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An ancient cult with contemporary significance

by Florian Coulmas

ENDURING IDENTITIES. The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan, by John K. Nelson. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000, 324 pp., 5,271 yen (paper)

In 1475, a fight erupted between the priests of a shrine in Kyoto and local farmers, who claimed that the priests had unlawfully driven them off their land and incorporated it into the shrine’s estate. While some of the priests were away on official duties at the imperial court, the farmers broke into the shrine and attempted to remove the “goshintai” (an object of devotion believed to contain sacred power) from within the main hall, but were pushed back by members of the shrine militia.

This incident took place at Kamo Wake Ikazuchi Jinja, more commonly known as Kamigamo Jinja, then and now one of the Japan’s most important and venerated Shinto shrines. “Enduring Identities” tells the story of this shrine. It is primarily aimed at the academic community, but is also of value for the general reader with an interest in Japanese culture. For, while its focus is on a single shrine, the author, John Nelson, who teaches anthropology and religion at the University of Texas, Austin, skillfully uses Kamigamo Jinja to explore a larger theme: the role of Shinto in contemporary Japan.

Religion has sometimes been portrayed as playing, at best, a subordinate role in Japanese culture. Yet, as the author points out, wherever one goes in contemporary Japan one cannot help but notice the ubiquitous neighborhood shrine. His study convincingly shows that shrine Shinto continues to be one of the most prevalent institutions in Japanese culture. Add Buddhism, Christianity and the many “new religions,” and it is obvious that speculations about the insignificance of religion in Japanese culture testify not to the nonspiritual character of the Japanese, but only to the fact that socioreligious arrangements in Japan differ from those in the West.

Nelson’s knowledgeable account of Kamigamo Jinja, based on extensive fieldwork, avoids the irritating bias, still common when it comes to studies of religion, of implicitly taking Western ways as the reference point for the analysis of other cultures. He offers a detailed description of Kamigamo Shrine’s ritual tradition as it is observed today. Famous events in the annual cycle such as the Hollyhock Festival in May, the Rice Planting Ritual in June, and the Crow Sumo Festival in September are described as carefully as the special setting of the shrine on the bank of the Kamo River and the daily routines of its staff of priests.

The shrine is well-chosen as a site to explore the many ramifications of Shinto in Japanese society. As one of the country’s oldest and most revered shrines it has had a profound influence on its parishioners, the city of Kyoto and the nation, and occupies a crucial position in the national association of Shinto shrines established in 1946, after State Shinto had been abolished. It also plays an important economic role as a venue for important festivals, a favorite destination of worshipers-cum-tourists, and provider of ritual services. Over the centuries its relationship with the country’s rulers has had its ups and downs, but to this day Kamigamo Jinja remains one of the select number of shrines patronized by members of the Imperial family.

The incident reported at the start of this review illustrates that, in medieval times, Kamigamo Jinja, like other shrines, was an organization built on loyalties, economic dependencies, political connections and ideology. As the title of the book suggests, the workings of the shrine, not withstanding the many changes that have occurred in the course of its long history, still exhibit all of these aspects.

Nelson’s account helps explain one of the most compelling questions of Japan’s religious history: How could Shinto, generally regarded as a simple cult without scripture or doctrine, withstand the onslaught of Buddhism, one of the world’s most sophisticated belief systems?

Shinto shrines are community shrines. Participation is essential. One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this book is that lack of a fixed dogma facilitates rather than hinders broad-based public participation. It has enabled Shinto and its institutions to adjust to changing times and to respond to the actual needs of the community. Without waiving its claim to moral guidance, the shrine, rather than demanding belief and submission, functions as a place where those who wish to do so are welcome to worship and participate in rites.

To adherents of dogmatic creeds this kind of unorthodox flexibility may smack of a lack of principles, but may well, as Nelson suggests, ensure that Shinto’s manifold identities endure into the future.