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  • Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests by Aike P. Rots
  • Trent E. Maxey (bio)
Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan: Making Sacred Forests. By Aike P. Rots. Bloomsbury, London, 2017. xii, 260 pages. $114.00, cloth; $39.95, paper; $35.95, E-book.

The view that Shintō is historically constructed, its contours variable across the long history of the Japanese archipelago, commands broad assent in the field. Forcefully articulated by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, among others, the historical constructivist approach challenges scholars to grapple with the contingent character of Shintō by attending to contextual specificity. Aike Rots rises to that challenge in this ambitious study and provides an insightful approach to understanding Shintō's discursive profile in contemporary Japan. Shintō has acquired over the past two decades a level of public and political prominence unseen since the end of World War II. Rots points to the 2016 G7 Summit, during which Prime Minister Abe Shinzō guided world leaders on a visit to the Grand Shrine of Ise, as a clear example of the increasingly sanitized image of Shintō being produced domestically and on the international stage. Effectively combining discourse analysis with ethnographic field work, Rots argues that Shintō has shed its strong association with prewar militarism by embracing conceptions of "nature" and "environmental sustainability."

Rots situates this recent history of Shintō's "greenwashing" within the broader, international emergence of what he calls the religious environmental paradigm, which associates "religious beliefs, practices and places with environmental ethics, nature conservation and the fight against climate change" (p. 5). While Rots notes that the association between religiosity and environmental awareness is not itself novel, he nonetheless argues that the environmental paradigm has come increasingly to shape the practices and definitions of religions, Shintō not excepted. The rise of this environmental paradigm, in turn, helps explain a growing focus on space within the study of religion. Drawing heavily on Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space, Rots lays his theoretical groundwork by linking the sacralization of space to political and ideological operations. The fact that sacred spaces possess "profound symbolic capital," he notes, means that the act of setting aside sacred space in the name of conserving nature is not "always tactical and subversive in nature and necessarily opposed to the interests of powerful elites" (p. 10). Conceiving Shintō as a religion committed to sacralizing and conserving nature, in other words, creates odd bedfellows, linking environmental activists with political conservatives interested more in the ideological promotion of Shintō than in combating climate change. [End Page 283] Rots argues additionally that the "discursive sacralization" of shrine forests as spaces of environmental conservation in recent decades has led to the "deprivatization" of Shintō and its growing public prominence. He pursues his larger argument in two parts, using chapters 2 through 5 to survey the historical and conceptual ground for the emergence of what he terms the "Shinto environmentalist paradigm." The second part, chapters 6 through 9, employs ethnographic case studies to explore the multiple actors and discursive articulations of that paradigm in Japan and internationally.

Situating the self-definition and practice of Shintō within a global field of exchange, Rots keenly demonstrates how concepts, institutions, and actors outside Japan and unaffiliated with Shintō have contributed to its definition in recent decades. The global animism renaissance from the 1970s onward, for instance, provided Japanese authors with a framework to celebrate the environmentalist credentials of Shintō against monotheistic religions that had been hitherto privileged within the taxonomical hierarchy of religions. The "Religions of the World and Ecology" conference series hosted by Harvard University between 1996 and 1998, as well as the bilingual symposium "The Kyoto Protocol: The Environment and Shinto," organized by the International Shinto Foundation and held in New York City in 1998, also illustrate how international academic collaborations furnished important occasions to recast Shintō into an environmentalist religion. Rots underscores the irony that while Shintō is frequently invoked as an antidote to the environmental and moral degradation wrought by "Westernization," that self-conception is "itself shaped in close interaction with ideas that developed in 'the West'" (p. 77).

If articulations of Shintō rely on a global field of...


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