Cultural Sensitivity

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post asking who had the authority to decide whether someone could practise Shinto, or was practising it wrongly, and came to the conclusion that no one did. However, as I mentioned at the end of that post, there might still be things that you should do if you are investigating Shinto, even if no-one has the authority to tell you that you are doing it wrong. This post is about my position on that.

Obviously, this post is not telling you what you have to do if you want to investigate or practise Shinto. I spent a whole post arguing that no-one has the authority to do that, and that includes me. Rather, I will describe what I think is a good way to approach the field, with reasons. It is up to you to decide whether you agree.

I think there are three basic elements in an appropriate attitude: humility, respect, and initiative.

“Humility” is quite specific: it means recognising that there is a lot that you do not know. This is particularly true if you are not fluent in Japanese; there simply is not enough information about Shinto available in any other language to make anyone an expert. I am working to change that, but I cannot write enough to remove the problem, and we would need more points of view in any case.

However, it remains true even if you are fluent in Japanese, have passed the highest level of the Jinja Kentei, and are hired to explain Shinto to other Japanese people. (Like me.) There are 80,000 jinja in Japan that are registered as religious corporations. It is very likely that all of them have had unique practices, or still do. There are also local practices that probably are forms of Shinto, but that are not associated with any incorporated jinja. And there are dozens of Shinto sects, which have different practices again. There is no way that any individual can know all about all of these traditions, or even a significant fraction of them. I discover new things through the pages of Jinja Shinpō almost every week, and I doubt that I will ever stop doing so.

In practical terms, humility means that you can never tell anyone that their practice is wrong. You can ask about it, if it is different from what you are familiar with, but you should ask on the assumption that it is correct practice, and in the expectation that you will learn more about the diversity of Shinto. Often, that is what will happen. (I have asked a Shinto priest about a particular unusual practice, and received the (paraphrased) reply “Oops, no, you’re right, it should be the other way around”. So that also happens sometimes.)

“Respect” means prioritising existing practitioners’ preferences about their practice over your desires, convenience, and principles. If the priest tells you that you need to put a jacket on over your t-shirt before you go into the prayer hall for a ceremony, then you should put a jacket on. If a particular jinja does not want to send an ofuda through the post, then you should not buy it online from a middleman. If a particular matsuri is closed to people who are not descended from particular families, you should not attend. If women are not allowed in a particular sacred area, and you are female, you should stay out. If men are not allowed to be miko at a jinja, and you are male, you should not try to be a miko there.

The practical effect of this, for most people reading this blog, is that you should try to follow existing practice as closely as possible, rather than making up your own version of Shinto. (If you are actually in Japan, it could have a wider impact, as described above.) The existing practices reflect the preferences of the existing practitioners, and following them expresses your attitude that their beliefs about the practice are more important than yours.

This is one that does shift if you become a member of a particular Shinto community, which can happen. Once you are a member of a community, you have the same right as any other member of that community to suggest changes. Indeed, making such suggestions is a part of being a member. However, even then you cannot, I think, do any more than suggest, at least not unless you have actually become the chief priest of a jinja. (Incidentally, part of this point is not calling yourself a Shinto priest unless one of the existing Shinto groups in Japan has licensed you as such.)

The reason for humility is so obvious that it didn’t need to be explicitly stated: there really is a lot that you do not know, and so you should act in a way that recognises that fact. The reason for respect is a little more complex. The basic idea is that outsiders should not tell a community how to operate, or insist that the community should include them. Cultures should be allowed to exist, even if they are different from yours.

This is why I think you should even prioritise their preferences over your principles. I, personally, think that women should not be excluded from sacred areas. However, part of respect is allowing jinja that wish to do so to continue to do so. This is likely to be controversial, but if you allow your principles to overrule their practices, you are behaving in exactly the same way as the nineteenth century Christian missionaries who tried to suppress Indigenous cultures throughout the colonised world. You may, obviously, decide not to participate in activities at jinja with elements you disagree with (although see my earlier essay on Working with Disagreements for reasons why you might not make that choice), but you should not protest against it. (In theory, there could be extreme cases where respect would be overridden by other considerations. However, I am not aware of any Shinto practices that cross that line, or even come close to it.)

The reason for respect is also the reason why it changes when you become a member of a community. Communities do change from the inside, and so once you are an insider, you are allowed to suggest changes and express dissatisfaction with certain features of the community’s practice. Of course, given the diversity of Shinto, even when you are an insider at a particular jinja, or Jinja Honchō, you are still an outsider at a lot of other jinja. The need for respect does not go away completely.

The final element is “initiative”. This means that you should make the effort to find out about Shinto, rather than demanding that people bring the information to you. It is good that you want to know more about Shinto, but you should not make demands on existing practitioners. If they offer to help, for example if they have a Patreon for essays on the topic, then it is, of course, sensible to take them up on the offer, but you should be very cautious about asking for help.

The reason for this is that it is very easy to put an unexpected amount of pressure on people with seemingly innocent requests. This is particularly true if someone is publicly prominent — your question might only be short and quick, but added to the other five hundred similar questions they have received that day, it makes a lot of work. Now, that is unlikely to happen in Shinto (I only get one question every few weeks, for example), but it should still be a consideration. You should try to find out for yourself first, and if you fail, you should think carefully about whether to ask. (This is what I did with the question of removing offerings from a kamidana. It was only after all the written sources failed to be clear that I went to ask priests.)

Of these three, respect is, I think, the most important. Humility and initiative can even be seen as specific aspects of respect — humility is a matter of prioritising their beliefs about their practices over yours, while initiative is a matter of prioritising their decision about how to use their time over your desire to know. Respect is the principle that would lead to you not practising Shinto if the consensus of its practitioners was that you shouldn’t. Fortunately, the overwhelming consensus in the Shinto community is that anyone may practise it.

While I can’t say that you must do things this way, I can say that, if you approach Shinto with respect, humility, and initiative, you are very likely to receive a warm welcome.

I have a Patreon, where people subscribe to receive in-depth essays on various aspects of Shinto, about once per month. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

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