Articles: The Three Layers of Shinto by Yamaori Tetsuo

Originally published in Japanese on February 28, 2014. 


In the following, I explore three keys to the Japanese world view: the physical environment and landscape in which this view evolved; Japanese polytheism, particularly in contrast to the monotheism of the West; and the conflation of Japanese myth and history.


The Three-Layered Japanese Archipelago
Some time ago, a Japanese advertising agency put together a video of the Japanese archipelago filmed from a Cessna at a height of 3,000 meters. The video covered the entire country in the space of about an hour, starting from Okinawa in the south and zigzagging northward to Hokkaidō. I was astonished at the landscape it revealed. After leaving behind the large expanse of water separating Okinawa from the main islands, the film showed an archipelago covered coast to coast with mountain after mountain, forest after forest. The natural environment revealed barely a trace of the rice-paddy agriculture so closely associated with Japanese culture and society. The landscape of forest-dwellers, mountain-dwellers, and coastal peoples continued on and on, as far as the eye could see.


I realized soon enough that this was basically an illusion created by distance. Had the Cessna been flying at 1,000 meters, one would have been able to see Japan’s farm belts, such as that of the Kantō Plain. Filmed at 500 or 300 meters, the video would have clearly revealed its modern urban centers and industrial districts.


Then it dawned on me then that the topography of the Japanese archipelago consists of three strata overlaid on one another: the landscape of Japan’s ancient mountain and forest dwellers, the landscape of its rice-growing agricultural society, and finally the landscape of modern industrial society. Moreover, each of these strata is embedded in the Japanese psyche, shaping our world view in important ways. At the very bottom is the forest-dwelling Jōmon culture; in the middle is the agricultural Yayoi culture; and floating on the surface are the attitudes and values of modern industrial society. This three-tiered physical and psychic structure is what gives us the capacity to react flexibly when confronted with crises like the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the strength to accept and persevere in the face of nature’s senseless death and destruction.


Living with Impermanence
The great natural scientist and essayist Terada Torahiko (1878-1935) examined the Japanese approach to life and science in relation to the physical environment of the Japanese archipelago in two essays written in the 1930s: Tensai to kokubō (Natural Disasters and National Defense) and Nihonjin no shizenkan (The Japanese View of Nature). Noting that the scale of destruction from natural disasters increases as human civilization progresses, Terada pointed out that the magnitude of the threat from such natural disasters as earthquakes, tsunami, and typhoons was much greater in Japan than in Europe. He went on to posit that centuries of experience with such disasters had nurtured among the Japanese a tendency to submit to nature instead of resisting it and to apply the lessons of nature to their own lives. Accordingly, natural science in Japan had come to focus more on accumulating the kind of empirical knowledge people needed to adapt to natural forces than on conquering those forces, as in the West. The key point here is the formative impact of a natural environment that was far more capricious—sometimes violently so—than anything the majority of Europeans ever experienced.


Terada also drew a connection between this periodically threatening natural environment and the Buddhist concept of mujō, or impermanence. As Terada explained it, the experience of repeated earthquakes and typhoons nurtured an awareness of mortality and the transience of all things.


Of course, the concept of mujō, or anicca in Pali, originated in India with the teachings of Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha), who preached that all the things of this world are transient, that everything with physical form eventually perishes. The most basic teaching of Sakyamuni was that all of us must die.


But the doctrine of anicca underwent an important transformation after Buddhism was transplanted to Japanese soil. Along with a sense of transience, the natural environment also fostered a comforting awareness of the cycle of the seasons and the rebirth that invariably follows death. Flowers bloomed in the spring, leaves turned color and fell in the autumn, freezing winds swept the trees bare in the winter. But invariably the old year gave way to the new, and spring arrived once again. The knowledge that sunny days inevitably followed cloudy ones gave people the strength to live from day to day. Armed with this awareness, they learned to face life with grace and patience, flexibility and fortitude, and to face impending death with quiet acceptance, returning to the earth to become one with nature again.


Intuitive Polytheism
Another way to understand the Japanese world view is through the lens of religion—specifically, the difference between the Japanese religious sensibility and Western monotheism.


