Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Shintō

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Shintō and ecology cannot be called an established academic subject, either in Japan or in the West. However, in reply to the growing concerns for environmental politics, Shintō and many other religions have become a focus in the debate on inherent ecological thinking patterns in the established religious worldviews. In Japan, a discourse on the environmental aspects of Shintō that spans strictly academic research and Shintō theology has developed since the 1990s. One chief representative is Minoru Sonoda, who is both a Shintō priest and a Shintō historian and has published articles in English. His contributions to the subject will be discussed later. In the West probably the most remarkable effort so far has been an international conference called Shintō and Ecology that was organized by the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) of Harvard University in 1997. This conference was part of a series of conferences on Religions of the World and Ecology. Still, there is no comprehensive study on the subject in a Western language, although the papers from this conference were published in Japanese.

This article will first discuss the ecological conditions and values of modern Japan before proceeding to a discussion of Shintō. As will become clear, the evaluation of Shintō's contribution to Japanese environmentalism depends on the respective interpretation of Shintō, which is in itself a controversial topic. Examples of religious symbolism applied to objects of nature and a discussion of Shintō's pragmatic ethics conclude the article.

Ecology and Modern Japanese Society

Japan's environmental record is highly ambivalent. On the one hand, the country is known for its environmental catastrophes, such as the Minamata disease, a case of mercury poisoning that culminated in the 1960s, or its insensitive politics in connection with whale hunting and the exploitation of exotic timber wood. On the other hand, Japanese countermeasures against environmental pollution have proved surprisingly effective. Japan's laws and regulations concerning exhaust gases and the emission of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen have long been among the strictest in the world. These policies, which were started in the 1970s, have earned Japan something of a reputation as a model of environmentalism. According to Conrad Totman, a leading authority in the field of environmental history, in the long run, Japan's achievements in ecological preservation outweigh the harms Japanese society did to its environmental conditions. In his famous analysis of forestry in preindustrial Japan (1989), Totman argues that given the population density and the geographical conditions of the Japanese archipelago, one would expect Japan to be a "impoverished, slum-ridden, peasant society subsisting on barren, eroded moonscape characterized by bald mountains and debris-strewn lowlands" (p. 1). Instead, outside the urban centers Japan enjoys a wealth of verdant forests that has earned it the denomination "green archipelago." Totman argues that this is not the result of nature's benevolence but of "generations of human toil that have converted the archipelago into one green forest preserve" (p. 1).

To sustain his argument, Totman provides the following figures: Japan is not only one of the world's most heavily populated societies. Since 80 percent of the country consists of hard-rock mountains, it is by far the most populous society in terms of density by arable land (p. 172). In fact, Japan was on the verge of deforestation already in the seventeenth century. Totman's study concentrates on the policies that prevented forestry overexploitation, which elsewhere produced ecological calamities not only in the industrial age but, for instance, along the Mediterranean coast during the Roman Empire. The relative success of Japanese society in preserving and creating natural conditions that form the basis of the country's wealth naturally leads to the question of the extent to which Shintō, Japan's indigenous religion, has contributed to the ecological standards of Japan.

ShintŌ and the Proverbial Japanese Love of Nature

Shintō (literally, "Way of the Gods") comprises in its broadest sense a variety of beliefs in Japanese indigenous deities (kami ). Kami range from powerful nature and ancestor deities to spirits of insignificant objects and are virtually infinite in number. Beliefs and forms of worship are equally heterogeneous but are often directed at objects of nature such as trees, rocks, or mountains, which are either interpreted as abodes of the kami or as kami themselves. Many Shintō shrines, even in urban areas, are further surrounded by small groves generally protected by religious taboos. One famous shrine, Kasuga Taisha in Nara, has even allowed a tree to protrude from the roof of one of its buildings, thus showing special respect for the sacredness of trees. Particularly in the eyes of Western observers, Shintō has been regarded therefore as a very ancient, "animistic" religion, maintaining features of times when people did not yet possess the capabilities to change their natural environment and instead strove for living in harmony with given environmental conditions. The French scholar Augustin Berque, for instance, contrasts the Christian "physicophobiac" tradition with the Japanese love for nature ("physicophily") and its strong affinity toward the forest (Berque, 1997). Other observers, such as Spanish author Luis Diez del Corral, directly associated Shintō architecture with this "physiophilic" attitude, regarding the Japanese shrine as the most compressed architectural expression of the forest as the home of the sacred (Diez del Corral, 1967).

Such harmonious, often romantic depictions stand in stark contrast to the historical role of Shintō in modern Japanese society, particularly in the area of ultranationalism from the 1930s to World War II. At that time Shintō was quintessentially equated with emperor worship. Every Japanese was obliged to perform religious service at the local shrine not as a reverence to the local kami or to surrounding nature but as a reverence to the state embodied by the figure of the emperor. This so-called State Shintō (kokka shintō ) is nowadays often explained as an ideological misuse of the old indigenous religion, contrary to its original values and intentions. Emperor worship, however, had been an indispensable part of Shintō theology long before the existence of a modern nation-state. Until after World War II, the emperor was traditionally seen as descended from the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu), and thus divine himself. Even today, hardly any Shintō apologetic in Japan would go as far as to remove the emperor completely from the realm of Shintō.

