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Home » 7. Concepts and Doctrines » Research on Shinto
Religious Research
Religious studies of Shintō began in earnest after The Second World War, but before the war some pioneering work can already been seen. The representative of this is Katō Genchi, who in his books Historical Studies in the of Religious Development in Shintō (Shintō no Shūkyō-hattatsushiteki kenkyū) and An introduction to the main Strands of Shinto beliefs (Shintō shinkō yōkei joron) used theoretical approaches from the comparative study of religion to discuss Shintō. In his study of religion through the use of comparison and effort to create a taxonomy, we can see that he his work was grounded in the ideas of Religious Studies. A similar point of view based on the field of religious studies was also incorporated in the research of Tanaka Yoshitō and Tsurufuji Ikuta, pre-war scholars of sect Shintō ( kyōha Shintō ).
       After the war there was little religious studies research into Shintō but at the same time, it is worth noting that research like the study of folk beliefs among the 'common people' by ethnologists such as Yanagita Kunio and the research into beliefs in antiquity by Orikuchi Shinobu had a strong influence on the study of Shinto within the field of Religious Studies. Hori Ichirō combined Shinto studies with ethnology, and applied a Religious Studies perspective to both; in his later years, he endeavored to apply Eliade's theoretical framework to the study of Japanese religion. The work of Harada Toshiaki, too, straddled ethnology and Shinto studies, and belongs to the field of Religious Studies.

Concepts adopted from Religious Studies
       Along with the increasing popularity of Shintō research, new research based upon the free thinking also gradually increased. Nishida Nagao and Ono Motonori are examples of Shinto specialists who were influenced by the concepts of religious studies. Influence of ideas from Religious Studies is prominent, for example, in Ono's Basic Knowledge and Basic Problems of Shinto (Shintō no kiso chishiki to kiso mondai). Others raised the topic of Shinto in the context of the discussion of Japanese culture. The most famous example of this is Ishida Ichirō's The kami and Japanese Culture (Kami to Nihon Bunka). Today, when the study of Shinto is generally conceived as a sub-field of the study of religion, perspectives from the field of Religious Studies inside Shintō studies have gradually become more prominent.
       Whilst the Religious studies perspective is quite strong, a number of scholars had looked at problems specific to Shintō. Representative of these is Yamaori Tetsuo and this tendency can bee seen in his books Kami and From kami to okina (Kami kara okina-e). Sonoda Minoru developed the study of matsuri from a Religious Studies perspective. He was very heavily influenced by the ritual theories of Yanagawa Keiichi and wrote A phenomenology of matsuri (Matsuri no genshōgaku). By introducing the new concept of a "religious system," Inoue Nobutaka in his book The formation of sect Shinto (Kyōha Shintō no keisei) blew new life into study of sect Shinto, which had waned after the war. Kamata Tōji (Fieldwork in the realm of the deities [Shinkai no fiirudowaaku]), Tsushiro Hirofumi (On practices of spirit pacification [Chinkon gyōhōron]) and others have shed light on religiousity with Shinto overtones, albeit in slightly unconventional ways. Also, a great many articles have been published on Shinto-derived New Religions, which are one of the liveliest topics of discussion in the field. The main tendencies in this body of research, which mainly belongs to the dicipline of Religious Studies, are described in Inoue Nobukata et al ed., Dictionary of New Religions (Shinshūkyō jiten).
       Next, I will review some concrete ways in which approaches from Religious Studies have affected the study of Shinto. Religious Studies concepts that have been used to analyse Shinto include animism, charisma, shamanism, syncretism and symbolism.

       Animism is the idea that all existence, including inanimate objects, is alive and possess a soul in the same way as humans and have influence on other existences. The term was introduced by the British evolutionary anthropologist E.B. Tylor in his book Primitive Culture (1871). During this period, the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West misinterpreted the close interaction between man and nature in polytheistic traditions, and defined "belief in the existence of spirits" as a primitive stage in the evolution of religion, preceding the emergence of human-like deities. The prejudice inherent in the term animism, then, has limited its usefulness both historically and culturally, but recently, the nuances of the term have changed. Many polytheistic religions all over the world, including Shintō, believe that that nature is a living being of which humanity is but one element, and that humans should strive to coexist, to live in harmony with nature. These religions are today looked upon positively as beliefs systems that are less destructive to the environment. In this climate, theories that characterize Shinto as a form of animism have once more become common.

       Charisma is a Greek word, with the original meaning favor or blessing. Max Weber introduced it into the sociology of religion to refer to supernatural, supra-human powers and characteristics. Such extra-ordinary characteristics appear most prominently in prophet-like religious figures who create a new religious order. However religions which rely on an individual charismatic leader are unstable. Confronted with the problem of the succession of such a leader, there is a tendency to shift to more ordinary, systematized forms of charisma, such as hereditary charisma based on blood-lines, or institutional charisma based on specific positions within the organization. From this point of view, the founders of Shinto-derived New Religions are characterized as charismatic leaders, while priestly lineages and the imperial family are mentioned as examples of hereditary or institutional charisma.

       The concept of shamanism is often used to characterize Shinto. Shamanism refers to a type of religion that gives a central place to magical or religious figures (shamans, mediums) who make direct contact with supernatural beings (deities, spirits or souls of the dead) through special mind-states (trances, ecstatic states, the soul leaving the body, forgetting oneself), and who perform divination, healing, and other rituals. Shamanism in this sense can be found throughout the world, but is especially prominent in northern Asia. It is sub-divided into two types, one characterized by an ecstatic state and the other by possession. In the first, the soul of the shaman leaves the body to visit supernatural beings, whilst in the second, supernatural beings take possession of the shaman. Another important distinction can be made with regard to the process of becoming a shaman. Here one can distinguish between two types of shamanism: the ascetic type, where the techniques of possession are mastered through religious austerities; and the divine call type, where the shaman is chosen by the spirits, irrespective of his or her will.
       Hori Ichirō argued that two types of deities can be seen in Shintō, clan deities (ujigami) and human deities (hitogami) and argued that the latter was grounded in shamanic possession, when people were possessed by kami or had felt like they had become kami. There are various historical examples in which we can see shamanistic elements. In antiquity, sources document the political, ritual and military activities of women who had been possessed, such as Himiko of Yamatai, the mythical deity Ame-no-Uzume, and the imperial princesses Yamato-Totohimomoso-hime-no-mikoto mentioned in the Sujinki and Okinagatarashi-hime-no-mikoto or (Jingū Kōgō) of the Chūaiki. Finally, shamanic elements can be recognised in various types of ritualists in folk religion and in the founders of new religious movements. Here there is some overlap with the concept of charisma.

       Syncretism is the phenomenon of the combination or amalgamation of religions, and   can be referred to as jumbled religion or multi-layered beliefs. In Japan, the emphasis is on the merging of Shinto and Buddhism, in which case the expression "amalgamation of kami and Buddhas" (shinbutsu shūgō) is commonly used. It covers cases where the two unwittingly exert mutual influence on each other, and cases where the amalgamation is intentional. Examples of the latter are the so-called honji suijaku theory, in which buddhas are defined as the "original ground" (honji) from which kami emerge as "traces" (suijaku) of the buddhas, and the reverse shinpon butsujaku theory, which states that it is the kami who are the original ground of the buddhas. There is an extensive body of research on the subject of shinbutsu shūgō, but most work concentrates on the historical development of the amalgamation process, and perspectives from the discipline of Religious Studies are infrequent.

       The word symbol derives from the Greek symbolon, with the original meaning of "tally." It refers to concrete natural or cultural objects which, through resemblance, suggest abstract meanings, values or concepts. These include the dove for peace, or the crown for royal authority. Expressing meanings through symbols is called symbolism. The resemblances or analogies on which symbols draw are not necessarily bipolar. Through their color, form and function, objects can convey multiple symbolic meanings simultaneously. The most effective symbols embody a complex of meanings in condensed form. In traditional societies, symbols and the manipulation of symbolic thought are an important method for the exploration, cognition and expression of the world, and also for the management of the world. Religion, like culture as a whole, is a system constructed from various symbols. To understand the complexity of religious symbolism, it is necessary to be aware not only of the meanings that are generally conveyed by its symbols, but also of their position within the particular culture or natural environment in which they are used. In the myths of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (Kiki mythology), the marriage of Izanagi and Izanami, followed by the birth of lands (kuniumi) and deities (kamiumi), figures as a sacred marriage that serves as a prototype and a norm for the relationship between man and woman as an act of life creation. Moreover, the subsequent death of Izanami and separation of the two deities explains and legitimates the human condition in which birth and death are inseparably linked. This raises the question, however, how the sacred marriage of Izanagi and Izanami is connected to, or differs from the production of deities by Amaterasu and Susanowo, which was realised through an ordeal (ukehi), without sexual intercourse. This example shows how both general, universal meanings and particular, specific meanings coexist within the symbolism of the sacred marriage simultaneously. We cannot establish the meaning of symbols on the basis of a single instance, but must place it within the context of the mythology of creation as a whole, and compare it with other, similar instances. The same is valid for legends of live human sacrifice (ikenie), which describe how people were sacrificed to complete buildings or other projects. Only detailed studies that place a particular tale in a group of related tales and compare it with actual ritual practice can do justice to the multiple meanings of symbolism.

— Matsumura Kazuo
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
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