Shinto the Kami Way Paperback – 26 Feb 2004
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"An excellently rounded introduction by an eminent Shinto scholar." "Library Journal""
Shinsengumi: The Shogun's last Samurai Corps is the true story of the notorious samurai corps formed in 1863 to arrest or kill the enemies of the Tokugawa Shogun.
The only book in English about the Shinsengumi, it focuses on the corps' two charismatic leaders, Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo, both impeccable swordsmen. It is a history–in–brief of the final years of the Bakufu, which collapsed in 1867 with the restoration of Imperial rule. In writing Shinsengumi, Hillsborough referred mostly to Japanese–language primary sources, including letters, memoirs, journals, interviews, and eyewitness accounts, as well as definitive biographies and histories of the era.
The fall of the shogun's government (Tokugawa Bakufu, or simply Bakufu) in 1868, which had ruled Japan for over two and a half centuries, was the greatest event in modern Japanese history.
The revolution, known as the Meiji Restoration, began with the violent reaction of samurai to the Bakufu's decision in 1854 to open the theretofore isolated country to "Western barbarians." Though opening the country was unavoidable, it was seen as a sign of weakness by the samurai who clamored to "expel the barbarians."
Those samurai plotted to overthrow the shogun and restore the holy emperor to his ancient seat of power. Screaming "heaven's revenge," they wielded their swords with a vengeance upon those loyal to the shogun.
They unleashed a wave of terror at the center of the revolution—the emperor's capital of Kyoto. Murder and assassination were rampant. By the end of 1862, hordes of renegade samurai, called ronin, had transformed the streets of the Imperial Capital into a "sea of blood."
The shogun's administrators were desperate to stop the terror. A band of expert swordsmen was formed. It was given the name Shinsengumi ("Newly Selected Corps")—and commissioned to eliminate the ronin and other enemies of the Bakufu. With unrestrained brutality bolstered by an official sanction to kill, the Shinsengumi soon became the shogun's most dreaded security force.
In this vivid historical narrative of the Shinsengumi, the only one in the English language, author Romulus Hillsborough paints a provocative and thrilling picture of this most fascinating period in Japanese history.
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The foreword by Hideo Kishimoto notes that this book was first published in 1960; the copyright page notes further that the Tuttle edition has a copyright date of 1962, and has gone through 30 printings as of 2003. The book is generously illustrated not only with Sakamoto's drawings, but also with many black-and-white photographs. The book is relatively short (116 plus xii pages), and the main text is divided into five chapters: "The Kami Way," "Shrines," "Worship and Festivals," "Political and Social Characteristics," and "Some Spiritual Characteristics." The text covers many Shinto topics: mythology, important historic texts, the use of symbolic artifacts, the distinctive gateways known as torii, shrine architecture, the priesthood, home worship, sacred dances, Shinto's centuries-old relationship with Japanese Buddhism, emperor worship, tree worship, sacred mountains, ethics and more.
Ono also discusses the kami, which he describes as "the objects of worship in Shinto." In his preface, Woodard states that translating the word "kami" as "god" is misleading, and suggests that the word "kami," rather than being subject to a problematic translation, should simply be incorporated into the English language. Ono concludes the book by noting that while Shinto is an ethnic faith specific to the Japanese people, "it possesses a universality which can enrich the lives of all people everywhere." This is a fascinating and well-written book, and the text is well complemented by the many illustrations. I especially enjoyed the photos of the serene-looking Shinto temples. In a relatively small space Ono conveys a sense of the epic history and evolution of Shinto, as well as its enduring power and appeal. I found the book not only educational, but also inspiring in a subtle yet satisfying way.
That being said, this volume is accurate and written by a respected authority within the Shinto world. Thus, the trustworthy knowledge in this book would be a great addition to any travellers backpack in Japan. Shinto shrines are everywhere there, and this book goes some distance in uravelling these mysterious nature/god shrines.
Another good thing about this book is it's non-indulgent, straightforward and unassuming style. Longtime Japan residents and first-time visitors are sure to get something out of it - whether it is the configuration of prayer papers, why prayers are tied to certain trees or why certain shrine buildings are built in one architectural fashion or another.
The main drawback for me is that this book fails to give enough of an inventory (or pictures) of the major shinto divinities. I know there are thousands, maybe millions of these gods, but a small gallery of 50 or so would be both fascinating and revealing.
A lesser drawback is the opaque way in which the author mentions but sidesteps Shinto's role in Japanese nationalism, while simultaneously suggesting that only Japanese people can fully be Shinto.
But, in any case, this book is cheap enough and worth the effort if you spend any time in Japan. B+
And Ono did do a good job. He stayed mostly on the surface, discussed the establishment of shrines, who pays for them and what their role is, who the priests are and what their role is, what are some of the important shrines and architectural style. He writes about the significance of certain objects like the shimenawa rope you see at many shrines, or the costumes of the priests and shrine maidens. He sheds some light on some of the rituals, on the history of Shinto through WWII and after, and the role of Shinto in the home and in the community. This is very much a "nuts and bolts" guide to the world of Shinto.
For the rest, for the nature of kami and the beliefs of Shinto, he simply says:
"It is impossible to make explicit and clear what that which fundamentally by its very nature is vague."
This is the aspect that many Westerners find so mystifying about Shinto. It falls too far outside what they think of as "religion." There are no prophets or holy men, no bible or salvation, no afterlife, no forbidden fruits, no code of moral conduct. Shinto is a life-affirming religion, and all things associated with life; sex, pain, indulgence, lust, joy, abandon; are good. Getting completely drunk and stuffing yourself like a pig on expensive treats is one of the most holy ways to honor the spirits. There is no concept of sin; the most one can be is dirty (the kami like things clean).
Shinto is also not so much a system of beliefs as an organization of rituals and traditions. Even reading some of the reviews for this book, it is clear how difficult a concept this is for people to grasp. One reviewer wanted to see a gallery of images of kami, even though Ono makes it explicit that kami have no form and are never depicted in art. Another reviewer insists that there MUST be a doctrine and theology for Shinto, and somehow Ono didn't include it in his book. But Ono is right. No such thing exists.
In truth, as Ono writes, Shinto is more of a collection of rituals, traditions and superstitions bound up in a very loose belief system. One cannot say "I am Shinto" in the way you would say "I am Buddhist" or "I am Catholic." That would be like saying "I am Christmas" because you put up a tree every year. In fact, most Japanese people have never even heard the word Shinto, and if you told them they were being religious just because they had a shrine at home and participated in the local festivals, they would just laugh at you. These activities are just part of daily life, part of being Japanese. And that is Shinto.
Because Shinto is something you do, not something you think about. Ono puts this succinctly in saying "Shinto is caught, and not taught" and "the strength of Shinto is in its emphasis on sensory experience derived from mystic rites and natural phenomenon rather than on theological discourse."
With this I could not agree with Ono more. As part of my Master's Degree, I have read many books and wrote many papers on Shinto, and no amount of study can really tell you what Shinto is. I would say that I have a strong understanding of the native religion of Japan, but this was gained through experience, through shouldering the heavy mikoshi as we took the local kami on a tour through the town, or burning under giant flaming torches in order to please a local fire kami, or suffering through the ordeal that is the Naked Man Festival from which not everyone comes out alive.
A book like Ono's is never going to be able to truly show you what Shinto is, any more than a book on sushi could really tell you what uni tastes like. They can talk about the history, the cultivation, the preparation, but when it comes to flavor you are really just going to have to try it for yourself.