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Showcasing Shinto: The Reinvention of Shinto as an Ecological Religion

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 1:42 pm In Abstracts for 2013, History, Philosophy and Religion | Comments Disabled

Leif Petter Sandvik

University of Oslo


The emperor and the nation have been central to representations of Shinto since the Meiji period, but recently, there has been a widespread tendency among Japanese (and others) to equate Shinto with eco-friendliness. I have investigated the history of this idea in order to understand how this new representation of Shinto as an ecological religion came to be. This paper is based on my Master’s Thesis completed at the University of Oslo, spring 2011. It is the first investigation of the history of the concept of Shinto as an ecological religion, and aims at understanding how this new representation of Shinto came to be. These modern ideas reverberate with an older discourse on nature in Japan. Prominent scholars and ideologues who have contributed to the idea that the Japanese religions are nature loving are for example: Watsuji Tetsuro, Okakura Tenshin and Masaharu Anesaki. Other scholars have questioned this view; among them are: Poul Pedersen, Arne Kalland and Julia Thomas. While their perspectives are different, these scholars all underline that there are ideological reasons behind the ecological claim.

A second important aspect is Shinto‘s connections to nationalism. The collective (ultimately the state) in which the emperor is symbolized as Japan‘s high-priest, has also been an important aspect of Shinto since the Meiji period. I have tried to identify the status of imperialistic and nationalistic Shinto within the new reinterpretation of Shinto as a cult of nature. Does the increased focus on nature clash with Shinto‘s association with the emperor, or do they reinforce each other?

In my investigation of environmental activities within Shinto I travelled to Japan, conducted interviews, visited shrines and collected relevant material. I interviewed High priest of Chichibu shrine, Mr. Sonoda Minoru. He is one of the leading figures in the shrine world concerning environmental issues. He is involved in an organization called the Shasō Gakkai‘, which focuses on the protection of and the education about sacred forests (chinju no mori) in Japan. I also I interviewed Mr. Taima Yoichi, a Shinto priest at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine. We talked about ‘Enju no Kai‘, which is a shrine-organised group that aims to engage shrine believers in ecological activities, such as workshops, forest management and environmental activities for school children. Educating the children are one of the main activities of Enju no Kai. I will also demonstrate how the ideology of nature, environmentalism, and the myth that the Japanese have a particular relationship with nature also are prevalent in modern popular media, such as Miyazaki Hayao‘s animated movies. This shows that there is a discourse on nature and environmentalism separate from Shinto, yet which also draws on past traditions and symbols reminiscent of kami-worship.

Another interesting topic of research was Jinja Honchō‘, the National Association of Shinto Shrines. I examined what this organization says about environmentalism contrary to the emperor and the state. What made this organization an interesting object for my study was that the Japanese version of the Association‘s homepage is almost solely dedicated to the emperor and the nation. On the other hand, in the English version, Shinto is presented in terms of ―sacred nature‖, and as a nature loving religion.

My main argument is that this new representation relates to post-modern concerns and identity-seeking. The ideologues are constantly contrasting the problematic present with a better past. They argue that ancient practices of kami-worship attest to Shinto s benign relationship with nature. The new representation of Shinto as an ecological religion, I argue, also involves a fair amount of paradoxes and builds on a reversed-orientalism. I have applied critical analysis in my investigation and I will demonstrate that the new representation of Shinto as an ecological religion is a social and historical construct.


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