- ISBN: 9781844658381
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: October 2019
Shinto, sometimes called ‘Shintoism’—though this term has fallen out of favor—and known also as kannagara no michi and kami no michi (“the great way according to the Kami” or the “the Kami Way”), is generally considered the indigenous religious tradition of the Japanese people; however, it remains a nebulous term for the spectrum of values and beliefs held by many Japanese. Mark W. MacWilliams and Okuyama Michiaki draw their readers’ attention to this fact at the outset of their text Defining Shinto: A Reader.
The anthology is, as the editors state, a text that grapples with the seemingly benign yet elusive question of defining Shinto (1, 4), admitting that it is not—given the historical and socio-cultural weight of the term—an easy task. Shinto is hard to define (5), but how we define Shinto, like any other term, does matter because it “can help us to raise significant questions” (9). To wit, MacWilliams and Okuyama make evident that breaking free of the simplistic understanding of Shinto as just another religion “alongside Christianity, Islam, and Judaism” is the crux of what makes the anthology so important (6).
It is important to debate whether or not Shinto is a religion (what was coined as shūkyō in 19th-century Japan), as well as to discuss the sense in which Shinto is or is not a religion. Given that any tradition develops from and within specific socio-historical contexts, MacWilliams and Okuyama rightly situate each of the documents in the anthology within their particular socio-historical contexts (8). A crucial element of the anthology is the movement from the monothetic to a polythetic understanding of Shinto: since any “definition” is multivalent and provisional, we cannot “capture” the supposed “essence” of Shinto under the umbrella of any singular characteristic. Instead, we must view the tradition(s) provisionally in the attempt to clarify our own thoughts about it (10, 21).
The monothetic v. polythetic distinction is important for the reader of Defining Shinto. On balance, the reader will doubtless approach the text from a predominantly monothetic, Western perspective; however, this is not an appropriate or adequate way to understand Shinto. Following the texts selected by the editors, we (the readers) can understand Shinto according to several dyads:
Secular / Religious
Ancient / Modern
Indigenous / Foreign
Ritual / Doctrinal
Experiential / Textual
Immanent / Transcendent
Maximalist / Minimalist
Collective / Individual
Local / National
These are not exclusive (10, 21); rather, they represent important facets of Shinto. In a way, MacWilliams and Okuyama concur with Kuroda Toshio regarding the anachronistic treatment of Shinto during the modern period (13; see 267–81). Thus, they are—I would aver—suggesting that “Shinto” is not to be understood monthetically; instead, Shinto is a polythetic tradition. This means that Shinto is not defined by “X” or “Y.” Instead, it is a combination of the two for any given dyad.
Within their Introduction to the text, MacWilliams and Okuyama note that they have limited themselves in several respects when editing the volume. In the first place, they have omitted early texts, such as Kojiki (c. 641) and Nihonshoki (c. 720). These texts are accessible in translation and in the original, and other authors and commentators have addressed the role these and other early texts played in the development of Shinto. Instead, MacWilliams and Okuyama wish to draw the attention of their readers to modern documents, beginning with official documents from the Meiji Period. Additionally, the editors exclude Western authors to spotlight Japanese sources regarding Shinto. This is a boon for students of Shinto specifically, and Japanese “religion” generally, who cannot easily access the documents and essays in the original Japanese: by focusing exclusively on official Japanese sources and Japanese authors, MacWilliams and Okuyama are spotlighting sources which may be more readily ignored in Western scholarship—they have created a space for the voices of those who in fact have shaped and continue to shape the tradition(s) of Shinto.
On balance, as a researcher whose work addresses Shinto from a comparative perspective, I am on the side of MacWilliams and Okuyama. “Shinto is,” as they say, “variable and has changed significantly over time” (10). As such, we the readers are provided with texts that define Shinto according to their particular socio-historical milieu (21). I commend the editors for their work, and I would encourage others to utilize this book in their own work: specialists and generalists alike will find the work of MacWilliams and Okuyama to be beneficial for their understanding of Shinto as an ever-evolving tradition.
Robert McDonald is a PhD student in comparative theology and philosophy at the Claremont School of Theology.Robert M McDonaldDate Of Review:June 27, 2022