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Shinkō

The “Mori ni Omofu” (“Thoughts in the Forest”) column in the January 15th issue of Jinja Shinpō was about the Noto earthquake, and had an interesting comment.

“Unnecessarily looking for explanations of events that rely on things beyond human understanding, like a conspiracy theorist, cannot be said to be a healthy shinkō attitude.”

One reason this is interesting is that an article in the Shinto newspaper is telling readers that the earthquake was caused by plate tectonics, which we understand pretty well, and not by the kami. As I have mentioned before, the Shinto world accepts a wide range of attitudes to the existence of the kami, from “they don’t” to “the Kojiki myths are literally true”. This opinion is well within the mainstream.

The other interesting point is the word “shinkō” (信仰), which I have not translated. The dictionary that comes with macOS says that it means faith or religious belief, in contrast to shūkyō (宗教), which is translated as “religion”, with a note attaching “shinkō” to faith and religious belief.

As I have also mentioned several times before, many practitioners of Shinto, and Shinto priests, are reluctant to describe it as a “shūkyō”, but the priests, at least, tend to be much happier with “shinkō”. I think this is because of the different implications of the Japanese words.

“Shūkyō” suggests an organised group with fixed doctrines and rules for how people live their lives. Catholic Christianity is a shūkyō. Shinto, which isn’t even committed to the existence of the kami, is arguably not. Many of the nuances of “shūkyō” are clearly not true of Shinto, enough to make it legitimate to wonder whether the word is really applicable — even if you do believe in the kami.

“Shinkō”, on the other hand, is much more about personal attitudes and actions. Do you make requests of the kami? Then you have a shinkō. There doesn’t need to be an organised structure, or indeed any structure at all. It can be just you and your shinkō for a particular tree. Of course, shinkō can operate within a shūkyō, but it can also exist independently.

There are obviously a lot of people within Shinto who do have a shinkō, including, I think, a majority of priests. If all you need to do is venerate some entity that you think is in some sense supernatural, then a lot of Shinto practitioners qualify. Not all, because some — including some priests — see Shinto as a purely cultural practice, but I would guess that a majority do.

Thus, it is obvious that there are lots of people with shinkō within Shinto, while it is not at all obvious that Shinto is a shūkyō. That is, I think, why people in the community tend to be comfortable talking about “shinkō”, but not about “shūkyō”.

One feature of shinkō is that, because it is expressive of a personal attitude and does not come with doctrines attached, it can be directed to kami, Buddhas, and Christ at the same time. Directing it at kami and Buddhas is not uncommon in Japan. Similarly, because shinkō is not dependent on shūkyō, you can easily have no shūkyō, be non-religious, and still devoutly venerate your local kami.

This attitude is also found in the west, among people who reject “organised religion” but still want to follow their own “spiritual path” or similar. The difference in Japan is that it is the default position of the largest organised religion in the country.

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3 thoughts on “Shinkō”

  1. I find this incredibly interesting; that opening quote especially. If it’s considered unhealthy shinkō for example (in paraphrase) to unnecessarily attribute to kami something that is within human understanding, then what would be considered healthy shinkō?

    And perhaps more importantly, how is the unhealthy shinkō of believing kami caused the earthquake differentiated from attributing to the kami things such as success in business, getting a relationship, or succeeding in school, which is the intended effect of much matsuri? Because it is well within human understanding that good business practices, persistence and healthy relationship attitudes/scrutiny, and good student practices respectively would be the cause of those benefits. Both the detrimental phenomena and the beneficial ones seem to fall into the same definition of unhealthy shinkō.

    Personally, I suspect in this dichotomy is a thread to unravel unhealthy dogmatic approaches and reveal a far more powerful and pragmatic approach to Shinto. Granted, I’m a novice at best, but I see how this parallels the same dogmatic approaches to religion and spiritual practices and the deeper engagement possible just beyond that superficial level.

    1. Bear in mind that the initial quote is from one person, and that there are other people within Shinto who would disagree. Part of the tension is between people with different approaches to their shinkō.

      The question of what a healthy shinkō looks like is, however, very interesting, and not one I have an answer to.

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