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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.

6 thoughts on “Shinto in English”

  1. Even in the west, the term “god” isn’t an accurate word to compare pagan deities to the Abrahamic notion of “God”. Pagan myths share a lot of similarities with the Shinto mythos and probably had a similar genesis. While as Judaism developed separately.

    So it might be more accurate to translate kami to “god” in the pagan sense, but not “God” in the monotheistic meaning. But a better translation is probably fairy who share a similar animistic quality with kami and yokai. Though there are certain connotation which just do not translate into English at all.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      It’s certainly true the western paganism bears a lot of similarities to Shinto, and back before the rise of Christianity “deus” and “theos” probably would have worked well as translations of “kami”. (To be honest, the early myths of Judaism also bear a great deal of similarity to Shinto myths, to the point that some people have suggested that the Japanese are at least one of the lost tribes of Israel; that is not, however, the case.) It’s the way that “god” has developed over the last couple of thousand years that makes it a bad translation of “kami”.

      I’m afraid I don’t feel that “fairy” is a good translation, though. The contemporary association with “small people with wings” is just too strong.

      1. Well, there were Jewish synagogues in India in the early first century A.D. and the apostle Thomas potentially visited Indonesia while traveling with Indian sailors. Japan did trade with India during this time so there probably was a few Jewish traders who visited. There is documentation of Hindus and Buddhists visiting Rome so in all likelihood there probably were early century Christian missionaries who visited Japan too. Though most likely in little numbers and to little effect.
        I see your point about faeries, but I feel that they are more analogous than Abrahamic religions. Things like water nymphs or goblins correlate with certain Kami and yokai. Though there are also qualities of Kami which are unique just to Shinto.

        1. I’m not aware of any evidence for direct trade between Japan and, well, anywhere in the early first century AD. It presumably happened, but the earliest datable artefacts I’m aware of are second or third century, and Chinese. Japan is as far from India as India is from Rome, roughly, so I very much doubt that Christian missionaries came to Japan in that period. I mean, there is good reason to think that there were virtually no Buddhists in Japan in that period.

          Water nymphs and similar are very similar to kami in many ways, and there are a number of modern fictional treatments of faeries that have startling similarities to kami. However, the practices of medieval Christianity with regard to saints are also very similar to Shinto practices towards kami, but that does not make “saint” a good translation of kami; the connotations are all wrong. “Fairy” has the same problem.

          The similarities are interesting in themselves, of course. Why do they exist? Common origin? Universal patterns of human psychology? Similar reactions to similar phenomena? I’m not even sure how one would go about addressing that question, so I haven’t done anything beyond wonder about it.

          1. My point is that while it would have been hard it is not inconceivable that a few early Christian and Buddhist missionaries made it to Japan in the first century. But I do not think they influenced the Shinto creation myth.

            The same was said of the American Indians too and there are a lot of similarity between all creation myths.

            1. I agree, it certainly isn’t inconceivable, and early Buddhists are even likely.

              There has been a tendency to find the Lost Tribes of Israel in a wide range of unlikely places, and I agree that there are a lot of similarities between myths from different cultures, so that we need to be cautious when drawing any conclusions from that.

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