Monday, June 2, 2008

Enduring Identities. A review.

Enduring Identities: The guise of Shinto in contemporary Japan.

John K. Nelson

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0-8248-2259-5

324 pp

The Japanese religion known today as Shinto remains little understood by many visitors to Japan, and even by many Japanese. The most often used description of it as "the ancient religion of Japan" is simply inaccurate and misleading.

For anyone seeking to understand Shinto, Enduring Identities is a great place to start.

John Nelson spent a year at Kyoto's Kamigamo Jinja, one of the major shrines in the Kyoto area, and the fieldwork and interviews he did there explore the forms that Shinto takes today.

Kamigamo Jinja pre-dates Kyoto, and the book contains a lot of interesting history of the area that one normally doesn't find in the standard tourist literature, and particularly interesting is the information on the area being primarily settled by immigrants from what is now the Korean peninsular.

By interviewing many of the visitors to the shrine, as well as the parishioners, and the staff and priests, Nelson builds up a description of what Shinto is and means that is far more diverse than, and sometimes contradictory to, the commonly heard cliches. He also does an excellent job of presenting the relationship between contemporary Shinto and State Shinto, the nationalistic, militaristic cult that held sway in Japan for the first half of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the Yasukuni Shrine issue will find it informative.

There is an interesting chapter on the "sacred space" of the shrine that is useful and relevant to an understanding of how such concepts manifest themselves in many areas of Japanese life, not just shrines and temples.

The longest chapter concerns itself with the annual cycle of rituals and ceremonies that take place at the shrine. Being both very old (7th century), and important, Kamigamo is home to some major ceremonies, most notably what is commonly called the Aoi Festival, and also the lesser-known Crow Sumo, but the information is also relevant to an understanding of Shinto rituals in general.

A book that would be rewarding to anyone interested in Kyoto or contemporary Japanese cultural anthropology as well as Shinto and Japanese religion.

this review originally published on JapanVisitor

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