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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred