Shinto big questions (6 book reviews)

This lengthy and state-of-the-art article not only surveys six different academic works, but presents an overview of the current state of Shinto studies worldwide. In doing so, it shows the attention that Shinto has won in the past 30 years.  When I first came to Japan, there was but a single book available on the topic – Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way. The book was first published way back in 1962. which is an indiction in itself of how little interest there was. Now, by contrast, there is a virtual flood of new books…

Writing on H-Japan (11/17/2017) Ross Bender comments: “This tour de force by Jolyon Thomas comprises the most comprehensive and up-to-the-minute scholarly overview of Shinto studies in English to appear in any academic publication or online platform anywhere.”


Big Questions in the Study of Shinto
by Jolyon B. Thomas (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania)

Review of Breen, John; Teeuwen, Mark, A New History of Shinto and Hardacre, Helen, Shinto: A History and Scheid, Bernhard, ed., with Kate Wildman Nakai, Kami Ways in Nationalist Territory: Shinto Studies in Prewar Japan and the West and Takenaka, Akiko, Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar and Teeuwen, Mark; Breen, John, A Social History of the Ise Shrines: Divine Capital and Zhong, Yijiang, The Origin of Modern Shinto in Japan: The Vanquished Gods of Izumo. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017.


If in a previous generation it was an interest in Zen that brought students to classes on Japanese religions, today that topic is often Shinto. Two major sources of information put Shinto in the minds of our students. On the one hand, Japanese popular culture products pique student curiosity about shrines, kami, and associated myths and rituals. The 2016 anime smash hit Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.), for example, features a female protagonist who works as a shrine maiden (miko) in a rural shrine, and several recent televised anime series, such as Red Data Girl and Noragami, feature shrines and kami.Entertainment websites report on tidbits related to shrines and popular media, including a job advertisement for a shrine maiden who will perform memorial services for used plastic figurines in geek mecca Akihabara, a feature on shrine maiden bikinis, and the promotion of a January 2016 visit of Star Wars: The Force Awakens voice actors and droid star BB-8 to Akagi Shrine in Tokyo to celebrate the box office success of that film.[1] Online fan communities discuss how particular anime series might be related to Shinto, with all of the inaccurate claims and stereotyped depictions one might expect.

On the other hand, Shinto is very much in the news. Regional and domestic debates over the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, proposed changes in protocol regarding imperial succession, and the prospect of constitutional revision have ensured that Shinto has stayed in popular consciousness, especially in East Asia but also farther afield. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō hosted the May 2016 G7 summit at Ise-Shima and had world leaders participate in a tree-planting ceremony near the Ise Shrines. Reportage on the scandals swirling around Abe’s administration (particularly the controversial land deal to Osaka-based education company Moritomo Gakuen) and on the political lobbies supporting his initiatives has often made obligatory reference to Shinto, describing it as “a polytheistic and animist religion native to Japan.”[2]

Undergraduates who take courses on East Asian history, politics, and religion come to class with preconceptions that reflect these mediated and popularized depictions of Shinto traditions. The time is therefore ripe for scholars of Japan to build on students’ intrinsic interest in Shinto while also offering more nuanced historical and social context than students are likely to get from the entertainment, news, and social media with which they are probably most familiar.

Fortunately, the academic study of Shinto is presently flourishing, and teaching a robust and engaging course on Shinto is probably easier than it ever has been. Bloomsbury Press recently inaugurated a Shinto Studies series that has already produced a number of excellent studies. Online initiatives like the Digital Museum maintained by Kokugakuin University and the Hachiman Digital Handscrolls maintained by Heidelberg University provide access to digital copies of images, videos of shrine rituals, and readable translations of primary and secondary sources.[3] For several years the International Shinto Studies Association promoted undergraduate research by sponsoring an annual essay competition (the competition has been discontinued; I hope that it will be revived), and recent symposia at UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Pennsylvania have introduced new audiences to the exciting world of Shinto studies.

With the foregoing trends in mind, in this essay I review six recent publications on Shinto. The books collectively interrogate several important questions that are central to the field of religious studies: How can we define Shinto to account for claims that it both is and is not religion? What does the Shinto-as-non-religion idea offer to the comparative study of secularisms and secularities? What is the relationship between religion and politics, and how does that relationship change under uneven relationships like colonialism and military occupation? What is the relationship between religion and indigeneity, and whose politics are served by claiming indigenous status? What is the relationship, if any, between local shrine festivals and imperial household rites, and what do recent debates about imperial succession mean for Shinto writ large? How can we account for shifting ritual practices like anime fan pilgrimage, digital shrine visits (netto sanpai), and the practice of Shinto outside of the archipelago?

Clearly, many of these questions about religion are also central to the field of Japanese studies and the discipline of history. The study of Shinto raises fundamental questions about how the boundaries of Japan can be drawn, and comparing different attempts to isolate Shinto in the past can be an exercise in learning how the historical method works. Accordingly, I have organized my review of these six books by pairing them into twos under the framework of three such fundamental questions: what is history, what is religion, and what is a place? The apparent simplicity of these “big questions” belies the complexity that students and researchers encounter in trying to answer them.

What Is History? Finding “Shinto” in the Past

Although two books under review here both describe themselves as histories and both aim for relatively comprehensive coverage, their approaches are tremendously different. One focuses on discontinuity and rupture through the concept of “Shintoization” and the premise that Shinto is a construct (Breen and Teeuwen 2010, p. ix); the other emphasizes continuity over time by focusing on kami as objects of veneration “from earliest times” (Hardacre, p. 1). Helen Hardacre’s Shinto: A History posits a transhistorical phenomenon that, while not necessarily being “Shinto” in name across Japanese history, is indisputably connected to the practices that bear that name today. John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, by contrast, steadfastly refuse to retroject the word “Shinto” onto the past. What we now call “Shinto,” they argue in A New History of Shinto, has been constructed by specific interest groups pursuing particular political and economic agendas.

These scholarly differences of opinion offer ready-made lessons for students. I can easily imagine pairing chapters of the two books to show students that undeniable erudition can lead to different, if not entirely incommensurable, conclusions. Reading the introductions alongside one another would be a fascinating lesson in itself, especially if juxtaposed with Inoue Nobutaka’s introduction to the 2003 volume Shinto: A Short History.[4] Such a lesson is not simply about how to define Shinto; it also prompts students to think about the nature of the historical method.

While Shinto in contemporary Japan exists as a discrete religion with designated sanctuaries and an official clergy, the tradition is notoriously difficult to pin down. Depending on who speaks for or about it, Shinto may appear as an ancient folk tradition of personal prayers and communal festivals, as a nonreligious tradition of civic rites and moral orientations centered on the imperial house, or as a universal religion with ethical teachings. Confronting this ambiguity, Breen and Teeuwen begin A New History of Shinto “by setting aside the abstract notion of Shinto” based on what they see as “the need to draw a historical distinction between the concept of Shinto on the one hand, and the social reality of kami, shrines, rites, and myths on the other” (p. 221).

Of all the books discussed here, A New History of Shinto reads the most like a textbook and is probably the easiest to use on its own in the classroom (it is short and comparatively cheap). Breen and Teeuwen describe historical moments and geographic locales where Shinto has come into being due to the actions of particular interest groups, a process they describe as “Shintoization.” Three core chapters (3, 4, and 5) provide concrete examples of Shintoization through specific cases (the Hie Shrine as a Shinto site, the story of Amaterasu and the rock cave as a Shinto myth, and the imperial accession rite Daijōsai as a Shinto ritual). Chapter 2 outlines in general terms the nature of kami shrines, myths, and rituals in premodern times; chapter 6 critically discusses the postwar attempts of the Jinja Honchō to make the Ise and Yasukuni Shrines “public.”

What makes this history “new”? Breen and Teeuwen are at pains to contrast their approach with essentialist accounts that posit Shinto as a transhistorical phenomenon that forms the core of Japanese culture. In this sense, they build on Kuroda Toshio’s seminal 1981 essay “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion” and Teeuwen’s own 2002 elaboration on Kuroda’s thesis, which argues that while kami veneration clearly has ancient origins, “Shinto” as a concept did not come into being until the fifteenth century writings of Yoshida Kanetomo (1435–1511).[5] Together, Breen and Teeuwen argue quite persuasively that thinking in terms of “Shintoization” allows us to see the moments when “Shinto” emerged as a result of the discursive moves and political machinations of specific interest groups. The approach retains Kuroda’s critique of the essentialist claims that would posit Shinto as the unbroken essence of Japanese culture, but it also nuances Kuroda’s stance by treating the independent historical existence of shrines, myths, and kami rituals seriously. Whereas Kuroda wanted to relegate Shinto to a continental import or a minor variant of Buddhism, Breen and Teeuwen show that Shinto is indeed “real,” but only insofar as it has been made so by historical actors.

At nearly seven hundred pages, it is difficult to think of any adjective other than “magisterial” to describe Hardacre’s new survey on Shinto. It is also difficult to think of a book that would use much of the same primary and secondary source material mobilized by Breen and Teeuwen to draw such different conclusions. While Hardacre also builds on the Kuroda thesis debunking the notion of Shinto as Japan’s timeless indigenous tradition, her claim that Kuroda may have been too successful in convincing others that Shinto is a late medieval or early modern invention gives an indication of how her project is pitched relative to the constructivist work of scholars like Breen and Teeuwen and Yijiang Zhong (2016, described below). Hardacre acknowledges that Shinto did not come into existence as a discrete concept until the fifteenth century, but she sees continuity in Kami worship (she capitalizes, and does not italicize, the word throughout) across Japan’s long history. Her primary reasoning behind this claim is that the Jingikan (Bureau of Divinities) maintained a more or less stable presence in Japanese public life from the seventh century down to the present (she sees the early twentieth century Jinja Kyoku, the wartime Jingiin, and the postwar Jinja Honchō as the Jingikan’s modern successors).

