Posted by: aediculaantinoi | December 11, 2013

The “Shinto-y Slope” Argument…

This will be my last in a series of posts that are likely to upset people. (Perhaps this should be called “December Polytheist Grinchitude Series” or something…?!?) As you may recall from yesterday and the day before, the first one was about atheists, and the second about Wiccans speaking for all modern pagans. This one is about Shinto.

Again, we begin with a link fromThe Wild Hunt a few weeks back on Shinto and some political movements associated with it at present. Read the article at the link, in any case.

A few paragraphs from the beginning of the article, by David McNeill, follows here so you can have a summary of the basic situation:

Immaculate and ramrod straight in a crisp, black suit, Japan’s education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, speaks like a schoolteacher — slowly and deliberately. His brow creases with concern when he talks about Japan’s diminished place in the world, its years of anemic economic growth and poorly competing universities. Mostly, though, he appears to be worried about the moral and spiritual decline of the nation’s youth.

“The biggest problem with Japanese education is the tremendous self-deprecation of our high school children,” he says in an interview at his Tokyo office. He cites an international survey in which children are asked: “Are there times when you feel worthless?” Eighty-four percent of Japanese kids say yes — double the figure in the United States, South Korea and China, he laments. “Without changing that, Japan has no future.”

Shimomura’s remedy for this corrosive moral decay is far-reaching: Children will be taught moral and patriotic education and respect for Japan’s national symbols, its “unique” culture and history. Textbooks will remove “self-deprecating” views of history and references to “disputed” war crimes. They will reflect the government’s point of view on key national issues, such as Japan’s bitter territorial disputes with its three closest neighbors: China, Russia and South Korea.

Education reform represents only one layer of Shimomura and his government’s ambitions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a close political ally, wants to revise three of the country’s basic modern charters: the 1946 Constitution, the education law, which they both think undervalues patriotism, and the nation’s security treaty with the United States. The Emperor would be returned to a more prominent place in Japanese society. The special status of Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines most of Japan’s war dead, including the men who led the nation to disaster between 1933 and 1945, would be restored.

“They’re trying to restore what was removed by the U.S. Occupation reforms,” explains Mark Mullins, director of the Japan Studies Center at the University of Auckland. If it succeeds, the project amounts to the overturning of much of the existing order in Japan — a return to the past, with one eye on the future.

There are huge and complex issues involved here, one of which is what I refer to–and not dismissively, I hope–in my subject line above as the “Shinto-y slope argument,” namely that this restoration of knowledge about Shinto as an integral part of Japanese culture in public education leading to the same atrocities more widely associated with World War II, fascism, and the like in a manner that pretty much amounts to a “slippery slope” argument–and, no matter how commonly employed such arguments are, they are still considered logical fallacies.

Some of the matters that are useful to consider in understanding this historical situation, which modern pagans and polytheists might be in a better position to parse out, include one that was not at all addressed in the article above itself, nor the comments on it. That is: Shinto is the indigenous religion of most of the archipelago we now know as “Japan,” and has been for at least two thousand years, if not many centuries or even millennia longer. One characteristic of “indigenous religions” is that they are inextricable from the cultures in which they exist; indigenous religions grow and develop within a culture, a language, and a landscape as the culture and the language grows and develops itself in its landscape. As a result, many indigenous religions do not have names or designations for themselves apart from the culture. This is the case with, for example, ancient Greek religion, which when it had to identify itself in the post-Christian period, knew itself not as a particular type of religion, but instead as the manner of being “Hellenic,” as the Emperor Julian put it. The same is true of Shinto: it only had to identify itself when Buddhism came in, and even when it did, Shinto or Kami-no-Michi still wasn’t (and isn’t!) understood as a “religion” by the Japanese, with beliefs and doctrines and such–it’s simply the “way things are,” and in the case of Shinto/Kami-no-Michi, it’s the “way of the spirits” because they’re there and are active, whether one likes it or believes in it or not.

