Comment on Shinto's sacred forests

During the last decades, there has been an explosion in the interest in the relationship between religion and ecology. Rots himself mentions the initiative at Harvard University. Of its ten “Religions of the World and Ecology” conferences, nine have produced books; the only one that did not was the conference on Shinto and ecology. Other initiatives could have been mentioned. A two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature has been edited by Prof. Bron Taylor who also runs a Ph.D. programme on the theme in Florida. Journals like Environmental Values, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture and Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion are also focusing on the issue. Much of the literature claims that there is a lot of ecological wisdom particularly in Asian and Native American religions. The claimed ecological value of sacred groves in Japan (and India) is typical in this respect. It is therefore refreshing that the author challenges this view, and in doing so he has my full sympathy. 

Rots makes the point that a new ecological awareness within the Jinja Honchō has emerged, “if only for pragmatic reasons”. He does not tell us explicitly what these pragmatic reasons are, although he writes that one aim has been to restore “an ethical core to the nation’s education system”. Let me add one dimension here. Poul Pedersen, from whom Rots has taken the concept “religious environmentalist paradigm”, asks why the concern for the environment frequently is expressed in religious terms. And why do people take the trouble trying to read ecological insight into their religious creeds? Pedersen suggests an answer:
By offering to the world what they hold to be their traditional, relig­ious values, local peoples acquire cul­tural significance. When they speak about nature, they speak about themselves. They demonstrate to them­selves and to the world that their traditions, far from being ob­solete and out of touch with modern reality, express a truth of urgent rele­vance for the future of the Earth (1995: 272).
At the same time they appear innocent in creating environmental crises. To the extent they have contributed to the destruction of nature, this is due to western influence and modernity. Their own real culture represented by their religion is not guilty, and the Western World remains the culprit. The religious environmentalist paradigm that originally was constructed as an internal western cultural critique where images of the “Other” – whether these were North American Indians or Japanese Zen monks – were central components (Kalland 2003), has in the Japanese discourse often become an external critique. Umehara Takeshi, Yasuda Yoshinori, Ueda Masaaki and Sonoda Minoru – scholars mentioned by Rots – are all typical representatives for a discourse that has been termed nihonjinron (whose aim it is to prove that the Japanese are different from other people).
The Japanese national essence
Nihonjinron comes in many wrappings but a basic premise for our discussion is the notion that an aesthetic appreciation of nature can be ascribed to religion and that religious aestheticism is translated – at least before the dawn of westernization – into behaviour. Hence there is a widely held notion that the Japanese both love and live in harmony with nature. Another related premise is natural determination. The intellectual Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927) tried already in the middle of the Meiji-era (1868-1912) to define the Japanese “national essence” (kokusui) as a product of climate, topography, soil, plant- and animal life and the interplay between these factors. The fundament was laid for ideas both about a unique Japanese nature and about a unique relationship between the Japanese and nature, ideas that played important roles in the ultra-nationalistic ideology that emerged in the interwar years.
One should, perhaps, expect that such nationalistic nature ideology would disappear with the war defeat. Eco-nationalism is no longer part of the state ideology, at least not officially, but there are still many voices claiming that there exists a unique harmony between the Japanese and nature, and that this relationship rests on particular qualities of nature in Japan. The archaeologist Yasuda Yoshinori, professor at the Nichibunken (the International Research Center for Japanese Studies) claims that the special Japanese relation with nature goes back to a 12,500 years old “forest civilization” (1990:3). Since then the Japanese “have kept cultural and social traditions that excel in letting nature live and thus letting ourselves live in it” (Yasuda 1989:8). Moreover, he believes that cultures based on human exploitation of nature – as Christianity allows – destroy forests, and he blames Christianity for being responsible for the expansion of the “civilization of deforestation” and for invading and ruining primitive and peaceful civilisations based on harmony between human beings and nature. Only Japan avoided this destruction thanks to her insular isolation, and animism consequently survived in the form of Shinto almost to the present. However, after 1970, if we are to believe Yasuda, the Japanese have deserted animism and its forest deities for computer deities, with serious environmental degradation as a result. 
Environmentalist legitimacy
It is within such a context we must understand the emergent ecological awareness of Jinja Honchō and other Shinto organizations. They have discovered the legitimacy implied in the religious environmentalist paradigm. Rather than being associated with a discredited imperial system of pre-war years, Shinto ideologues and scholars can now attach themselves to an honourable global environmental discourse. But, as stated by Rots, the importance of shrine forests is symbolic and ideological rather than merely ecological, and by expressing their environmental messages in the rhetoric of nihonjinron, they may once more be accused of nationalism. 
Let me end my comments with a case. I did fieldwork in a village that was moved a few hundred meters in 1685. The village shrine was built among pine trees (matsubara) previously planted to protect rice field from sand blowing from the beach. Many of the trees were chopped down and the ground became covered by sand. In recent years groups of villagers have planted exotic trees to commemorate their passing of yakudoshi (inauspicious ages), thus stressing the age-grade’s village membership. Despite these plantings, the shrine compound is still covered mainly by sand and is poor in biological diversity compared to the surrounding matsubara. Biodiversity is a relative concept. In an urban setting a shrine compound may seem to have high biological diversity; in the countryside the same compound will appear poor. With a Japanese inclination to enhance nature by reducing its plenitude (cf. Lee 1984), one may ask to what extent shrine groves really are the biological hotspots that some wants us to believe.
Kalland, Arne. 2003. “Environmentalism and images of the Other”. In H. Selin (ed.), Nature Across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures. Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp.1-17.
Lee, O-Young. 1984. The Compact Culture. The Japanese Tradition of “Small is Better”. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Pedersen, Poul. 1995. “Nature, religion and cultural identity: The religious environmentalist paradigm”. In O. Bruun & A. Kalland (eds), Asian Perceptions of Nature: A Critical Approach, Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, pp.. 258-276.
Yasuda Yoshinori. 1989. “Passivity and activity of Japanese studies”, in Nichibunken Newsletter No.3: 7-8 (July). 
—— 1990. “Animism renaissance”, in Nichibunken Newsletter No.5: 2-4 (January)
Arne Kalland is professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo
By Arne Kalland
Published Feb. 28, 2012 8:24 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:46 PM