Two leitmotifs run throughout Hardacre’s book, albeit with differing degrees of emphasis in each chapter. The first is the question of whether Shinto is indeed “indigenous.” This seemingly straightforward question is much more complex than it first appears, and other scholars have already pointed out the foreign roots of Shinto’s seemingly “local” attributes.[6] The question of indigeneity is, of course, a question of how Japan has been positioned against foreign “others,” and it is difficult to think about the emergence of “Shinto” as a concept without the existence of non-Japanese foils. For example, the threat of Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century spurred new thinking about Japan as a divine land (chap. 5), while the American-led Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–52) had lasting influence on postwar understandings of Shinto (chap. 14).

The second theme concerns how Shinto has figured in the balance of public and private throughout Japanese history. This is essentially a question of whether Shinto is best understood as religion or as politics, although of course these modern categories do not necessarily apply neatly to premodern situations. Here Hardacre’s decision to focus on the Jingikan as the center of Shinto doctrine and practice from the seventh century to modern times makes a good deal of sense, although at times it lends the impression that she prefers “official” or “imperial” Shinto to other forms. This top-down approach is balanced by chapters dealing with Shinto at the grassroots, including chapter 6 (“Medieval Shinto and the Arts”), chapter 9 (“Edo-Period Shrine Life and Shrine Pilgrimage”), chapter 10 (“Shinto and Revelation”), and chapter 15 (“Shrine Festivals and Their Changing Place in the Public Sphere”) on a local community festival in Fuchū City. While these “bottom-up” chapters seem more likely to stray from Hardacre’s heuristic rubrics of indigeneity and the public/private distinction, several of them demonstrate her deep knowledge of popular traditions. Chapter 10, on Shinto-derived “new religions,” is particularly strong in this regard and builds on Hardacre’s earlier work on Kurozumikyō (Kurozumikyō and the New Religions of Japan ([1988]).

Through her chosen leitmotifs, Hardacre problematizes several longstanding presuppositions about Shinto, namely, that Shinto is necessarily a “private” religion or a “public” civic creed, that Shinto is necessarily “Japanese,” and that Shinto had no independent existence from Buddhism until the fifteenth century or later. The first two points are counterintuitive for the uninitiated but are relatively uncontroversial among most experts in the field today; the third point is a major departure from most of the other books reviewed here and will no doubt serve as fodder for some genteel scholarly disagreement. Hardacre’s reasoning on this third point is indisputably sound in one crucial respect: while conceptions of kami have clearly changed over time, there is a degree of continuity in the institutions and lineages responsible for conducting kami rituals across Japanese history. If we have to give this a name, we might as well call “it” Shinto. So far, so good, although whether we are talking about one tradition or several is an open question. But one frustrating quality of Hardacre’s otherwise impressive work lies in her frequent treatment of Shinto itself as an agent and, confusingly, her regular retreat into the passive voice when describing historical events. These two rhetorical tendencies obscure the important questions of who gets to define Shinto and with what political effects. Additionally, Hardacre often attributes to historical figures attitudes or desires that simply cannot be proven with the evidence she provides (many of these historical agents go unnamed, making attribution of psychological dispositions to them even more difficult). On page 97, for example, she argues that combinations of Buddhist divinities with sites for kami worship “developed in response to a desire to discover how the Kami and Buddhist figures were related,” a claim that cannot be proven in the absence of more historical evidence. Similarly, on page 407 she argues that the “bureaucratic focus on ‘shrines’ rather than ‘Shinto’ [in the imperial period] resulted from fear of contradicting the constitution’s provisions for freedom of religious belief.” Many government officials were indeed circumspect in their language use in the early twentieth century because of the way that “religion” appeared in constitutional law and government policy, but to describe this as an attitude of “fear” or to attribute to officials a manipulative attitude is to play fast and loose with the historical record. Some probably were so cynical, but to prove it we would need more documentation than Hardacre provides.

This critique aside, Hardacre’s book includes a wealth of information that one simply cannot find in any other text on Shinto. While some undergraduates might struggle with such a weighty and detailed tome, many of the chapters are must-reads in any course on Shinto. The chapter on shrine festivals and their changing place in the public sphere (chap. 15), for example, is a stellar example of how ethnographic research can elucidate the complicated, ongoing process of negotiation between local communities and shrines. The concluding chapter (chap. 16) on what Hardacre calls “Heisei Shinto” includes treatment of Shinto in popular media and discussion of some of the most striking political debates over Shinto in the last three decades. Chapter 4, on Shinto during the middle and late Heian period, includes a compelling explanation of not only how aristocratic elites came to use the Great Purification Rite formerly monopolized by the Jingikan for personal ends but also how changes in conceptions of kami (as arbiters of morality or as extensions of Buddhist divinities) took place in response to the shifting balance of the “public” and “private” nature of kami ritual. A brief discussion of the problematic nature of the concept of syncretism in that chapter segues into a concluding section in which Hardacre offers the strongest defense of her emphasis on the centrality of the Jingikan to Shinto.

As the single most comprehensive book on Shinto, Hardacre’s book is a must-read. Opinions will vary as to whether all of her historical claims hold up under scrutiny, but her focus on the problems of indigeneity and the public/private distinction move the field forward considerably.

What Is Religion? Taking the Nonreligious Quality of Modern Shinto Seriously

The question of Shinto’s status as a religion and its relation to politics has caused endless concern, confusion, and critique. One monograph and one edited volume shed considerable light on this vexing problem. Yijiang Zhong’s genealogical approach shows that the creation of modern shrine rites as nonreligious civic ritual took place only through a distinction between “religion” and “politics” that was itself premised on a theological distinction between “official” and “unofficial” deities in the Shinto pantheon. Contributors to Bernhard Scheid’s edited volume Kami Ways in Nationalist Territory collectively interrogate the conceptual distinctions and academic approaches that allowed for shrine rites to appear in Japanese law separate from the category of religion; they tie these intellectual tendencies to the concept of nationalism both within and outside of Japan.

Zhong’s new book persuasively shows that there are many stories to tell about Shinto, and not all of them would position Amaterasu, Ise, and the imperial household at the center of Japanese public life. Rather than focusing on the mythology that prioritizes the legitimacy of the imperial house, Zhong reads past this “official” Shinto to focus on the lineage dedicated to Ōkuninushi and the Izumo Shrine (located in present-day Shimane Prefecture). Like Nancy K. Stalker’s work on Ōmotokyō as an “alternative Shinto” in Japan’s imperial period (Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburō, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan [2008]), Zhong’s book shows that modern Shinto has never just been the official cult of the Japanese state.

I read Zhong’s work as a series of decentering moves, with each chapter dislocating a putative “center” of Shinto (Ise, the imperial house, Japan) and replacing it with a more nuanced account of the alternative Shintos that have existed throughout Japan’s long history (his account runs roughly from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth). He starts by showing that competition between priestly lineages at the Kitsuki Taisha (later known as Izumo Shrine) led to the reconfiguration of the site as a “Shinto” institution in the mid-seventeenth century. In battles over customary rights and political favor, the two lineages came to “purify” their traditions and position them as essentially “Shinto.” This process accelerated as the Tokugawa shogunate promulgated anti-Christianity edicts that established denominational distinctions in law; Zhong also shows that Izumo priests were able to successfully make the claim that Ōkuninushi was the only deity in Japan unambiguously associated with “pure” Shinto and not adulterated by Buddhist influence. This claim directly challenged the primacy of Ise and the imperial deity Amaterasu, who was still understood as a manifestation of the cosmic Buddhist deity Mahavairocana.

The massive pilgrimages to Ise that famously took place throughout the Tokugawa period had put into my mind that veneration of Amaterasu was particularly strong from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Breen and Teeuwen’s Social History of the Ise Shrines (discussed below) shows that my understanding was not incorrect, but Zhong persuasively demonstrates in chapter 2 that it was Ōkuninushi, not Amaterasu, who received the lion’s share of popular attention during that time. This was based on a doctrine strategically generated by priestly lineages serving the shrine claiming that deities gathered at Izumo in the tenth lunar month to discuss marriages (en musubi). Their decision to conflate Ōkuninushi with the fortune deity Daikoku (one of the Seven Lucky Gods, or shichifukujin) also helped to boost the deity’s popularity, providing yet another challenge to Amaterasu’s authority.

Chapter 3 in particular is an impressive argument that shows that modern Shinto came into being in response to external pressures and that National Learning (kokugaku) was inherently a response to the influx of Catholicism, Western astronomy and calendrical practices, and incursions from Russia to the north.[7] Zhong focuses on the figure of Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) and his 1811 book True Pillar of the Soul, which positioned Ōkuninushi as a cosmic deity with control over death and the afterlife; the book also rendered Shinto as a native epistemology that could hold its own in competition with foreign modes of knowledge. In Atsutane’s rendering, Shinto became an indigenous tradition associated first and foremost with the terrestrial Ōkuninushi, while the solar deity Amaterasu assumed secondary status. Hirata’s disciples and Izumo priests rushed to disseminate the new doctrine throughout Japan even as political trends were shifting toward the “restoration” of the emperor to direct rule and the concomitant elevation of the imperial cult of Amaterasu. Despite his popularity, Ōkuninushi would eventually be eclipsed by the sun goddess.

Chapter 4 traces the historical factors that led to the Enshrinement Debate (saijin ronsō) of 1880. This dispute over the relative positions of specific deities in the Shinto pantheon has received brief attention in a number of other studies in English, but until now had not received the care that Zhong gives it here.[8] This is part of a broader project, continued in chapter 5, in which Zhong attempts to trace the ways that the modern Japanese state articulated the religion/secular distinction: by ultimately relegating Ōkuninushi to the realm of “private” religion while elevating Amaterasu to the status of “public” imperial progenitor, Japan’s bureaucrats created a religion/secular distinction that was one of the markers of a “civilized” modern nation. The distinction between “nonreligious” shrine rites and “religious” veneration of specific deities that resulted from the Enshrinement Debate had astounding repercussions for Japanese political and religious life. Zhong’s conclusion traces some of those repercussions; they also feature in a volume on Shinto and nationalism edited by Bernhard Scheid with the help of Kate Wildman Nakai.

For quite some time scholars rejected out of hand the imperial Japanese state’s claim that shrine rites were not religious. This rejection derived from an understandable reluctance to legitimate the militarist ideology and draconian policing that characterized the interwar and wartime periods, but it also reflected a tendency in the field of religious studies to identify as religions practices that might otherwise be understood as civic ritual. Taking the idea of nonreligious Shinto seriously is a natural extension of some of the theoretical advances made in secularity studies in the last two decades (discussed below); it also opens up new ways of understanding “State Shinto.”

What would a nonreligious Shinto look like? The contributors to the volume collectively focus on what Scheid calls the “nonreligious-shrine doctrine” and how it was theorized in government initiatives and in various branches of Shinto studies within and outside of Japan, including in European countries such as France and Germany. Space does not permit coverage of all of the chapters, so in lieu of an exhaustive summary I will discuss three general themes of the book.

The first theme is the religion/secular distinction, which appears most extensively in Isomae Jun’ichi’s chapter and Scheid’s introduction. As in his other work, Isomae treats the category of religion (and its twin concept, the secular) as a foreign imposition to which Japanese people were forced to respond, first in the Meiji era when it was initially enshrined in law and then again during the Allied occupation (1945–52). Yet as several scholars (including Zhong) have shown, while the category “religion” may not have been native to Japan, Japanese agents were quick to deploy it in service of their parochial agendas.[9] Indeed, tracing how the religion/not-religion distinction played out is precisely Isomae’s objective in the balance of his chapter, in which he argues that fluctuating interpretations of “religion” during the prewar and wartime period did not mesh easily with the “Shinto-as-religion” interpretation that came to dominate in the wake of the war. Some historians of Japan, such as Carol Gluck and Sheldon Garon, will quibble with Isomae’s focus on the “tennō system” as the unutterable and unquestioned ideological center of prewar and wartime Japanese life (historians of Japan long ago rejected the “emperor system” model as excessively simplistic), but his point about the conceptual and legal problems engendered by the protean religion/secular divide will stand.[10]

The second theme is the role of humanistic scholarship in constructing Shinto as unambiguously “religious.” Hayashi Makoto traces the academic division of labor between the fields of religious studies, Buddhist studies, Oriental studies, and Shinto studies that took place in two periods bookended by war: the period between the First Sino-Japanese War and the First World War (1894–1918), and the period between the end of the First World War and the end of the Asia-Pacific War (1918–45). In these periods, new ways of organizing the academy spurred fresh approaches to parsing the relationship between religion and not-religion; problems associated with the management of colonial and metropolitan shrines also fostered novel developments in understandings of mythology and the origins of shrines (topics addressed in chapters by Hirafuji Kikuko and Endō Jun). Additionally, international intellectual trends related to the study of comparative religions, anthropology, and national essence appear in the chapters by Jean-Pierre Berthon, Michael Wachutka, and Bernhard Scheid.

Finally, Nakai’s chapter on how Sophia University negotiated compulsory shrine visits for students is an example of the sort of rigorous historical research that can be done when scholars focus attention on moments of conflict between stakeholders invested in the definitions of shrine rites, Shinto, and religion. Rather than portraying compulsory shrine visits as a simple example of government oppression or a violation of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom (this is Hardacre’s claim in her book on page 421), Nakai traces a complicated series of negotiations between the military, Sophia University, the Ministry of Education, and the Catholic Church. Nakai shows that these various parties weighed in on the shrine visit issue until it was resolved to mutual dissatisfaction. The ultimate decision to render shrine rites as nonreligious expressions of patriotism was a pragmatic solution to a problem that would have otherwise seen the viability of both Sophia University and the Catholic Church in Japan severely attenuated.

What Is a Place? Site-Specific Studies Help Us Locate Shinto

Nakai’s chapter highlights how the seemingly simple act of paying reverence at shrines can be tremendously complicated and subject to wildly different interpretations. Her approach builds on several site-specific studies that have collectively shown how “Shinto” has been made and remade by particular agents pursuing parochial agendas.[11] Along with Zhong’s detailed treatment of the Izumo Shrine in his book, volumes on Ise by Breen and Teeuwen and on Yasukuni by Akiko Takenaka extend this line of inquiry.

According to Teeuwen’s prologue to this text, the authors wrote it as a way to fill the “Ise-shaped hole” in the account they offered in their New History (p. vii). But the “Shintoization” paradigm seen in the 2010 book also features here, with Breen and Teeuwen focusing on historical moments when specific agents laid claim to Ise, redefined its doctrines, and tried to monopolize its considerable economic resources.

Conveniently, the authors lay out a summary of their history in the concluding chapter, showing that Ise underwent at least eight distinct phases of development: 1) a period of “imperial isolation” in which the court and the Ōnakatomi lineage developed a cult of Amaterasu at the site from the seventh to tenth centuries as a way of managing a deity deemed personally dangerous to emperors; 2) a system of “garden estates” from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries in which priests managed shrine lands and reconfigured Ise in a Buddhist idiom as the palace of King Yama; 3) an “esoteric” period from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries in which Amaterasu newly appeared as Japan’s Buddhist protector deity in response to military threats from outside the archipelago; 4) a period from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century when Ise became a famous pilgrimage site due to the promotional activities of oshi (“masters of prayer rites”) and their contractual relationships with patrons in the provinces; 5) a period from the seventeenth century until 1868 when Ise appeared as a “Shinto” institution and the Ise deity featured as part of a set of protective martial deities including Hachiman and Tōshō Daigongen (the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1542–1616) while the pilgrimage business boomed; 6) the Meiji era in which the former dominance of the oshi and mass pilgrimage were eclipsed by the state’s recoding of Ise as an imperial mausoleum; 7) an imperial period from 1912 to 1945 in which educators, journalists, and the modern priesthood promulgated the Ise cult through textbooks and amulet distribution campaigns; and 8) a postwar period in which Ise has now come to rely on private donations (particularly from big business) since its forcible privatization under occupation reforms. In this last period, the Jinja Honchō (established in February 1946) tried various measures, such as amulet distribution campaigns and experimentation with environmentalist language, to bind Japan’s citizens more closely to Ise.

While Breen and Teeuwen’s book is filled with a wealth of detail, the book is a lively read. This is partially due to the fact that conflict makes for good stories. Throughout, the authors focus on how various interest groups vied for land, honor, and customary rights. They also show how infrastructural changes (the position of a brothel, the construction of a railroad) led to changes in ritual practice and doctrine. Most important, they show that while some configuration of significant buildings has occupied the vicinity of the current Ise shrines since the seventh century, understandings of those buildings, interpretations of the deities they housed, and perceptions of the shrines’ connection with the imperial house have changed dramatically over time. In some periods, the shrines were in such a serious state of desuetude that we must discount as wholly specious any contemporary rhetoric about Ise as a repository of ancient traditions.

Of the books reviewed here, Takenaka’s book is probably the least concerned with Shinto. Her primary interest is in the politics of memory and competing understandings of history. But it is precisely because of this linkage between a prominent shrine, war memory, and postwar responsibility that her book has salience for Shinto studies. After all, the Yasukuni issue still dominates popular understandings of Shinto, particularly in East Asia but also farther afield.

Takenaka’s careful historical work shows that Yasukuni belief had to be actively constructed and was not necessarily widely held in the years that the shrine was known as Tokyo Shōkonsha (1869–1879); that for the first several decades of its existence Yasukuni the site was primarily a place of entertainment, associated with gaiety and spectacle rather than solemnity; that Yasukuni belief and associated ritual practices spread to other regions of Japan as a result of mass conscription and public school education during the decade between the First Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese wars (1894–1905); that Yasukuni the site came to be a place for carefully staged memorials for the war dead during the Asia-Pacific War, but that these memorials often put the ideological needs of the state above the emotional needs of the bereaved; that Yasukuni the issue has been complicated by the conflicting interests of various parties, all of whom can rightfully claim the right to mourn and all of whom can make constitutionally valid claims regarding religious freedom; and that Yasukuni belief has to be actively constructed today for younger generations who have no actual memory of the war. She closes the book by describing activist groups’ attempts to recode Yasukuni and the associated Yūshūkan Museum by inscribing their own antiwar interpretations on a space that otherwise offers a narrative that celebrates war while lamenting Japanese victimization.

Takenaka’s book is a valuable source for students who come to class seeking tools to understand Yasukuni’s history and ways to evaluate its connection to contemporary political rhetoric and state propaganda. While this will perhaps be most personally relevant for students who hail from East Asia, it is not simply a regional issue. Indeed, her account provides comparative tools for addressing some of the complicated politics of memory in other countries, such as the recent furor over Confederate memorials in the United States. Who counts as an aggrieved party, and who is a victim? Who bears responsibility for assuaging, memorializing, commemorating? What are the politics inherent in these various terms? Does dismantling a memorial solve a problem? The book does not provide definitive answers to these questions, but it shows that Yasukuni has always been more complicated—as a site, as a belief, and as an issue—than most commentators would suggest.

The Present and Future of Shinto Studies

The above comparative review of six recent books on Shinto has demonstrated how the topic of Shinto can be productively used to interrogate such seemingly straightforward concepts as history, religion, and place. In this section I address some ways that these books represent the current state of the field of Shinto studies while also presenting avenues for future research.

