Shintl Perspectives

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The indigenous religion of Japan, ShintM describes human existence much like the popular singer, Sting: as spirituality in the material world. This worldview is the foundation of Japanese civilization and has endured and adapted for centuries. While ShintM recognizes spirit over materiality as the basis of life, it shares something compelling with the perspective of science: the human propensity to identify that which is most powerful in nature and to harness that power for a comfortable and happy human life. Both are able to channel the raw potential of nature toward specific human aims on all levels of society, from the domestic to the national, and both regulate human control over nature through ethical standards that rely on an unquestioning belief in the value system upon which they are built.

Traditional Teachings

Some of the earliest forms of science and religion sought to answer the question of the origins of living things. Practitioners of both looked to the sun for clues and based their theories and myths on its primordial role in sustaining life on Earth. The sun is the most reliable source of technology. It regulates time. Its proximity to the Earth allows life to flourish. The sun is the gravitational center of the solar system and causes all the planets to orbit it in precise yearly progressions. Hence many ancient cultures regarded the sun as a great celestial king, embodied as a human sovereign on earth.

ShintM, similarly, reveres the sun as the source of all forms of power in the world, both divine and temporal, and as the animating life force behind objective reality. The ancient Japanese personified the sun as a goddess, Amaterasu, who provided life-sustaining technologies—the cultivation of rice and wheat, the knowledge of harvesting silk from silkworms, and the invention of weaving. The goddess also allowed her grandson, Jimmu Tenno, to incarnate as the first historical mikado (emperor) of Japan. His descent to the sacred Japanese islands in 660 b.c.e. began an unbroken line in a divine solar dynasty. The mikado's chief role was to administer the life-giving force of the sun and its associated technologies within the conduct of Japanese life and ethics.

ShintM acknowledges the connection between fundamental natural processes, such as the live-giving, maintaining, and destructive nature of the sun, and the smooth function of human life lived in harmony with them. Nature is tangible power. Certain natural occurrences and objects possess more potency than others, such as the celestial bodies, mountains, rivers, fields, oceans, rain, and wind. These centralized embodiments of natural power, including also special people such as heroes and leaders, were divinized as kami (nature spirits) and worshipped.

Nature is very delicate; it can be disrupted easily. Of all living creatures, human beings have the unique propensity to consciously become disjointed from the balanced flow of nature. Its creative and destructive powers (musubi) and those objects (kami), both active and inert, that harness it rest on a fragile hinge. If nature's power is unleashed without a conduit, its destructive force can inhibit human happiness and survival. If the objects that house nature's power become contaminated, the creative functions of life stall or halt. The ancient Japanese regarded such obstructions as pollution (tsumi), overcome only through ritual ablution and lustration (misogi harai), likened to the polishing of tarnished silver. To overcome obstructions to nature's inherent balance caused by pollution, ShintM presents a threefold solution: conscious invocation of the power within a kami, ritual cleansing as the manner in which to remove the pollution, and ethical conduct to prevent such pollution in the first place.

The ShintM tradition of the divine emperor together with the living presence of kami relies on the complete integration of politics, science, and religion, with ShintM, the shen (spirit) tao (the way of), as the unbroken thread connecting these three societal divisions. Even after shogun temporal authority resigned the tenno, the heavenly god-king, to symbolic status, the divinity of the emperor remained powerful in the cultural mind of Japan. The emperor would always be regarded as the true ruler of Japan, so much so that the tradition was reinstituted in 1868, ending the feudal rule of the shogun and beginning the taikyo (great teaching) movement of 1870 to 1884.

Modern ShintM

The Great Teaching Movement (1870–1884) brought ShintM into the modern world in the same manner as many other neoreligious and political movements—in the guise of an ancient tradition. Even though the divinity of the emperor was considered the basis of all civic and devotional duty, the ideology of the modern Western nation-state was beginning to take shape in Japan. ShintM became synonymous with the Japanese nation. The notion that ShintM, specifically with its concept of the divine emperor, was the exclusive religion of Japan made the Japanese a unique race, a belief successfully promoted through the national education system. It remained Japan's guiding ethos until the end of World War II.

Japan's entrance into the modern world involved much more than the reassertion of traditional values in a foreign governmental model. For the first time, Japan was exposed to Western technology, which led to its own industrial revolution beginning in the nineteenth century. At the same time that Japan was adopting new technologies, the emperor was restored to temporal power—achieving the modern-ancient blend that characterizes all non-Western nation-states.

Before Japan's contact with the West, ShintM did not have a code of ethics comparable to those of Western religions. Humans were regarded as fundamentally good because positive forces of nature, the gods, had created them. There is no original sin in ShintM. Salvation is deliverance from the troubles of the world, which often means the malfunction of the world. Evil is simply the lack of harmony between spirit and matter, which can be restored through ritual appeasement of the disturbed kami. Ethics based on the strict division between good and evil did not emerge in ShintM until the seventeenth century with the influence of Confucian dualism expressed in the war code of Bushido. The samurai who followed this code contributed the qualities of loyalty, gratitude, courage, justice, truthfulness, politeness, reserve, and honor to ShintM's system of natural ethics. From the Confucian Teachings of Kogzi, ShintM acquired its three central insignia: the mirror to symbolize wisdom, the sword to symbolize courage, and the jewel to symbolize benevolence.

By the 1890s observance of ShintM's reverence to the emperor became the secular obligation of every Japanese citizen and not a matter of personal piety. As a result, a threefold code of ethics distinguished Japan's national identity: loyalty to the country; harmony within the family; and, by extension, harmony within society as a whole through modesty, fraternity, and intellectual development. After World War II, ShintM influence was no longer part of the Japanese national identity because the post-war constitution provided for strict separation of religion and state. There is no official government support for ShintM in early twenty-first century Japan.

Contemporary Issues

ShintM beliefs continue to undergird Japanese popular culture, particularly in its relation to technology, a field that Japan has dominated since the end of World War II. Because ShintM recognizes an unseen force behind the machinery of the world, its application to the numerous human-made devices that provide conveniences to humankind is obvious. The most notable example of ShintM's interaction with modern technology was in connection with the Apollo 11 moon mission. Before the launch of Apollo 11, ShintM purification rites were offered to placate a potentially restive kami, the moon-brother of the sun, Amaterasu. The rites aimed to secure two goals: to avert the imbalance of the moon's natural rhythms affected by human-made machinery landing on its virgin soil, and to assure a successful journey for the spacecraft and its crew.

In the early-twenty-first century, the Japanese increasingly rely on machines to make life easier. However many unseen factors can cause mechanical malfunction. With computer viruses and their consequences rampant, Japanese high-tech businesses often invoke the favor of ShintM kami to prevent the damage caused by hackers. The nation's computer network sustains 35,000 cyber attacks each month and many companies believe that antiviral software will not solve the problem. From playing a role in the development of technology and the resolution of its associated problems to averting domestic disharmony by presiding over wedding unions, ShintM continues to maintain the spirit behind the material world.


SEE ALSO Environmental Ethics;Japanese Perspectives.


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