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On the Adulteration of Japan’s Oldest Religion


The scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801)

 writes: Primitive Shinto is one of the loveliest religions in the world. It’s beautiful in its simplicity — defenseless too, as it proved, against the nativists and nationalists who warped it into 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century xenophobia.

Rudimentary, vague, undefined, undefinable, Shinto for centuries didn’t even have a name. It didn’t need one; there was nothing to distinguish it from, nothing it was not. One good sentence can say everything there is to say about it — this one, for example, by historian Takeshi Matsumae: “In some rural areas even today (1993), elderly villagers face the rising sun each morning, clap their hands together, and hail the appearance of the sun over the peaks of the nearby mountain as ‘the coming of the kami.’”

That’s Shinto — the way (“to”) of the kami (“shin”). As to the kami — who might they be? “Gods,” we say in English, the language offering nothing better, but it’s too freighted a word, too suggestive of power rather than innocence, of something specific as opposed to anything, one knows not what.

“I do not yet understand the meaning of the word ‘kami’” wrote Motoori Norinaga in 1771. If he didn’t, who did? Norinaga was the foremost scholar of his age; he devoted his life to studying the native literature from its ancient beginnings. “It is hardly necessary to say,” he continued, “that it includes human beings. It also includes such objects as birds, beasts, trees, plants, seas, mountains and so forth. In ancient usage, anything whatsoever that was outside the ordinary, which possessed superior power or which was awe-inspiring, was called kami. … Evil and mysterious things, if they are extraordinary and dreadful, are called kami.”

Shinto teaches nothing, enjoins nothing, demands no submission, works no miracles, effaces evil by cleansing it, transmutes dread into joy. There is no heaven, no hell, no nirvana — just “the rising sun each morning,” “the coming of the kami.”

Troubled times such as ours evoke many longings, not least the one known as primitivism. Why couldn’t things have remained in their pristine state? It’s a mood as old as progress “Take away our baneful progress …” wrote the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762, “and all is well.”

A Japanese variant of that mood is traceable back to the sixth century. A civil war fought in 587, says historian Ivan Morris, was “one of the decisive clashes in Japanese history,” though the fighting was on so small a scale that “the battle has not even received an official name.”

At issue was the advent of a strange, foreign religion — Buddhism. Some years earlier a Korean ambassador had come bearing images, books and news of … (read more)

via The Japan Times

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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