Shinto's sacred forests
Recently, a group of scholars from the Biodiversity Institute at Oxford University started a new research project. The aim of their project is to produce a map of ‘religious forests and sacred sites’ all over the world, by ‘scientifically measur[ing] the coverage of religious and sacred land’ (Oxford University 2011). The project rests on the assumption that ‘[m]any of these ‘religious forests’ and sacred sites contain some of the richest biodiversity in the world, including some of the highest numbers of threatened species’ (ibid.).
One immediately wonders how the researchers are going to decide ‘scientifically’ which forests and other sites qualify for the predicate ‘sacred’, and which not; and, considering the lack of any consensus on how to measure sacredness, on what ‘scientific evidence’ the assumption that sacred sites are exceptionally rich in biodiversity is based. Nevertheless, the fact that a reputable university such as Oxford sanctions a collaboration between biodiversity scientists and religious environmentalist organisations is significant, as it points to a growing academic interest in the ecology of religious places.
The Oxford University research project on biodiversity and sacred space is part of a wider, ongoing trend: the alliance of religious institutions with environmentalist organisations, and the redefinition of all major ‘world religions’ by scholars-cum-activists as essentially benign and environmentally oriented. This so-called ‘religious environmentalist paradigm’, as Poul Pedersen (1995) has called it, has been advocated strongly by a number of scholars in the field of religious studies. Prominent examples include Harvard University’s organisation of the ‘Religions of the World and Ecology’ conferences (1996-8) and subsequent book series (1997-2003), as well as the establishment of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.
Sympathetic though these efforts may seem, the reinterpretation of religious ideologies as ecological ethics often comes down to rather selective and anachronistic reading, if not projection, and is therefore not entirely unproblematic. Nevertheless, the academic alliance of religion and environmentalism has contributed to an increasing attention to environmental issues on the part of many religious institutions themselves; if not always grounded in deep conviction, at least environmentalist rhetorics have come to be appropriated by representatives of a wide variety of religious groups for identity politics and PR purposes. Thus, the academically rooted ‘religious environmentalist paradigm’ seems to actually be contributing to the gradual transformation of religious worldviews and organisations, if only cosmetically.
ARC and Jinja Honchō
The project at Oxford University is carried out in collaboration with an organisation named ARC (Alliance of Religions and Conservation). This is a UK-based organisation, which defines itself on its website as a ‘secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.’ One of the other projects carried out by ARC concerns forest preservation in Japan. In collaboration with Jinja Honchō (Association of Shinto Shrines; the umbrella organisation with which the majority of Shinto shrines in Japan are affiliated), it has monitored forest regeneration at three different shrine forests – most notably those surrounding the Ise Grand Shrines, generally considered the most sacred location in Shinto. Furthermore, in recent years, Jinja Honchō and ARC have been involved in a joint program (together with WWF and the Lutheran Church in Sweden) to establish a ‘Religious Forestry Standard’, formulating principles for the management of religious forests worldwide.
Interestingly, in Japan, Jinja Honchō has a conservative profile; until recently, it mainly devoted its attention to controversial issues such as the reestablishment of imperial rituals and symbols, the revision of the constitutional separation of Church (i.e., shrine) and State, and the opposition against equal rights for women and migrants. Accordingly, whereas it has been using environmentalist vocabulary for its English-language PR publications for a while, until recently environmental issues did not figure prominently in its Japanese publications, let alone policies. However, in the past two decades or so there has been increasing interest in the notion of Shinto as a so-called ancient tradition of nature worship, and within Japan a sizeable academic discourse has emerged surrounding the concept of chinju no mori (sacred shrine forest), in which Shinto ideologues, philosophers, ecologists and forestry scientists participate. This development seems to have exercised some influence on Jinja Honchō as well; there seems to be a movement within the organisation towards an increasing awareness of environmental issues, if only for pragmatic reasons. The question is whether Shinto really is a tradition of nature worship that is compatible with contemporary conservationist concerns, or not; and whether notions of ‘nature’ and the ‘environment’ within Shinto discourse correspond to uses of the terms by ecologists and conservationists.
Shinto and nature
When studying the relationship between Shinto and nature, one must bear in mind that both concepts are, to a certain extent, historical constructions, the meaning of which is subject to change. The concept ‘Shinto’ is complicated, and carries a variety of meanings. It is intertwined with normative notions regarding the nation, its origins, and its relationship to the imperial family. Different definitions correspond to different historical narratives and, accordingly, political positions. In other words, ‘Shinto’ is an ideal typical construction, that may be based on actual ritual practices and shrine traditions, but does not equal them. In any case, there is a fundamental difference between essentialist interpretations of Shinto, which typically assert that Shinto is the ‘indigenous’, ‘ancient’ tradition of ‘the’ Japanese people; and historical constructivist approaches, which see the modern, institutionalised religion Shinto as the product of a variety of historical and ideological developments, that emerged within the context (institutional as well as theological) of Buddhism and Confucianism, and did not become an ‘independent tradition’ until the second half of the nineteenth century. The ahistorical essentialist interpretation continues to be told in popular-scientific introductions to ‘world religions’, travel guidebooks, online encyclopedias and some academic publications.
In recent years, primordialist and essentialist notions of Shinto have been combined with environmentalist rhetoric, giving rise to something we may tentatively call a ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’. Shinto has been redefined as, fundamentally, an ancient animistic tradition primarily concerned with worshipping ‘nature’ and preserving the harmony between human beings and their natural environment. Several foreign scholars have written essays in which they advocated the idea that traditional ‘Shinto’ worldviews could serve as blueprints for environmental ethics. In Japan, a number of actors have been instrumental in this development, including cultural theorists, Shinto ideologues, shrine organisations, ecologists and artists.
