Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan

Making Sacred Forests

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Aike P. Rots
Bloomsbury Shinto Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I recently had the occasion to advise Hikawa Shrine in Saitama City on producing tourist literature for foreign visitors unfamiliar with Shinto. In a waiting room outside their ritual dance hall, I was struck by a large aerial photo showing the shrine’s large forest surrounded by downtown Saitama’s dense thicket of concrete and glass, and the tree-lined path to the shrine as a long, thin line of green stretching all the way to the train station. I suggested to the shrine priests that this photo could itself inspire foreign visitors, as it showed the shrine serving as an ancient refuge for flora, fauna, and historical continuity in general against the human onslaught of the city. Despite the appeal of such images, though, they have historically proven difficult to develop into a full mode of Shinto ecological thought. Aike P. Rots’s monograph Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan is a comprehensive overview of attempts to develop this common feature of many Shinto shrines into an ideal relationship between nature and Japanese identity.

Throughout the 20thcentury but especially after World War II, foreigners and locals alike often conceptualized “Shinto” as an “indigenous Japanese religion” with unique, non-rational ties to the natural landscape of Japan. Rots offers a critical retrospective on this narrative, which has been carefully and thoughtfully deconstructed in 21stcentury research, even as it continues to be reproduced by Shinto priests and other leaders. Rots does not attempt to trace Japanese accounts of indigeneity back to their 18thand 19thcentury sources. Instead, he focuses on the different ways in which the concept of “nature” was indigenized and connected to Shinto throughout the 20thcentury.

In the first three chapters, Rots breaks down essentialist accounts of Shinto into six separate narratives, which he refers to as “the imperial paradigm, the ethnic paradigm, the universal paradigm, the local paradigm, the spiritual paradigm and the environmentalist paradigm.” (30) He focuses not only on what these paradigms say but also what they leave out, and how they relate to actual practices and campaigns at the local and national levels. He is generous with his sources but pays attention to the distance between their rhetoric and reality. 

The remainder of this review emphasizes the most serious consequences of Rots’s findings. I cannot do justice to his nuanced and moderate tone, but I wish to lay out some basic conclusions for those who cannot read the entire book. Readers who are interested in a critical analysis of “Shinto and nature” paradigms should look especially at chapters 4 and 5, which deal with their most prevalent international and national applications respectively.

In chapter 4, Rots shows that the environmentalist paradigm is more often embraced by foreigners than by locals and is frequently a polemic that opposes an imaginary environmentally friendly Japanese worldview to the perceived environmental failings of Western societies. Japanese writers also engage with the environmentalist paradigm but generally from a position of nostalgia, regretting the loss of a premodern “small is beautiful” village society. In chapter 5, Rots highlights how Japanese language accounts of “Shinto and nature” frequently redirect readers’ energies not towards rescuing present-day biodiversity inside or outside of shrines, but towards a nostalgic endorsement of the emperor as divine head of the nation and shrines as symbols of imperial sanctity. There appears to be a quiet segregation between Shinto priests’ patriotic discourse about shrine forests, which portrays them as primeval native forests surviving from the age of myths and gods, and the discourse of scientific research, which has shown that they often consist of recent, imported species and are generally less biodiverse than the environments surrounding them. (85, 112, 123f, 140, 217n6) 

While this disconnect runs throughout narratives of “Shinto and nature,” awareness of the positive attributes attributed to shrine forests has encouraged shrine priests throughout the country to build scientifically backed organizations to educate the surrounding community about the forests and to preserve, maintain, and improve them. However, such organizations and movements are rare, poorly funded, and face many challenges (documented in chapters 6 through 9). Such challenges include a culturally grounded reluctance by Shinto priests to engage in direct protest of political decisions, the association of environmental activism with real and imagined “communists,” and the frequent community perception of the shrine forest as an unproductive nuisance better used for logging. Often, “nature” is a buzzword that does not translate into any action on the part of shrines. In chapter 9, Rots assesses the Shinto establishment’s use of environmentalist language as dominated by nationalist greenwashing: he finds it difficult to judge the sincerity of its stated commitments.

If I had to remark on any shortcomings in the book, it would be the lack of an explicit analysis of how honest environmentalist discourse might disrupt the contradictory account of Shinto as “national ethnic religion.” Rots helpfully mentions both researchers and practitioners who aim for multiethnic or multinational Shinto and offers a brief problematization of the academic concept of “ethnic religion” (35, 74). His criticism of portraying Ainu and Okinawan religion as “primitive Shinto” (119-20) is accurate, but in the course of that brief analysis he confuses the Yamato ethnic group with Japanese nationality, which in my opinion is a roadblock to understanding the positive effects of Japan’s modern policies on cultural and ethnic diversity. A deeper discussion of this could unveil points of contradiction in standard Shinto discourse which could prove beneficial for environmentalism in general.

As a fellow Shinto researcher who is also deeply concerned about environmental issues, I found myself in almost complete agreement with Rots’s analysis and his concluding chapter, where he stresses that Japan is in fact one of the world’s worst polluters (just behind Saudi Arabia) and that myths surrounding “Shinto and nature” are frequently used to bolster knee-jerk nationalism rather than meaningful environmental conservation. (264) In fact, the most serious environmental lobbying in the Japanese religious world has come not from Shinto groups, but from the tiny Protestant Christian minority which used to characterize the overseas export of toxic, polluting industries as “economic imperialism.” The failure of this Christian group to gain support from the Japanese religious world points to the uphill battle faced by anyone desiring to improve the environmental impact of Shinto shrines.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Avery Morrow has a Masters in Religious Studies from the University of Tokyo.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aike P. Rots is associate professor in contemporary Japanese culture at the University of Oslo, Norway.


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