Paper Abstracts


John Grisafi, University of Pennsylvania

Shintō in Colonial Korea

As it was in Japan and throughout the Japanese empire, Shintō was present in Korea during the Japanese colonial period (1905-1945). The legacy of Shintō in Korea is closely tied with Japanese imperialism, forced assimilation, and compulsory religious practices. The prevalent understanding of Shintō in colonial Korea is based on several assumptions: that Shintō was the state religion of Japan; that Shintō was monolithic and Japanese were united in it; that Shintō’s presence in Korea was at the behest of the Japanese state and for the purpose of assimilation and imperialism. Shintō concepts and institutions were used by Japanese authorities – in the form now known widely as State Shintō – to support imperial expansion and the colonization of Korea. Additionally, Koreans and others were compelled by colonial authorities to attend shrines and rituals. But the ideology of the Japanese state was not precisely Shintō nor was it universally accepted. The nature of Shintō was debatable within Japan as well as among the Japanese in Korea. Shintō in Korea was introduced and mostly practiced by civilian settlers. Colonial authorities became involved in it later and often competed with the settlers over matters pertaining to Shintō. The reality of Shintō in Korea was more complex and nuanced than is typically portrayed. The variation of Shintō being employed by Japanese authorities in Korea was not a historical constant and was relatively new even in Japan at the time. By examining the subject more thoroughly than most previous scholarship, I hope to benefit the study of Korea, Shintō, and East Asia in general, by broadening the discourse on Shintō in Korea.

Takashi Miura, University of Arizona

Shinto Is the Indigenous Religion of the World: Deguchi Onisaburō and His Vision of Shinto Universalism

This paper examines the writings of Deguchi Onisaburō from the early 1900s to analyze the contour of “Shinto” as it was developed in the new religion Ōmoto. A voluminous writer, Onisaburō is well known for his idiosyncratic use of certain keywords. “Shinto” is one such term. For Onisaburō, Shinto was an extremely malleable concept, allowing him to discuss a wide-ranging variety of ideas under its loose rubric. Onisaburō often wrote critically of Shinto as it was practiced by the thirteen government-approved Sect Shinto groups. The highest form of Shinto, he argued, was closely related to what he called the Imperial Way (kōdō), the ultimate objective of which was to extend the rule of the Japanese imperial family to the entire world. Based on this vision of world unification, Onisaburō expanded the scope of Shinto to a universal scale by claiming that various religions around the world are simply different manifestations of Shinto. Shinto and the principles of kōdō, Onisaburō argued, pervaded the whole world. This radical reinterpretation of Shinto needs to be contextualized within the universalizing and monistic tendencies of Onisaburō’s thought as well as the heterodox theological narrative presented in the Ofudesaki, Ōmoto’s sacred scripture. In one of the most influential religious movements in the early twentieth century, “Shinto” went through a kind of metamorphosis, from the indigenous tradition of Japan to the universal essence from which all religions emerged.


Tianran Hang, University of Pennsylvania

Defining Divinity: Interchangeability and the Spirits of Yasukuni Shrine

One way to define the flexible boundary of Shinto is through studying kami, the object of Shinto worship. However, the sheer number and variety of kami existing in Japan make it an equally elusive term to extract. This paper attempts to tackle such flexibility of kami by putting them in relation with other deities, and creating a new category of spiritual entities, which includes not only kami, but also Buddhist divinities, yōkai, and all the other powerful beings from various traditions. The factor that binds the members of this new category together is their interchangeability in which religious affiliation gives way to function. This paper will examine the two aspects that enable the interchangeability: the shared potential of the spiritual entities to function as providers of worldly benefits, and the conceptual support for the alternation between violent and gentle states of one deity. This idea of interchangeability will provide new insights into controversial issues such as the worship of the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine. It shows the reason and even the necessity for the deification of the war dead as a means to suppress and control their violent potential. However, the political emphasis on the secular significance of the war dead, and the omission of their ability in providing the worldly benefits render them “unique” and thus fail to realize the interchangeability. Therefore, the problems of Yasukuni Shrine might not rise from their religious association but the very deviation from the common religious practice.

Aike P. Rots, University of Oslo

Primordial Practices? ‘Nature Worship’, ‘Animism’, and the Depoliticisation of Shinto

Recent years have seen the proliferation of the Shinto environmentalist paradigm: the conceptualisation of Shinto as an ancient tradition of nature worship, said to contain profound ecological knowledge and solutions for today’s environmental problems. This view is even endorsed by the current president of the conservative Association of Shinto Shrines, Tanaka Tsunekiyo. Following leading Shinto scholars Sonoda Minoru and Ueda Masaaki, he has argued that the origin of Japanese culture lies in collective worship practices taking place at local sacred groves (chinju no mori), and that nature worship constitutes the foundation of Shinto. Accordingly, the conservation of these groves has been declared a top priority by the shrine establishment, which actively seeks to promote Shinto internationally as a green tradition.

Scholars who subscribe to the Shinto environmentalist paradigm often refer to Mount Miwa, a sacred mountain believed to constitute a deity’s physical body (shintaizan): according to them, this belief represents Shinto’s ‘original shape’. Likewise, Okinawan sacred groves, utaki, are often described as remnants of primordial worship practices akin to ancient Shinto. A core concept in this discourse is the nineteenth-century European category ‘animism’, which has been adopted and appropriated to describe alleged Japanese ways of relating to nature. Scholars who have developed theories of Japanese ‘animism’ include Umehara Takeshi, Yasuda Yoshinori and Iwata Keiji, but the term is also used widely to explain aspects of Japanese popular culture.