Recent scholarship has attempted to overcome these inherently contradictory images by reducing the interpretation of Shintō to the facts gathered from historical sources. This implies a rejection of the still common notion that Shintō reflects a transhistorical Japanese mentality (including Japanese nature worship). Instead, special attention is given to the changing conceptions of indigenous deities and the interactions of Buddhism and Shintō. Since these interpretations are not yet familiar outside specialist circles, a short historical overview in light of recent studies seems necessary before discussing the ecological aspects of Shintō. More specific essays on this topic can be found, for instance, in Shintō in History: Ways of the Kami (Breen and Teeuwen, 2000) or Tracing Shintō in the History of Kami Worship (Teeuwen and Scheid, 2002).

Historical Development

In ancient Japanese myth, the world (i.e., the Japanese islands) is a creation of a primordial, divine couple who are equally the ancestors of all divine beings populating the mundane world. Yet apart from a few mythical narrations, Shintō does not possess a theoretical concept of nature, the universe, or the divine, as developed for instance by Buddhism or Daoism. While there have always been individual attempts to establish something like a canonical Shintō view on these issues, such efforts drew mostly from existing explanations of other religions and did not reach canonical authority. This lack of religious doctrine is closely related to the fact that there is neither a founding figure nor a body of canonical texts, apart from ancient chronicles (most notably the Kojiki, or "Records of Ancient Matters" from 712, and the Nihonshoki, or "Records of Japan," from 720), which were never intended as religious writings by their authors. Shintō is defined by its belief in the local deities (kami ), which existed through all phases of Japanese religious history. Yet the notion that belief in the kami is in itself an independent, self-sufficient religion is a comparatively new phenomenon. During most of Japanese religious history since the advent of Buddhism (sixth century ce), kami were seen either as minor spiritual beings such as demons or goblins or as manifestations of Buddhist entities.

In early historical times, probably inspired by the example of Buddhist temples, emperors as well as other local leaders began to erect permanent sites of worship to their ancestor deities, generally referred to as "shrines" (jinja ). The most prestigious of these sites of ancestor worship is the well-known Ise Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, which is at the same time regarded as the ancestor deity of the imperial lineage. Only in the case of such big shrines, which became part of an elaborate system of state rituals, did a professional priesthood take over the affairs of religious service to the kami. On the local level, however, kami worship was mostly conducted by community leaders or was put into the hands of Buddhist monks. Buddhism was also instrumental in erecting sites of kami worship. Already in the Nara period (eighth century), every large Buddhist temple had its local protector kami, situated side by side with the local Buddha. Thus, from the beginning of Japanese Buddhism, efforts were taken to integrate kami worship into the Buddhist worldview and liturgy. Kami worship and Japanese Buddhism developed during most parts of their common history in mutual interaction and were not regarded as different or competing religious systems.

From the medieval period onward, however, individual thinkers engaged in a theology of kami worship independent from Buddhism. It is in this context that the word shintō was used for the first time to designate something comparable to Buddhism (in Japanese, bustudō, the Way of the Buddha) (Teeuwen, 2002). Only in these theologies, the way of the kami was regarded as a religion comprising, among other features, a cosmology based on Japanese myth, an ethical system different from Buddhism, and rituals for the dead, which had been entirely in the hands of Buddhist monks. While such efforts to establish Shintō as an independent religion were only partly successful, they induced a series of independence movements in many shrines from the beginning of the Edo period (16031867) onward. In the eighteenth century, a new intellectual movement, the so-called Nativist School (kokugaku ), focused on the idea of Japanese culture from the times before the impact of Chinese and Indian civilizations and led to a new evaluation of ancient history, mythology, and the pure Way of the Kami. Later generations of this school were instrumental in the reestablishment of the political role of the tennō and the proclamation of Shintō as a kind of state religion in the political upheaval of 1868, generally known as the Meiji Restoration. Most notably, the early Meiji government commanded the separation of kami and Buddha worship (shinbutsu bunri ), thereby destroying many existing syncretistic institutions and providing for the first time the necessary conditions for Shintō as an independent religion on a nationwide scale. The ideas of the Nativist School not only paved the way for the above-mentioned nationalistic ideologies of State Shintō, they also shaped the general depiction of Shintō as a repository of timeless, transhistorical Japanese values up to the present day.

As should be clear from this short sketch of recent approaches to Shintō history, it is not at all easy to determine a precise value system of Shintō, let alone Shintō attitudes toward nature. Yet there is an ample range of religious symbolism related to natural objects, which is nowadays attributed to the realm of Shintō. The following passages provide a few representative examples.

