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Chinese Influence on the formation of Shintō. Some Remarks on Breen and Teeuwen’s A New History of Shinto

Chinese Influence on the formation of Shintō. Some Remarks on Breen and Teeuwen’s A New History of Shinto

Martin Lavicka31 Oct 2014Leave a comment


Written by Jakub Havlíček

A New History of Shinto (Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion Series). By John Breen and Mark Teeuwen. Malden, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. x + 264 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-5516-8.

Recent scholarly writings on the religions in Japan often re-examine and critically re-evaluate the older and still well-established understandings of various phenomena from the field. Among other assets, these critical scholarly writings make us aware of the necessity to pay more attention to the overall historical, social and cultural context of many terms and concepts used in the Japanese socio-cultural environment. Certainly, this is valid for etic descriptions of the field. Nevertheless, the deep knowledge of emic (or, so to say, “indigenous”) terms from this perspective is vital as well.

In the studies on Japanese society and culture, it is not surprising to find many elements of Chinese origin, since a Chinese cultural influence on the Japanese archipelago cannot be called into question. From this point of view it should not surprise us that some cultural features considered as the very roots of the Japanese cultural identity encompass many components borrowed from the Chinese cultural environment. This becomes even more apparent if we stop categorizing the cultural phenomena according to modern geo-political criteria, in terms of “national cultures”. It is always useful to examine the topics of our interest from a more open, broader perspective.

Let us examine the cultural phenomena in Japan as socio-cultural constructs, as historically conditioned socio-cultural formations and not as an “enduring essence of Japaneseness”. This approach from the field of critical social sciences allows us to perceive the examined socio-cultural phenomena in the broad spectrum of various influences contributing to their formation. Shintō, once called the “indigenous religion of Japan”, does not escape this critical scrutiny either. Let us briefly summarize the findings concerning Shintō in the recently published writings of John Breen and Mark Teeuwen. In this context it is fruitful to introduce the work of Kuroda Toshio since both authors rely on Kuroda’s approach in many aspects.[1]

“The Gods’ Way” (literal translation of the term “Shintō”) is traditionally presented as the “indigenous religion of Japan” or the very essence of “Japaneseness”, with its origins in “the time immemorial” and its continuous history up to the present day. The traditional concept of Shintō as the indigenous religion of Japan was challenged by the works of Kuroda Toshio. In his article on the topic of Shinto in the history of Japan, published in an English translation in 1981,[2] Kuroda’s basic argument can be summarized as follows: the word “Shintō” as it appears in Nihon Shoki at the beginning of the 8th century does not necessarily refer to any indigenous system of indigenous beliefs. Kuroda argues that the appearance of the word “Shintō” in Nihon Shoki cannot be in itself understood as the proof of existence of any independent, particular system of indigenous beliefs and practices named Shintō. Moreover the authors of the chronicle probably borrowed the word Shintō from China. Relying on some older Japanese scholarly accounts, Kuroda writes: “(…) in China the word Shinto originally meant various folk religions, or Taoism, or sometimes Buddhism, or even religion in general” (Kuroda, 1981, p. 5). Kuroda concludes that the word Shintō was used as a generic term for popular beliefs in the Chinese, Korean or Japanese context (Ibid.).According to Kuroda, there is another possible interpretation of the word Shintō in the Nihon Shoki – it can be related to: “(…) the authority, power, activity, or deeds of a kami, the status of kami, being a kami, or the kami itself” (Ibid.). If this is the case, the word Shintō does not refer to any indigenous Japanese religious system either. Nevertheless, Kuroda offers other options of the early understanding of the term Shintō: it can be simply understood as “Taoism”. According to Kuroda, Taoism had already taken deep roots in Japan at the time when the Nihon Shoki was compiled. Many terms associated with Japanese Shintō are derived from Taoist terminology: e.g. tennō (lord of the universe in Taoism, “heavenly sovereign” or the emperor in Japanese), jingū (a hall enshrining a deity in Taoism, in Japan used for the Ise Shrine), gekū (detached palace in Chinese, outer shrine of Ise in Japanese), naikū (inner palace in Chinese, inner shrine in Ise in Japanese), etc. (Kuroda 1981, p. 6).

Kuroda also examines the jingiryō system, implemented in Ancient Japan which institutionalized the affairs connected to the worship of kami, “deities”. Jingiryō is an integral part of the ritsuryō system of state affairs administration and, of course, based on the codes of Sui and T’ang China. Kuroda makes us aware that the institutionalized veneration of “heavenly and earthly kami” in ancient Japan is derived from Chinese sources as well (Kuroda 1981, p. 7–8). Kuroda then follows the history of different concepts and understandings of Shintō in Japanese history. Among other discoveries, he comes to the conclusion that the concept of Shintō as “the way as a political or moral norm” is deeply influenced by Confucianism. It is based on the Confucian understanding of the term tō or dō, “the way”: Kuroda does not hesitate to call it “Confucian Shinto” (Kuroda 1981, p. 19). According to Kuroda, the modern concept of Shintō as an indigenous Japanese religion emerges: “(…) complete both in name and in fact with the rise of modern nationalism, which evolved from the National Learning school of Motoori Norinaga and the Restoration Shinto movement of the Edo period down to the establishment of State Shinto in the Meiji period” (Ibid.).

