The Structure of Shinto

Shinto has two faces. One is that of national religion where all shrines are ranked according to a system that places the shrine of the Emperor of Japan and his ancestors at the pinnacle. The other face, upon which I will concentrate here, is a form of nature worship in which objects, mountains, trees, rocks and lakes etc., are considered to be the manifestation of the Gods. In principle any object may be treated in this way. And from the Kofun period or before man made object such as swords, parchments, or mirrors were also regarded as being infested or possessed by a god. The only requirement is the thing, the "god-body" is that it be something extra-ordinary. The objects are, even if potentially portable, usually enshrined at one geographical location. They may, if portable, be taken out on parade but they will usually end up where they came from. The most common description of Shinto is that it is a form of animism -- a belief that objects are possessed by gods or spirits.

I think that this description of Shinto as animism is both uninformative and misleading. On the one hand it simply gives a word to describe the practice that is clearly being carried out: the worship of objects. And it is misleading in that it encourages people to believe that all things are (or are possessed by) the kami. In the extreme it is possible to argue that Shinto does view all things as being "anima", possessed of spirit, but in practice Shinto clearly raises up and enshrines (matsuru) particular things. Rather than some deism or pantheism in which God is everywhere, Shinto might better be describe as a practice which singles out certain things, that makes particular. There may be a forest full of trees but the Shinto priest may then hang a special rope around one particularly large tree and it is in that tree that the spirit of god is thought to inhere. Henceforth that tree will be special, sacred and to a certain extent taboo.

By placing special importance upon things and places, Shinto is making things, and in particular locations meaningful and significant. In that sense Shinto can be understood to be creating a meaning or signification system. From a structural anthropological point of view. can be analysed as system of signs. We may, I believe assume that Shinto possess a grammar or structure of sorts which we may uncover by asking the following types of questions. What is are the conditions of meaning in Shinto? What behaviour must be performed towards that which is meaningful? What is the consequence of not performing these actions? If we are correct in assuming that such a structure exists then we may also claim that this structure will repeat itself not only within the sphere of behaviour towards the sacred but also in the society as a whole.