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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser