Who Are the Best Custodians of Shinto?

A major problem for Shinto today is that [existential and essentialist] forms of spirituality exist alongside each other without much clarity about their precise relation. It is as if there were two separate spiritual traditions known as Shinto. One Shinto has the existential emphasis and is functional, either consciously or subconsciously, in the daily lives of almost all Japanese. The other Shinto is driven by essentialist assumptions and is much more limited in its following. Yet whenever Shinto is conceived as an organized spiritual tradition, its essentialist forms come to the fore because this is the spirituality connected with most major Shinto institutions. After all, who can speak for existential Shinto? …

If a Japanese really wants to deepen her or his existential Shinto spirituality, therefore, the place to go may not be the bookstore. The true experts in existential Shinto spirituality are not the scholars and priests who write books but Mom and Pop, Grandma and Grandpa. They carry the heritage of Shinto praxis in its existential form. Of course, in answer to many questions, especially those about the “real meaning” of this ritual behavior or that Shinto term, their answers may often be “I don’t know.” But this may be the best answer. It tells us three things. First, it is sincere: the true answer is in the mindful heart, not the analytic mind. The elders may not be able to explain it, but perhaps they express it in how they think, act, and feel. Sometimes a poet can express or evoke what the philosopher can never quite articulate in rational analysis. The same may be true of the existentially spiritual person. Second, their answer implies that the question asked has not come up in their own experience of “feeling Shinto” and “being Shinto” in an existential way. The question may be legitimate, but this does not mean its answer is crucial to spiritual growth. And third, some kinds of questioning are not just beside the point but actually counterproductive. This was [Motoori] Norinaga‘s theme in critiquing what he called the “Chinese mentality.” If he were alive today, he might have called it the “scientific” or “scholarly” mentality: any approach that thinks “I don’t know” can only be the beginning, not the appropriate end, of an investigation. The scientist’s “I don’t know” triggers a research grant proposal. For the professor to say “I don’t know” is a confession, not a profession. This mentality, as Norinaga argued, cannot accept the wondrous, the marvelous, and the awesome for being just what they are. Because this mentality cannot accept such phenomena at face value, it never really comes face-to-face with the wondrous awe. Such experiences get peripheralized, filed away as something odd to talk about at the tavern on a cold winter night with friends, but not to be taken seriously in one’s “real life.”

Having such existential Shinto sensibilities, many Japanese today are wary of politicians and Shinto leaders who display a normative, prescriptive, or essentialist bias. Their essentialist Shinto spirituality is often so thoroughly interwoven with a nationalist, right-wing political agenda that many Japanese hold them in disdain for “trying to refight the war.” They hope that as the decades pass, the old essentialist Shinto of the foreign war years will die out as the people of that generation pass away. As the Yasukuni controversy indicates, however, this does not seem to be happening.

SOURCE: Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 148-151

By coincidence, Japundit notes a recent Mainichi Shimbun report of at least one prominent Shinto priest with his heart in the right place.

The late Fujimaro Tsukuba, who served as the head priest at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine until 1978, deliberately avoided the enshrinement of class-A war criminals, sources close to him have revealed.

Tsukuba had expressed concern that enshrinement of the criminals of World War II could hinder visits by emperors, which were still continuing at the time. The former priest’s stance was revealed by a former public relations official at the shrine and others close to him.

Tsukuba died in March 1978, and the class-A war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni soon afterwards….

Visits by Emperor Showa to the shrine were performed eight times since 1945, but they stopped from 1975. It has been suggested in some circles that this change was due to the enshrinement of the class-A war criminals.

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