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.

Posted in Literature.

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