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Reviewed by:
  • A New History of Shinto, and: Rethinking Medieval Shintō. Special issue of Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie (16)
  • Kate Wildman Nakai
A New History of Shinto. By John Breen and Mark Teeuwen. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 280 pages. Hardcover £60.00/€72.00/$94.95; soft-cover £20.00/€24.00/$32.95.
Rethinking Medieval Shintō. Special issue of Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie (16). Edited by Bernard Faure, Michael Como, and Iyanaga Nobumi. École française d'Extrême-Orient Centre de Kyoto, 2009. 395 pages. Softcover €40.00.

A transformation has taken place in English-language studies on Shinto in recent years as new perspectives have challenged its image as Japan's enduring indigenous religion, rooted in an archaic animistic nature worship. This image, with its presumption of continuity between ancient and modern beliefs about kami and ritual practices and its elision of the complex impact of Buddhism, is often seen as the doing of early modern and modern nativists. It also owes much, however, to the approaches taken by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western scholars. Influenced by theories of religious evolution formulated by Max Müller, Edward Burnett Tylor, and the like, pioneers in the study of Japan such as Ernest Satow, Basil Hall Chamberlain, and W. G. Aston (as well as their fellow japanologists writing in French and German) took a deep interest in Shinto and the early myths. An investigation of Shinto, they believed, would shed light on the early stages of what was assumed to be a universal process of religious development. Writing in 1877, Tylor himself suggested as much. Tylor had sought information about the Kojiki and Nihon shoki myths from Baba Tatsui, a former Tosa samurai and later political activist who was then studying in London. On the basis of what he learned from Baba in combination with earlier European writings, Tylor observed that, once "borrowed" Chinese and Buddhist elements were removed, "there is left what appears to be a genuine Japanese stratum, containing nature-myths of a very clearly marked character." These, he proposed, offered valuable information on religion from a comparative perspective.1 Two decades later, Aston, commenting on "the place of Shinto in the science of religion," wrote in similar terms. "A species of animism forms the basis of Shinto, as it does of other religions," he noted. For "the student of religion in its earlier forms," furthermore, "the myths in which Shinto is embodied present special advantages" in that "they hold an almost unique position, intermediate between the crude conceptions of savages and such mythologies as those of ancient Greece and Rome."2 [End Page 159]

Much the same premise underlies Aston's Shinto (The Way of the Gods), published in 1905. Presented as a general overview of Shinto, this work seamlessly juxtaposes information on the Shinto pantheon, priesthood, worship, ceremonial, and so forth garnered from Kojiki, Nihon shoki, and works such as Engishiki (an early tenth-century compendium) with references to the situation in these areas in late Meiji. Intervening developments receive only brief mention, in a chapter titled "Decay of Shinto.—Its Modern Sects," as evidence of "the character and extent of the encroachment of Buddhist and Chinese ideas on the native faith and cult."3 It would not be fair to Aston to say that he totally ignores the evolution of ideas about kami and patterns of kami worship over time. Yet for all his formidable linguistic skills and level of knowledge—not easily equaled by his latter-day successors—one is left with the impression that nineteenth-century theories of the development of religion had the ironic effect of leading him to present Shinto as something static and unchanging.

Thanks in no little measure to a number of articles published in this journal in the late 1930s and early 1940s, readers of German could obtain information about some of the medieval and early modern developments that Aston subsumed under the heading "Decay of Shinto." In English, D. C. Holtom produced between the 1920s and the end of the Pacific War a valuable series of studies of modern Shinto, particularly those forms that have come to be described as State Shinto. For...


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