As a result, it is entirely appropriate and right for Japanese culture to include Shinto as an essential component of its educational system and its overall sense of itself and its values. The values of Shinto include things like seeking harmony with Great Nature–Kannagara–and the purification of tsumi and of other causes of misfortune without moralistic overtones being put on people for simply living and accumulating impurity and misfortune in the process. (There are, granted, some notions of active and deliberate attempts to cause harm or offense which accumulate tsumi on a much grander scale, but this is still noticeably different from concepts like “sin” in monotheistic cultures.) The divinity of the Emperor in Japan is likewise a part of Shinto, since the first Emperor was a direct descendant of Amaterasu-Omikami, and is thus the only person in Japan who can perform certain rituals on a yearly basis. While modern western and secular notions might object to things like this as an outdated vestige of superstition and supernaturalism, as well as an intolerable hierarchicalization and consideration of some people as “more divine” than others, all of those objections result from political and religious developments of the last 600 years in western monotheistic religions, and to insist that those are “reasonable” and “normative” against all other possibilities is pretty presumptuous, to say the least.

Further, Shinto is one of many religions worldwide that has demonstrated a propensity for syncretism nearly unrivalled amongst other religions, at least on par with if not surpassing the Roman propensity for syncretism. Shinto has incorporated Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Christian saints, and even everyday individuals from Western culture as kami with an ease that makes the Roman evocatio ritual look somewhat forced. While there have been attempts at various periods to separate out non-Shinto elements from Shinto in Japan (especially in the last two hundred years), these have always been short-lived, and their reality on a popular level is disputable no matter how much certain authorities might insist upon it.

In reality, the lack of confidence of Japanese students, and of the culture generally speaking, shows in the Shinto discussions of their own religion to Western audiences. In several works about Shinto that I’ve read by Japanese Shinto priests written for English-speaking audiences, they refer to their religion as “unsophisticated,” “extroverted,” and use terms like “weird” and other rather pejorative, understated, and somewhat embarrassed statements. These statements entirely reflect the influence of post-Western, post-Christian discourse and its hegemony on what counts as “real religion” and “real culture” (and the insistent separation between these) which, not surprisingly, finds anything which in any way mixes the two, or has norms and beliefs and practices which differ from the presumed superiority of Western monotheist, capitalist, industrialist, and modernist forms as deficient, outdated, superstitious, and even harmful or morally suspect.

While it is tangential to my present purposes, we would do well to ask how it is that our situation as modern Western individuals, who habitually separate religion and culture as well as church and state (at least in the U.S.), have come to be this way, and I think the answer is easier than it might seem. The dominant religion in the Western world for the last 1600 years has been Christianity, which is an import that easily distinguished itself from any and all of the cultures into which it infiltrated. While eventually national Christian characters emerged in each culture, and which then differed from their neighbors in often drastic ways, from Greek Orthodoxy to Italian Catholicism to Irish Catholicism (though many of these would now be regarded as “superstitious” in various ways by the dominant Protestant ascendancy of many Northern European countries where secularism and such church-state separatism emerged), nonetheless it has been apparently “natural” to see religion as divorced from culture, from public order, and from many other daily functions in Western cultures. There is no “better” or “worse” about this situation in comparison to other cultures or earlier times; it’s simply the way things have played out. The mistake is in assuming that this way is the “best” way, especially when other cultures are concerned.

The “bad” side of Shinto that I think many are afraid of, and that has lead to so much misunderstanding in Western cultures, is the realities of history in State Shinto during World War II. The only familiarity that most people have with Shinto and with the kami, without even realizing that it has anything to do with it, is the word “kamikaze,” which is all-too-easily equated with suicide bombing and other atrocities that have taken place in more recent history. It is unfortunate that such things did occur, and that the apparent congruency of the two religiously-motivated actions is perceived. As a result of this particular aspect of the military state and its ties to religion, the entire religion was discounted and demonized by Western powers (probably the U.S. especially, with its Protestant political majority) in a way that has been so covert and unassuming that most Americans don’t realize it occurred, and most Japanese are too ashamed to admit, much less examine. And, to say that some of the actions were anything less than atrocious in the past would be extremely dishonest and disrespectful to all those killed as a result of them.

