The Project: What Isn’t Shinto?

The basic premise of our project is that determining what Shintō actually is becomes much easier when the boundaries around the category can be sharply drawn. While definitions of Shintō have shifted over time, each participant’s research elucidates the nature of modern Shintō by showing how interest groups have attempted to define the tradition in relationship to something else. Collectively, collaborators’ research projects cover attempts to either link Shintō to—or disaggregate Shintō from—militarist ethics, public school education, new religions, nature conservation, and overseas development projects.

Recent scholarship has already problematized the timeworn explanatory rubrics of “State Shintō” as totalitarian politics and Shintō as Japan’s indigenous religion. Yet as the 70th anniversary of the promulgation of Japan’s postwar “peace constitution” approaches, these outmoded paradigms are being resuscitated by journalists, politicians, and academics eager to bend Shintō to the domestic and international politics of today. And although demographers have marked a steady decline in Japanese religiosity in the decades since the close of the Pacific War (1945), Shintō remains a persistent and irrepressible force in Japanese social and political life. Lobbies such as the Shintō Association for Spiritual Leadership exert considerable pressure on politicians. Issues of succession in the imperial household capture the attention of the reading public.

Although simplistic narratives of neo-nationalist Shintō “resurgence” and romantic idealizations of kami worship as a venerable vestige of Japan’s premodern past deserve suspicion and critique, the precise nature of Shintō can be clarified by examining how Shintō traditions, lineages, and ideas have been mobilized in pursuit of political, economic, and conservationist agendas.

Simply put, Shintō is not solely defined by shrine priests’ attempts to enforce orthodoxy or the demarcation of the geographical boundaries of shrine precincts. It is also defined by the red meat pandering of politicians to the nationalist right and the greening of Shintō to appeal to the environmentalist left. “Shintō” emerges as a discrete thing in the world when these interest groups juxtapose the amorphous tradition of kami veneration with humanitarian outreach, militarist jingoism, and public school education.

To be clear, the study of Shintō is not merely the study of Japan. Rather, it is the study of Japan’s interaction with East Asian neighbors. It is the study of Japan’s changing security relationship with the United States. The study of Shintō is not merely inquiry into the history of a quaint religion endemic to the Japanese archipelago. Rather, it is an opportunity to interrogate—and perhaps redefine—commonsense concepts like “indigeneity,” “animism,” “secularism,” and “theocracy.”