The Mystery of Shinto

Is it possible to demystify this most opaque of religions?

If you ask someone about Christianity, Islam or Judaism most people will have some knowledge of them. Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism similarly but ask about Shinto and most people will know very little about it.

Some will know that it is Japanese but knowledge of the subject stops there. This is strange when almost the entire population of Japan, almost 128,000 million people, practise this religion to some extent. Even this is curious because we may discover that almost the same number of Japanese are nominally Buddhist. Most Japanese, then, are followers of two religions and can perceive no anomaly or problem with this.

Ask a Japanese person if he or she follows Shinto and the answer will mostly be no. Ask them to explain what Shinto is about and a blank look will come over them and they will be at a loss for words. Unfortunately neither answer will be what we understand as ‘true’. How is this possible? I have been visiting Japan almost every year since 1972, my wife for 34 years is Japanese, and in my experience they are a most honest people.

The mystery deepens. The Japanese are not thought of as inscrutable without reason. At this point I must extend the mystery by relating a true story. A certain French professor of religion had read most (there are not many) books in European languages on Shinto and saw a need to write his own. Being very intelligent he quickly realised that he would have to conduct his own research in Japan. He went to see the Japanese Cultural attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Paris and asked for some letters of introduction to senior Shinto priests (kanushi). The attaché was most helpful and the professor flew to Japan.

He realised that it would be helpful to visit some of the major shrines in Japan before meeting the priests which he did. After that the day came for him to meet two of the senior Shinto priests. They welcomed him and he thanked them in advance for them agreeing to see him and answer his questions.

He put has first question. “I have visited already”, he said, “some of the major Shinto Shrines and I would like to begin with a simple question”. The priests nodded. “In every shrine I have visited I have seen a priest or sometimes priests moving around the shrine carrying a carved piece of wood (shaku) in both hands. Why is this?”

The priest answered, “we do not know”.

The professor was not happy. He said, “Look this seems to be very common practise and I have come a long way. Can you please consult and find a better answer”.

The first priest spoke with the second priest and then answered, “well you see it is to help us remember something.”

“Good”, said the professor writing the answer in his notebook. “And what does it help you remember?”

“We have forgotten,” said the priest.

It is difficult to get more inscrutable than that. Is it possible to demystify this apparently opaque religion?

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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