Takenaka’s wise decision to disambiguate Yasukuni by thinking of Yasukuni belief, Yasukuni the site, and Yasukuni the issue represents a creative way of addressing one of the thorniest topics in Shinto studies today. Arguably, Yasukuni has received more than its fair share of attention and the time is ripe for more scholarly consideration to be devoted to other sites of major political import. Breen and Teeuwen’s book on Ise and Zhong’s book on Izumo are timely interventions in this regard. Together, all three books show that pilgrimage sites are perennially subject to contestation and competing claims over resources.

One major contribution of these site-specific studies of pilgrimage is that they bring our attention to the concept of “the sacred,” an ambiguous category that begs more rigorous theoretical exploration. Breen’s chapters in the Ise book, for example, seem to assume a hard-and-fast distinction between “sacred” and “secular” aspects of the site. Several of the other books describe shrines and their environs as “sacred space.” But what exactly does this mean? By what criteria is a site designated as “sacred,” and by whom?[12] Such questions are directly related to the religion/secular distinction that appears to varying degrees in all of the books discussed here.

The early 2000s saw major advances in understandings of the relationship between religion and the secular and an explosion of literature on the topic (contributions to the Social Science Research Council blog The Immanent Frame give an impression of the scope of the discussion).[13] Recent publications by scholars of Japanese religions have systematically applied the insights of the recent efflorescence of secularity studies to Japan and to Shinto, but much more remains to be done.[14] This is especially important because our colleagues in secularity studies seem quite eager to learn from the Japanese case.[15] Using Shinto to theorize about the religion/secular distinction not only makes the study of Japanese religions relevant for scholars outside of Japanese studies but also has the salutary effect of bypassing the essentialist claim that Shinto is exclusively “Japanese.”

For example, Zhong argues that the modern Japanese state “should not be understood as a peculiar case in which an irrational and religious form of divine authority was mobilized to justify an authoritarian modern state” but that “the formation of the ambivalent political authority in Meiji Japan was a process galvanized by the imperative to devise and institute the mutually constituting categories of the religious and the secular” (p. 15). Here Zhong moves a step beyond Isomae’s claim in the Scheid volume that the religious/secular distinction was a uniquely “Western” category imposed upon Japan, showing that Japan’s religious modernity was not unique but was rather a manifestation of a broader global trend in which states tried to manage claims to transcendent authority while also policing citizens’ subjectivity.[16]

Recent scholarly debates over when “State Shinto” came into existence, how pervasive and influential “it” was as ideology, and what actual institutional support “it” had in any given period have been inconclusive.[17] Unfortunately, the books reviewed above do not provide consensus on this issue, although the authors tend to agree that the modern Japanese state experimented with several different religion/not-religion arrangements from the start of the Meiji era through the end of the Asia-Pacific War. In his introduction, for example, Scheid points out that for decades scholars treated State Shinto as either “false religion” or “false theology,” but that in actuality State Shinto was not a “perversion of an existing religious faith” but rather “a series of attempts to establish Shinto itself” (pp. 20–21). Zhong’s account of the history behind the Enshrinement Debate offers one story of how the modern Japanese state disambiguated public civic ritual and private religion, while Nakai’s chapter shows through a concrete case how the administrative distinction of “religion” and “not-religion” played out in the early 1930s.

For her part, Hardacre acknowledges some of the problems with the “State Shinto” model and seems to revise the approach taken in her 1989 book Shinto and the State, 1868–1988. She concedes that modern Japan was and remains a secular state in law, but then doubles down on the idea of “State Shinto” by defining it as “Shinto mediation of state-sponsored ideological campaigns” (p. 404). The questions of what constitutes “mediation” and which state initiatives counted as “ideological campaigns” remain vague, however, and Hardacre’s preference for the passive voice makes it difficult to attribute responsibility for particular ideas or actions: Were shrine priests guilty of capitulating to the state, or did bureaucrats manipulate Shinto for nefarious ends? Reality was certainly more complicated than either of these options, but Hardacre seems to favor the latter over the former: “The suppression of Ōmoto qualifies as an example of State Shinto because of the use of state ideology regarding the deified emperor as a means to enforce conformity”; and “the use of shrines in campaigns to force colonial subjects to assimilate is this era’s clearest example of State Shinto” (pp. 423, 432, emphasis added).

Hardacre’s new take on the old concept of State Shinto is convincing insofar as she acknowledges the crucial role played by Japanese scholars of religion in interpreting Shinto as unambiguously “religious,” essentially “indigenous,” and mostly “private.” It was the scholarly portrayal of Shinto and shrine rites as private religion that allowed the concept of public “State Shinto” to emerge. As her chosen themes irrefutably show, the religiosity, indigeneity, and private qualities of Shinto have never been givens. They have only appeared as such because religious studies scholars writing in the early twentieth century were inclined to position Shinto within a received “world religions” paradigm and because some of those scholars of religion happened to enjoy politically influential platforms, particularly during the Allied Occupation of Japan.[18] Future work on the religion/not-religion paradigm in modern Japan must take this intellectual history into account, rejecting the hitherto widespread assumptions that the imperial Japanese state distorted a “pure” religion for nefarious political ends or that nationalist appropriations of religious ideas in contemporary Japanese politics threaten to contaminate a hermetically sealed secular sphere.

The discrepancies between the approaches adopted by Hardacre and Breen and Teeuwen show that serious differences of opinion exist concerning the extent to which we should take the present existence of Shinto as an independent religious tradition as indication that something identifiable as “Shinto” existed in the past. Do we focus on continuity in order to understand how we got to the present, or is it better to identify points of rupture to highlight the contingencies of our own moment? Clearly there are advantages to both.

Whatever one’s preference, the question of periodization equally applies. Changes in the management of shrines have not tracked neatly with conventional periodization, and yet many of the books reviewed here stick to standard historiographic conventions by situating changes in shrines according to standard historical periods (Heian, Kamakura, Edo) and imperial reign dates (Meiji, Heisei). Breen and Teeuwen show that major changes in the management and fortunes of the Ise Shrines have been both dependent on and independent of political shifts at court and in the successive warrior governments of the archipelago, but many of their chapters are organized around traditional time periods. Meanwhile, Hardacre reasonably rejects the idea that “State Shinto” could refer to a historical period, but her decision to title her final chapter “Heisei Shinto” may overemphasize the importance of the imperial house in a period when imperial dominance of Shinto ritual has been attenuated and corporate sponsorship ascendant.

By contrast, Zhong’s decentering story is also necessarily a re-periodizing account. He eschews focus on the periods “Tokugawa” and “Meiji” in favor of breaking up his chapters according to periods that track particular conflicts or intellectual innovations. To my mind this is a much more defensible approach than approaches that plot the story of kami veneration on a timeline graduated by shifts in the high politics of the courtly or warrior governments. Centralized politics have often affected shrines and their priestly lineages but not always directly or immediately. As several of these books show, shrine priests have readily turned to other sources of land and revenue at times when governmental authorities have had other priorities.

On that note, the connection between shrines and their finances remains a point that deserves further elucidation. Hardacre points to the new linkages between big business and Shinto that developed during the imperial period when the loss of state funding meant that shrines had to get creative. Breen and Teeuwen (2017) similarly show how Japanese corporations have become heavily invested in major Shinto rituals (Takenaka also makes a similar point). There nevertheless remains much more to be done on what we might call “corporate Shinto,” especially as corporations serve a mediating function between “public” and “private” that may call into question the strict bifurcation between these terms. As Hardacre implies, the appearance of this “corporate Shinto” precisely during the period traditionally associated with the rise of “State Shinto” deserves further scrutiny (pp. 414, 430).

Hardacre’s discussion of the complex relationships between local communities and shrines also suggests the need for more studies of what might be called “neighborhood Shinto,” or the Shinto of local governing bodies, neighborhood associations, and chambers of commerce. It is these community organizations, after all, that bear the actual responsibility for overseeing annual events like shrine festivals. Hardacre shows that cops, Parent-Teacher Associations, organized crime outfits, and “office ladies” have all played crucial roles in how shrine festivals are conducted; they have also changed longstanding ritual practices (chap. 15). Conflicts between shrine priests and shrine stewards (sōdai, described briefly in chapter 16) also serve as opportunities to investigate how stakeholders have defined “real Shinto.”

As Breen and Teeuwen point out in their discussion of media representations of the vicennial rebuilding of the Ise shrines (see especially chapter 10 of their Social History), there also exists what we might call “mediated Shinto”: the Shinto of newspaper reportage, television specials, and social media. Editorial decisions made by newspapers and television broadcasters in how to comment on imperial succession, the periodic renewal of Ise, or the Yasukuni issue affect how audiences understand Shinto. Popular entertainment media also affect perceptions of Shinto traditions. Shrines appear in television commercials and music videos, and fan devotion has demonstrably changed longstanding pilgrimage practices. For example, the anime series Lucky Star has prompted enough fan tourism to Washimiya Town in Saitama Prefecture to change the local economy, and the shrine festival has featured a portable shrine devoted to Lucky Star characters in recent years.[19] Fan pilgrimage presents a valuable opportunity to see cultic practices at shrines developing in real time, although some would doubtless describe such behavior as “tongue in cheek” and therefore not “really Shinto.” Yet these defining moments and points of contestation are precisely the instances when Shinto is born.