But, likewise, the term “crusade” gets used quite freely by modern Western Christian politicians in relation to any number of matters, with no acknowledgement of the atrocities committed in those periods by specifically religious groups with religiously-motivated violence. To utterly shun, fear, and beat down Shinto while likewise not taking full responsibility for one’s own religions’ heritage of religiously-motivated violence under state- and secular-controlled military powers is hypocrisy of the highest sort, and the only reason it is “tolerated” is because there is a Western Christian assumption that, no matter what, their religion is “right” and therefore no apologies need be issued for such actions. There is no acknowledgement of that in anything I’ve read on these matters, and no self-reflection on these issues when it comes to condemning anything that seems like it might lead to the restoration of Shinto in Japan as an important cultural element.

While it is utterly inappropriate and unnecessary to revere modern political leaders in the West in the manner of the ancient Roman imperial cult, nor that of Shinto, one has to rememeber that I am rather biased in this regard, because I worship several Roman Emperors (as well as other Greek and Egyptian leaders) as deities or heroes, chief amongst them being Divus Hadrianus and Diva Sabina. The Romans were suspicious of this, unlike the eastern residents of the Empire, and drew the line at regarding the living Emperor as divine (which the denizens of the Eastern Empire did happily, it seems); but, even modern and secular Japan regards the Emperor as divine, referring to him as Okami as a matter of course. As long as Japan remaims a constitutional monarchy–like many European nations–and the divinity of the Emperor is not used in a manner to inspire fascism or any notions of “manifest destiny” (though that is an American concept!) to conquer other peoples, I can’t see it being any better or worse than all of the hullabaloo over the royal wedding over the last few years, nor any other function featuring the royal families of Europe.

As for honoring the dead in Japan from World War II: there need not be anything political or negative about this, and portraying it as such says more about the Western fear and misunderstanding of ancestor worship than it does about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of Shinto. There have been any number of unjust and unwise wars, and in fact the U.S. is engaged in at least two of them at present (yes, Iraq is still a warzone, even if it is not classified as such); but, it would be a gigantic dishonor to not pay proper respects to all of the U.S. military service personnel who have died in those wars, and who will die in the future. The soldiers in Japan’s military in World War II were, literally, just following orders, and made a sacrifice for their country no less important than that which any warrior makes for their people. To honor their sacrifice and their memory does not need to entail a wish for a return to the political position of the country under which they fought, any more than someone honoring their dead from the southern U.S. during the U.S. Civil War might want to return to the days of slavery.

Remember, the end of the war with Japan and the U.S. was when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on the country, the health and environmental impacts of which are still being experienced by the Japanese today. Considering that the majority of people who were in the range of those blasts were not military personnel, but civilians, is an atrocity in itself that is not widely acknowledged by Americans (and, with drone strikes and other such military events in more recent decades often having more civilian “collateral damage” than is readily admitted to, it’s still a problem!), and yet is execrated if any other country does it, and especially if it is done to us. This blatant hypocrisy should give anyone with a concern for justice pause, if nothing else.

This weekend, I’ll be attending the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America’s end-of-year purification ceremony. I’ve learned more about the practice of a living and breathing indigenous system of polytheism/animism from my visits to the Shrine over the last six years than my attendance at almost all modern pagan and polytheist rituals, my visits to the ruins of any temple or holy site in Britain or Ireland, my study of any primary or secondary text, or my watching of any film about any polytheist or animist religion (documentary or fictionalized). I have the greatest respect for the tradition, and when I do finally achieve full-time work and have a home of my own (which I was wishing for earlier today, and still am!), I not only plan to be a full-time member of the Shrine, but also to have a full and formal kamidana installed in my home as one of the major working shrines within it.

To conclude, I don’t think that a better understanding of Japan’s Shinto cultural and religious heritage being given to students in modern Japan is a bad thing at all–in fact, they would greatly benefit from knowing more about the symbols and phenomena which their parents revere but are often at a loss to explain, particularly in the post-World War II period for the reasons described above. There is no “Shinto-y slope” involved in knowing more about this religion, which could provide an important corrective to corporate greed and environmental degradation not only worldwide, but also within Japan specifically (especially in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster), which is sorely needed in the world today. The people who advocate such a return to their indigenous values do so in a context in which the questions of religious and cultural separation are not as clear as they are in Western contexts, nor are they as relevant. And, I really don’t think that the people involved, no matter how stern and formal they may be, are foolish enough to suggest some of the excesses that occurred in earlier State Shinto contexts be replicated today–or, at least, let’s hope they aren’t thinking in those directions, and attempt to assume the best of intentions meanwhile until proven otherwise rather than resorting to the fallacious “slippery slope” arguments, no matter how tempting and popular they may be.


