor Okada’s knowledge, the first historical example happened in May this year, on Mount Koya. His comment was along the lines of “Well, Shinto has to change with the times, so I suppose it might be OK. But from a historical perspective, it’s really odd”. However, in the early period Shinto priests performed no rituals outside their own shrines. Personal rituals at homes were performed by onmyoji, or shugenja, or esoteric Buddhist monks. This started to change in the medieval period, with the onshi from Ise, but I don’t think this change was fully established until the Meiji Revolution, when onmyoji and shugenja were abolished. Thus, the fact that the priests did not go to temples may not tell us much about the relationship between Shinto and Buddhism, as it may be due to reasons internal to Shinto.

This syncretism was developed by a number of Buddhist monks, and this is where the Honji Suijaku theory comes in. That, I think, will be touched on rather more next time.

The other theme was Toshio Kuroda’s theory on Shinto. Kuroda was a scholar of Buddhism, and his Kenmitsu Taisei theory, proposed in 1975, revolutionised studies of medieval Japanese Buddhism. Essentially, he claimed that the esoteric sects of Buddhism, Shingon and Tendai, remained the dominant sects throughout the medieval period, despite the appearance of so-called Kamakura Buddhism, which had previously been seen as more important. He also argued that Shingon and Tendai temples were major centres of political power.

In Buddhist studies, his theory was highly influential, and is the current orthodoxy. Outside Japan, Professor Okada estimated that 99% of scholars accept it in broad outline.

So, what did he have to say about Shinto? Essentially, he denied it existed. He said that there was no independent religion called Shinto in this period, and that it just indicated a special tradition of Buddhist rituals unique to Japan.

Shinto scholars did not react to this with unalloyed delight. Professor Okada was a young scholar at the time, and he remembers feeling that this matter had to be sorted out, but also that he could not oppose Kuroda directly, because Kuroda was far too important and influential.

Thirty four years later, a number of criticisms of Kuroda’s position have been gathered.

First, he was a historian of Buddhism, not Shinto. He didn’t do any research into shrines or Shinto practice. If he had been right, this wouldn’t have been a problem, because Shinto would have been entirely contained within Buddhism. However, it wasn’t, and so Kuroda’s research missed the evidence that his theory of Shinto was inaccurate.

Second, he was working with a narrow definition of religion, one that saw universal religions like Buddhism as superior, and the ideal form of religion, and that believed that a religion had to have doctrines and scriptures of some sort. On that definition, the first form of Shinto that is a religion independent of (although influenced by) Buddhism is Yoshida Shinto in the fifteenth century, and this was the date that Kuroda gave for the appearance of Shinto.

However, that’s an unnecessarily restrictive definition. In particular, it doesn’t apply to Shinto as currently practised. Ironically, Professor Okada explicitly said that it did apply to State Shinto, as formulated in the Meiji period, which is the period when Shinto was explicitly claiming not to be a religion. I think he’s right. Contemporary Shinto, however, is once again without doctrines or scriptures, for the most part, and is mainly practised as a set of rituals. If you take that definition, you have to say that Shinto does not exist now, and that’s clearly not a useful way to talk.

If you extend the definition of Shinto, it becomes clear that it existed much earlier. Professor Okada’s favoured date for the establishment of Shinto is the late seventh/early eighth century, the reigns of Tenmu and Jito and the immediate sequel. This is when the Daijosai started, and when the 20-year cycle of reconstructions of the Grand Shrines of Ise began. It’s also when the Jingiryo, which set the central court rituals, was promulgated. Another candidate is the fifth century, when we first see evidence of rituals that have continuity with Shinto as defined by Tenmu and Jito. At the moment, I actually incline to the fifth century date as being more useful, but I’m hardly an expert, and it does seem that such features as shrine buildings and organised rituals date from Tenmu and Jito. At the very least, that’s when Shinto was organised.

So, to return to Kuroda, while there was a form of Shinto that existed purely within esoteric Buddhism in the middle ages, this was not the only form of Shinto that existed then, and Kuroda’s definition of a religion was overly restrictive. However, if you take his definition, it is true that Shinto as an independent religion-with-doctrines only appears in the fifteenth century. That has been denied, and is an important point. Yoshida Shinto was made up by Yoshida Kanetomo in the fifteenth century, and State Shinto was made up by various people in the late nineteenth century. Both, however, drew on a religious tradition that can usefully be called “Shinto”, and which dates back to at least the late seventh century.

