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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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.