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Shinto Beliefs

At the beginning of every year, Jinja Shinpō publishes a number of short articles by people in the Shinto world who share that year’s Chinese zodiac animal. As there are twelve animals in the cycle, that means that the articles are written by people who will turn 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, or 84 in the coming year. (I have not yet noticed one by someone heading for 96 or 108, nor by someone about to reach 12.) A lot of them are the chief priests of jinja, but others are lower priests, or staff at Jinja Honchō or one of the prefectural Jinjachō, which is not incompatible with also being a chief priest.

Because they cover the whole country and a wide range of ages, the articles tend to be very interesting. One point in one of this year’s particularly caught my attention.

The author is a hereditary priest of a Hachiman Jinja, so hereditary that his family name is “Hachiman” (or possibly “Yawata”; the characters would be the same), and he is about to turn 60. In his article he comments that, even after deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, he really liked science, and wasn’t at all sure how he should understand Shinto. His appreciation for the significance of Shinto was deepened by service at Jingū, but he was still unsure about how to interpret Shinto when his father died and, around twelve years ago, he took over the family jinja. That presented some problems regarding his approach to promoting the jinja: what should he say about it? He concludes that he has decided that the jinja should be providing Shinto-style emotional and psychological support to the people of the area, but his conclusion strongly suggests that he still has not solved the problem of how he should interpret the religion.

The first point of interest is that this is a concrete example of an active chief priest who does not “believe in the kami” in a conventional sense, apparently because modern science suggests that the traditional beliefs cannot be right. The second point of interest is that he didn’t see any problem with writing about that in the house newspaper of the Shinto world, and that the newspaper did not see any problem with publishing it. That is, nobody seems to think that this will cause any problems for his position.

And why should it? He is quite clear about continuing the traditional ceremonies, and his deep appreciation of both the traditional and ceremonial aspects.

This is a clear example of a fundamental difference between Shinto and western religions. Western religions are what is called “orthodoxic”: they put a strong emphasis on believing the right things. Shinto is “orthopraxic”: the emphasis is on performing the right rituals in the right way. In an orthodoxic religion, it does not matter how you pray, as long as your beliefs are right. In an orthopraxic religion, it does not matter what you believe, as long as your rituals are right. It is hardly surprising that many westerners find Shinto hard to understand at the beginning.

10 thoughts on “Shinto Beliefs”

  1. Very interesting! I’ve never seen the difference between the two approaches explained so clearly and succinctly before!
    I do think Jinja Shinpo should do more to solicit the views of 12-year-olds though: that could be *very* interesting! 😉

  2. As a practitioner of an orthopraxic “Western religion” (Druidry), I could wish you had specified “monotheistic” or “Abrahamic” religions instead… but erasure aside, this was very interesting!

    1. Sorry about that. I’m not intimately familiar with Druidry, and the western pagan religions I do know about (mainly Wicca) are more on the orthodoxic side than the orthopraxic (although more orthopraxic than Christianity), so I generalised.

      1. No worries. I think most of the Wiccans I know would likely ID as orthopraxic as well, but that’s obviously a limited sample size. 🙂

        I have wished, more than once when you talked about these articles, that Jinja Shinpo was available in English – so thank you very much for sharing them, it really is interesting!

        1. There’s an interesting question here. Obviously, orthodoxic-orthopraxic is a continuum; there are significant orthopraxic elements in Catholicism, for example. Protestant Christianity is about as far over on the orthodoxic end as it is possible to be, however, and my impression is that that has had a strong influence on religions in a western context, pulling them towards the orthodoxic end by serving as the standard for what a religion “should” be. Shinto, on the other hand, is really close to the orthopraxic pole, and this is part of why Christian missionaries declared that Shinto was not a religion at all.

          One source of this feeling is that books I have read introducing western paganisms to a lay audience generally do talk about beliefs. Books introducing Shinto to a Japanese lay audience generally do not. My impression is that Christianity has created an environment in the west in which a “religion” has to talk about what it believes, whereas Shinto does not have that to the same extent. I should note that I am not entirely sure that this was true of pre-Meiji Shinto. Yoshida Shinto did have some very definite beliefs, as did Ise Shinto, or Suika Shinto, but they were formed in response to Buddhism, which is towards the orthodoxic end. The extent to which these beliefs were generally accepted, or to which it was felt to be important that people accepted them, is not clear to me.

          So yes, I was grossly simplifying a complex issue for a short blog post. I’m glad you find these interesting; given that Jinja Shinpo is not even available in modern Japanese, I don’t think an English edition is coming any time soon, so you are stuck with my reports for now.

        2. A quick example.

 disclaims both orthodoxy and orthopraxy in its first sentence, but goes on to be much more prescriptive about beliefs than Shinto would be — and the site maintainer feels it needs this page.

          Jinja Honcho’s Japanese homepage has nothing equivalent.

          From the looks of things, Druidry is quite a long way over towards the orthopraxic side, but it is still influenced by the orthodoxic orthodoxy of the west.

  3. “my impression is that that has had a strong influence on religions in a western context… books I have read introducing western paganisms to a lay audience generally do talk about beliefs… My impression is that Christianity has created an environment in the west in which a “religion” has to talk about what it believes, whereas Shinto does not have that to the same extent.”

    Absolutely! The “water you swim in” matters, and as most Western paganisms are still largely convert religions (although that ratio decreases slightly with every decade), the “101” books generally do start there as it’s what the interested outsider is more than likely expecting. I had a startling example of this expectation myself a few years ago: our UU church used to have an adult nonfiction book group, and I got them to agree to read an introductory book on Shinto. Unfortunately, I chose Sokyo Ono’s book, which – while perfectly solid – is not really organized with the Western layperson in mind, and so my group members (mostly retirement-age, and mostly raised either Christian or atheist) never found their footing and the whole thing fizzled. I would have done better with Scott Littleton or Ian Reader, a “101” book written specifically for Westerners.

    One additional thought – I’ve been part of the pagan world, both online and IRL, since 1990. A big part of my personal journey – and based on numerous conversations over the years, I feel safe in saying I’m not alone – has been consciously unlearning the orthodoxic mindset and finding my way into a more fluid, experiential and relational way of being in the world. And that’s what you tend to find more often when we’re talking among ourselves, at least in the circles I move in – learning how to think and act outside of the dominant paradigm seems to be the necessary stage of our journey as a whole, right now.

    Moving back to your actual subject 🙂 – when you say Jinja Shinpo is not available in “modern Japanese”, are you saying it’s published in a more archaic version of the language, like that used in the norito?? That’s wild.

    1. I think there is a need for a good English language introduction to Shinto. That would be why I’m writing one…

      The Japanese in Jinja Shinpo is not quite as bad as norito, but they use pre-War conventions for writing, so some of the kana and kanji are different from modern usage. They also use kanji for things that are normally written in kana these days, and a few special expressions, such as one that means “December of last year, as long as it is still January now”. It’s a lot easier to get used to than norito, but the paper does have a little article they print every few issues explaining their conventions.

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