  1. Okay, I have to say I agree with 95% of what is said in this article. But denialism of the Nanking Massacre / Rape of Nanking is still a huge problem in Japan, associated with nationalism — and that really does not need to be left more out of textbooks. I have a lot of fondness for Shinto, and I have no doubt that most people following it or participating in its renewal have nothing in particular against, say, Chinese people. I just worry that it’s going to end up like Heathenry/Asatru, just with historical revisionism instead of racial supremacism, and without enough people pushing back against it. Among the Heathens and other Norse/Germanic-types I read on the internet, the general attitude is “yes, this is a great religion and an awesome historical culture and you can be proud of following the Norse pantheon AND people who use it as an excuse to be racist definitely exist and are definitely wrong”. The second half of that statement is what I’m not seeing in this Shinto movement. I would be delighted to see a Shinto revitalization that admitted and repudiated both historical wrongs and the denialists of those wrongs.

    • I do not remotely disagree with you, and I probably should have made that particular point clearer above. One can’t disclaim nor ignore the atrocities that actually did occur

      I do think the tendency to make Japan out to be the “only bad guy” (even though they weren’t and aren’t considered such, but that’s another point), and the only one that had an “evil religion” backing their decisions in WWII (“Hitler’s Pope,” anyone?!?), has been excessive, and has placed too much blame on the religion rather than on the way certain individuals used it, etc.

      • *nod* You’re clearly right that there are/were massive Christian privilege issues going on — your point about the word “crusade”, in particular, is well taken. It is rather odd that people still think it’s acceptable to say things like “X went on a crusade against poverty”.

      • …I should amend my last reply to make it sound less like the operative privilege is one I don’t have.

  2. Delurking to say that I very much appreciate all three of these “controversial” posts. You pretty much articulated my position on these issues better than I ever could!

    • Thank you very much indeed! You’re too kind!

  3. A beautifully written post.

    And this is very well said:

    “To utterly shun, fear, and beat down Shinto while likewise not taking full responsibility for one’s own religions’ heritage of religiously-motivated violence under state- and secular-controlled military powers is hypocrisy of the highest sort, and the only reason it is “tolerated” is because there is a Western Christian assumption that, no matter what, their religion is “right” and therefore no apologies need be issued for such actions.”

    • Thank you very much–that particular point is one that seems utterly lost in the mix, and that no one is making it (at least within this particular discussion) is quite upsetting, at least to me.

  4. I’m not sure if I shared this with you or not, but I had a discussion a little while ago where it was pointed out that as much as (usually white) people in the US claim to have no culture, we definitely DO have a culture and shove it into any space we can. We say we don’t have a culture though, which makes many people feel like they’re in the Right/Correct position regarding issues like the one concerning Japan and Shinto. When, in reality, what we’re trying to do is force our understanding of religion and our culture into a space where it isn’t necessarily wanted and certainly not as needed as many in the US seem to think.

    /rant Sorry, but your post reminded me of that.

    • Indeed, I totally agree…

      That particular point was made to me last year at PantheaCon’s Pagans of Color Caucus, when I at one point corrected myself and apologized for not identifying myself racially at the beginning of the session, because I’m a “no culture white person,” and one of the individuals present said “That’s like a fish saying there’s no water,” and I thanked her profusely for pointing that out to me. As much as American mainstream white culture is derided as a culture in other countries (e.g. Ireland, England, etc.), is seen as invisible and thus “normal” by Americans themselves, and so forth, it annoys me that the only vestiges of “culture” that exist in my family are recipes, most of which I don’t really enjoy eating. I didn’t know my mom spoke some German until a few years ago, and it was my paternal grandmother’s native language, but I only heard her speak literally four words of it in all the time I was in her presence.

