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Shinto and the Sacred Dimension of Nature

Dr.Carmen Blacker, University of Cambridge

Excerpted from the international symposium, "Shinto and Japanese Culture" organised by International Shinto Foundation in association with Japan Research Center, SOAS, University of London

From 30 years of study of Shinto and of respect for its divinities I am convinced that it can guide us to a new way of looking at the world around us. It can remind us that there is a holy dimension in natural objects and that space is not homogeneous, that there are indeed places imbued with the presence of something "wholly other." First then, the Shinto which the new Foundation seeks to make better known throughout the world is not State Shinto, which was a recent and disastrous aberration of the traditional beliefs. What exactly was this warped creed, and how did it rise to such power?

You will all remember that in 1868 a great historical change occurred in Japan known as the Meiji Restoration. The feudal system under the Tokugawa Shogunate was abolished and the country was united as never before in its history under the rule of the Emperor in Tokyo, and an oligarchy of the enterprising men who had brought about this great change.

This change was not only a political and institutional one. It was also a mental and spiritual one. In 1868 the Meiji oligarchs found a loose federation of feudal domains, each fiercely loyal to its own feudal lord, ruled by a defunct Shogunate and a mysterious, invisible Emperor secluded within his palace in Kyoto. For such a dispersed people a new myth, a new ideology was essential, a myth which would make them of "one mind and one spirit," with a sense of their own unified identity and destiny. This new myth must clearly be backed up, legitimised, by religious sanctions.

-- Meiji oligarchs turned to Shinto. --

The religion which the Meiji oligarchs turned to for support was not Buddhism, though there had been notable Buddhist emperors and kings in other Asian countries. They turned to the older religion in Japan for their inspiration, Shinto.

But at first sight it would seem that they could scarcely have found less promising material for their purpose than the Shinto which existed before 1868; no religion less likely to form the basis of a new myth of a unified and specially chosen people.

In the first place, the very term Shinto covered an immensely wide field of religious cult and beIief. It covered first the phenomenon of thousands, not to say tens of thousands of small independent shrines scattered throughout Japan and dedicated to an immense number of the divinities called 'kami'. These kami were extremely many and various, deriving from many different spiritual origins: from deified ancestors, from pacified angry ghosts, from holy trees and pools, from phallic stones, and from the forces that bestow supernatural skill, what we call genius, on certain arts and crafts. Some such divinities often dated back to remote periods of prehistory. Others were more recent. But they were all called by the same general name of kami.

The next step was to demonstrate that the Japanese people were uniquely special, given a special act of creation different from other nations, and bound together by ties of a common divine origin and destiny. To this end the oligarchs made clever use of the old myths of the Kojiki, recorded in the 8th century. Thus the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, whose cult before 1868 was unknown in many parts of Japan, was raised to a paramomt glory she had never enjoyed before. She was proclaimed to be the divine Ancestor of the Imperial house from whom in an unbroken line had sprung the succession of Emperors to the present day, and whose heritage bestowed on Japan a uniquely sacred quality denied to other nations. Her cult site at Ise was given supreme importance and prominence, and the mythology surrounding her was proclaimed to be the "immemorial heritage of the entire Japanese people."

Most important of all, the Emperor was translated from his shadowy seclusion in Kyoto, where for more than 200 years he had never left the precincts of his palace, to the new capital of Tokyo. There he was promoted to a religious and symbolic role of extraordinary potency. He was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess, a living link in the golden chain that attached Japan to her divine origins; he was high priest of Shinto and the focus of all emotions of loyalty and devotion, for whom it was a supreme honour to die.

The cult of this divinised figure, scarcely related to the human being who was its vessel and vehicle, was promoted by inexorable indoctrination in schools and colleges. The portrait of the Emperor was worshipped as a holy icon. The words of his Rescript of 1890 were revered as holy scripture. Those who had died for him in the various wars since 1868 were devoutly worshipped as heroes in the Yasukuni Shrine. And the indoctrination in schools was backed up by the activities of the police in suppressing any cult considered remotely inimical to State Shinto, on the charge of lese majeste.

-- State Shinto collapsed in 1945. --

These policies had their terrible culmination in the Second World War, and it was only in l945 that this strange, illusory structure of State Shinto collapsed. The Occupation lost no time in disestablishing all that pertained to the cult, and in offering the Japanese people complete freedom to worship any religion they liked, and to form any new religious groups that they liked. It lost no time also in seeing that the Emperor declared himself to be a human being, with no pretensions to divinity in any form.

So Shinto as a religion was thus reduced to much the same status that it had held before 1868. The small independent shrines proliferated, the bigger ones with their ramified branches flourished, while literally scores of new groups, founded by a charismatic leader claiming special connection with a certain kami, appeared a1l over the country to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the state cult hitherto held to be invincible and absolute.

So here is my first point. State Shinto was a recent aberration of the beliefs that had peaceably existed in Japan for centuries, and animated Japanese culture, literature and folklore in a unique and natural manner. Its story rams home to us the salutary lesson of the terrifying way in which the powerful symbols of myth and religion can be manipulated, and how from the most unlikely beginnings they can be used, not only to weld together a new nation state, but also to create one in which a totalitarian fanaticism utterly alien to the real tradition of the culture can drive that nation to disaster. It is a salutary reminder also of what ravages can be perpetrated by what a historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called "the invention of tradition."

So I repeat, for I have heard doubts expressed on this point in various quarters, that it is not State Shinto which the organisers of this new International Shinto Foundation are seeking to promote abroad. How anyway could such creed possibly have any international appeal? We need not fear any revival of the Emperor cult or the special destiny of Japan. It is something older and more universal which we hope will be explored and presented. Something which has always been part of Japanese culture, but which can be understood elsewhere.

-- Return to the origin of Japanese culture. --

Shinto can remind us that the natural world is not a machine put there for our sole enjoyment. It does contain a dimension which induces reverence, respect and the intuition that we are part of this subtle fabric, not its exploiter. Shinto can help us look again with new eyes at the world about us, and see that what our grandfathers may have dismissed as superstition, and the missionaries sought to deride as idolatry, is in fact a fundamental if hidden truth which we have neglected for too long.

So I welcome the promotion of this kind of Shinto, which has always been an integral part of Japanese culture, but which now has wider implication for the world than for Japan alone. Hence I further welcome this 'international', the 'kokusai', in the title, and hope that we can be open enough ourselves to relearn this ancient though forgotten dimension of experience. Thank you.


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