All in all, a very interesting lecture.

Silver Week

Japan is now in the grip of Silver Week.

People familiar with Japan will know about Golden Week. This happens at the end of April and beginning of May every year, when several public holidays come together. First, there’s Showa Day on April 29th, then Constitution Day on May 3rd, Greenery Day on May 4th, and Children’s Day on May 5th.

This week, however, is Silver Week. First, it’s a step down from Golden Week, because there are only three public holidays involved. One step below gold is, of course, silver. Second, the first of the three holidays is Respect for the Aged Day, and “silver” is often used to refer to older people, even in Japan.

However, Silver Week is not set to become a fixture. Two of the holidays involved are Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox Day, and these are both mobile. Respect for the Aged Day is the third Monday in September, while Autumnal Equinox Day is the Autumnal Equinox (surprisingly enough). The equinox is normally the 22nd or 23rd of September, but obviously the third Monday can be anywhere from the 15th to the 21st. This year, Respect for the Aged Day is the 21st, the equinox is the 23rd, and the law specifies that a day falling between two holidays becomes a holiday. Naturally, this will not apply next year.

On the other hand, if Silver Week is good enough for the tourist trade, the law might be changed to make it a fixture. This is what happened with Golden Week. Originally, April 29th was the Emperor’s Birthday, for the Showa Emperor (Hirohito), and May 4th fell between two holidays every year. However, by the time the Showa Emperor died, and the Emperor’s Birthday holiday moved to December 23rd, Golden Week was so well established that abolishing the holiday on April 29th would have been a serious political problem. Thus, it initially became Greenery Day, because the Showa Emperor liked trees, and then (from 2007) Showa Day. At the same time, May 4th was made into Greenery Day, since it was always a holiday and deserved its own name.

So, for this year at least, the Japanese get to enjoy Silver Week in the autumn, as well as Golden Week in the spring.

Magic Words

Yesterday and today, Yuriko was in Kyoto on a study trip with her kimono course. She should be back in a few minutes, but Mayuki has decided to watch a video again while she waits, so I have a few moments to write a blog. And I haven’t written anything about Mayuki for a while, so it’s a good chance.

This overnight trip to Kyoto was the first time that Yuriko and Mayuki had spent the night apart since Mayuki was born. We were, therefore, a little apprehensive. We did tell Mayuki lots of times in advance that Yuriko was going to Kyoto with her kimono class and wouldn’t be coming back on Monday night, but at one we weren’t sure how much she understood. Yuriko left at 6:30am, and Mayuki woke up to wave her goodbye.

Monday during the day was fine, of course, as it was just like any other Monday. Mayuki understands that Yuriko goes to kimono on Mondays, and knows what a kimono is, so that was no problem. Except that she had a cold, and was running a slight temperature. In the evening, she developed a cough, which got quite bad. She didn’t want to eat any dinner at all, and was already looking tired by seven, despite having had an afternoon nap. I planned to take to her to bed, and then leave once she was asleep.

While Mayuki was happy to change into her pyjamas, she also insisted that I change into mine. Obviously, I had no plans to go out, so that was worth doing to keep her quiet. Unfortunately, it took her a long time to get to sleep. Part of this was the cough, which kept waking her up just as she looked to be dropping off. She finally fell asleep just before eight, and I went to do the washing up and such. After I’d finished that, Yuriko’s father phoned to see whether I was managing to look after Mayuki by myself, and I assured him that things were fine.

About quarter to nine, Mayuki woke up again, and it took half an hour to get her back to sleep. Again, this seemed to be largely about the cough.

It was noticeable that, up to this point, Mayuki had shown no particular desire for Yuriko to appear, so I think she may, in fact, have understood what we were telling her, and knew that Yuriko wasn’t there.

However, when she woke up in the middle of the night, I don’t think she was quite as aware of everything she had been told, because she did comment, in grammatically correct Japanese, that Yuriko wasn’t there. The first time she woke up, she stayed awake for quite a while, crying intermittently, and rolling around on the bed. Sometimes she wanted to nestle up against me, while at other times I was definitely not good enough. I tried various things to get her back to sleep, but the one that worked was the magic words.

I said “go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep” repeatedly. In a calm voice, and with a falling intonation, rather than yelling “go to sleep now!”, which would be counterproductive. She went quiet almost immediately, and soon fell asleep. The next time she woke up, the same trick worked, quite quickly. Around the fourth time, more than half asleep myself, I decided to try an experiment, and discovered that saying “rhubarb fish” was equally effective.

Don’t ask me why “rhubarb fish”. I haven’t the faintest idea. (Well, apart from the fact that it scans with “go to sleep”.)

In any case, Mayuki woke up this morning in a good mood, and, again, showed no puzzlement at Yuriko’s absence. I got her ready to go to day care, and that’s rather more difficult by myself than it is when Yuriko is here to split the work. Then I took her to daycare, for the first time. That would have gone without any problems, had she not sneaked up behind me as I was stowing the last bag  and been knocked onto her backside when I stood up. As a result, she was, in fact, crying when I left, having not wanted to stop hugging me, but I’m assured that she was happy all day.

She also, apparently, said “Daddy is coming” repeatedly during the day, which means that she understood when I told her that I would come to pick her up. And when I did arrive, she jumped up and ran to me with open arms, shouting “Daddy!”, as soon as she saw me. That was a very encouraging reaction; when we left I heard the nursery nurses telling the remaining children that Mayuki loved her Daddy. And she does, of course.

So, apart from a rather disturbed night, the days went well, and I think Mayuki understood what we told her about the changed arrangements. I’m constantly surprised by how much Mayuki does understand. We’ll have to watch what we say around her.

Shinto, by Ian Reader

This book, in the series Simple Guides, is, as you would expect, a simple guide to Shinto. It is very short, and took me about an hour to read, and thus can only hope to cover a basic outline of Shinto. However, if you know nothing about the religion, that’s exactly what you need to start with, so the book has the potential to be very useful for that audience.

So, how is it? The author is a well-respected scholar of Japanese religion, particularly modern-day religiosity, although not particularly of Shinto. This shows in his grasp of the wider context of Shinto. This book avoids the excessive focus on the classic legends in the Nihonshoki and Kojiki that is sometimes found in Japanese introductions, and also focuses on the present day, rather than getting bogged down in history. The overall balance of the book is, I think, good.

There are also a number of other things I think the author gets exactly right. His position on the question of whether Shinto is the primeval religion of Japan or a creation of the nineteenth century is judicious, and, I think, essentially correct. He also handles the connection between Shinto and the far right in Japan well, giving it about the emphasis it deserves (one relatively short chapter out of eight). Finally, his discussions of Shinto festivals and religious practices seem to capture the reality, at least as far as I’ve experienced it.

That said, I do have a few criticisms. First, the book does not seem to include a description of the etiquette for visiting a shrine. That is something I suspect that many people who knew nothing about the religion would quite like to know. Second, there are a handful of errors. Some of these may be regional differences — he says that “most” torii are painted vermilion, but that is certainly not true around Tokyo —, and others might be differences in interpretation — I don’t agree with his description of Susanoo’s motives in the legends. Only one is actually important. He conflates the honden, the inner sanctuary where the kami is enshrined, with the haiden, the hall of worship where formal rituals are held. People, even priests, almost never enter the honden, while entering the haiden is normal if you pay for a formal ritual. The hidden nature of the kami is an important feature of Shinto, and one that does not deserve to be conflated away.

However, these are relatively minor criticisms. Overall, the book provides a good introduction to Shinto for people who know nothing about it, and just want to know enough to put shrines and festivals in some sort of useful context. It would also be a good book from which to start a study of the religion, providing enough background to make sense of more detailed studies. Thus, I recommend it to people who know nothing about Shinto, and would like to know a bit more.

Politically Stable

Japan has had four prime ministers in my daughter’s lifetime. My daughter is not yet two.

This might not sound like a politically stable society, but have you heard about riots in Japan? Street protests? Internet campaigns to impeach the Prime Minister because he was born in Mombasa?

This is, I think, true political stability. Japan is so politically stable that the ruling party can be so weak that even a two-thirds majority in the lower house isn’t enough to keep a Prime Minister in power for a year, and even then politics essentially continues as normal. Life certainly does. And then, when the election result is a landslide that gives the opposition a two-thirds majority in the lower house, the party that has been in power for all but eleven months of the last fifty five years quietly concedes defeat and goes into opposition, and no-one even considered the possibility that things might be different.

Japan’s politics certainly has a good number of problems, but I would say the evidence of the last couple of years is that, fundamentally, it is a healthy democracy.