What Isn’t Shintō?

Photo credit: Jeordy Meow, Wikimedia Commons

I’m thrilled to report that a panel I’ve organized was accepted for the upcoming annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies. The panel, called “What Isn’t Shintō?” is the first part of what I hope to be a longer-term project (stay tuned for more details). For now, see the panel abstract after the jump: 

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the close of the Pacific War and witness unprecedented legislative reinterpretations of Japan’s postwar constitution, we see journalists, politicians, and academics mobilizing the term “Shinto” as a way of explaining Japan’s past and envisioning its future. The influential position Shinto occupies in Japanese sociopolitical life and East Asian international politics is clear, but the term “Shinto” is not. Depending on who one asks, Shinto is either the venerable indigenous religion of the Japanese archipelago, the irreducible core of Japanese culture, a tiny subset of Japanese Buddhism, an oppressive political ideology linked to the emperor system, an environmentalist ethic, or some combination of these.

In this context, reductive narratives of neo-nationalist Shinto “resurgence” and romantic idealizations of kami worship as a venerable vestige of Japan’s premodern past have limited explanatory power. The basic premise of the proposed roundtable session is that determining what Shinto actually is becomes much easier when the boundaries around the category can be sharply drawn. Our session brings together historians, anthropologists, and scholars of religion for a discussion addressing a simple question with a complicated answer. “What isn’t Shinto?”

Each participant’s research elucidates the nature of modern Shinto by showing how particular interest groups have attempted to define the tradition in relationship to something else. We contend that the nature of modern Shinto becomes clearer by examining how Shinto traditions and ideas have been mobilized in pursuit of political and economic agendas. Collectively, our research shows that Shinto is equally defined by the red meat pandering of politicians to the nationalist right and the “greening” of Shinto by the left; Shinto is made and remade through the taxonomic projects of religious studies scholars and the pragmatic policy decisions of public functionaries. “Shinto” emerges as a discrete thing in the world when these competing interest groups juxtapose the amorphous tradition of kami veneration with their diverse pet projects: humanitarian outreach, militarist ethics, public school education, or understanding Islam. Our session will help to clarify who speaks for and about Shinto, why they do, and with what social and political consequences.


Sarah Thal, UW-Madison: “Shintō or Bushidō? Moral Discourse in Prewar Japan”

Noriko Kanahara, University of Chicago: “Shintō and Islam in Interwar Japan”

Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania: “The Sacred Spaces and Secular Subjects of the Postwar Japanese Public School”

Chika Watanabe, University of Manchester: “Shintō Ecology for Development Aid”