Shinto: The Way Home

Thomas P. Kasulis

University of Hawaii Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 http://dannyreviews.com/
Shinto: The Way Home is a broad overview, situating Shinto in the context of Japanese culture and history and of broader approaches to spirituality and religion. It avoids being trapped in any narrow conception of Shinto, whether confessional-dogmatic or Orientalist-romantic.

Kasulis begins with elements of Shinto that are accessible to outsiders, with "the experience of wondrous mystery" and "the kami path" to awe-inspiring presence, which is often marked by torii gates and shimenawa ropes. Most Japanese say they are Shinto, but most are also Buddhist and few describe themselves as "religious"; this is because shūkyō ("religion") is a relatively recent coinage.

Much of Shinto is interwoven with broader Japanese culture. Kasulis looks at the key place of rice, the emphasis on naturalness and simplicity, and the role of purification and taboo. (Buddhism is associated with death, Shinto with birth.) Much of this is what he calls "existential Shinto", practices which Japanese would not consciously identify as Shinto, but he also explores some of the times, places, and instruments of more explicit, and sometimes prescriptive, "essentialist Shinto".

Three chapters then present a history of Shinto. There are also non-literary sources for pre-Heian Japan, but two early chronicles provide evidence for early Japanese religion, Nihonshoki in Chinese and Kojiki in now barely interpretable proto-Japanese. To underpin its rule, the Heian imperial system used these texts along with Buddhist and Confucian state ideologies.

Essentialist tendencies in Shinto, however, were diverted by the Buddhist ascendancy and syncretism between Shinto and esoteric Buddhism.

"Shinto and Buddhism were so intimately related there was barely a need for the separate term 'Shinto' at all. ... [it] had no popular use in Japan until the development of state ideology in the middle of the nineteenth century."

Buddhism, however, came under attack during the Shogunate, when

"by supporting Neo-Confucianism's prepackaged arguments against the Buddhists, by relegating Buddhist temples to bureaucratic census takers, by defanging the Buddhist temples of their military power, and by encouraging the rise of secular urban academies, the Tokugawa were able to undermine Buddhism both institutionally and intellectually."

The second half of the 18th century saw Norinaga, building on the "Native Studies" movement, rediscover Kojiki as a source and attempt to build an indigenous Shinto philosophy; his approach was critical of bushido and emphasized aesthetic sensitivity and the feminine.

The inheritor of Norinaga's mantle, Atsutane reinvented Shinto creation stories and notions of the afterlife, making them more suitable for a militant religion. The Meiji restoration led to forced separation of Buddhism and Shinto, relegation to "Sect Shinto" of aspects of Shinto not compatible with State Shinto, and the reworking of Shrine Shinto as a state-supported religion (though one labelled "non-religious" to avoid the constitutional separation of church and state). In the post-war period, Kasulis concentrates on controversies surrounding the Yasukuni shrine and its support or endorsement by the state.

In a final chapter Kasulis speculates about the possible future of Shinto and its "way home from the wars" — with perhaps a little wishful thinking. He also considers ways in which the existential/essentialist distinction might be applied elsewhere, for example to postcolonial religions.


One annoying feature of Shinto: The Way Home is its overuse of the term "holographic", notably in the terms "holographic entry point" and "holographic focal point". As an analogy this isn't perfect — a hologram is a not about relationships but an encoding or representation of something else — and it sometimes ceases to be descriptive and takes on a life of its own:

"Shinto ... does not make a sharp dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Because of the paradigm of the holographic entry point, the everyday particulars and the sacred whole are always reflected in each other."

The perspective remains high-level and no ethnographic detail is included: only historical individuals feature, with beliefs and motivations considered at the level of, for example, a generic businessman. In places Kasulis dots his i's and cross his t's, for example when explaining internal and external relationships, and The Way Home is obviously written for students with no background in comparative religion. The positive side of that is that it is highly accessible, and as the only recent treatment of Shinto at this level it will make a valuable contribution to better understanding of Japan.

May 2006

Related reviews:
- books about Japan + Japanese history
- books about religion
- books published by University of Hawaii Press
%T Shinto
%S The Way Home
%A Kasulis, Thomas P.
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 2004
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 082482850X
%P xx,184pp