The book "Shinto: The way home"

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The book "Shinto: The way home"

Post by queshaw » Wed 02.21.2007 2:20 am

I'm going to write a little about what is in the book, so you may
not want to read this if you are going to read the book.

"Shinto: The way home." is written in English by a western
author. This is the only book I've read about Shinto, and it
leaves out a lot of what I expect I would want to know about the
subject. The book doesn't really describe what makes up Shinto in
particulars, e.g. he doesn't describe prayers or rituals, instead
it talks about it's characterization as a spiritual practice and
it's perception by others.

He does also characterize Shinto, but doesn't describe how he
came up with the characterization or what it's based on. He
characterizes "true" Shinto and contrasts it with "corrupted"
Shinto, such as the state Shinto that he says was used to justify
Japanese Imperialism.

My impression is that this book is a good starting point to learn
about Shinto, unless the author's facts are wrong. The way that
he simply asserts things makes me curious. Though even if he is
mischaracterizing Shinto, I find the spirituality he describes,
to be interesting.

His take on Shinto is that the core of it is not based on
doctrines, and that what is significant is the practice. Looking
at Shinto from the perspective of comparing the world's religions
and spiritual practices, he makes a distinction
between "essentialist" and "existentialist" practicioners.

A Shinto essentialist he says would be someone who acts
purposefully with respect to Shinto, because he is Shinto,
i.e. someone who does things out of principle due to identifying
himself as a Shinto practitioner. An analogy could be a Christian
who does Christian things because he is supposed to do them that
way, as a Christian.

A Shinto existentialist he says would be someone who recognizes that
he is Shinto as a result of feeling Shinto and doing things
that are Shinto.

He gives the example of seeing business men who stop at a Shinto
shrine on their way to the train, and asking them why they
stopped. He says the reply he got would typically be "I almost
always stop at the shrine". He'd ask "But for what reason"? They
would say "I don't know. Nothing in particular". And when he'd
ask if they called on the kami that the shrine is dedicated to,
they would say "I don't know which kami it's dedicated to".

Further, he asserts that a census said that 90% of Japanese call
themselves Shinto, while 70-80% also say they are Buddhists (the
book is from 2004). And he says that in global surveys such as
those done by UNESCO, most Japanese have said they are not

He attributes this to the word 'shuukyou' (宗教) しゅうきょ
お (Hopefully that is right. I'm basing it on the romaji that
has a macron over the u and o, and my OS's input method).

He says that 'shuukyou' comes from the late 19th century and that
there wasn't a word for "religion" prior to that. The word, he
says, was a description of practices and beliefs such as
Christianity, coming from the west. And that it refers to a
sectarian and dogmatic belief.

Along these lines, Buddhism he says, is called either Butsudou or
Bukkyou, where the -dou refers to praxis while -kyou refers to
doctrine. So Shintou he claims is a practice while Shuukyou is a

About the surveys, he claims of 1% of Japanese who call themselves
Christians, none (...) also call themselves Shinto.

So, to get around the problem of the word for religion in a
survey he suggests a Japanese professor's alternative
question: "have you worshiped a fox in the last 12 months".

His characterization of Shinto is based on Shinto practices. He
calls the Torii (the monuments that are 2 vertical beams with 2
horizontal beams on top forming something like a
doorway), "holographic entry points".

The Kami associated with a Torii or Shimenawa (a rope) he
describes as a symbolic representation of your connection with
nature, as you would become aware of it, when regarding what is
being associated with a Kami by the Torii/Shimenawa, with an
awareness described as "makoto no kokoro". Where makoto no kokoro
is a state of balanced responsiveness to reality.

Essentially, he says a Torii marks a place where you can more
easily recall your interconnection with everything. The name of
the book "Shinto: the way home" refers to this notion of
recognizing where you are in nature.

By "holographic" he seems to mean "fractal", something that is
recursively self-similar. In your mindful relationship to a Kami
tree, for example, you would not be recognizing a relationship
between you, the tree and an external Kami, but instead you would
recognize a fractal relationship between all things, in which the
whole is represented in each part.

I find the notion appealing that the value of Shinto would be in
it's "Japaneseness". The sound of the words of a prayer would be
significant and the details of a ritual and character of a shrine
would be significant. I compare this to Buddhists I've read
warning of the danger of being enamoured by something seemingly
exotic in a Buddhist practice. Where something that is
intentionally mundane in a Buddhist ritual to an asian person,
might be seen as exotic to a westerner, and thus prove
distracting. The book claims many Japanese find "being Shinto" to be
indistinguishable from "being Japanese".

He also states that Shinto practice by typically not being
sectarian and based on dogma, tends to not be incompatible with
religions and other spiritual pratcices.

Another interesting part of the book is his description of the
history of events surrounding Shinto. He claims that Shinto has
been used for political purposes for a long time as a way to gain
support from the shinto practicing population for various
political agendas.

For example, he claims that the book Kojiki was written to
establish the notion that the emperor was a direct descendent of
a Kami "Amaterasu" (the sun Kami), and to be worshiped, and so
served as marketing to the Japanese population, while Nihonshoki
served as part of an international public relations campaign
showcasing Japan's aspirations as a major civilization.

Kojiki was mainly written in what was Japanese then, he says,
while Nihonshoki was written in Chinese which would be read by
scholars, and give the now Shinto linked emperor more
credibility. Where Chinese was the language of the elites in

He says that emperor Shoumu then superimposed Chinese Buddhism
over Japanese Shinto by making a connection between Amaterasu the
sun kami and Dainichi the sun Buddha which the cosmos was said to
be a manifestation of. Thus linking the imperial family to the
Japanese Shinto population and the Chinese Buddhist elite.

More of this type of thing is described up to WWII.

Among the interpreters of Shinto that he describes, I was most
fascinated by Motoori Norinaga, who he says translated Kojiki
into common Japanese and was interested in returning to "the ways
of the ancients", and separating the link that had been
fabricated between Shinto and Buddhism.

Norinaga supposedly held that there is a kokoro of inanimate
things (a mono no kokoro), so that for example rocks are
responsive to you as you are responsive to them in your makoto no
kokoro. He was also critical of bushidou which he said was
essentially intended to create jar heads who would pursue the
military agenda of the state, and which characterized the
univeral human nature which is open to connect with nature
as "feminine" and promoted instead supposedly "masculine" death
idealizing dumbness.

Anyway, if you've read this book, what were your impressions of
it, and what would you recommend as my next book to read about

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