A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

Here we have another example of a book that does what it says on the cover; a recounting of one year’s festivals and activities at a Shinto shrine, together with comments from various of the priests on matters connected to Shinto, Japan, and the shrine’s operation. The writing is clear and lively, and it gives, I think, a very good idea of what contemporary Shinto is actually like. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to get an insight into the practice of the religion.

However, I do have a few caveats. The book appears to be highly accurate on areas I know about, so I’m inclined to trust his account of the shrine, as he was actually living there and attending the rituals. The biggest error I noticed was in the glossary, where he says that the colour of the hakama worn by priests depends on their rank within the shrine, whether chief priest, senior priest, or whatever. Actually, the colour of the hakama depends on a separate ranking system, but in practice it does seem to correlate closely with rank at the shrine. However, a chief priest at a small shrine might only get the hakama that the assistant chief priests get at his topic shrine. As I said, the book is highly accurate; I think you’d probably have to read the Association of Shinto Shrines regulations to be aware of this distinction, and even then you might elide it in a book.

A larger concern is that the book does not, I think, make it sufficiently clear that his account applies to one shrine, Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki. This is quite a major shrine, associated with one of the largest festivals in Japan, and it has a large staff of priests. To take one example, he refers to the reverence towards Ise as a standard part of rituals. I don’t doubt that it was a standard part of rituals there, but I have never seen it done as part of a ritual. My local shrine doesn’t do it, and I haven’t noticed it in the festivals I’ve attended at other shrines. Maybe it’s a Kyushu custom (Nagasaki is in Kyushu), or maybe it was just the chief priest of that shrine who thought it was a good idea. The rituals and festivals reported in this book are a good example of the sort of thing that happens at a shrine, but the details are not necessarily true of anywhere apart from Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki, and I think that could have been rather more emphasised.

A related concern is Nelson’s attribution of particular interpretations of the rituals to the attendees in general. In some cases, this may be based on interviews with them afterwards, but even so he does seem to generalise more than I’m comfortable with. He quite rightly emphasises that Shinto rituals do not include sermons that specify a particular interpretation, so there is no way to know how most attendees interpret the ritual words and actions.

My criticism is not that the book fails to reflect the diversity of Shinto; that would be asking for the book to be a different book. Rather, I think it fails to make clear that it is only describing one small part of Shinto, and that other shrines are different in many ways. If you read the book bearing that in mind, it is an excellent introduction to Shinto as it is actually practised.

Posted in Literature.

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