Mountains and rocks

Mountains were always seen as the realm of the divine in premodern times. Pilgrimages to Mount Fuji and other famous peaks trace their origins back to mountain cults that arose from a characteristic blend of ancient shamanistic and Buddhist religious features (cf. Miyake, 2001). But while modern pilgrimages are mass phenomena, undertaken mostly by bus, in olden times only very few people entered the higher mountainous regions. Those who did were almost by definition religious ascetics, called yamabushi, "those who sleep in the mountains." It is therefore no surprise that the mountains appear in folk legends either as the realm of the dead or as entrances to the Buddhist hell. All in all, the religious awe in relation to mountains is tightly connected with fear of their wild, menacing natural conditions. On the other hand, hills or smaller mountains close to human dwellings were sometimes regarded as a whole as a "divine body" (shintai ), as the case of Mount Miwa near Nara demonstrates. Finally, there are certain scenic spots that owe their religious flair to their peculiar shapes. The "wedded rocks" at the Bay of Ise, two natural stone pillars formed by the sea and now united by a sacred rope (shimenawa ), are a particularly famous example.


Sacred trees (shinboku ) furnished with a simple cord of raw hemp to indicate their divine aura are a remarkable indication of the Japanese capability to endow nature with religious symbolism by using "almost natural" materials. Trees hold indeed a peculiar religious significance. In a recent article (2000), Shintō scholar Sonoda Minoru pointed out that in some of the earliest Japanese texts the word mori, which translates as "forest" in modern Japanese, could be used as a synonym of yashiro, the ancient word for kami shrine. According to Sonoda, this is an indication that in prehistorical times kami were venerated in simple groves. The groves around modern Shintō shrines are thus remnants of what shrines originally used to betrees as abodes of the kami. To him, these "expressions of Japan's ancient animistic view of life" are part of an ancient forest culture, which has helped to limit ecological disasters in Japan so far (p. 45).

In fact, it remains open to debate to what extent Sonoda's relation between shrines and trees actually accounts for a special ecological consciousness. After all, Shintō does not protect forests in general but only a few select examples of trees. In the study of Japanese forestry mentioned earlier, Totman (1989) demonstrates that in the ancient period, religious institutions not only supported indiscriminate wood consumption but were actually among the chief consumers. Already in the eighth century the erection of shrines and temples, together with aristocratic mansions, led to the deforestation of vast regions in the Kinai region around present-day Nara, then the center of Japanese civilization. The practice of rebuilding shrines anew every twenty years, which is nowadays still performed in the case of the Ise shrines, was formerly a common technique related to prehistoric construction methods, which ceased when wood became sparse (p. 12). Totman raises these examples of "ancient predation" in his discussion of religious impacts on Japanese environmentalism, which he ultimately denies (p. 181). According to him, pragmatic considerations and a long period of trial and error with Japan's most important construction material, wood, were more important for early modern ecological successes than religious values.

Social Roles of Kami W orship

In spite of limitations of the received image of Shintō, it is quite obvious that kami worship played an important role in the religious life of communities during all times of Japanese history. Kami rites filled those gaps, where conventional Buddhist worship fell short in offering satisfactory solutions. In particular, rites related to agricultural production are primarily addressing local kami. Regular festivals (matsuri ) in honor of the kami play an important role in sacralizing the annual cycle of production and in strengthening vertical and horizontal social bonds within local communities. In premodern times shrines seem to have also functioned as keepers of a kind of village constitution, which took the form of a pledge of the village to the local kami. In a recent study of shrines from the eighteenth century, Maeda Hiromi found many examples in which villagers were bound to raise only special crops or special animals by the will of their kami. As the economy changed and other forms of agriculture seemed more profitable, villages took great pains to change the provisions of their kami, which could only be done with the assistance of the highest Shintō authorities (Maeda, 2002). These examples testify to the severity of kami worship as well as to the flexibility and pragmatics of Shintō precepts.


All in all it becomes clear that the natural environment of Japan was and still is heavily endowed with religious symbolism. This symbolism is often, but not always, related to the native deities, the kami. Yet while the outer form of these symbols seems to have been transmitted with a remarkable degree of consistency and uniformity, the contents of kami worship is difficult to determine and subject to historical change.

From the earliest historical times indigenous Japanese religion, whether we call it Shintō or not, was related to the cultivation of nature, that is, agriculture. Natural conditions were perceived of as kami, and religion served to turn the powers of these kami into conditions favorable for agricultural production. Indigenous deities thus represented both nature's benevolent and nature's threatening aspects. They were neither morally good nor bad, but simply powerful. Also in later times, kami were worshiped not so much in the quest for moral guidance but in order to gain a kami' s favors. This is also one of the reasons for the well-known "this-worldliness" (genze riyaku ) of Japanese religion in general and of Shintō in particular.

In the long run, Shintō seems to have always adapted to the conditions of human production, not the other way round. In particular, Shintō has been used to endow case-specific, pragmatic regulations with some religious dignity. It is certainly possible to sieve environmental ideas from the traditions of Shintō, but in historical retrospect there is no clear indication that Shintō served better to preserve environmental stability than any other religion.


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Bernhard Scheid (2005)