A Wider View of Shinto

Japanese shrines, called jinja, have a poor relation to the Western view of religion. Japanese people often complain that shrines are improperly viewed as religious, owing in great part to a legal intervention by the American Occupation. Having researched this in an academic capacity for several years, I will now state for the record that it is meaningless to list “Shinto” as your religion, because there are so many views of the jinja and ways of the kami, and none of them is officially endorsed by any establishment. You should rather put “Japanese” as your religion if you want to act like one. However, it is possible to be a “Shintoist”, that is, a researcher who studies Shinto history and expresses views about kami.

The postwar organization created by the American Occupation, called Jinja Honcho (“Shrine Authority”), is often assumed by both scholars and amateurs to propound an orthodox theology, when in fact it does not endorse any religious views at all, but only encourages an orthopraxy of respect towards shrines which Japanese people naturally have anyway. Obsessing over Jinja Honcho, as some Western books have done, gives you a very limited perspective on shrines in the public mind.

21st century religious treatment of shrines falls under the purvey of many different groups. This complex system is not thought about very much by the scholars I have read. Shrines are actually treated as public institutions and religious groups are free to theorize about them just as much as the “ordinary” Japanese people to whom they cater. Here are the players at work:

Independent shrinekeepers legally own all 80,000 shrines of Japan and can basically run them how they like. The majority of full-time shrinekeepers are atheists trained in Jinja Honcho-linked universities as ceremonial specialists whose main interest is continuing tradition, with an occasional view to historical awareness, or in rare cases attracting new worshipers with advertisements.

Jinja Honcho has organizational influence over the shrines but their main concern is continuing traditions. All shrines are privately run and free to leave Jinja Honcho at any time.

[edit] It should be noted that Jinja Honcho sponsors the Shinto Political League, which is, as the name implies, a right-wing political organization that, rather than propounding religious doctrine, calls for the restoration of imperial era traditions and practices, and espouses right-wing political views generally. Its mission statement says that it “aims to convey Japan’s culture and traditions to future generations”.

Public and legal opinion control how shrines are treated in government and by the courts. The general public sees shrines as an old public institution with vague links to history and religion. Ordinary people visit their local shrine roughly twice a year, for holidays and special occasions. Books about shrines from the “public opinion” side are often about issues surrounding Yasukuni Shrine.

Supporters’ organizations are set up by frequent shrine visitors and donors as independent groups to control how individual shrines are run, most notably at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. These are basically non-religious groups.

Hobbyists are often atheists with a mania for medieval architecture and sculpture. They do not exert any control over shrines but write a lot of books about them. Surprisingly, I recently met a foreigner who falls precisely into this category.

Spiritualists are a tiny minority of Japanese people who hold strong religious faith in shrines and donate a notable amount of money to them. Their view of shrines is often vague, and similar to that of the general public, except that they see them as old religious institutions that house powerful beings. Shrinekeepers do not cater to these people whatsoever, since they see their mission as public and not religious.

Occultists, who I might also call independent Shintoists, promote an eccentric intellectual view of shrines, often linked to martial arts, kotodama, parahistory, or the Oomoto movement. While they engage with Japanese history and occult tradition much more than spiritualists, they are fundamentally disorganized independent researchers. Their books can be found at large bookstores in the “UFO/occult/conspiracy” section.

The Shinto Kokusai Gakkai is a private organization linked to the religious group Worldmate which encourages awareness of shrines and belief in them. Worldmate, the brainchild of Toshu Fukami, is an interesting group which sells “spiritual services” to people but also encourages people to worship at shrines, which they have no control or social influence over. Worldmate is a rather large religious movement but is extremely poorly documented by religious scholars. I have never seen a shrine acknowledge them (see “spiritualists” above).

Buddhists and friendly new religions treat shrines with respect but focus on their own objects of worship.

Unfriendly new religions and some Christian sects prohibit members from visiting shrines, but this is very rare.

Japan only has a handful of medievalists, academic Shintoists, and religious scholars but they obviously promote a view of shrines to the general public as well.

When a Japanese or foreigner claims that they are “a Shinto” they usually mean that they fall into the spiritualist group. But let’s not be so hasty. If you would like to study the Japanese occult you can become an occultist, or if you want to learn about Toshu Fukami’s theory of the universe (which is very interesting), you can join the Shinto Kokusai Gakkai and be a sort of superpowered spiritualist. These other categories are equally part of “Shinto” in that they are interested in shrines and want to promote respect for them.

Furthermore, documenting shrine architecture and history is an equally important part of preserving tradition, so hobbyists and spiritualists should be friends.

