Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Shinto Revisited: Japan’s Hidden Treasure
MATSUNAGA Daisuke / Former Ambassador to Ethiopia

March 8, 2022
In the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world, a great many foreign concepts flooded into the country. Translators searched hard for their equivalents in the Japanese language. When they couldn’t find any, they created new words. In most cases, they were successful but not all the time. Some word choices were so misleading that they continue to plague us to this day. They remain the cause of misunderstanding between Japan and the rest of the world. The word “God” is a case in point. The word “God” is usually translated as “kami,” and vice versa, but what “kami” represents in Japanese is quite different from what “God” represents in English.

Let us listen to Elizabeth Vining, who served as then Crown Prince’s English tutor in the immediate post-war years. She writes as follows in her famous book “Windows for the Crown Prince” in connection with the so-called divinity of the emperor. “People had told me that even in the days of Emperor worship the Japanese did not mean the same thing by it that we do. They have, for instance, no word for God that means what we mean by God, who is to us the creator and the source of love and truth. Their word is kami, which means simply superior or upper.”

Westerners thought that the Japanese people had to be disabused of a false belief, but their belief was not what westerners imagined it to be. Mrs. Vining points out, “I think that this Rescript (of January 1, 1946, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Humanity Declaration’ by which the emperor dissociated himself from his supposed divinity) was issued more to reassure westerners than to inform the Japanese.” What has changed the Japanese attitude more than the Rescript, Mrs. Vining says, is “the way the emperor came out among the people, … visiting schools, factories, museums, hospitals, coal mines, and a multitude of other institutions.”

In fact, in ancient Japan, people respected not only the emperor but also one another as more than physical, spiritual beings. In “Kojiki” (the Records of Ancient Matters, which comprises stories of national foundation), even the disobedient in the countryside are referred to as “violent deities.” In fact, every man was regarded as a son of the sun (“hiko” ), while every woman as a daughter of the sun (“hime”). Everyone was believed to possess sacred nature in themselves. (Hereafter, the word “deities” will be used instead of “gods” to avoid misunderstanding.) When a prime minister’s remarks were translated some years ago: “Japan is a God’s country,” what he really meant was perhaps “Japan is a Shinto country, where people respected one another as integral beings both physical and spiritual.”

In a famous animation film “Spirited Away ” by Miyazaki Hayao, all manner of kami or deities appear. The film gives us visual images of some Shinto deities although they are normally believed to be invisible. One of them is a deity associated with a lake. Humans with no concern for the environment have dumped all sorts of waste into the lake, so the deity is badly polluted. However, thanks to the selfless help of the heroine, he is cleansed of all the sludge he has had to carry over years, and happily flies away. (In Shinto, water-related deities are often represented as dragons/snakes.)

Shinto is remarkable for its tolerance and flexibility. It is to be noted that there has never been a religious war worthy of the name in Japan. Buddhism has been syncretized for such a long time (well over a thousand years) that everyone today feels so natural to follow both Shinto and Buddhist rituals. Moreover, people exchange gifts at Christmas and have western-style wedding ceremonies. Such syncretism is sometimes despised as an unprincipled practice, but on the contrary should be highly valued in today’s world where religious intolerance is causing such havoc.

Traditionally polytheism is seen as a primitive form of faith. True, Shinto does have numerous deities. The oft-cited number is eight million. Even though ‘eight’ in the old days often meant “a great many” rather than the exact number, but certainly are there a huge number of deities. Considering the size of Japan’s population of 4.5 million during the Nara period, when ‘The Records of Ancient Matters’ was compiled, one can say that there were almost twice as many deities as people.

Double the number of deities as people may sound like a ludicrous proposition. By no means. In ancient Japan, not only did people respect one another as spiritual beings, but also revered nature, in which they saw spirituality. It should not be forgotten that they owed so much of their lives and livelihoods to nature. They revered elements in nature including inanimate objects like rocks, mountains and rivers as well as living beings. Hence so many deities, who were believed to reside in them. Nature was never an object of conquest but a benevolent benefactor.

Shinto has a lot to offer to today’s world. Religious tolerance and reverence for nature are only a few of them. Characters that appear in the stories of early days of the nation are lively, straightforward and open-hearted. They are in stark contrast with overstressed workaholics today. The Japanese people themselves should become aware of their hidden treasure of Shinto, so that they can share their ancestors’ wisdom with the rest of the world. I would like to study Shinto’s wisdom further to invigorate ourselves and people the world over for a better tomorrow.

MATSUNAGA Daisuke is former Japanese Ambassador to Ethiopia. This essay originally appeared at the online site of the Kasumigaseki Foreign Service Association, Japan.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

松永 大介 / 前エチオピア大使

2022年 3月 8日







人間の倍の数の神様がいると聞けば、馬鹿げているととる向きもあるかも知れない。だが、果たしてそうであろうか? 古来、日本人は、魂を有する神聖な存在としてお互いを尊重し合うのみならず、共に霊性を有する存在として自然をも尊重してきた。その背景に、自然が日本人の生活と命を支えていたことを忘れてはならない。自然界の構成要素を、生物はもとより岩や山や川などの無生物に至るまで尊重した。神様の数が多いのには、こうした自然界の要素を神々が依代(よりしろ)にしていることもあずかっている。自然は、征服すべき対象ではなく、恵みの源だったのだ。


一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Shinto Revisited: Japan’s Hidden Treasure