What IsnShinto? The Perennial Purifying Move

As I read these books, I found myself thinking along with Zhong that the old claim that Shinto is essentially a tradition concerned with purity might have more than a kernel of truth to it. By this I do not mean “purity” in the sense of concern with ritual transgressions and the expiation thereof, but rather the doctrinal and political concern with creating and maintaining orthodoxy. The authors of these books may disagree about when Shinto came into historical existence as a concept and about what criteria can be used to isolate “Shinto” in the long history of kami veneration, but Shinto bears an independent existence today precisely because of stakeholders’ purifying attempts to disaggregate kami veneration from Buddhist ritual, Copernican cosmology, or the modern category of religion (to offer just a few examples from the books). Several of the authors trace moments when competing priestly lineages “purified” their tradition as they vied for material and political support from landowners and governments. Others show how bureaucrats sequestered aspects of kami veneration from the potentially destabilizing category of religion even as members of the intelligentsia tried to position Shinto as an unadulterated “ethnic religion” of the Japanese archipelago. Even in the postwar period when Shinto came to be dominated by the Association of Shinto Shrines, serious differences of opinion lingered among association spokespeople about how Shinto might be purified, in some cases from the taint of foreign influence, in others from state control, in still others from the stain of nationalism (Breen and Teeuwen 2010).

It is therefore just as important to ask not only what Shinto is in any given time or place but also who has made claims about what it is not.[20] This entails looking at how stakeholders draw limits around “real Shinto” in specific historical contexts like court cases and legal debates. It requires disaggregating “Shinto” by determining how multiple traditions might happen to share one name. It furthermore necessitates examining how specific interest groups have linked Shinto to other concepts, such as environmentalism or “conventional wisdom.”[21]

I suggested above that studying Shinto can introduce students to the fundamentals of humanistic inquiry. Indeed, teaching with these books is not just good for learning about Shinto. It is also good for helping students sit with uncertainty because they can see how eminent scholars have organized “the facts” in different ways. The books also help students develop sensitivity to historical contingency; their competing interpretations reinforce the value of terminological precision. Precisely because the authors disagree on crucial points, reading them side by side offers valuable opportunities for students to defend their own positions, both in class and in their academic writing.

This is important because students often buy into courses most when they can see scholarly debates happening “in real time” and when they can see how they might also participate in the long, slow conversation that is academic research. The books reviewed here are fantastic resources for introducing students to this aspect of academic craft. The authors disagree productively; their books raise counterintuitive questions provocatively. By juxtaposing sections of these books, instructors can create comprehensive courses on Shinto that reject timeworn essentialist claims (“Shinto is the indigenous animistic religion of Japan”) and reductive functionalist ones (“Shinto is an ideological tool used by warmongering militarists”) in favor of a constructivist focus on who “makes” Shinto by speaking for it and about it.


[1]. On the shrine maiden job, see K. K. Miller, “Akihabara Shrine Seeks Shrine Maiden to Perform Memorial Services for ‘Deceased’ Anime Figures,” Sora News 24 (March 23, 2016),…. On shrine maiden bikinis, see Oona McGee, “Shinto Shrine Maiden Swimsuit Goes on Sale in Japan,” Sora News 24 (June 7, 2017), On BB-8’s visit to Akagi Jinja, see Mibu Tomohiro, “Sutā wōzu BB-8 ga Akagi Jinja de gokigan! Kyūto na sugata ni heroin seiyū mo mune kyun” (Januay 28, 2016),

[2]. Jake Adelstein and Mari Yamamoto, “The Religious Cult Secretly Running Japan,” The Daily Beast (July 10, 2016),  

[3]. Kokugakuin Digital Museum,; and Hachiman Digital Handscrolls,

[4]. Inoue Nobutaka, introduction to Shinto: A Short History, by Inoue Nobutaka, Itō Satoshi, Endō Jun, and Mori Mizue, translated and adapted by Mark Teeuwen and John Breen (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 1-10.

[5]. Kuroda Toshio, “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion,” trans. James C. Dobbins and Suzanne Gay, Journal of Japanese Studies 7 (1981): 1–21; and Mark Teeuwen, “From Jindō to Shinto: A Concept Takes Shape,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 29 (2002): 233–263.

[6]. Michael Como, Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009); and Herman Ooms, Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650800 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009).

[7]. For a similar argument, see Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 94–131.

[8]. Helen Hardacre, Shinto and the State, 18681988 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 48–51; and Trent Maxey, The Greatest Problem: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014), 149–154.

[9]. See Josephson, Invention of Religion in Japan; Maxey, Greatest Problem”; Isomae Jun’ichi, Religious Discourse in Modern Japan: Religion, State, and Shinto (Leiden: Brill, 2014); and Hans Martin Krämer, Shimaji Mokurai and the Reconception of Religion and the Secular in Modern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015).

[10]. See Carol Gluck, Japans Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); and Sheldon Garon, Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[11]. Allan Grapard, The Protocol of the Gods: A Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002); Sarah Thal, Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); D. Max Moerman, Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006); Barbara Ambros, Emplacing a Pilgrimage: The Ōyama Cult and Regional Religion in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008); and Imaizumi Yoshiko, Sacred Space in the Modern City: The Fractured Pasts of Meiji Shrine, 19121958 (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[12]. See Andrew Bernstein’s excellent study, “Whose Fuji? Religion, Region, and State in the Fight for a National Symbol,” Monumenta Nipponica 63 (2008): 51–99.

[13]. Social Science Research Council, The Immanent Frame

[14]. See Aike P. Rots and Mark Teeuwen, eds., “Introduction: Formations of the Secular in Japan,” Japan Review 30 (2017).

[15]. Jason Ānanda Josephson-Storm, “The Superstition, Secularism, and Religion Trinary: Or Re-Theorizing Secularism”; Charles McCrary, “Superstitious Subjects: US Religion, Race, and Freedom”; Jeffrey Wheatley, “US Colonial Governance of Superstition and Fanaticism in the Philippines”; and J. Brent Crosson, “The Impossibility of Liberal Secularism: Religious (In)tolerance, Spirituality, and Not-Religion,” all in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (forthcoming 2017).

[16]. I make a similar point in my book manuscript Japan, the American Occupation, and the Problem of Religious Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

[17]. Okuyama Michiaki, “‘State Shinto’ in Recent Japanese Scholarship,” Monumenta Nipponica 66 (2011): 123–145.

[18]. On the influential “world religions” rubric, see Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Hardacre and Isomae both briefly discuss the impact of scholars of religion, such as Anesaki Masaharu (1870–1949), Katō Genchi (1873–1965), and Kishimoto Hideo (1903–64) on occupation policies related to religion.

[19]. Yamamura Takayoshi, “Contents Tourism and Local Community Response: Lucky Star and Collaborative Anime-Induced Tourism in Washimiya,” Japan Forum 27 (2015): 59–81.

[20]. See Robert Ford Campany’s must-read article “On the Very Concept of Religion in the Modern West and Medieval China,” History of Religions 42 (2003): 287–319.

[21]. Aike P. Rots, “Sacred Forests, Sacred Nation: The Shinto Environmentalist Paradigm and the Rediscovery of Chinju no Mori,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 42 (2015): 205–233; and John Breen, “‘Conventional Wisdom’ and the Politics of Shinto in Postwar Japan,” Politics and Religion 4 (2010): 68–81.

Hearn 20): The Value of Shinto

On this day (November 13) in 1894, Lafcadio Hearn published an editorial for the Kobe Shimbun. He’d taken a job there as a journalist following his unhappy spell teaching in Kumamoto. The editorial provides an interesting insight into his view of Shinto and gives the reader much pause for thought.

In a previous posting, it was pointed out that Hearn’s recent popularity owes much to right-wing commentators such as Hirakawa Sukehiro, emeritus professor of Tokyo University. It is indeed largely thanks to the Japanese scholar that Hearn has won renewed interest, and one aspect stressed by Hirakawa is Hearn’s very sympathetic portrayal of Shinto. It’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when Japan is under the sway of a nationalistic prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

So let’s look at Hearn’s editorial. He begins by taking a pot-shot at the Western missionaries he so despised, stating that they are ‘trying to persuade the Japanese that they must become converted to what zealots call Christianity’ (the phrasing is odd; only zealots call it Christianity?).  Hearn claims the Christian enterprise is failing because Japan realises ‘the value of her own native religion.’ He then reveals his view of this ancient faith:

For Japan has a religion of loyalty, of love of country, of duty to the dead who founded her empire, of reverence to all who have shed their blood in defence of the land. By some this cult has been called the Spirit of Yamato, boy others the worship of ancestors, by missionaries (who understand nothing at all about it) ‘heathenism.’ It proclaims the heart of man as his guide to right action; and it proclaims that a true man’s duty is to yield up his life without hesitation rather than to fail in duty to his lord, his home, his honour, his Emperor, or his country. It commands obedience and it commands benevolence. It was the spirit of the ancient Samurai, and it is now the spirit of the disciplined soldier. ….  Never did the zeal of Islam in any age produce more extraordinary results than the zeal of the old spirit of loyalty and patriotism produced in the making of New Japan.

Later in the editorial Hearn identifies the key trait of this ‘religion of loyalty’ – self-denial. What makes the Japanese particularly patriotic in his view is the subjugation of the self over long centuries, whether to family, community or country. These three layers were to form the essence of Hearn’s last, and for many people the greatest of his Japan writings, namely Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904).

One of the recurring themes in Hearn’s praise of the Japanese is his admiration of their tendency for self-sacrifice.  Hearn once told his Kumamoto students that being prepared to die for the emperor was their greatest duty, and in this passage from his editorial one can see the thinking that lay behind such a belief.

The value of the sentiment that moves a man to kill himself merely on being refused the chance of dying in battle for his country, or suffering the untold hardships of a winter campaign in a barbarous land, is not easy to over-estimate. To the Shinto soldiers, death in battle is a joy, a glory for all time; and any suffering possible to endure for the sake of country is welcomed as an honour and borne almost with a sense of gratitude. And behind all this splendid military spirit, is the spirit of the people, –supporting the army, making every possible sacrifice to secure it comfort and to lend it encouragement. This also is Shinto.