In the autumn of 1995, I visited Israel for the first time, following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth. Wherever I went in the region, I saw around me a vast expanse of desert, and I found myself growing increasingly uneasy. It seemed that there was nothing on this earth that one could hold onto. It was a far cry from anything I had felt while reading the Bible in the comfort of my own home. One day, as I was traveling along the Jordan River toward the holy city of Jerusalem, I had an epiphany. At that moment I suddenly understood the psychology that caused a desert people to seek comfort in a single absolute, eternal good—a feeling that it was impossible to live a single day in this bleak landscape without belief in the existence of one supreme God abiding on high. I became convinced that the belief system that is Judeo-Christian monotheism has its roots in this landscape and this need.


On my return flight, I felt an immense sense of relief as the islands of Japan loomed into view. The acres of deep-green forests, the rolling mountains with their lush vegetation and their rivers flowing to the sea, were truly a sight for sore eyes. I found myself picturing all the bounty of the mountains and the oceans. I could almost hear the sound of clear flowing water and smell the flowers that bloomed from season to season. I felt attuned to the ancient poets of the Manyōshū and the mountain dwellers of yore. What need had they of some supreme good dwelling high above in the heavens? They saw around them a world that provided comfort and refuge for all living things. Every forest and meadow overflowed with tokens of divinity. The voices of the dead echoed through the mountains. Surely it was the temperate climate and lush natural environment of the Japanese archipelago that fostered the intuitive religion” that is Japanese polytheism.


In many ways, the difference between Western and Japanese attitudes boils down to this difference between a religion that one believes and a religion that one feels. For example, the concept of the individual, translated ko in Japanese, strikes me as part and parcel of the Western monotheistic belief system—a world of autonomous human beings, each nurturing a belief in an absolute and eternal good existing in heaven on high. It seems to me that the basic meaning of “individual” and “individuality” derives from this relationship between the human and the divine.


In the indigenous Japanese vocabulary, the closest thing to the word ko is hitori—a single person, alone. Japanese literature and lore are filled with references to hitori stretching back more than a thousand years, whether they emphasize the desolation of solitude or the pleasures of sleeping alone, the smallness of the self in a vast universe or a consciousness that expands to fill the cosmos. Hitori evokes far deeper nuances, more varied and complex imagery than the foreign import ko. And at the heart of these nuances and imagery is the keen Japanese awareness of impermanence and mortality.


The Three-Layered Shintō Religion
One important aspect of the traditional Japanese religious sensibility was its acceptance of syncretism, most notably the system of shinbutsu shūgō that facilitated the coexistence of Buddhism, an imported religion, with the native Shintō faith.


Shintō is translated “the way of the kami,” and the kami of Japan are very different in character from the divinities with which most Westerners are familiar. From prehistoric times countless kami were believed to dwell deep within nature, in the mountains, forests, and waters of the archipelago. These were not anthropomorphic beings with distinct personalities and physical attributes. The vast majority were nameless but potent spirits of the sort believed to inhabit places and objects of all kinds. For that reason, there was a tendency to refer to them collectively, as kami-gami, rather than in the singular.


After Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, however, the kami began to change, gradually taking on the attributes of Buddhist deities. Shintō shrines were built in Buddhist temple compounds and vice versa, and specific kami became identified with particular Buddhist deities. As this process continued, there emerged a kind of hybrid religion in which kami and Buddhist deities were virtually one and the same.


In the Meiji era (1868–1912), when Japan opened its doors to the West, Shintō came under the influence of Christianity, and the leaders of the new state began to embrace the idea of monotheism as a unifying and modernizing force. They selected a single Shintō deity from the countless kami scattered over the Japanese archipelago and elevated it to the position of supreme being. This was the dawn of State Shintō.


At a result of this process, Shintō became like a three-story shrine, with the first story dedicated to the indigenous kami of the forests, rivers, and mountains, the second to the Buddhicized kami of shinbutsu shūgō, and the third to the Christianized kami of State Shintō. This three-tiered structure closely mirrors the three strata of our physical landscape and cultural mind-set.


Meanwhile, Buddhism underwent changes of its own in Japan, and these changes provide important insight into the Japanese view of life and death. Under the influence of Shintō, which holds that all human beings become kami after death, Japanese Buddhists began to refer to the dead as buddhas, reflecting an implicit belief that everyone who dies is reborn as a buddha. Even in modern parlance, the word hotoke (one of two alternate Japanese pronunciations of the Sino-Japanese character for Buddha) is commonly used to refer to someone deceased. On an intellectual level, the Japanese embraced the orthodox teachings of Indian Buddhism, but somewhere along the line they injected the very Japanese notion that everyone is deified after death.


