Shinto in English

Shinto in English

At the moment, I am working on an “Introduction to Shinto” project.

It is a fix-up of most of my Patreon essays into a book. That’s over 130,000 words, so it would be about 450 pages as a paperback book. I think it does a pretty good job of introducing Shinto as it is practised today and its place in Japanese society. It is less good at explaining Shinto “beliefs”, but I think it does make it clear that this is not my fault, and shows how contemporary Shinto is unclear on those questions, and, to some extent, why.

The downside is that it is over 130,000 words long. That’s a beefy book, and people are only going to take the time to read it if they already have a strong interest in Shinto. This kind of book is good for people who know that they want to know about Shinto, but do not, yet, have much knowledge. The target audience is, for example, people who have seen jinja and miko in anime, and want to know what the religion is really like.

Obviously, I think it is important that this kind of book exist, and as far as I know it does not, yet. However, there is another gap in the market, for a different kind of introduction. Something short, for people who hear about Shinto and want to know enough to place it in context, and avoid saying anything really stupid or offensive about it. The free essay available to anyone who signs up to support my Patreon is my attempt at doing this, but at 5,000 words it is on the long side, and is aimed at people who, I can assume, will be reading more material about Shinto in the future.

The problem with a short, standalone introduction to Shinto is the cultural and linguistic gulf between Japan and the English-speaking world. It is entirely possible to write a short paragraph about Shinto that contains many accurate statements, makes no errors, makes legitimate translation choices, and is still highly misleading because of the way that English-speaking culture leads readers to fill in the gaps. The translation of “god” for “kami” is, of course, the classic example, as the associations of “god” are generally inappropriate for “kami”. Another difficult area is “kegarë” and “haraë”, where all the translations tend to suggest, to a greater or lesser extent, a fault on the part of the person who has kegarë. The problem that jinja are fundamentally not like churches, and that matsuri are fundamentally not like church services, also makes things difficult.

Indeed, there are times when I think that a purely negative introduction would actually be more help than anything positive.

“Shinto venerates kami, which are very different from gods, at jinja, which are very different from churches. It places great importance on haraë, which is very different from penance or forgiveness, to remove kegarë, which is very different from sin.”

Of course, people would quite naturally call for a positive description to add to that, and that is where things get really difficult, and you end up with 130,000 words.

I will keep working on it.

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