Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Book Review


John K. Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. ISBN 0-295-97499-0, ISBN 0-295-97500-8

Member John Nelson has created a charming yet scholarly portrait of a Shinto Shrine with this important work. The book's twenty-one brief chapters are divided into four sections by seasons, a division which forms an entirely appropriate frame for any introduction to Shinto, given the religion's solid grounding in rites celebrating passage through both the social and natural calendar. (In fact, if one considers Japanese village religiosity as it likely existed a century or more ago, there were probably far fewer elements of "religious life" which were not calendrically oriented in one way or another, than those which were.)

A Year in the Life is based on Nelson's attendance and observance of over fifty ritual events at Nagasaki's Suwa Shrine, hailed as the "protector of western Japan," and best known for its awesome October festival of "O-kunchi." Nelson manages to describe and comment on virtually the entire gamut of shrine events observed throughout the ritual year, interspersing his reflections with comments on the nature of the Japanese and concluding with a thoughtful consideration of the future of Shinto within a steadily internationalizing Japan.

Nelson's book is an excellent example of a "thick description" approach to Shinto. At first glance, he adopts what appears to be the insider's informal style, yet one which proceeds into intellectual-at times near-literary-reflections on the meaning of Shinto for modern Japanese. Refusing to reduce Shinto to systems of doctrines, styles of architecture, or listings of divine geneaologies, Nelson succeeds in avoiding the common tendency to dryly over-intellectualize what is, for the vast majority of Japanese, a matter more of tradition and routine (and, truth be told, occasionally onerous obligation), than an individual-centered theological system of belief and "faith."

For the general reader, what may be especially valuable is Nelson's inclusion of "behind-the-scenes" and frequently off-the-cuff interpretations of Shinto by the priests and others directly involved in its "performance." In fact, Nelson devotes a brief chapter to such informant musings ("I Shouldn't Be Telling You This," pp.113-121) in addition to the scattered comments in other chapters. Some first-time readers may be taken aback by the frank differences of opinion voiced by Shinto priests regarding the significance of crucial elements of their own religion, but such disagreements are an important reminder that Shintological debates are not exceptional, but an inherent part of Shinto as it is lived. Lacking the equivalent of a Vatican clearing-house of dogma, Shinto has always been characterized by local variations regarding the significance of common ritual and myth.

As Nelson notes regarding the ritual of "judgment by scalding water" (yutate), "The interpretation of what is happening here depends on the informant" (88). In that context-and as is so often the case in anthropological reporting-one wonders how many of the answers proferred by Nelson's informants are thought-out "positions," and how many are spontaneous responses to questions virtually never asked by native participants themselves, offered largely to satisfy the curiosity of the assidiously note-taking visitor (see e.g., p. 193).

Given the informal participant-observor's style seen elsewhere, it occasionally appears as though such theological interpretations and scholarly arcana (see the diagram of the movements of the sword dancer on p. 88) are offered more as an obligatory gesture to the anthropological enterprise, rather than as information crucial to Nelson's "insider" depiction of the nature and meaning of the rites.

As Nelson himself observes (see his comments on the flexibility of Shinto ritual, p. 197), such abstract or speculative reflections by an elite class of priest are, at any rate, not central to the way these rites are performed and experienced by the average Japanese themselves. In the yutate ritual mentioned above, for example, what would seem most important is the tremendous non-everyday power transmitted by the ritual, conveyed by the vigorous bodily movement, the shouts, the splashing clouds of steam, and illustrated most clearly by the assidious way in which members of the audience take up drops of the now sanctified water and rub it on their bodies (89-90).

And since I have mentioned the issue of interpretation, I should add that Nelson does not limit himself to providing native exegesis only, but frequently adds his own personal hermeneutic. In fact, while the work is composed almost entirely of Nelson's astute observation, description, and personal interpretations, the last element is crucial; an adequate appreciation of the work cannot be had without recognizing that A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine represents both Nelson's personal "problematik" and occasional panergyric of Shinto. Nelson provides the necessary degree of data from "orthodox" sources, but he adds to that data his own sympathetically informed understanding of "what is going on" at the level of ritual meaning, together with a sympathetic yet incisive critique of the socio-political dangers inherent in a religion whose rituals are characterized by such "multivocality." And while one may not agree with all his interpretations, they are never pedestrian and always provide ample food for thought.

At the same time, such abundance of interpretation (both elite and scholarly) carries with it its own risk, in the sense that readers uninformed with Japan or Shinto may occasionally misinterpret Nelson's proferred interpretations for "generally accepted "(since "orthodox" may imply a level of authority not normally present in the Shinto establishment) theological positions or popular understanding. For example, when Nelson states of the tamagushi offering (p. 52) that the "two Chinese ideograms used for this offering-the first meaning 'soul' and the second 'linkage'--appear to say all there is to say about its purpose" or that the act of turning the tamagushi as it is offered represents "a completion of the circle that brought the Kami to humanity via the tree of the original sacred enclosure," he is transmitting speculations--learned speculations, to be sure, but not the only possible interpretation of these ritual acts; the Shintological meaning of tamagushi, for example--and whether it even represents an "offering"--has been argued for centuries.

Since I'm mentioning quibbles, I might also note that I felt a bit uncomfortable with Nelson's claim that "the permeation of Shintoesque orientations in everything from day-to-day life to major ritual and ceremonial observances" can be said to be expressed in "the Japanese love of bathing," which "could be argued as having derived from notions of purity and impurity formerly held by elites before engaging in ritual activity" (38).

This kind of observation is not uncommon, and while the problem of origins is probably unsolvable, I've always thought that this sort of statement implies a somewhat unilinear process of immutable religious ideas ("notions of purity") impacting a more susceptible body of everyday behavior, making it appear that concepts found within something called Shinto have a kind of privileged status. And yet, I would argue that Shinto rites of purification are not undertaken because of Shinto beliefs, any more than most Japanese people bathe because of Shinto beliefs. My own position is that it is more proper to speak of Shinto rituals and myths regarding purification as themselves representing the conscious articulation or embodiment of more general (culturally implicit) categories of purity and pollution. To borrow Nelson's expression, it is not only the modern custom of bathing which can be called "Shintoesque"; organized Shinto's concern with purity itself is "Shintoesque," in the sense that it and everyday bathing both form parts of a much deeper level of implicit categories of purity and pollution. A nit-picking point, perhaps, but I think it important when dealing with nihonjinron arguments about the permeation and primacy of "Shinto" ideas in everyday Japanese culture.

Such quibbles, however, are minor, and I mention them only because Nelson himself clearly recognizes elsewhere the insupportability of a primacy of belief over behavior. With regard to participation in shichi-go-san, Nelson observes, "Whether this was done out of belief in the Kami or simply because it was just one of those socially expected activities a person does with one's children seems to matter very little." (160). This is eminently true, and applicable not only to that one rite, but to a wide range of other broadly "religious" behavior undertaken at shrines. From my own experience, I would wager that few Japanese who make visits to shrines at New Years, subject their newborn babies to dedicatory rites, or select shinzen wedding ceremonies, do so out of consciously held beliefs in Kami. They may feel some degree of discomfort or vague unease if they do not follow community expectations regarding such rituals, but not because failure to do so would be a violation of beliefs.

In any event, I found reading A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine provided me with a much-welcomed opportunity to reflect on my own interpretations of Japanese religious and everyday life, and I recommend it highly to other members as one of the most valuable introductory works on Shinto available in English.

-- Oct 1, 1996, Norman HAVENS

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:40

Copyright © 2001 Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. All Rights Reserved.