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A Review of Shinto: A History

I have just finished reading Shinto: A History by Helen Hardacre. (Affiliate link) It is the best history of Shinto available in English at the moment, and while that is not exactly a crowded field, it is head-and-shoulders above the competition. I would expect this to remain the standard one-volume history of Shinto in English for a good few years yet, because there would need to be significant changes in the general view of the topic to make it worth anyone’s while to produce a competing volume. I certainly don’t intend to.

On the other hand, it makes a good companion to my book (also an affiliate link), because I focus on contemporary Shinto and say little about the history, while Hardacre’s book does not have much to say about the details of contemporary Shinto practice. (That said, she has a very interesting chapter on one matsuri, at Ōkunitama Jinja in Fuchū City, Tokyo, and other material on recent changes in Shinto.)

The chapters on more recent history, from the Edo period onwards, are very good. I learned quite a lot, particularly about aspects that reflect less well on the Shinto establishment and the Meiji construction of Shinto. I agree with her that government interference in Shinto in that period was much stronger than “state management of shrines”, and her suggestion to use “State Shinto” to refer to state attempts to impose ideology through jinja is an interesting one. It gives the phrase a clear meaning, and captures an important aspect of the period. On the downside, it excludes Meiji Jingū from State Shinto, which I think makes her suggestion more of a term of art than a clarification of how the words have typically been used. Mind you, I also agree with her that “State Shinto” has not been used in any particularly clear way, and that something needs to be done if the term is to be useful in discussion and analysis.

The book does have weaknesses, as is inevitable in any attempt by one person to cover such a wide range. I spotted a number of small mistakes (although I am fairly certain that in a few of those cases, the mistake would turn out to be mine), and typos, including the claim that the Japanese Constitution prohibits state funding of any religious institution not under “pubic authority”. None of them are serious, and the mistakes are more likely to be about non-Shinto topics. In addition, the chapters on early Shinto are fine, but very conventional — it is obvious that this is not Hardacre’s period of interest.

The guiding questions in the book are about the public and indigenous nature of Shinto. This is a good choice, because these have always been important issues, and remain so today. As Hardacre acknowledges, there are aspects of Shinto that do not fit either of these questions, and she constantly returns to the questions of what people took “public” and “indigenous” to mean. However, these two issues do enable her to create some sort of unity in the historical narrative, which, given the number of names that inevitably come up, is a very good thing.

One fundamental problem I felt while reading the book is to do with the nature of surviving evidence. We know almost nothing about popular practice in pre-modern Shinto, and even for contemporary Shinto our information is not as good as it could be. This means that people who systematised Shinto, particularly if they wrote about it, are much more influential in the book than I suspect is justified.

This problem is not Hardacre’s fault. If there is no evidence for popular practice, we cannot say anything about it. (At least, not without making up “folk practices” to suit our own ideologies.) However, there is a real question about how significant texts read by a tiny number of people really were. Archaeology and the study of books that are not about Shinto may be able to tell us something for later periods, but I think this is a permanent deficit in our understanding of past Shinto. It would be good to do something about avoiding a similar lacuna in our understanding of the present.

Methodological issues aside, Hardacre’s book is a very good history of Shinto, and I highly recommend it. (Still an affiliate link…)

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.

2 thoughts on “A Review of Shinto: A History”

  1. Oh nice! Sounds like I’m going to have to acquire myself a copy in the near future. Though I have a feeling I’m going to have to bite the bullet and start seriously considering a solid way to undertake learning Japanese or be forever at the mercy of what little English translated material is out there.

    1. Yes, if you still have a serious interest in Shinto after reading the English material, you really do need to learn Japanese. It’s worth the effort.

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