The Seamless Fabric of Myth and History
The third key to understanding the Japanese view of life and death is the conflation of myth and history.


The ancient Greeks and Romans had a rich mythology, but they treated myth and history as occurring on two distinct planes of existence. To the Greeks and Romans the myths were not organically connected to the human events related in historical accounts by scholars like Herodotus and Thucydides. In the West, this distinction between history and mythology was taken for granted by writers in both fields from a very early date.


In ancient Japan, however, the relationship between mythological and historical events was viewed quite differently. In the Japanese cosmology, human society was subject to the same laws and rhythms as the deities who helped found it. For this reason, the Japanese viewed the origins of their country in a very different light from the kind of historical view common in the West.


The mythological accounts of the early-eighth-century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan) distinguish between two types of deities—immortal kami who lived forever and mortal kami who died and were interred in burial mounds. Representative of the first category are the amatsukami, or kami of heaven, residing in Takamagahara, the Plain of High Heaven. Representative of the second type are the kunitsukami, the deities of Japan, who appeared on earth after Ninigi-no-Mikoto descended from heaven.


Unlike the amatsukami (who may vanish from sight but never die), Ninigi-no-Mikoto and his kunitsukami descendents all died at some point and were buried in the ground. Moreover, in Japanese accounts, this line of kunitsukami produced Japan’s first emperor, Jinmu, and gave rise to the imperial line that continues down to the present day. In the traditional Japanese view, our destiny as human beings who live and die was passed down to us from the kunitsukami, who were subject to the same fate. The narrative of Japanese mythology transitions seamlessly into the history of Japan.


Viewed in this light, the centuries-old custom of shikinen sengū at Ise Shrine, last completed in the autumn of 2013, takes on new meaning. Every 20 years, the main buildings of the shrine are rebuilt from scratch, and the residing deities are ritually transferred from the old shrines to the newly built ones. In my view, what this transfer really signifies is the death of the old kami and the birth of the new. It is a ritual of divine death and rebirth.


The perception that the kami died just as human beings enabled the Japanese to view myth and history as seamlessly linked and nurtured a distinctive view of the cosmos, of life and death, and of the human condition.


A Different Kind of Polytheism
Given the appearance of multiple deities in Japanese myths and their frequent references to Japan’s “eighty myriads” (yaoyorozu) of kami, it is only natural that Shintō be classified as a form of polytheism. However, the polytheism of Shintō differs fundamentally from that of the ancient Greeks or Romans—or, for that matter, from that of Hinduism or Daoism.


Generally speaking, the “eighty myriad” kami of Shintō lack the individuality and corporeality seen in the deities of other polytheistic religions. In its original form, Shintō is a religion of invisible, disembodied deities dwelling deep within the mountains, rivers, and other manifestations of nature. By contrast, the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology—from stern father Zeus to the young Apollo and the even younger Cupid—were conceived and envisioned as highly corporeal beings with distinctive physical attributes. The same can be said of such Hindu gods as Vishnu and Shiva.


Another characteristic of Japanese polytheism is what I would term its egalitarian nature. Monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam insist on one all-powerful supreme being embodying an absolute good that transcends earthly values. My own straightforward reaction to this kind of monotheism is that it seems like the religious counterpart to autocracy or absolute monarchy. Just as an absolute monarch wields unchallenged power over his or her subjects, the transcendent god of a monotheistic religion exerts absolute power over the entire cosmos. In this sense, monotheism might be thought of as a kind of divine dictatorship.


Oddly enough, it was the monotheistic societies of the West that nurtured democracy in its familiar modern form. Both the parliamentary democracy developed in Britain and the more radical democracy of the French Revolution were the products of societies steeped in monotheism. Yet to my mind, the religious system that best matches the thinking of a democratic society is polytheism, with its pluralistic acceptance of diverse deities and values.


What is the relationship between dying gods and a political system predicated on pluralism? Both reflect a view of the cosmos, human life, and human society shaped by a keen awareness of the impermanent, ever-changing nature of the world in which we live.