This paper critically examines notions of ‘nature worship’ (shizen sūhai) in relation to modern Shinto. In particular, I will explore the role of Mt. Miwa and Okinawan utaki in contemporary constructions of ‘original Shinto’, showing how they are used to naturalise and depoliticise the tradition. I will also reflect upon the meanings of ‘animism’, and discuss the possible significance of this concept for understanding Shinto.


Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

Non-Shintō National Pride in Postwar Japanese Public School Education

Few people outside of Japan would think of the country as a place where religious freedom is under threat. Promoting religious freedom was a central policy of the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952), and religious freedom has been enshrined in Japan’s postwar constitution since 1947. Japan does not appear as a “country of particular concern” in the annual report produced by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Yet some scholars of Japanese religions have viewed lobbies like the Shintō Seiji Renmei (Shintō Association for Spiritual Leadership, or SAS) and Nippon Kaigi (the Japan Council, NK below) as serious threats to religious freedom in Japan, treating them as revanchist organizations that seek to restore the “State Shintō” of Japan’s wartime past by re-establishing Shintō-based ideals as the cornerstone of Japanese civic rituals and public school education. These assessments have informed recent anglophone journalism about the revival of “State Shintō” and the evil machinations of “secret cults” that run Japan’s government behind the scenes.

This paper critiques these scholarly and journalistic narratives while also critically assessing the rhetoric of “national pride” and “Japanese culture and tradition” in SAS and NK documents about public school education. I show that many journalists have mistakenly described SAS and NK political initiatives as reactionary attempts to return to the wartime past, when in actuality their focus on education shows their deep concern with Japan’s future. And while scholars and journalists have been inclined to see SAS and NK as threats to religious freedom, they may miss the simple fact that religious freedom claims are unlikely to be effective against political initiatives that are very deliberate in using non-religious language.

Sarah Thal, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bushidō vs. Shintō: Shifting Rhetorics of Prewar Conservatism

As Basil Hall Chamberlain once famously noted, both Shinto and bushidō (the Way of the Samurai), seemingly centuries-old concepts, were (re-)invented shortly before 1900 as a “new Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism.” In their early years, however, the two nationalist rhetorics rarely overlapped. How, then, did these two mainstays of Japanese conservative political thought relate to each other? To what extent did bushidō and Shintō converge or remain distinct over time?

By examining writings on bushidō during the two most prominent eras of prewar bushidō rhetoric – the formative decade of the 1900s and the bushidō revival of the 1930s – we can begin to understand the tensions between the new, nationalist bushidō and the institutions and ideas associated with Shintō. We will explore how proponents of bushidō ignored Shintō concepts, defined bushidō against Shintō ideas, or incorporated kami-related language into their versions of bushidō. In doing so, we can better understand the distinctions that contemporary writers saw between something they identified as “Shintō” and the broader rhetoric now associated with Shintō – mythic history, sacred emperors, kami, and the like – that came to pervade conservative writing more broadly in prewar Japan.


Kaitlyn Ugoretz, University of Pennsylvania

What Is Indigeneity? Questioning the Narrative Roots of Shintō

What is Shinto and who gets to define it? The most authoritative of sources, such as the International Shinto Foundation and the National Association of Shrines, as well as various encyclopedias, blogs, and articles define Shinto as “the indigenous religion of Japan.” The ubiquity of this definition suggests the authenticity of claims to Shinto’s indigeneity. However, the concept of “indigeneity,” at its core, is an identity constructed to draw boundaries between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ As such, narratives of indigeneity are particularly useful for prescribing who may be considered a member of a given community and how they may participate within it. Shinto has been described by various interest groups as ethnically, geographically, conceptually, and authoritatively “Japanese.” Examining the historical roots and political utility of these definitions of Shinto’s indigenous nature, this paper argues that such claims obscure the realities of diverse participation in and negotiation of the meaning of Shinto. Moreover, it contends that the origins and historicity of essentialist claims—no matter how prevalent or self-evident they may seem—must be scrutinized when their construction is politically expedient.

Chika Watanabe, University of Manchester

The Politics of Shintō Ecology

The Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA) is one of the oldest NGOs in Japan that conducts trainings in sustainable agriculture for rural youth around the Asia-Pacific region. Its founder, Nakano Yonosuke, was also the founder of a Shinto-based new religion called Ananaikyō. Despite this history, OISCA’s staff members asserted that their work and organization were “nonreligious” (shūkyō janai). In this second chapter of my book manuscript, I examine senior staffers’ arguments that the influences of Ananaikyō on OISCA are nonreligious Shinto values. Specifically, I consider the ways that they claimed these values to be about Japanese cultural philosophies of living in harmony with nature. I call this view “Shinto ecology” to show how it resonates with other Shinto groups’ efforts to show Shinto’s relevance in contemporary issues by engaging with environmentalist discourses. In the case of OISCA, I suggest that this idea of Shinto ecology allowed nationalist-culturalist arguments of Japaneseness (the particular) to serve as the vehicle for global visions of a better and sustainable world (the universal). While this conceptual move provided a powerful tool for senior staff members to re-imagine the organization, I also explore how and to what extent such ecological Shinto-inspired worldviews translated into the mundane everyday activities of agricultural labor and trainings. What kinds of persons did OISCA’s aid actors hope to cultivate through training programs founded upon nonreligious environmental philosophies?


Mark Teeuwen, University of Oslo


General discussion and Q&A to follow