What is Shinto?

A religion with no founder, no scriptures and only a loosely organised priesthood

Shinto is one of the oldest religions in the world. Related to some of the religions of Korea, Manchuria and Siberia, it is basically a form of nature worship, where natural objects, such as mountains, rivers and heavenly bodies, etc. are worshipped and personified (for example Amatera su-o-mikami, the Sun Spirit). Even Sumo Grand Champions (yokozuna) are considered objects of veneration. Shinto has no founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a loosely organised priesthood who constitute a controlling body called the Jinja Honsho.

Shinto literally means the way, conduct, power or deeds or path of the gods (kami). Kami is a difficult word to translate but is usually rendered in the singular as 'God' or plural as 'gods'; but it suggests something spiritual or 'higher'. Kami may be animate (person, animal), spiritual or even inanimate. Shinto celebrates the rites of life, birth, and marriage which are all considered especially important. Traditions, a moral and ethical code of conduct, must be passed down from generation to generation, therefore the family is extremely important, since it is the family that transmits traditions.

Japan is a physically beautiful country, and the Japanese have always revelled in that; that is why so much of its poetry deals with nature. People must be close to nature that is why activities such as cherry-blossom and maple-leaf viewing are so important. Since natural objects are worshipped as sacred spirits, nature itself is sacred, and being in contact with nature means that you are in touch with the gods.

Cleanliness is godliness in Japan, hence their concern with taking baths, washing their hands often, and rinsing out their mouths. One must be clean in the presence of the spirits. Something that is not clean is considered ugly.

It is usual in Japan to refer to Buddhist places of worship as temples and Shinto places of worship as shrines (jinja). The entrance to a shrine is marked by a 'Torii'. Shrines are always constructed out of wood, are usually surrounded by sacred trees, and have flowing water near them. Every village and town or district in Japan will have its own Shinto shrine, dedicated to the local kami. The Japanese see shrines as restful places filled with a sense of the sacred.

All Shinto involves some shrine worship. Originally the shrines were pieces of land considered unpolluted, virgin land surrounded by trees or by stones. A shrine is usually a room, raised from the ground, with an object or objects inside. One worships the kami inside the shrine. Outside the shrine is placed a wash-basin where you clean your hands and mouth and maybe your face before entering the shrine. This procedure of washing, called 'misogi' is one of the important rituals of Shinto. One worships at a Shinto shrine by ‘attending’ it, that is devoting oneself to the object worshipped, and by giving offerings to it: anything from vegetables to great riches. Shinto prayer, (norito), is based on (koto-dama), the belief that spoken words have a spiritual power, if spoken correctly.

Unfortunately we know almost nothing about early Shinto since it was before writing. There are two important texts of Shinto belief and mythology, the Kojiki (The Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), both written down around 700CE.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit