Sunday, September 12, 2010

what i understand about shinto

It is not easy to articulate religion and culture. Notorious atheist Richard Dawkins claims to be a “culturally Christian,” since he still enjoys singing Christmas carols. I feel there is something wrong with his notion of relationship between religion and culture. In my view, what determines the way of distinguishing religion and culture is rather politics and he overlooks this. I don't think atheism is problematic, but when seeing his followers' anti-Islamic comments on his website, I feel something going wrong. Here I won't go further on Dawkins, but what I know about the history of Shinto makes me think about the complexity of relation between culture, religion, and politics.

I recently had an opportunity to walk around Asakusa, the touristic old downtown in Tokyo, with some artists from Europe. There is a well known Buddhist temple called Senso-ji in the center of the district. Though it was weekday, the place was crowded. I like the pragmatism of the people praying there. They pray for their health, wealth, and career success, but they don’t care about something like abstract enlightenment. What they worship is more like a sort of Paganism or Animism. And I can imagine many of the people claim to be neither Buddhist nor Shintoist. Actually this place also includes a Shinto shrine, which was officially separated from the temple around 1870 when the Japanese government, which was struggling to transform Japan into a nation state, started to establish Shinto as the nation’s “religion.” Around that time the ordinary people didn’t care about their national identity. It might have been no easy task for the government to tax and educate them, and also make them as soldiers. So the government used Shinto to unite the people. But, the government didn’t do it simply by declaring that Shinto was the nation’s religion. I’m going to explain this later.

Around 1870, Shintoism, however, was not really united. There were thousands of shrines and they vaguely shared some mythologies. These mythologies somehow explain how the islands which are now called the Japan archipelago were created, but doesn’t explain how the world was created. The deities didn’t create the world. Obviously, the ancient people living in these islands didn’t care about whether they were living in the center of the world or the periphery. They cared only about where they were living in.

Such shrines were the places where the ordinary people come to be socialized. There they celebrated birth, marriage, harvest, and so on, traded things, and discussed over the problems of their community. The shrines also provided entertainment for the local community. They were also theater.

Shintoism basically doesn’t preach. Perhaps it only says: “You have to do dirty jobs in order to survive, and sometimes you feel guilty, helpless, and hopeless. You feel you’ve become filthy. So just come here and purify yourself, and it would be okay. Anyway praying is good for you. Also sometimes you want to share your happiness when good things happen to you. This is the place you share things.” In Shintoism everything, be they plants, animals, mountains, potteries, clothes, fire, rain, the sun, the soil, or local heroes, becomes a deity. Those deities are like us humans, they hope, they suffer, they anger, they laugh, they cheat, they learn, and even they try to learn from Buddha (and that was why Shinto and Buddhism were mixed in Japan). Natural disasters, such as famine, earthquake, flood, and epidemic, were rarely interpreted as that the deities were punishing the people, but rather that the deities were in trouble. When a deity got sick, the people got sick. When a deity cried too much, there would have been a flood. The deities don’t have capacity to control things. So the people prayed for well-being of the deities.

Shrines originally had little to do with national identity, but probably had much to do with the identity of the local communities. What the government of the time of the modernization did was centralizing those shrines. The government claimed that, in the center of shrines, there was the emperor, who was descendant of god and he himself was god. There had been a clan which had have no surname, rarely governed, but endorsed warlords who claimed to have a capacity to govern. Which, roughly to say, had been functioning as pope in Europe. But the ordinary people didn’t know about this clan. So the government took this emperor to travel through Japan and claimed he was god of the nation. On the other hand, the government guaranteed the freedom of faith by the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (1889), and then, surprisingly, it claimed Shinto was not religion. The government well understood that, in order to be a modern state, Japan had to appear to be secularized. So, Shinto was categorized into the domain of “culture.” And the government claimed the Japanese culture was spiritual. This definition of religion and culture was thus acrobatic.

The government strengthened the hierarchy of the shrines, and also banned the people who had been maintaining the shrines and leading the worshiping from performing the traditional local theater which had been taking place at the shrines. So the local people started performing this local theater, called Kagura, on their own. While the government promoted Shinto as the central of the Japanese culture, it partly destroyed the local communities’ culture.

America, the occupier of Japan after World War II, might have seen Shinto as religion. The occupier tried to “secularize” Japan. In 1946 Emperor Hirohito traveled through Japan and declared he was no longer god. But, how this happened was not clear. It was not that the occupier forced Hirohito to do so. In my view, this “divine emperor” was a sort of vanishing mediator in the process of modernization of Japan. Through the war, Japanese people became Japanese enough. So the government no longer needed such a divine emperor.

It can be said that Japan’s imperial project, which had started around the mid 19th century, completed after World War II. Japanese sociologist Eiji Oguma, in his Genealogy of Japanese Self-Images, argues it was around the 1960s that many Japanese became to share the view that the Japanese society is homogeneous.

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