It’s time for…
An Actually Marginally Academic Post
After reading a whole lot of books for my thesis and a whole lot of books for class and a whole lot of books in general, I have come to a realization—a lot of scholarship on Shinto is really, really boring. I have trouble keeping my eyes open when reading some of it.* And that’s too bad, because it’s a fascinating subject that not many people know about! So my goal for these posts is to present information about Shinto (or Shinto-related topics) in a non-snore-inducing manner. Plus, I figure that this is good practice for when I have to teach people about this stuff (or just explain it to people on the street).
So, here we go!
Academic Post #1
A Brief History of Shinto (part 1): If You Stab a
Lot of Powerful People, You Should Probably Come Up with a Good Explanation for Your Behavior
For as far back as the archaeological record stretches back in Japan (and that’s a pretty long time), people have worshipped spirits. These spirits, called kami,** are believed to inhabit everything: the water, the air, the trees, the rocks, the plants, the mountains, everything. They’re invisible***, and they act a lot like humans. They can get angry (and cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and floods and famines) or they can be pleased (and grant good weather and bountiful harvests and good health). If nobody worships them, though, they lose their kami powers and become disgruntled spirit-animal-monsters called youkai, which pretty much just wreak havoc everywhere.
, the basic societal unit was the uji—the family or the clan. Most uji had an ujigami, that is a kami specific to that uji. If it was an uji of farmers, the ujigami was often associated with farming; an uji of fishermen might have an ujigami of the seas; an uji that lived in bear-infested mountains might worship an ujigami that took the shape of a bear. The ujigami varied as widely as the uji, as did people's ways of worshiping them, and most people didn’t know about kami outside of their local area. Japan
Fast forward in time to 645 CE! Naka no Oe, the head of a prominent uji, somehow got a bunch of prominent families in a room; sources vary on what he actually did to get these people together (I’ve seen it told as his being present at a ceremony or as his throwing a feast for the other clans and then locking the doors so no one could escape), but, to make a long story short, he, with the help of some friends, assassinated several powerful political figures (by stabbing them to death with spears), and then claimed the throne.
Of course, once his family had taken the throne, they realized that there was nothing stopping anyone else from following their lead and stabbing them to death, so Naka no Oe’s daughter told a writer at the court to compile a history of the family, linking them to their ujigami, Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess), and explaining why they were chosen as the imperial line. The writer (and his assistant who may or may not have been female) went above and beyond the call of duty, however, and integrated the kami and creation myths of other powerful families into the narrative.**** Of course, the politics behind this move are clear—by presenting the kami of other powerful families as working alongside Amaterasu, the imperial family honored these families and (very subtly) suggested that they should work together, just as their kami did. Interestingly enough, one of the kami who gets the most page time actually belonged to a region that did not want Naka no Oe ruling over them; eventually, however, the region was successfully integrated into the kingdom, just as its kami was integrated into the story. The finished book of stories is called the Kojiki (『古事記』; usually translated as “The Record of Ancient Matters”), and is generally accepted as the oldest extant piece of Japanese writing.*****
…meanwhile, everyone outside of the court didn’t know about all this political intrigue and pretty much kept worshiping their kami the way they always had.
"But wait!" you cry. "Where's the Shinto? You haven't used that word at all in this entire post!"
Well, dear reader, that's because it wasn't called Shinto yet. Remember how I said that no one really knew about kami outside of their local area? In fact, there was no conception that any of the kami worship occurring was connected in any way whatsoever to any of the other kami worship. If you had picked a random person and plopped them down 200 miles from their birthplace, they probably wouldn't have been able to recognize the local kami as a kami, or been able to make any sense out of the local customs and festivals.
So at this point, we can't really say that Shinto existed. Yes, people worshiped kami, and, yes, people worship kami in Shinto, but at this point the kami worship was almost entirely localized and unconnected to any larger organization.
And what happened next? Well, Buddhism showed up, and things just got more complicated.
Kojiki translated by Donald L. Phillipi
There are a variety of translations of the Kojiki, but this one is generally accepted as the best. Of course, it's also out of print, so have fun getting your hands on a copy of it... I'm probably going to eventually give up and pay an arm and a leg for my own copy.
Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions by a whole slew of people
A good introduction to Japanese religions. It's more useful as a bibliography than as an in-depth text, though.
Shinto in History by a whole slew of people
Do not read unless you have an incredibly strong stomach for academic writing.
Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One edited by William Theodore de Bary
This is pretty much the Bible of East Asian Studies. It's also an amazing book full of translated historical documents. Also also, my advisor at Brown's advisor is the editor! So, basically, I need a copy of this too. SO MANY BOOKS TO BUY.
*Although the only book I have ever literally fallen asleep while reading was about Zen Buddhism.
**Or mi or nushi or chami or a variety of other things depending upon the time period. I’m simplifying here. I'm actually simplifying a lot, which is why it's a brief history.
***Although that can be confusing in the case of, for example,
. Mt. Fuji is worshipped as a kami, but (theoretically) it’s not the actual mountain that’s being worshiped; it’s the invisible kami of the mountain. Of course, if you ask worshipers, some of them will inevitably tell you that the kami is the mountain, making academics very disgruntled. Mt. Fuji
****This also had the interesting side effect of creating gaping plot holes, such as when the world is created at the beginning of the story—only to be created again a hundred chapters later by a different kami.
*****It’s also one of the hardest books you could possibly read, since it’s written using a writing system that was used only for that book. It uses Chinese characters phonetically…sometimes…and for their meaning…sometimes…and sometimes it just has a bunch of characters on the page and you have no idea what’s going on. After a while, people just gave up on trying to read it...until the National Learning movement, but we'll get to that later.