The Sacredness of Forests

In the November 22nd issue, Jinja Shinpō began an occasional series of articles on the sacred forests (鎮守の森, chinju no mori) of jinja. I have mentioned before that all jinja aspire to have a sacred forest, even if practicalities sometimes restrict it to a single tree, and the first article in the series, by Revd Sonoda Minoru, tackles the history of that reality.

Revd Sonoda is a very important figure in this area of Shinto. He is the chief priest of Chichibu Jinja in Saitama Prefecture, and has written extensively on Shinto and environmental issues. He is also involved in more active projects, but I do not have the details to hand, so I will leave that topic there.

He starts by reporting a survey done in Kanagawa Prefecture (where I live) in 1970, which reported that there were 3250 or so sacred forests in the prefecture at the end of WWII, but only 42 of them remained by 1970. (I am not quite sure what the definition is, here. There are, on the simplest definition, three within twenty minutes’ walk of my home, in one of the more urbanised areas of Kanagawa, so there must be other conditions involved. Those three are quite small, and managed.) While the precise numbers probably depend on how you define a “sacred forest”, it is clear that there was a sharp decline in the number of such forests after the war, during the period of economic growth.

Revd Sonoda describes the big picture as follows. (As noted earlier, he has studied this topic extensively, so he is in a position to know.) During the period of economic development, land was needed for roads, railways, and new building developments. The sacred forests of jinja were often conveniently located, and weren’t doing anything important as far as developers could see. Thus, government officials and local residents were often enthusiastic about paving over the forest or building flats on it. I am pretty sure that also happened in my area. Sometimes the priests resisted and saved the sacred forest, but not very often. Revd Sonoda suggests that it had always just been obvious that the forests should be protected, so that when surrounding society wanted to destroy them, the priests were generally unable to articulate why the forests should be protected in time to actually do so. And, of course, in some cases they agreed with the prevailing opinions.

However, Revd Sonoda does not want to place all the blame on the priests. He also criticises the the pre-war government for its separation of Shinto and Buddhism and rationalisation of jinja, a program with its roots in Edo period pragmatism, and, even further back, in the spread of jinja buildings. He argues that kami were originally formless spirits who dwelt in the woods of watersheds, but with the spread of permanent sanctuaries the kami became identified with the goshintai kept in the sanctuaries, and the perception of the forests as sacred became weaker. Despite that, Shinto architecture almost never stands out from the forest around it, but rather the sanctuaries are overshadowed by the trees, in contrast to Buddhist, Daoist, and Christian sacred architecture. Nevertheless, by the Edo period, founding a new jinja meant building the sanctuaries, not marking off a sacred forest.

In short, the idea of the sacred forests as sacred, areas that people should not enter and where the trees and other living creatures should remain undisturbed, was largely lost, and not really taken up in the theology of the Kokugaku scholars of the late Edo period, who laid the foundations for contemporary mainstream Shinto. Even so, some sacred forests survived, and today they are increasingly being seen as important by people across the world, as examples of natural ecosystems.

I think that this will be a very interesting series, and I anticipate getting more blog posts out of it.

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5 thoughts on “The Sacredness of Forests”

    1. No. The Kokugaku scholars were hostile to Yoshida Shinto (broadly speaking), which is a large part of the reason why it was suppressed by the Meiji government.

    1. Yes, as long as they stay in the forest. The original idea is not to disturb it at all, which includes animals. In most cases, however, the animals were not tracked when they left the area, and so ceased to be sacred when they did. (There were, I believe, exceptions, such as the deer at Kasuga Taisha in Nara.)

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