Hearn’s view of Shinto here ties in with the praise of ants he expressed in his writings, for the author idealised the insect for performing its duty in an orderly society reigned over by a benevolent monarch. For Hearn self-denial and self-sacrifice formed the basis of the ant’s morality. In fact, Hearn went once as far as to say that sacrificing one’s life was the greatest virtue possible regardless of the cause – an astonishing claim. In this I think Hearn was deeply misguided, and in a forthcoming paper entitled Lafcadio Hearn: A Flawed Genius I explain why.

It turns out then that the recent praise for Hearn by members of the rightwing Nippon Kaigi rests upon his view of Shinto as a religion of patriotism. There have been dramatic developments in the world since Hearn wrote his words over a hundred years ago; the rise and fall of State Shinto and European fascism might be thought to have changed the way we look at things, yet here we are with Hearn’s words back in fashion in certain circles. How very strange then that just as Shinto is being touted in the West as a nature religion with universal relevance, it’s being championed in Hearn’s adopted country as the very essence of Japaneseness!

By the time of the Kobe editorial, Hearn had already acquired a Japanese family and was distancing himself from the expatriate community

Hearn 19): Zuijin guardians

On his shrine outings around the Izumo province near Matsue, Hearn took note of the local folklore, often describing in great detail the history and customs of the area. It’s what made him, in some people’s opinion, one of the founding figures of Japanese folklore. Above all, he was a major influence on the most famous folklorist of them all, Yanagita Kunio. In the passage below, Hearn writes of the Zuijin figures who can sometimes be found at the entrance ways to shrines. (Here in Kyoto the most notable example are those at Yasaka Jinja in Gion, which in Edo times was a prime exemplar of syncretism.)


On either side of the great gateway is a shrine compartment, inclosed by heavy wooden gratings on two sides; and in these compartments are two grim figures in complete armour, with bows in their hands and quivers of arrows upon their backs, –the Zuijin, or ghostly retainers of the gods, and guardians of the gate.

Before nearly all the Shinto temples of Izumo, except Kitzuki, these Zuijin keep grim watch. They are probably of Buddhist origin; but they have acquired a Shinto history and Shinto names. Originally, I am told, there was but one Zuijin-Kami, whose name was Toyo-kushi-iwa-mato-no-mikoto. But at a certain period both the god and his name were cut in two-perhaps for decorative purposes. And now he who sits upon the left is called Toyo-iwa- ma-to-no-mikoto; and his companion on the right, Kushi-iwa-ma- to-no-mikoto.

Before the gate, on the left side, there is a stone monument upon which is graven, in Chinese characters, a poem in Hokku, or verse of seventeen syllables, composed by Cho-un: Ko-ka-ra-shi-ya Ka-mi-no-mi-yu-ki-no Ya-ma-no-a-to. My companion translates the characters thus:-‘Where high heap the dead leaves, there is the holy place upon the hills, where dwell the gods.’

Near by are stone lanterns and stone lions, and another monument-a great five- cornered slab set up and chiselled-bearing the names in Chinese characters of the Ji-jin, or Earth-Gods-the Deities who protect the soil: Uga-no-mitama-no-mikoto (whose name signifies the August Spirit-of-Food), Ama- terasu-oho-mi-Kami, Ona-muji-no-Kami, Kaki- yasu-hime-no-Kami, Sukuna-hiko-na-no-Kami (who is the Scarecrow God).

Kagoshima: animist and ancestral shrines

The Kamou no Okusu camphor tree (pics courtesy Yomiuri Shimbun)

Biggest Camphor Tree carries Samurai Spirit
The Yomiuri Shimbun. November 04, 2017 By Kazuhiro Katayama

AIRA, Kagoshima —

Do you know how large Japan’s biggest tree is, and where it stands?

The largest circumference for a Japanese tree is 24.22 meters, according to a survey by the Environment Ministry. It belongs to Kamou no Okusu, a huge camphor tree on the premises of Kamou Hachiman Jinja shrine in Aira, a city in central Kagoshima Prefecture.

Signs about the tree proudly stand in many parts of Aira. Those who visit the shrine to see it say the tree seems like a small building. Rugged, complex patterns can be seen on the trunk, and the tree’s roots resemble the toes of Godzilla. Local residents say there is a large hollow space inside.

Birds rest on the tree’s branches, which spread out in all different directions. The trunk is covered in thick ferns and moss — making the huge tree, estimated to be 1,500 years old — look like an independent ecosystem.

Yuseiji temple chief priest Ataka Fujitani, 56, recalled his childhood, saying: “There were no fences around the tree, so this was a playground that was part of our daily lives. We could climb on it and enter through the hole in the tree.”

Fujitani participates in activities for a nonprofit organization that aims to vitalize the local community. The huge camphor tree has been a symbol of the city for a long time.

  • Warlord Shimazu Yoshihiro is enshrined at Kuwashihoko shrine.

    But there is another famous site in the Kamou district of Aira — a group of samurai residences featuring a line of stone walls and gates specific to such homes.

    Headed for defeat in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, warriors primarily from western Japan attacked the enemy in an action known as Shimazu no Nokiguchi, and some managed to escape amid great loss of life. Many warriors from the Kamou and Chosa districts, which are now in the city of Aira, participated in Shimazu no Nokiguchi.

    “They were brave warriors called ‘Kamouheko,’” said Masaharu Tachibanaki, 71, an adviser of Aira Rekishi Volunteer Kyokai, an association of volunteers for handing down the history of Aira.

    Shimazu Yoshihiro, the 17th lord of the Shimazu feudal clan who commanded the Kamouheko warriors in the Battle of Sekigahara, lived in today’s Aira for more than 20 years at the end of his life. Historic sites related to the warlord can still be seen in many places in the city. Shimazu Yoshihiro is enshrined at Kuwashihokojinja shrine in the Kajiki district.

    The residences and buildings where Shimazu Yoshihiro lived no longer have their original form. For example, the former Hiramatsujo castle is now Shigetomi Elementary School, and the warlord’s one-time official residence is now Kajiki High School.

    “In Satsuma [the ancient name of Kagoshima Prefecture], there are many schools and administrative offices that used to be samurai residences,” said Shuichi Takenoshita, 69, the head of the volunteer association.

    During the Edo period (1603-1867), the Satsuma feudal clan divided its domain into more than 100 districts to employ its unique Tojo governing system. Under the system, samurai warriors were stationed at bases in each of the districts as local rulers. After the Meiji era (1868-1912), the administrative zoning was maintained, and so the headquarters of today’s administrative entities are located in the same areas.

Mountain spirituality

Photo by Stephen Diaz

Green Shinto is very much in favour of the recent trend towards spiritual tourism, whereby travel overseas is coupled with a desire to enhance spirituality through transforming experiences. Ancient pilgrimage routes are one way in which this can be done, and Japan is particularly rich in trails which lead to numinous power spots. Another way of furthering spirituality is to ascend holy mountains noted for centuries of worship and accumulated energy. The climb upwards literally raises the pilgrim above the mundane and into a purer realm. Again Japan can boast more than its fair share of sacred mountains, and the article below by Green Shinto reader, Sally Keys, highlights just three of them. (For other Green Shinto articles on the subject, see the bottom of the page.)

Experience Spiritual Awakening Among Japan’s Mountains
by Sally Keys

70% of Japan’s countryside is mountainous and this forms an important part of its culture and heritage. Just as Buddhism emerged from the Himalayas and Zeus lived on Mount Olympus, the Japanese mountains too are a source of spirituality and mythology. Spiritual tours operate close to nature and away from tourist hotspots. This is to allow contemplation of the true profundity of existence. Here are some of Japan’s most spiritual mountains and why you should visit.

Mt. Fuji

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Japan, Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in the country at over 1200ft. Fuji is a mysterious mountain, viewable from many areas of Japan, while occasionally disappearing behind clouds for several days at a time.

A symbol of both protection and violent anger, it is inspiration to a vast array of legends and artworks. Some 300,000 people climb the mountain each year, but its sheer size means that it is easy to become lost and alone here. Photographs cannot do justice to the feeling of seeing Mt. Fuji in person. Its terrifying power can induce states of awe and wonder, helping you to reconnect with nature.

Courtesy psy.ritsumei

Mt. Atago

At just over 3000ft, Kyoto’s Mt. Atago cannot compete with Fuji for height, but it is a magnificent mountain nonetheless. For centuries it has served as a place of pilgrimage and prayer, offering protection from fire. A shrine to the god of fire, Kagutsuchi, sits within Mt. Atago. A study by the University of Alabama revealed that being near fire causes blood pressure to drop and so can create relaxed states conducive to meditation and spiritual awakening.

This is probably due to fire being an ancient discovery that stopped the human race from becoming extinct and allowed us to flourish. As a result, it is evolutionarily engrained in us to become relaxed whenever we are around fire.

Courtesy Jetcolors

Mt. Ishizuchi

Towering at 6,500ft, Mt. Ishizuchi in Shikoku is another sacred mountain, popular with spiritual travellers. It is a popular place of ritual among ascetics, who abstain from sensual pleasures in the pursuit of spiritual growth. Climbing season starts on July 1st, but October is a popular time to put on your hiking boots and experience the incredible beauty of the fallen autumn leaves.

The mountains of Japan are numerous and vast. Hiking among their foothills will help you to understand the emotions of the Ancients, who worshipped these mountains and viewed them as the abodes of gods. Spend some time here to awaken that spirituality deep within you.

(See also Fuji as a religious object, Dewa Sanzan in Tohoku, Mt Ishizuchi in Shikoku, a review of One Hundred Mountains of Japan, and the Shinto shrines of Kyoto’s Mt Hiei, ancient citadel of Buddhism.)