      But, yes, that’s exactly what the problem is in all of this: we have separation of church and state, that’s “normal,” and therefore EVERYONE should have it, too, whether they like it or not (including when there is no concept of “church” to begin with!), or else they’re theocratic and evil and wrong, etc.

      Rant away, dear friend, if it helps! 😉

    • Yeah, the claim that white people in Western countries have “no culture” is part and parcel of the imperialist agenda. It’s a statement that whatever the people with “no culture” do is natural, normal, and the standard by which all other people, who have “cultures”, should be judged by. Anything that varies from the “no culture” people is seen as aberrant and quaint, rather than normative.

  5. Reblogged this on Sour Mead and commented:
    Quite a thoughtful post. You all should read it.

    • In the future, please ask permission before you reblog something–the “Blog Policies” tab above specifically states that.

      • To be fair, her “reblogging” consists of posting a couple of teaser lines from the beginning of the post, and a link to your blog post. It really falls under the concept of linking than full-on reblogging.

      • Not to be rude, but you should take off your “reblog” button if you get upset at people reblogging your content.

      • I didn’t know there was a specific button for it, or that we had the option of not allowing it–thank you for pointing that out!

        I don’t mind if people do it, but I do ask as a courtesy that they let me know they are doing so before they do. To me, it’s the difference between having a nice photo in one’s hand and someone coming up and saying “That’s nice, can I have a copy?” as opposed to just taking it out of my hand.

  6. Hmm, coincidentally I found myself thinking about attending the Grand Tsubaki Shrine’s *beginning* of the new year blessing ceremonies today! I’m hoping to take my siblings so they can experience the shrine without buying a ticket to fly over to Japan. Perhaps I was picking up on your vibe?😀 I absolutely agree and appreciate that Shintoism’s flourishing (not just surviving) can teach polytheists what a living indigenous, national religion can look like. It also allowed me to see my Catholic upbringing with newfound eyes (and grudging appreciation, even if I don’t hold to the political and dogmatic shenanigans the Church has in the U.S.).

    This link always helps me see that yup, there’s definitely an American culture:

    For the most part I encountered kindness and courtesy from the Japanese people in my little town. Yet I can say that there is a deep root of nationalism that is re-emerging through historical revision and some general attitudes I encountered while living there. It was never as negative as racism in America can get–it was more like “There are Japanese and then there are Gaijin/Everybody Else”. I didn’t see it tied to Shintoism, though that doesn’t mean it’s not there either.

    However, the ‘flavor’ of Otherness can change depending on what you look like. Being male and Western (European ancestry, tall, blond, and/or blue-eyed) could get you a long, LONG way over there. For women…having a big rack helps. (^_^);;;

    • > the ‘flavor’ of Otherness can change depending on what you look like.

      Baye McNeil has some very interesting things to say about being black in Japan, a perspective that is markedly absent from most of the extensive English-language literature on Japan…

      • Thank you Erik for the link! Loco is an amazing guy–I wish I’d known of him when I was there, because he really speaks to some of the stresses of living as a foreigner in Japan. I admit that sometimes I was envious of the admiration that my blond, blue-eyed colleagues would get. On the other hand, one blond, blue-eyed lady also got stalked and had her home broken into. Yet like Loco says, the newsworthy-headlines about foreigners in Japan didn’t encompass *everything* of what it was like to be there and Other.

    • The ceremony this Sunday is a very enjoyable one; and the first ceremony at New Year (whether the one at midnight that night, or on the two days after it) is also fun. The mid-January one where all the omamori, ofuda, and other things from the previous year are purified and then burned is also amazing; and, of course, Setsubun the first weekend in February is one of the most enjoyable ceremonies of the year–throwing soybeans at giant muppet oni…what’s not to like? 😉 If you do end up going, let me know, and introduce yourself!

      I think it’s is something that modern, and especially overpriviliged American, western culture doesn’t at all understand that difference and distinctiveness being preserved isn’t always a bad thing. I know that there have been problems in the past with Japanese attitudes of cultural superiority and therefore the inferiority of any and all Gaijin, but I think it can still be done in a way that emphasizes that there is a difference and a distinctiveness, and even a preference for one’s own culture, while not considering others to be actually inferior.

      American culture clearly prefers its own culture, so I don’t think that this is a foreign or unusual thing at all, and probably applies to every culture, at least on some subconscious level if nothing else. Even though I admire and have lived in several other cultures, I have to say I share this preference for American culture simply due to familiarity–I like knowing what brand names I enjoy, for example (and it’s sad that many of my preferences in this category are for consumer products…like it or not, that’s a major part of American culture). But, I don’t have contempt for other cultures, and don’t consider any of them inferior, just different (and, in some cases, objectionable in their practices–female genital mutilation, for example, stands out as something I can’t ever approve of). If it is no worse than that, I don’t envision it being a problem.

      When I’ve spoken with some Japanese individuals over the last few years, I’m always eager to learn more about their culture and to discuss aspects of it–and I don’t know if this is something they find flattering, but they’ve always been open to doing so, if sometimes a bit confused about why I’d be interested. However, I’ve found an active discouragement around inquiring into one’s culture in some cases, e.g. a few Irish people I met who came to the U.S. and lived here permanently, who looked at Irish culture as a liability and something they’d rather forget about than consider or discuss. (And, some within Ireland likewise didn’t appreciate it…but the vast majority enjoyed it, if being a bit perplexed why an American with no noticeable or major Irish heritage was interested in any of it.)

      I do think the “flavor” matter is certainly part of it, too. I was considered an “unusual American” when I was in Ireland, because I was a) not very loud, b) courteous, and c) intelligent; I was asked many times if I was Canadian, and when I asked why, they answered with those three characteristics. As I observed many other Americans who were either visiting or were students there, I saw what was meant by that…Too many thought that because G.W.B. was president at the time, that somehow all Americans were like that–thank all the gods that isn’t the case!–but it is interesting how these things can get generalized.

      • I hope I get the chance to head up to the shrine during one of the celebrations, and meet you as well! (Hopefully sooner :))

        I do think it would open a lot of minds for Americans to travel outside the familiar (even if only to a different state) and see that what we take for granted is NOT the Way Things Always Are. Being in any place that doesn’t automatically afford one the same privileges from home is great for building wisdom. Japan is probably one of those countries where the trappings of Western culture (technology!) doesn’t translate the same way Americans would think. (

        I’ve also met (and at times, been one of) people who were so traumatized by their experiences in Japan that they swore off anything good existed about the country at all. We’ll prefer the familiar by the end of the day; I was hungry for anything American while I was there, but I didn’t pretend it was superior to Japanese culture all the time. To be honest, I do miss some things about Japan, but to emulate it here (or to emulate some American customs there) would end up creating a strange, disjointed version of both. Cultures are different; even when I will never agree on some of it (like the genital mutilation…for both males and females), I know those are not the sum of a people.

        I wonder if the active discouragement from inquiring about a person’s culture comes from the over-exotic vibe those questions can bring. Talking about American culture the first couple times was great; talking about it again, 6 months later, to the same people, began to feel like a ‘look at what the foreigner knows’ dog-trick. I won’t fault their curiosity, but it could get really old at times. (I actually got my first taste of ‘What are you?? And what are your people like?’ questions in the U.S., even though I’m born here, ha!)

        “You’re an American? But you’re so (civilized)!” I am very glad that people from other countries don’t always generalize American politics with its people….

  7. […] And the third one is about Shinto: […]

  8. […] My Shinto-Versary. As I mentioned here and here recently, this is the day on which I first visited the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite […]

  9. […] “One characteristic of “indigenous religions” is that they are inextricable from the cultures in which they exist; indigenous religions grow and develop within a culture, a language, and a landscape as the culture and the language grows and develops itself in its landscape. As a result, many indigenous religions do not have names or designations for themselves apart from the culture. This is the case with, for example, ancient Greek religion, which when it had to identify itself in the post-Christian period, knew itself not as a particular type of religion, but instead as the manner of being “Hellenic,” as the Emperor Julian put it. The same is true of Shinto: it only had to identify itself when Buddhism came in…” […]

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