A famous example of the latter is the film maker Miyazaki Hayao, well-known internationally for animated films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, in which environmentalist critique is combined with a creative reimagination of Shinto-esque deities. Within academia, the ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’ has been legitimated by means of a reimagination of prehistorical ‘Japanese’ as living in harmonious coexistence and correlation with their natural surroundings, supposedly expressed in animistic beliefs and practices. Scholars subscribing to this paradigm (such as Umehara Takeshi, Yasuda Yoshinori, Ueda Masaaki and Sonoda Minoru) generally assert that in the modern period, this traditional environmental awareness has been largely forgotten as a result of the import of ‘Western’ technology and ideology, which have caused widespread environmental, moral and cultural deterioration. In their view, the solution to contemporary problems (social as well as ecological) therefore lies in the reestablishment of ancient modes of relating to nature; i.e., in the establishment of an ‘animism renaissance’, and the preservation and reconstruction of sacred forests, so-called chinju no mori. Much recent discourse has focused on the latter concept, and a movement has emerged which focuses on raising public awareness about these forests, assisting shrines in forestry practices, and, in the process, redefining the role of Shinto in Japanese society.
What, then, are chinju no mori? Generally speaking, they are clearly demarcated patches of forest surrounding a Shinto shrine, to which sacred qualities are contributed; in contrast to other forests, they are usually small, have strong historical connections to local communities, and were traditionally believed to offer some sort of divine protection. They are imagined as old, if not primeval forests, representing a symbolic connection between the present and the ancestral past. Chinju no mori were first associated with conservation practices in the early 1980s; simultaneously, the notion that Shinto might be employed as a resource for environmental ethics developed. In recent years, the concept has been used widely by Shinto scholars, as well as ecologists and cultural theorists, who see them as crucial resources for the reestablishment of a Japanese society based on a harmonious relationship between humans and their natural surroundings. Accordingly, several shrines have set up projects that focus on forest management, environmental education and landscape reconstruction.
The chinju no mori trope has also been employed by Jinja Honchō. In its weekly newspaper Jinja Shinpō, as well as books and other publications, it is a recurring topic. However, shrine forests are valued not primarily because of their ecological importance or natural beauty. According to an editorial in Jinja Shinpō, ‘the real value of shrine forests lies in their ability to generate, in children especially, love of local community and so patriotic love of Japan. Shrine forests are nothing less, the reader learns, than the key to restoring an ethical core to the nation’s education system, emasculated by 60 years of malign Western influence’ (Breen and Teeuwen 2010: 209). Not exactly your ordinary environmentalist rhetoric, to put it mildly. In fact, in Japanese discourse, chinju no mori seem to serve primarily as symbols signifying the continuity between the present and the ancestral past, often imagined as places that transcend historical change. As such, they represent the intimate connection between the nation, the land, its natural landscapes and the deities. Thus, their importance is symbolic and ideological rather than merely ecological.
We may conclude by saying that ‘sacredness’ is highly problematic as an empirical category – and so is, naturally, ‘sacred forest’. Religious land claims are, ultimately, land claims; no matter how ‘sacred’ a place, it is owned by somebody, has a certain economical value, and may be contested. Likewise, meanings attributed to places may be ideologically charged, and subject to competing claims. The question is not how sacred a place actually is – for sacredness is nothing but a quality attributed to a place, which cannot be measured scientifically, let alone quantified. The question is, ultimately, a question of power: who makes the claims regarding sacred place, and who controls the place? The category ‘sacred space’ can easily be employed for economical or political purposes; it may serve to legitimise particular claims, while discrediting others. Hence, studies of sacred space and sacred places need to take into account the economical and political factors involved in the construction and production of space. The Oxford University Biodiversity Institute’s project to ‘map’ religious forests worldwide will have to address these issues, for ‘mapping’ inevitably involves making controversial decisions as to what places are included, and what are not; as such, it is profoundly political, whether the participants realise this or not.
Jinja Honchō’s cooperation with an international organisation such as ARC serves several objectives. It sanctions an appropriation of shrine grounds as natural and primordial, it legitimises Jinja Honchō’s claims regarding the sacredness of these places, and it helps to frame Shinto internationally as an innocent nature religion – thus dissociating it from lingering militarist and imperialist elements. Identity politics is an important factor in the discursive construction of ‘green Shinto’, it seems. Nevertheless, few scholars have questioned the ways in which the categories ‘nature’, ‘environment’ and ‘sacred space’ are used by religious organisations for purposes of identity politics and self-justification. Likewise, so far the alliance of environmentalists, religious studies scholars and religious actors has received remarkably little critical attention. Their cooperation may well have produced positive results in terms of environmental awareness and natural conservation; nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the agendas of different players are not necessarily similar – nor are they necessarily limited to convential notions of ecology and environmental conservation.
Breen, John and Mark Teeuwen. 2010. A New History of Shinto. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Oxford University. 2011. ‘Scientists map religious forests and sacred sites’. On http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2011/110108.html
Pedersen, Poul. 1995. ‘Nature, Religion and Cultural Identity: The Religious Environmentalist Paradigm.’ In Ole Bruun and Arne Kalland (eds.), Asian Perceptions of Nature: A Critical Approach. London: Curzon Press, 258-76.
Aike P. Rots is a PhD candidate at the University of Oslo