Shinto poems of the Heian era

The following is extracted and adapted from an academic paper brought to our attention by Green Shinto supporter, Paul Carty. The paper is a Masters Thesis from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is entitled, ‘Poems of the Gods of the Heaven and the Earth’ (2010) by Christina E. Olinyk. All the poems are translated by her too.


Jingika are Japanese poems written on the gods of heaven and earth. They have characteristics in common with Shinto, however, they are more accurately a product of the amalgamation of native kami cults and foreign Buddhist doctrine (shinbutsu shugyo).

Although the first independent Jingika book emerged in the seventh anthology Senzaishū (1187), poems which can be termed predecessors exist as early as the first, Kokinshū (905).

The shrines that are mentioned in the poems correspond to the development of a state religion centered on a small number of shrines, which were designated as protectors of the state. In light of this, the arrangement of the poems in the Jingika book creates a metaphysical pilgrimage to the most important shrines at the dawn of the medieval period, thereby asserting the emperor’s position as cultural center during a time of political turmoil.

Many of the poems were written or collected by a leading poetical figure called Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204), who had a deep conviction of the sacred nature of poetry. Of particular interest to the development of his religious poetry are the many competitions that he participated in that took place at temple-shrines. Two of the sequences in the Jingika book (Sumiyoshi and Kamo) came through competitions at which he served as judge.

Shunzei’s religious poetry can be broken down into three types. First are glorification poems, praising shrines or majestic natural phenomena as the abode of kami. He also wrote poem-prayers, which utilise the mythical power of words (kotodana) to address the kami or receive their communication. In addition, he used syncretic ideas to put across esoteric doctrine or explain the implications of honji suijaku (trace and substance, in other words kami were mere localised shadows or avatars of Buddhist deities, which represent ultimate reality).


Author Unknown

Hoarfrost could rime them
Eight times, yet they would not wither,
The sakaki leaves:
Standing in the prime of life,
See, the priestess of the god!


Ōtomo no Kuronushi
Mountains of Ōmi—

how it rises full upright,
The Mirror Mountain,
Where we see the years foretold:
The thousand years of our lord!


Fujiwara no Tadafusa (?-928) In the year 920, composed for a twenty-poem sequence on the imperial visit of Retired Emperor Uda to Kasuga Shrine

Even the gods
Cannot conceal their delight
For the eight
Kasuga Maiden dancers
On this joyous occasion


The Consecrated Princess Senshi
When (Ōnakatomi no Sukechika) went to pay his respects at the Inner Shrine of Ise in 1031, it suddenly began to rain, the wind began to blow. The Consecrated (Princess) summoned Sukechika, the Master of the Rites, and pronounced on matters official. She also ordered several rounds of sacred sake and composed the following as she presented the earthenware cup (to Sukechika)

In the sake cup
Can be seen a light serene,
So have no fear:
I would have you know no dust
Can ever cloud this shining


Fujiwara no Tokifusa
Written and affixed to the sacred palings on a pilgrimage to Kibune

Wishes are fulfilled
In these rushing waters of the god
Whose divine descent
Provides mankind with a Lordly Boat
To cross to a Further Shore.


Minamoto no Morotoki73 (1077-1136)
Composed on the topic of kagura

Because the frost has settled
Within the shrine grounds
On Mimuro mountain,
There are no evergreen branches
Unadorned with white festoons


Fujiwara no Tametada (?-1136)
Composed on the topic of felicitation for a poetry meeting at the home of Fujiwara no Saneyuki

I wonder,

Is the kami
Who illuminates the sky
Aware of my lord’s
Long and prosperous reign?


Fujiwara no Sanemitsu (1069-1147)
Composed from a conversation about the legend of the Kasuga Shrine deer with a relative who had traveled there

Oh the joy upon hearing
The miraculous deer
Are still there on the mountain,
A clear vestige of
The Mikasa gods

(Kasuga Shrine lies at the foot of Mt. Mikasa in Nara. Legend says that long ago, Takenomikazuchi-no-mikoto appeared on the mountain, riding on the back of a deer. The god then set the animal free which made the mountain its home. Therefore, the deer on Mikasa Mountain, as offspring of that original deer, represent traces of the mythical past left behind as proof of the god’s existence.)


Priest Nōin (988-?)
Having accompanied Taira no Norikuni to the Iyo Region, Nōin learned that the people there could not plant rice paddies since there had been no substantial rainfall from the New Year to the third or fourth month. Their prayers for rain had not been answered until Nōin appealed to the kami of the leading shrine.

If there is a god
Who waters rice beds
With the Milky Way
Please – stop it up and let it rain
Down upon the earth

This poem is “one of the most frequently cited rainmaking poem-stories in Heian and medieval literature.”


For other pieces on the origins of Shinto poetry, please see here for an article on Nature poetry and worship, or here for Poetry’s divine origins, or here for Proto-Shinto in Manyoshu poems.

Shugendo (mountain asceticism) opportunity

Mount Haguro’s famous cedar-lined path. | photo by Kathryn Wortley

The following article from the Japan Times is notable for a number of reasons. Above all it shows how Shugendo is opening up to outsiders in dramatic fashion: rental clothing from a tourist office, and advertisements in English would have been unthinkable in times past. It can be seen partly as a response to falling numbers with a diminishing population, and partly as symptomatic of the way increased tourism in Japan, and increased spiritual tourism in particular, are having an impact on the country’s traditional practices.

It’s the feeling of Green Shinto that nature-worshipping Shugendo, despite being relatively little known in the West, provides greater opportunity for spreading internationally than Shrine Shinto, with its ties to physical buildings and the Japanese state. Though Shugendo is often associated with Buddhism, this article makes plain its strong Shinto allegiance too. In addition, the setting of Dewa Sanzan is most attractive and conducive to spiritual refreshment. Anyone looking for an enriching off-the-beaten-track experience while in Japan would be well advised to contact the links at the end of the article. (For previous Green Shinto articles on the subject, and Shugendo’s spread to the West, please see the category for Shugendo in the righthand column.)

Yamabushi: Japan’s ancient tradition of mountain ascetics opens to the public


A yamabushi in full regalia, blowing the characteristic conch horn

“It suits you,” says another hiker, pointing at my headdress. “You look cute.”
“Um, thanks,” I answer, relieved that I’m not alone in being unaware of the outfit’s significance.

Since being dressed in it, I enthused about its novelty and surprising comfort until I discovered the somber meaning behind it: these clothes are designed to resemble robes worn by the dead.

By donning the garments, my group and I have symbolically given up our worldly impurities and are now to traverse the three holy mountains of Dewa, called Dewa Sanzan, in order to be spiritually reborn. Each mountain symbolizes part of that journey: Mount Haguro, the present; Mount Gassan, the past; and Mount Yudono, the future.

This is the teaching of the yamabushi, the followers of Shugendo, an ancient ascetic religion combining aspects of mountain worship, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. Critical to their beliefs is the pursuit of enlightenment through convening with nature over long periods as well as feats of endurance such as waterfall bathing and walking over fire.

Dewa Sanzan, in Yamagata Prefecture, has been an important center for yamabushi since the beginnings of Shugendo in the eighth or ninth century, although it didn’t grow in popularity as a pilgrimage route for spiritual rebirth until the Edo Period (1603-1868). To this day, each yamabushi in good health is required to make the journey.

As practitioners have begun to open up their once-private world to outsiders, an increasing number of nonbelievers are joining them, from businesspeople seeking respite from the stress of modern living to tourists and expats keen to uncover a lesser-known part of Japanese culture. And some local residents in Yamagata are working to welcome such people to Dewa Sanzan.

We start our journey at the foot of Mount Haguro, the most famous and easily accessible ascent of the three. After passing through Zuishin-mon (the Gate of Dual Deities), which marks the start of our journey to spiritual rebirth, we descend stone steps to enter a thick forest. Given the multitude of small and intricately carved wooden shrines, each home to a huge variety of deities, it’s not long before the group fans out to explore. But our yamabushi master is soon blowing his giant conch, signaling us to gather at a bright-red bridge where we see a waterfall alongside a small shrine expertly blended into the forest.

Soon, we reach the oldest pagoda in Tohoku, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful pagodas in Japan. At 30 meters tall, a single column runs through it, but each of its five individual sections is entirely independent. According to our guide, this is the reason it became the structure on which Tokyo’s famed Skytree is based.

The five-tiered pagoda on Mt Haguro

Invigorated by the sight, we begin to climb, taking the first section of the 2,446-step stone stairway to the summit in our stride. With few other hikers to disrupt the sound of bird song and the breeze rustling through the 580 cedar trees that line the path, it’s a serene experience.

Passing under the trees gives a sense of the history of this journey. Most of the cedars are between 300 and 500 years old and, for ultra-perceptive visitors, 33 hand-done engravings can be found in the steps, which are believed to have taken 13 years to build. We find one that looks like a sake cup.

Such is the beauty of the cedar-lined path that it has been dedicated a significant natural monument and awarded three stars in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.

Halfway up, we stop at a rest station that has been run by the same family for three generations. Undeterred by the challenging location, they all pitch in to carry supplies up the mountain each day. They offer green tea, sweets and a sweeping view, and their cafe is only closed in winter when snow prevents access.

At the top, we receive our Shinto yamabushi blessing, comprising chanting, bell ringing and paper swaying, at the main shrine building of Sanjin Gosaiden before descending to our lodging in Toge, the town at the foot of the mountain. For centuries, homes draped with shrine ropes have welcomed pilgrims to the region with accommodation, shōjin-ryōri(vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) and even mountain guides.

The second peak of our journey, Mount Gassen, could not be more different than the first. Though known as “the mountain on which ancestors rest,” it’s noticeably devoid of religious artifacts apart from one shrine at its midpoint and another at its summit. Passing wetlands brimming with insects and alpine plants as we snake slowly up the mountainside, it is clear that nature gets priority here.

