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.

The Fox and the Jewel

This book, subtitled “Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship”, is the product of extensive research into the Inari cult in contemporary (early 1990s) Japan. The author spent a year at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the oldest Inari shrine and still, in some sense, the centre of the cult, and a further year at Toyokawa Inari, a Buddhist temple.

The choice of research centres highlights the first way in which the Inari cult complicates the standard picture of Japanese religions, because Inari is normally thought of as a Shinto kami. Indeed, I’ve classified this post under Shinto on my blog. However, before the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto and Buddhism were closely intertwined, Inari had very close ties to Shingon Buddhism, and when the Meiji government forced all religious institutions to choose whether they were Shinto or Buddhist, a few Inari centres chose to be Buddhist, although most decided to be Shinto.

The main message of the book, however, is that things are much more complicated and less unified than they look. There is a mountain behind Fushimi Inari Taisha, and the mountain is covered with red torii and small stone shrines. These small shrines started to appear in the mid nineteenth century, and the shrine initially opposed them, before giving in and authorising them. However, the shrine exerts virtually no control over worship at them; they are scattered all over the mountain, so supervising them would be impractical if the shrine even wanted to do it. What’s more, the shrine does not, in fact, own the whole mountain, so some of the small shrines are on land over which the shrine has no authority to start with. The author of the book, Karen Smyers, got to know several of the groups who worshipped on the mountain, and learned quite a lot about their beliefs and practices.

What she discovered was that every group was different. Even though most paid for ceremonies at the main shrine, they generally placed greater importance on the rituals they carried out on the mountain, in front of the minor shrines. These rituals, and the meaning attributed to them, differed significantly from group to group. Even the name of the kami varied, although it usually ended in “Inari”. While this is, in some ways, similar to Western phenomena such as “the Virgin of Lourdes”, it goes deeper, because there is no consensus on which kami Inari actually is. There is a common one, Uganomitama no Kami, but this was largely a Meiji imposition. Fushimi Inari enshrines five kami, including Uganomitama, and different places enshrine other groups. Toyokawa Inari, naturally, enshrines a Buddhist deity instead, Dakiniten. Even if the kami were agreed on, there are few general legends; Inari seems to be a very personalised deity.

One thing that all the priests and monks agree on is that Inari is not a fox. There may be fox images at virtually every Inari shrine, and the fox may be closely associated with the kami, but the kami is not, they insist, a fox. However, popular belief is much less clear about this. Some people agree that the fox is a messenger or servant of Inari, but others believe that Inari him or herself (Inari’s gender is not constant from one group to another) is a fox. Who’s to say which group is “right”, or “orthodox”.

Smyers also devotes some space to discussing the strategies used for avoiding conflict between groups of Inari worshippers. In essence, there are a number of ways to avoid talking about the issues over which they are likely to disagree, such as “which kami is Inari?”, “how should one worship Inari?”, or “what is the proper way for a follower of Inari to live?”. Obviously, this leaves conversations between representatives of Inari groups at quite a superficial level; Smyers reports that some of her informants tried to get her to tell them what other of her informants actually believed.

This is entirely consistent with the impression I’ve picked up of Shinto. There’s an emphasis on creating a surface image of unity, with torii at almost all shrines, fixed vestments for the priests, and a standard framework for rituals and festivals. However, underneath that surface, every shrine is different. As Smyer’s research shows, even when the shrines all fall into the same cult, such as Inari, they can all be different, and I suspect that that is true far beyond Inari. I’ve not done the formal research to back that intuition up, but it would be surprising to discover that all shrines were the same. Of course, because shrine priests do not preach, the beliefs and practices of the worshippers are also likely to vary widely.

Smyers suggests that this may, in fact, be a broader feature of Japanese society. The apparent conformity is a mere surface, below which there are countless small groups, all different. That is also consistent with my experience of Japan, but too large a claim to make on the basis of the evidence I have.

In any case, this is a very interesting book, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, particularly if they were interested in religion, or Shinto specifically.

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.

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.