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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Shinto - A Short History

Shinto - A Short History 神道

Shinto: A Short History
Nobutaka Inoue & Ito Satoshi - Translators Mark Teeuwen & John Breen

ISBN: 0-4153-1179-9
256 pp

Shinto is notoriously difficult to define. Common definitions range from "the ancient indigenous religion of Japan" to "an invented tradition of the Meiji State", both of which conceal more than they reveal. Consequently most histories of Shinto leave out details that contradict the ideology or viewpoint of the writer.

Finally though, there is a history translated into English that covers most of the strands that have been woven into creating what is now known as Shinto. The authors treat "kami worship" as the unifying thread that connects Japan's ancient religious practices with Shinto as it is known today and approach it as a religious system composed of three parts; constituents, network, and substance.

Constituents are the people who make and carry the religion, and include the makers, founders, priests etc as well as the people who are the believers and participants in the rituals. Network forms the organization of the religion, in "hard" form such as sacred sites, shrines, etc and in "soft" form, the hierarchy of the organizations etc. Substance refers to the message of a religion, its scriptures as well as its sermons.

How all of these parts have changed, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, is the basis of this book. By using such a broad definition of Shinto the authors are able to include those practices collectively known as "Folk Shinto", as well as "Sect Shinto", "Shinto-derived new religions", and even Shugendo, which, until the Edo period was at least as much Shinto as it was Buddhism.

The book is divided into four time periods, beginning with Ancient and Classical Japan wherein Shinto is firmly placed within an East Asian religious system, thereby denying its oft-claimed uniqueness. The second section, The Medieval Period, focuses on the merging of the Kami with Buddhism, including the ways Japanese Buddhism was influenced by Kami worship as well as vice versa, producing Sanno Shinto, Ryobu Shinto, and Watarai Shinto, among others.

The third section, Early Modern, examines the whole slew of Shinto Schools and sects that arose during the period that was dominated by Confucian philosophy including the nativist National Learning movement of such scholars as Norinaga and Atsutane whose studies were instrumental in creating the forms Shinto took in the final section, the Modern Period.

The final section feels a little skimpy, a little too fast; it covers a lot of ground in fewer pages. It doesn't miss any of the major points though and ends with an overview of the major sects and Shinto influenced New Religions. I can't recommend this book enough; it works as an excellent bridge between the overly-simplistic histories of Shinto such as are found in a lot of introductory literature on Shinto and the increasing number of more advanced studies that focus on narrower aspects or time-periods of Shinto history.

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