A History

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Helen Hardacre
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     720 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Shinto: A History, by Helen Hardacre covers a range of history from the Yayoi Period (400 BCE- 300 CE) until the present. A point that should first be mentioned is that this book does not engage with the doctrines of Shinto. While the mythology and theories of certain ideologues are explored, the purpose of this text is to clarify their position in history. For readers seeking information on these aspects of Shinto, Hardacre gives extensive recommendations in the endnotes.

Instead, Shinto poses three questions: “when did Shinto come into being?”, “is Shinto a religion?”, and “what has the role of Shinto been since the Meiji Restoration?” The book takes the middle-ground with these ideas. While some have claimed that Shinto has existed for as long as there have been people in Japan, others consider it to have officially come into being once the term “Shinto” was widely used in written works. Hardacre’s method takes additional aspects of its history into consideration—such as shrine distribution and their level of public activity at certain times.  

There are also a wide range of subject matters covered in this book. Art, pilgrimage, and festivals are covered to varying degrees of intensity. Some of the strongest places in the book are the sections on shrine mandalas, in their appearance across multiple chapters, and the discussion of festivals near the end. With that said, there are sections of chapters which get such light coverage that it leads one to question why they are included at all. Within the chapter on art, for example, the section on kagura—ritual dance—is a half page long, and it is only briefly mentioned in chapters before and after. Moreover, the section on Shinto in popular culture is covered in the final few pages, which subsequently feels more like an obligation. This section contains lengthy summaries and customer reviews of a novel series and a film. As none of this is mentioned elsewhere, such references could have been cut without any impact, though some readers might object to their lack of presence. As the book does not contain a separate conclusion, the popular culture aspect ends the text on a relatively weak note.

One of the most detailed and divergent sections in this book is chapter 15, which deals with shrine festivals. This is the only chapter which focuses on interviews and observations conducted by Hardacre. Ōkunitama shrine’s Darkness Festival (KurayamiMatsuri) is presented in more depth than the reader could see as an observer at the event. Moreover, the festival’s history of rowdiness and violence might come across as completely alien to readers familiar with, what Hardacre refers to as, “civic pageants”— festivals not associated with a shrine. However, a slight peculiarity in this chapter comes from a sudden change to a third person narrative. All of the other chapters refer to Hardacre in the first person, if the author is mentioned at all, though this may be a stylistic choice to separate the author from the events taking place. As this change only happens in one chapter, it is easily ignored.

Hardacre’s writing style is clear and deliberate. There are few instances of overly complex language, and readers should have no trouble in understanding the concepts they are reading. Though there are periods in the text when terminology goes long enough without reminders of their meaning that it can be forgotten, defining the same term repeatedly could be equally as dull for the readers, so there are limitations to what can be done. There is quite a bit of repetition in places, which gives the reader a feeling of déjà vu, though this is quickly forgotten.

The editing is exceptional, with typos few and far between. For example, a monk named Tenkai is listed with his birth year as a question mark at the end of one chapter and 1536 at the start of the next. These are not particularly harmful errors and it is difficult to imagine a book of this size and density that does not include a few. There are places where an additional comma would be nice for immediacy of clarity, but the sentences are still grammatically correct. 

What audience is Shinto: A History written for? It is most likely not for those new to Japanese history and religions. The book would not work well as an introduction, as it assumes a basic knowledge of the subject matter. Moreover, the preponderance of relatively similar names in such close proximity would likely be confusing to many. For readers with intermediate-to-advanced knowledge of Japan, many of the events Hardacre alludes to without explanation will be clearer. The extensive endnotes— both in English and Japanese— are also an excellent jumping off point for further research.

Shinto: A History is best suited for readers interested in the Edo period through the current time, with the chapters on this period encompassing almost two-thirds of the text. Leaning on Hardacre’s previous experience with modern history and availability of materials, these chapters are much more detailed than those that came before. Here, the endnotes also tend to be denser, with many taking up half a page on their own.

As for pacing, it is best to read this book as quickly as possible. The chapters build upon each other and there are several instances where the text refers readers to another chapter for details on something previously mentioned. Chapters read in isolation would therefore have pieces missing and, if one were to wait too long between reading them, the details of what is being referenced may be forgotten.

Overall, Shinto: A History is a well written and interesting book, worth the time of readers with an interest in Shinto or Japanese history in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kenneth J. Valencich is an Indepdent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen Hardacre is Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions and Society at Harvard University. Concentrating on Japanese religious history of the modern period, she has done extended field study of contemporary Shinto and Buddhist religious organizations, the religious life of Japan's Korean minority, and contemporary ritualization of abortion. She has also researched State Shinto and directs a research project on constitutional revision in Japan.



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