Yasukuni Fundamentalism

An English-language book about Shinto, Yasukuni Fundamentalism (affiliate link) by Mark R. Mullins was published earlier this year. It is an interesting book about some of the political activities of people connected with Shinto, and I wrote a full review of it as part of my Patreon.

It is well-researched. It covers a wide range of topics, and, in the areas that I already know about, the facts reported in the book are almost all true, with a small number of trivial inaccuracies. Since Mullins does not make any important mistakes in those (substantial) areas, I assume that the same is true in the areas I know less well, such as the discussion of school teachers being required to stand for the national anthem, and being disciplined for refusing to do so. He also clearly reports facts that are not helpful for his interpretation of the situation, and engages with them. If you are looking for an English-language source on events over the last twenty years concerning religious freedom in Japan and certain aspects of Shinto, then I think that this is a reliable place to look.

However, I strongly disagree with his interpretation of these events as a form of Shinto fundamentalism. I go into detail in the full review, but one of the problems I have can be stated simply. The movement that Mullins discusses includes people from a number of religions, as he himself notes, and one of the major figureheads for it within the Shinto establishment, Yamatani Eriko, is a Catholic. That is not what a fundamentalist religious movement looks like.

An important part of the problem seems to be that Mullins does not acknowledge that large parts of Shinto are non-religious. He does acknowledge that most Japanese practitioners of Shinto over the last 150 years (that is, since the concept of “religion” was introduced to Japan) believed, and still believe, that most Shinto practices are non-religious, but he prefers the opinion shared by the occupying US forces after WWII and some contemporary Japanese who do not practise Shinto, that it is clearly a religion through-and-through. In my full review, I argue that this is the wrong way to decide the question.

Reading this book crystallised a thought that has been developing as I learn more about Shinto. I think that, at least for Westerners, it is profoundly unhelpful to approach Shinto with the belief that it is a Japanese religion. The assumptions and thought patterns that the concept of “religion” brings with it are almost all misleading when it comes to Shinto as broadly practised in Japan.

Instead, I think it would be better to treat it as a significant traditional cultural practice, like the tea ceremony, or sumo wrestling. As you learned more about it, you would, indeed, find that it has a number of elements that are best described as religious, but you would not grant them more importance than they are really due. In fact, sumo wrestling is a good parallel: there are a number of very important religious elements in its practice, but it would be really, really unhelpful to start your investigation from the position that it was a religion.

In the end, I think I would stand by my characterisation of Shinto as “the native religious tradition of Japan”, but I think it would be much easier to get an accurate understanding of Shinto if that were where you finish, rather than where you start. Maybe I need to revise the opening of my book.

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