Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis

The author of this book on Shinto is primarily a philosopher of religion, not a historian, and thus he approaches Shinto from a philosophical perspective. One result is that this book is not really a very good introduction to Shinto. It is easy to read, and assumes no background knowledge (as far as I can tell), but it is concerned with interpreting and analysing Shinto, not laying out the basics. However, once you know a bit about Shinto, I think it is a very interesting book, one I found insightful and thought-provoking.

The book starts and finishes with a discussion of contemporary Shinto practice, something that is often skimped and that makes it a valuable supplement to a more standard introductory text. In between, there is a philosophical history of Shinto; that is, a history that concentrates on its development as seen through the categories Kasulis is using.

Kasulis argues that Shinto, as currently practised by tens of millions of Japanese who claim to have no religion, is not concerned with explanations or doctrine, but with a sense of belonging, and a sense of contentment with mystery and wonder. The main distinction he develops, however, is between what he calls “essentialist Shinto” and “existentialist Shinto”.

Essentialist Shinto claims that there is a necessary core to Shinto, that it is a well-defined religion in distinction to other religions. Someone who subscribes to essentialist Shinto does things because he (or she) is Shinto. Existentialist Shinto, on the other hand, looks at practices, and says that someone is Shinto if they do certain things. The definition is very vague, and there is no necessary incompatibility between Shinto and other religions. Existentialist Shinto would see no problem with someone being both Shinto and Christian, although the Christian side might be less happy.

The main version of essentialist Shinto, Kasulis argues, is the nationalistic religion of emperor worship that dominated Japan from the Meiji period to the end of the second world war. We can find elements of it earlier in Shinto’s history, and, in so far as there is an essentialist version of Shinto, it seems to be the only one. Kasulis believes that the existentialist version of Shinto was dominant throughout most of history, up to the nineteenth century, and it is also clear that he favours the existentialist version. Indeed, in the final chapter he considers how existentialist Shinto could reclaim Shinto practice from the remnants of the essentialist version. His conclusion is that you need a neo-essentialist Shinto, with something like a sense of the kami as the essential element.

This is where I think he goes wrong. He argues that a completely undefined existentialist Shinto cannot stand up against an essentialist version, because an existentialist version has nothing to argue with. It is so fluid and tolerant that it cannot say that the essentialist Shinto is wrong, and thus cannot try to move away from it.

However, I think that it is possible to formulate an existentialist Shinto that can oppose certain elements of essentialist Shinto.

Let’s take a step back. The core difference between essentialist Shinto and existentialist Shinto is that the former requires something of anyone who is Shinto, while the latter doesn’t. On an essentialist conception of Shinto, if you know that someone is Shinto you can make some definite statements about them; they believe that Japan is the land of the kami, they revere the emperor as the descendent and representative of Amaterasu, they visit shrines on certain days, and so on. On an existentialist conception, however, two people who are Shinto might have nothing at all in common. However, an existentialist Shinto is not supposed to be a completely empty idea, applying to everyone. The Pope is not Shinto, not even existentialist Shinto. True, you could come up with a definition of Shinto that included the Pope, but it wouldn’t be very useful.

So, what would an existentialist conception of Shinto actually be? I want to suggest that it should be a collection of actions and beliefs that are Shinto. So, visiting a shrine, having a kamidana, having a Shinto wedding, believing the Kiki myths, revering the emperor as the descendent and representative of Amaterasu, and feeling the presence of something wonderful in nature might all be on the list. When deciding whether someone is Shinto, you look at what they do, and compare it to the list. The Pope does none of them, so he isn’t Shinto. Hillary Clinton might have visited Meiji Jingu, but that’s it, and that doesn’t make her Shinto. A priest at a Shinto shrine, on the other hand, does lots of them, so he is. The borderline cases might be difficult, and in those cases you can rely on what the person says. (You can’t always do that; “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Even if it claims to be a wolf.” People are not authoritative about their identities, even when honest. Simply saying “I’m not racist” does not guarantee that you are not, even if you believe it.)

However, nothing on the list is necessary. Thus, you could be Shinto without ever visiting a shrine. Suppose you live in Tennessee. Visiting a shrine is going to be rather difficult, because the closest one is in Washington State. However, you might have a kamidana, and engage in ritual purification derived from various Shinto beliefs. That might be enough to make you Shinto. Similarly, you could be Shinto without believing that the kami exist. If you have a kamidana, visit shrines frequently, and have Shinto rituals performed to mark life transitions (Shinto wedding, Hatsumiyamairi, and so on), then you are still Shinto, even if you think the kami are made up.

Another feature of the list is that doing something that is not on it is not directly relevant to whether you are Shinto. The practices of other religions are not on the list. There might be a couple of things on the list that are inconsistent with other religions, but they aren’t necessary. Thus, you could be Shinto while still counting as a follower of another religion, such as Buddhism. This means that this form of Shinto has the inclusivity that Kasulis identifies as a feature of existentialist Shinto.

A final feature is that we don’t have to approve of everything on the list. Because we can be Shinto without doing or believing everything on the list, we can think that some things on the list are false or evil, while still acknowledging that they belong on the list, because they have been an important part of Shinto in the past, at least. An example might be “believing that the myths in the Kojiki are literally true”. I’m sure they’re not, and the Shinto priests at Kokugakuin seem to agree, but it would be very strange to deny that someone who did believe them was Shinto. Motoori Norinaga was Shinto, after all, and he believed them.

So, how can this existentialist Shinto stand up to the imperialist essentialist Shinto? First, it cannot deny that people who follow this religion are Shinto. They do lots of things that are on the list, and self-identify as Shinto. This is, I think, the right answer. We might want to disapprove of this form of Shinto, but I think it is unreasonable to deny that it is a form of Shinto. However, this existentialist Shinto can take a strong stand against the claims of exclusivity. Revering the emperor might be on the list, but you don’t have to do that to be Shinto. Being Japanese might be on the list, but you don’t have to be Japanese to be Shinto. This account of Shinto allows us to say that imperialist Shinto is not the only form of Shinto, and frees us to criticise it.

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