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Shinto and the Environment

Shinto is often seen as a nature-worshipping religion, and this perception has quite a bit of truth to it. After all, jinja are all supposed to have sacred forests, and some natural features are revered as kami. However, this does not mean that Shinto has traditionally been environmentally conscious in the modern sense. Aike Rots has written a very interesting book about the growth of the idea of Shinto as an environmental religion, Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests (affiliate link!), and it is certainly true that the Shinto establishment has been less interested in environmental issues than in, for example, making sure that married couples cannot have different surnames.

This attitude seems to be shifting. The Shinto establishment has been paying lip service to the idea that Shinto is an environmental religion for some time now, primarily in its English language publications, but a couple of articles in the 30th August edition of Jinja Shinpō suggest that it may be moving towards more concrete actions and policies.

The first was the lead article on the front page, which is all about the important role played by OECM (Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures) in the G7 strategy for biodiversity conservation. OECM is anything that is not a nature reserve, but still effectively preserves biodiversity. This can include, for example, military firing ranges, because occasionally being blown up is much less damaging to biodiversity than being farmed.

The article is surprisingly oblique, largely reporting the definition of the concept and the Japanese government’s plans for implementing it, while saying next to nothing about the possible role of jinja, but the relevance to Shinto is obvious: most jinja’s sacred forests (“chinju no mori”) would qualify as OECM. If the government produces any sort of concrete support for such locations, this could be a great help for isolated jinja in depopulated areas. Even if it just provided official recognition, that would give the jinja a stronger position in negotiations with other authorities that wanted to move them to build roads, for example. It probably would not require jinja to change anything that they do, but it would involve priests having a positive consciousness of the environmental value of their forests, which would be a good thing.

This was backed up by the editorial, which started with the recent IPCC report on the unequivocal human influence on the climate, and talked about the broad impact of global temperature rises, particularly on rice agriculture. Rice agriculture is central to Shinto, being the basis for many of the most important matsuri, and so this is a good way to make the importance of climate change clear to Shinto priests.

The editorial does not call for any particular action on climate change, but it is an explicit acknowledgement that broad environmental issues will have an impact on the particular things that Shinto cares about, and that is an important shift in the conversation.

In general, Shinto is not an environmentally high-impact religion. A few months ago, I happened to read a UN document about Green Houses of Worship, and most jinja would need to do very little to qualify by those standards. As with treating the sacred forests as OECM, most jinja would not need to make major changes to their activities to adopt environmental priorities. Rather, they would just need to change the way they think about what they already do. That, in turn, could lead to reducing their impact further, and influence on their local communities.

Personally, I hope that these articles are a sign that this shift is happening.

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