In these blog posts I sometimes refer to the “Shinto establishment”. In this post, I hope to explain why I do that, and what I mean by the phrase.
Shinto has no prophets, no holy scriptures, and no creed. There are rough equivalents to these things, but they are only rough, and do not play the roles that these things play in Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). One effect of this is that Shinto, as a whole, does not have a unified position on anything. As a result, it is not possible to say “Shinto says that…” or “Followers of Shinto believe…” without being extremely misleading and mischaracterising a lot of people. Despite this, there are a number of features of Shinto that are quite widely shared, and that it is valuable to talk about. For some of them, it is enough to note that there are always exceptions, because the feature is extremely widespread. (There are jinja without torii, the distinctive double-lintel gateways, for example, but they are unusual.) For others, it is possible to give a general idea of the range while still being specific enough to be useful.
There are many cases, however, where that does not really work. In those cases, I tend to talk about what the Shinto establishment believes. There are two reasons for this choice. First, the Shinto establishment, while not representative of Shinto as a whole in many ways, is the best choice if you have to pick one position. It is influential, and has the (at least nominal) support of the overwhelming majority of Shinto priests and jinja. Second, the Shinto establishment makes its official positions public, which means I can both know what it thinks, and report that without breaching any confidences. (Yes, I do know things about Shinto that I cannot write about.) That said, it is still the case that the Shinto establishment is really not representative of Shinto as a whole, and that is why I try to consistently refer to it as “the Shinto establishment”, rather than as “Shinto”. I know for a fact that not all priests agree with all of its positions, but it does seem that many of them agree with much of what it stands for.
So, what is the Shinto establishment? Roughly speaking, it is Jinja Honchō, the nationwide organisation that supervises 80,000 jinja and 20,000 priests, the Shinto Seiji Renmei, a political lobbying association (the name means “Shinto Political League”) , Jinja Shinpō, the Shinto newspaper, Jingū at Isë, and Yasukuni Jinja. These organisations do not agree perfectly with one another, but they tend to work very closely together, and their official positions are close enough that it is not misleading to talk about the position of the Shinto establishment on a wide range of issues. Jinja Shinpō is my main source for information on what they think, as that is the public record and I do try to restrict myself to material that is public. I am not an investigative journalist.
I do know a number of members of the Shinto establishment personally, and I can say from personal experience that even the Shinto establishment is not monolithic. Nevertheless, it does have a clear position on a number of issues, and that position is very important within Shinto. Most practitioners of Shinto tend to hold positions that are, at worst, similar, and those who disagree seem to regard their disagreement as, itself, significant.
For example, I can say that the Shinto establishment believes that the Tennō and Jingū are very important and central to Shinto. That is clearly true. Most priests, probably the overwhelming majority, would agree in broad terms, so this is something useful to say about contemporary Shinto. However, many individual priests have differences of opinion. For example, I believe that there is a substantial number of priests who think that the way Jingū is promoted by the Shinto establishment is a problem. Thus, this is a position that should be attributed to the Shinto establishment, not to Shinto.
My use of this term, then, is part of an attempt to be both accurate and informative, without being confusing.