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25 June 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

The Mystery of Shinto

Is it possible to demystify this most opaque of religions?

By Jeffrey Somers

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.

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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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