Teaching about Shinto in America : Getting Started


Drs. Judit Gellérd & George Williams

I was only able to teach about Shinto successfully after visiting Japan and Tsubaki Grand Shrine in 1979. In the context of state universities, teaching about religion means teaching historically and objectively. The separation of religion and government does not prohibit study but it does forbid practice and evangelism in a classroom paid by taxes so a particular religion cannot be privileged by any form of establishment.

When college students begin learning about Japan, they soon discover how important Shinto is. Without an understanding of Shinto there is no way to understand Japanese history, literature, culture and even simpler things like holidays or everyday greetings.

Students are anxious to learn about waterfall misogi and other exotic practices. But they must first learn about Japanese culture, language and religion in general before they can really appreciate the unusual.

Since there is so much negative literature about a culture which America once opposed in war, care must be made not to dig up "old propaganda" as if it were an adequate understanding of Shinto. It is never simple to study another culture, but Japanese culture in general and Shinto in particular must not be oversimplified. There is a bit of intellectual spinach to digest, as is often said about multicultural under

At a very minimum students must learn Prof. Miriam Levering's seven generalizations about Japanese religion: (1) an absolute phenomenalism, (2) a Limited social nexus, (3) intuition rather than logic, (4) aesthetics, (5) embodiment, (6) a folk tradition even in the high tradition and (7) inclusiveness of participation. Each generalization will be stated briefly (and oversimplified for this article, but not the classroom).

This world is affirmed so completely that no separation can exist between the absolute (ultimate reality) and the manifest world. Individual loyalty and devotion is given to a specific individual who symbolizes the social nexus (such as an emperor or a founder of a religious group). Japanese religion has favored intuition and emotion over discussion and cognition. Aesthetics and religious arts were more important than ethics. Body and spirit are interconnected phenomena, and religion must be embodied. The so-called high tradition is not separate from low or folk tradition.

And finally, Japanese tend to live and find their identity in a synthesis of Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism and Confucianism.

There are a minimal number of concepts which must be known about Japanese culture and the Japanese language. Students must learn these, but they must wait for a future essay. The final introductory set of concepts will focus on Shinto, but Shinto is not monolithic, Shinto is a complex tradition, and it is necessary to recognize at least six aspects within the tradition: shrine Shinto, imperial Shinto, national or State Shinto, folk or shamanic Shinto, sectarian Shinto, and Dual Shinto. These aspects are illustrated in the following graphic and show something of Shinto's variety and dynamism, as well as the overlapping of one aspects with other aspect of Shinto.

(1) "The Shinto of the Imperial House was the core of State Shinto, and after the denaturalization order (after World War 11), it his been carried on as the rites of the Imperial House. The Emperor was the center of the State in this Shintoistic sense, and at the same time was himself the high priest of the gods and the superintendent of worship of the gods." (Quoted from the Jinja Honcho's, An Outline of Shinto Teachings, Tokyo: Jinja Honcho. 1959. pp.5,6,7.

(2) There are several antecedents of State Shinto. Robert Bellah's concept of "civil religion" is useful in understanding how religion and politics or national identity can be blended. [Tokugawa Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1947)].

(3) While Shrine Shinto was co-opted by State Shinto, it has survived and is organized in the Jinja Honcho, the Shrine Shinto Association. There are roughly 80,000 shrines,

(4) Sectarian Shinto tends to cover both the 13 sects dating from the Tokugawa period and even the New Religions. The term includes pure Shinto sects, Confucian sects, mountain sects, purification sect and faith-healing sects.

(5) Shamanic Shinto is an extremely complex area which deals with shamans and shamanesses, and the activity of spirits phenomena which do not fit into Western scientific paradigms.

(6) Most surveys cover the "merging" of Shinto and the mainland religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The merger between Buddhism and Shinto is called Philosophical or Dual Shinto.

Once the minimal number of categories and concepts about Japanese culture and Shinto have been mastered, the fun of studying about Shinto begins.