Assembling Shinto

Buddhist Approaches to Kami Worship in Medieval Japan

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Anna Andreeva
Harvard East Asian Monographs
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , January
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



Few works manage to stand as culminations of two distinct intellectual trends. Anna Andreeva’s new publication, Assembling Shinto, does so. First, it serves as the culmination of a decades long transformation in conceptualizing the relation between Shinto and Buddhism in Japan. Second, it engages the trend toward balancing a postmodern specificity of study within broader disciplinary issues.

Assembling Shinto is built on the work of many scholars’ earlier work, while at the same time consolidating a perspective on Japanese religion that had been developing over that time. The idea that Shinto and Buddhism in Japan constitute two separate, autonomous traditions, ones that have, on unique and doctrinally compromised occasions, interacted syncretically, is now well recognized to be a modern construct. Two factors informed that construct—Japanese imperial propaganda and the creation of the category “religion,” both dating from the second half of the nineteenth century. Promotion of the Imperial household over the Shogunate involved fostering the idea of an original, pure, indigenous, and continuous religious tradition dating from the sixth century BCE (a backdating of some 1200 years), a tradition that centered on the divinized figure of the Emperor. Complementary to that is the creation of a modern conception of religion as a unifying national identity. Religious identity as coterminous with ethnic identity is, however, equally modern. This conflation of religion and nationality depends on the modern idea of the nation-state as simultaneously a political and geographic entity (“state”) and an identifiable ethnic group (“nation”) that shares language, culture, race, and religion.

Largely following from the work of Kuroda Toshio, Assembling Shinto’s contrasting conception of Japanese religions as forming a complexly integrated set of institutions and praxes has become accepted scholarly understanding—despite the zombie-like persistence of the earlier understanding in some quarters. It is within this model of a form of practice that is both Shinto and Buddhist that Andreeva develops her study of the medieval history of a specific Japanese shrine.

Andreeva’s work focuses on the history of the shrine complex on Mt. Miwa, located south of the city of Nara in present-day Nara Prefecture. Miwa’s importance goes back to prehistoric times. “One of the most active ritual centers in prehistoric times, Mt. Miwa was essential to the worldview of the early Yamato rulers” (41). Miwa-ryū Shintō, kami worship in the Miwa tradition, developed out of a close integration with and with the full cooperation of both Buddhist practitioners of various kinds and Shinto shrine authorities. The interaction between specific and broader disciplinary issues is indicated by the phrase “assembling Shinto” in the title of Andreeva’s work. The phrase captures an important theoretical perspective. There is an unconscious tendency to reify religions, whether as Platonic ideals or as trans-historical traditions, making it difficult to think about them in some other fashion. The concept of assemblage as employed by Andreeva highlights a conception of religion as a constantly renegotiated and reinvented social construct. This emphasis on a religious form as an assemblage provides the broader theoretical interest that should bring Assembling Shinto to the attention of an audience well beyond specialists in the religious traditions of Japan.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anna Andreeva is a research fellow at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg.


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