Our path consists of two parallel wooden beams that are raised off the ground to protect the delicate ecosystem and encourage the single-file movement of hikers. As the grasses encroach on the sides, it also proves a great way to camouflage the human impact on this almost 2,000-meter peak.

A Shugendo ritual fire ceremony in which prayers are sent up in the smoke to heaven. Shugendo was banned by the Meiji Reformists in 1872 and adherents forced to choose between Shinto and Buddhism. The ban was only lifted in 1947.

That feeling of being at one with nature appeals to our yamabushi guides. Their reason for spending so much time on mountains such as this one is to let the force of nature and the natural life force in their bodies drive them forward when they encounter problems in their lives.

“We leave ourselves in nature and make peace in our minds, feeling with our body to realize our senses,” explains Fumihiro Hoshino, a 13th-generation yamabushi master at whose lodging we stayed. “With a yamabushi mindset, we can restore ourselves and rejuvenate our lives.”

Women, he says, are more gifted at prioritizing feeling over thinking than men, who tend to focus on what they can see. This, along with the general decline in yamabushi across Japan, prompted Hoshino to welcome women to learn under him. Of the fresh faces at the outings, more than half are now women, he says. Another trend is the rise in participants from Japan’s biggest cities. This comes as no surprise to Takeharu Kato, a yamabushi who left his job at marketing giant Hakuhodo to found Megurun Inc., which offers yamabushi experience programs.

Jizo in his guise as a monk at Dewa Sanzan. Deeply syncretic, yamabushi offer prayers to Buddhist and Shinto deities alike.

“Yamabushi has been used for centuries to provide space for consideration of the challenges of life, an important role in the current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to revitalize,” he said. “When we train, we are no longer restricted or distracted — even our watches are removed — and we don’t speak at all. We allow ourselves to be totally open to what the master is trying to show us through the natural world.”

Kato’s assertion that Shugendo has never been so relevant is food for thought as we set off to the last leg of our journey, Mount Yudono, which is so sacred that photography is not permitted past its giant torii.

About 10 minutes’ walk up the path, we reach a small booth where the priest instructs each of us to go barefoot bearing one human-shaped fine paper cutout. Only after rubbing it over our bodies and casting it into a small stream to rid ourselves of impurities are we allowed to enter a special secluded area. In its center is a giant reddish-brown rock, which is believed to contain a deity. Hot spring water spurts out and flows down its side, into which steps have been carved. Gingerly, we climb up the soaking rock to reach a small shrine overlooking the valley, where our journey of spiritual rebirth becomes complete.

Reflecting afterward in the nearby sacred foot bath, we agree that at the very least we will leave this place feeling energized. Our journey through Dewa Sanzan, experiencing the tranquility and beauty of the three diverse mountains, and having the privilege of a glimpse at this rare part of Japanese spirituality, has left more of an impression than any of us had expected.

Fly from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Shonai Airport, or take a shinkansen to Niigata Station before changing onto a Limited Express Inaho train to Tsuruoka Station. Three- or five-day yamabushi training experiences are available at Yamabushi clothes and guides can be rented for a day from Haguro Tourist Association on Saturdays from April to October:

Foreign practitioner, Christian Grubl, performs a misogi rite with a shugendo group

Taishi Kato Interview 2

Taishi Kato is a young Shinto priest with an interest in spreading knowledge of the religion to overseas people, and Green Shinto carried an interview with him last year before he went to study for an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (see here).

He has recently returned to Japan, so we were naturally curious to find out about his experiences during his time abroad, and how was the response to his role as a Shinto priest (he is the son of the Guji (head priest) of Hattori Tenjingu in Osaka).


Taishi in student mode, prior to leaving for England

Did you find much interest in Shinto? If so, from what kind of people?

Yes. I made a lot of friends who are interested in Shinto. To be honest, I did not even expect that so many foreign people have a profound knowledge of Shinto. I could learn different perspectives of Shinto from them. For instance, those who do Martial Arts. Their understanding is based on their sensitivities so that I could share the view of Shinto not based on rational thought but intuitive perception. I would like to learn more about the view of Shinto from those who are living outside Japan.

What did you find was the most difficult part in explaining Shinto to people in Britain?

I felt the difficulty for explaining about the essence of Shinto in Europe in the framework “religion”. For example, I think that Japanese are confused about answers when asked “What is your religion?” There is a prerequisite in this question that a person “belongs to one religion as a believer”. However, in Shinto human beings cannot decide who is a Shinto believer or not. Shinto has no absolute doctrine and sacred scriptures, while Shinto has evolved through the centuries by incorporating a great number of concepts and ideas from Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism.Instead of drawing boundaries, Shinto has coexisted with other religions. Given this characteristic of Shinto, it is very different from the concept of religion in the West. Therefore, I struggled to explain about the concepts of Shinto within the framework of “religion”. However, even if one’s religion or nationality is different, by sharing “thankfulness for being alive now”, I believe that people will change to the feeling that we are alive thanks to everything around us rather than the feeling that emphasizes the difference between “us and others”.

 How about your experiences in the rest of Europe, outside Britain?

I was invited to a Japanese cultural event at the Davos Congress Center in Switzerland. I gave a talk on Shinto in English. After that, I also offered a prayer for the success of the event. Swiss people attended the ceremony with deep respect for Japanese traditional culture,

I had a sense that I could become one with attendants spiritually through the ceremony. If given an opportunity, I would like to perform the ceremony again.

Taishi in his priestly garb, with a flag supporting the local Osaka football team

 What was the best experience (or biggest challenge) you had in your time in Britain? 

One of my best experiences was to share Japanese traditional culture with foreigners. Japanese people have potentially shared the traditional sensitivity of being alive thanks to everything around us. For instance, in Japan, there is a custom of joining one’s hands together before eating in order to express one’s gratitude. It is easy to take food and the process of eating for granted. However, Japanese appreciate the effort of the many people who harvested, transported, stored and sold the food. Moreover, natural energy, such as sun, rain, soil and microorganisms have been regarded as core elements for our eating. I was so delighted to share the idea of “being alive thanks to everything around us” by joining our hands together before eating a meal with foreigners.

 What are your plans for the future, now that you are back in Japan?

I would like to provide an opportunity for visitors of my Shinto shrine to hear about Shinto. There are few opportunities for foreigners to know what Shinto is within a shrine. When I was in Britain, I realised that I could broaden my view of Shinto through conversation with foreigners. Therefore, our Shinto shrine will start giving an opportunity for visitors to discuss about Shinto. I believe that it will be helpful to make our connection stronger through Shinto. And also if possible, I would like to perform ceremonies outside Japan.

Florida talk, Dec 9

What is Shinto?

Sponsored by the Florida Kyudo Kai | Talk by Taishi Kato

Taishi Kato (加藤大志)

DATE  Saturday, December 9, 2017
TIME   1:30pm
LOCATION   Morikami Theater
PRICE   FREE with paid museum admission

No reservations. Tickets will be given out the day of the event, at a first come, first served basis.

Taishi Kato (加藤大志

Shinto is said to be the source of Japanese culture — But, why is it a mystery? Taishi Kato, known under his priest title Taishi Gon-Negi, shares his view of Shinto by shedding light on how the characteristics of Japanese culture such as “cleaning”, “harmony” and “perspectives on nature” are rooted in Shinto. Taishi Gon-Negi will perform a Shinto blessing after the lecture, followed by the Florida Kyudo Kai, a Japanese archery group, demonstrating an archery ceremony called taihai.

Taishi Kato is a licensed Shinto priest from Hattori Tenjingu in Osaka Japan. He was born as the eldest son of a multi-generational family serving their 1000-year-old Shinto shrine. He graduated with a Masters of Arts in Religions of Asia and Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) from the University of London. He is committed to introducing his native Japanese religion of Shinto to people all around the world.

Florida Kyudo Kai

The Florida Kyudo Kai was established in 1998 to facilitate the practice of the Japanese martial art of archery in Florida. The Florida Kyudo Kai operates under the auspices of the South Carolina Kyudo Renmei as their main root of instruction and are members of the International Kyudo Federation (IKYF) of Japan.


London’s Japan Matsuri

Sunday, 24th September 2017, 10am – 8pm 

Trafalgar Square, London


Japan Matsuri 2017

Daikagura Performers: Mimasu Monnosuke, Okinaya Wasuke
Japanese Samurai Selection
Tsumura Reijiro, Suzuki Yoshitaka and Ichikawa Hibiki with DJ TAKAKI


London’s very own and much loved festival of Japanese culture – Japan Matsuri – takes places in 2017 on Sunday 24th September. In its 9th year and a regular fixture in the London calendar, this energetic annual event brings people together to enjoy an amazing day of Japanese food, music, dance and so much more. Please bring family and friends, old and young to join us for another special event. All absolutely free!

As in previous years, everything will kick off bright and early at 10am and the action will run non-stop all the way through until 8pm in the evening. With two stages, there is plenty to see all day with an exciting main stage programme and amazing displays of martial arts on the second stage. Swing to the beat of taiko drumming or sing along to catchy songs from popular artists like Naomi Suzuki on the main stage. We even offer you the public a chance to sing to the crowds if you fancy joining in our ever popular Nodojiman karaoke singing contest! In 2017 we will be celebrating Japan in the UK and showcasing some of the best and brightest talent in this country.

Enjoy the atmosphere with delicious Japanese festival food from a host of brightly coloured stalls. Join in the fun in the family activities area with traditional Japanese games and opportunities to learn origami and Japanese calligraphy or dress up in traditional Japanese costumes. There will also be a massive nine metre long canvas upon which you can draw your own creations right in front of the National Gallery!


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