Posted: January 7th, 2013 | Secular-Religious, Shinto 17 Comments »

17 Comments on “A Wider View of Shinto”

  1. 1 Mac said at 1:53 pm on January 8th, 2013:

    … And I suppose by the same logic you are going to say it’s equally meaningless to say you are a Hindu and at the same time assert that all Christians or Jews believe the same thing and worship in the same way!?!

  2. 2 lewdev said at 2:38 am on January 9th, 2013:

    This was an awesome article. I always wondered what being “Shinto” was like and it really depends on the meaning you’ve just defined. Thanks for writing this.

    @7fe6563d44b745a71a03b6ae84dfea28:disqus : He’s not making a sweeping generalization, as you are implying. He’s saying that there is are varying levels of “faith” in Shinto faith such that it’s really more of culture of Japan that preserves traditions rather than how we might typically view how a religion is followed.

  3. 3 Avery said at 3:03 am on January 9th, 2013:

    I’m not saying at all that Christians all believe the same thing. But there are Hindu, Christian, and Jewish organizations that claim that paying respect to specific sites implies a belief in their organization; conversely, there is no group, except for the Shinto Kokusai Gakkai backed by a charismatic religious movement, that says “shrines are a religious heritage”.

  4. 4 Avery said at 3:07 am on January 9th, 2013:

    I’m glad you liked it! This article may sound a bit polemical, but I’m trying to articulate the sum of my understanding after talking in great depth with people who visit shrines for over a year. What’s most important is that unlike a group like Tenrikyo where specialists consult religious and moral teachings to help those who come to them, shrinekeepers are not making any assumptions about the people who visit their shrines and usually don’t try to teach them anything. Although, yesterday I saw a “protect Japan’s disputed territories” sign at a shrine.

  5. 5 Ashley Yakeley said at 4:39 am on January 15th, 2013:

    You mean “religious” in a doctrinal or belief sense, right? In a wider sense, it seems like religious practice in a fairly straightforward way.

  6. 6 Avery said at 1:35 pm on January 15th, 2013:

    What exactly is straightforward about it? It was legally secular from 1867 to 1945.

  7. 7 Ashley Yakeley said at 9:33 pm on January 15th, 2013:

    What do you mean by “secular”? When you look at what people do at a shrine, it looks like religious behaviour.

  8. 8 Avery said at 11:10 pm on January 15th, 2013:

    Yes, and what people do at the Lincoln Memorial might “look like religious behavior” too. The words “legal intervention by the American Occupation” link to a paper I wrote on this topic which was declared Best Paper by a local religious studies conference. Please do read that and understand what I am talking about: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57133360

  9. 9 Ashley Yakeley said at 11:43 pm on January 15th, 2013:

    You mean the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.? The one with the priests and the attendants? The one where they ritually swish Union flags to drive out lingering Confederate impurities? The one where people come and ring the bell to summon the spirit of Lincoln, clap, and bow? The one where people come and chant and pray and ask for Lincoln’s blessing on their undertakings? That Lincoln Memorial?

    OK, I’ll slog through your through your paper.

  10. 10 Avery said at 12:24 am on January 16th, 2013:

    Surprisingly enough, American mythological figures like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, etc., are constantly invoked to justify human behavior and reconcile it with ideas of Americanness.

  11. 11 Ashley Yakeley said at 12:39 am on January 16th, 2013:

    This is the American civil religion, isn’t it? It’s edging into religious territory. But Shinto seems deep into it.

  12. 12 Avery said at 5:14 am on January 16th, 2013:

    If you’re just saying that there are a wide variety of conceptions of religion, and different people will classify different things as religion or civil religion or secular depending on their own culture… well, yeah, I’m not saying anything significantly different from that.

  13. 13 Ashley Yakeley said at 7:30 am on January 16th, 2013:

    I’m on page 14 so far. I’m fascinated by Holtom’s characterisation of old European pagan religions as “communal” and Christianity as “universal”. I came across the same notion in Alain de Benoist’s book on paganism, though he uses it as a point in favour of paganism.

  14. 14 Avery said at 2:14 am on February 17th, 2013:

    It is worth mentioning that the American organization “Tsubaki America Grand Shrine” participates in Shinto ceremonies at roughly the level of Worldmate, several layers more intense than spiritualists.

  15. 15 Warlock Asylum said at 8:53 pm on March 13th, 2013:

    I was a bit confused about your comments pertaining to Worldmate. Where did you get your info from? I am well acquianted with the group and its esoteric teachings.

  16. 16 Avery said at 3:59 pm on April 5th, 2013:

    Whoops, I’m sorry! I got my information from a former member.

  17. 17 Warlock Asylum said at 3:19 am on November 8th, 2013:

    Thanks for mentioning the connection. I am familiar with the group too. http://www.artofninzuwu.info