Even though many of Kuroda’s assertions can be critically challenged, there are at least two important points in his writings that inspire the newest scholarship on Shintō: 1) the concept of Shintō as an “indigenous religion of Japan” can no longer be maintained and, 2) many of the elements that constitute the various understandings of Shintō are of Chinese origin.

Recent critical scholarship on Shintō has further developed Kuroda’s work. Among the writings the works of John Breen and Mark Teeuwen on Shintō serve as a good example of modern, up-to-date research, based on such a critical approach. A New History of Shinto is co-authored by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, who are both well-known scholars in the field of Japanese religious studies. Their approach to the topic can be called “constructivist”. Simply said, this point of view understands Shintō as a result of complicated historical processes rather than as part of a so called Japaneseness in the essentialist sense. Shintō is not to be seen as an ahistorical founding stone of the “Japanese national character”, as something that has existed since time immemorial. Rather, the very concept – or rather concepts – of Shintō takes shape together with the process of defining the Japanese national identity in the modern Japanese history. It becomes widely recognized as an institutionalized, particular religious tradition after the Meiji reforms at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s of the 19th century.  Even today there are several ways of how to understand and conceive the matter. Breen and Teeuwen are well aware of the fact that there is more than one single concept of Shintō, even in the scholarly environment itself. This does not imply that Shintō has been simply invented, out of nothing, by intellectuals, scholars or political elites of the modern times. We can recognize three main concepts or understandings of Shintō after 1868: there is Shintō as a non-religious state doctrine, a set of ideas and practices connected to the Emperor; there is also Shintō as a set of local rituals and traditions; and there is Shintō as beliefs and practices of particular groups, or “sect Shintō”. Nevertheless, all three concepts of Shintō are products of modern Japanese history.

Shintō is a construct as it results from the amalgamation of various ideas and practices, such as shrines, myths and kami worship, which often have deep historical roots. Even though there was no distinctive, homogenous tradition called “Shintō” in the ancient history of Japan, there was a set of beliefs and practices connected to shrines and kami – this set of beliefs and practices later became an integral part of the modern understanding of Shintō as a coherent religious tradition. Shrines, myths and kami – all these features and many others existed long ago in their specific contexts and, under specific social and political circumstances, underwent a process we can call “Shintoization”.  From this point of view, what we now call “Shintō” can be seen as a conglomerate of various elements, often with a deep historical background. Many of these elements historically pre-date the appearance of the concept of Shintō as a distinctive religious tradition. The diverse phenomena that are subsumed today under the label of Shintō can be critically examined through historical research. In doing so, we realize the constitutive elements of Shintō often underwent significant changes and transformations, always influenced by the particular social and cultural context of the period in question. The authors thoroughly explain their theoretical and methodological approach in the introductory chapter entitled “An Alternative Approach to the History of Shinto” (pp. 1–23).

This constructivist approach allows the authors to follow particular histories of some of the most important features of what is now understood as Shintō: the authors take us on the fascinating quest to discover the intricate diachronic dimensions of selected constitutive parts of Shintō. We are introduced to the history of “Kami Shrines, Myths, and Rituals in Premodern Times” (pp. 24–65), to “The History of a Shrine: Hie” (pp. 66–128), to “The History of a Myth: The Sun-Goddess and the Rock-Cave” (pp. 129–167) and “The Daijōsai: A ‘Shinto’ Rite of Imperial Accession” (pp. 168–198) and, last but not least, to “Issues in Contemporary Shinto” (pp. 199–228).

Of course, one could raise an objection regarding the reasons for selecting, describing and analysing the above mentioned features of Shintō: why select particular issues and not some others, perhaps more important ones? This argument can be easily refuted: the authors could select any other features of any other particular concept of Shintō. To put it more clearly, rather than establishing a list of phenomena typical for Shintō, the authors’ intention consists in showing the way for a diachronic analysis of any phenomena connected to Shintō. The authors’ analysis of the history of Hie Shrine (or Hiyoshi Taisha), of daijōsai or of the well-known myth of the Sun-Goddess in the cave are to be perceived as examples for the further critical examination of any other topic connected to Shintō.

Let us summarize briefly a concrete example: the history of the so called jingi cult. Based on the above described conditions, the authors depict the jingi cult or the cult of “heavenly and earthly deities”, its institutions, myths and rituals, as based on ancient Chinese categorization that appears in Confucius’s Analects and in other classical Chinese writings. This supposedly basic part of the putative ancient Shintō is presented as a foreign concept used by the Japanese ruling elite in establishing an innovative cultic system. The establishment of the jingi cult must be seen in the context of political changes around 700 A.D., when Yamato kings changed their status to tennō or “heavenly sovereigns”, emperors. Jingi myths preserved in the chronicles of Kojiki and Nihonshoki do not simply codify an older oral tradition, as often depicted. They must be understood as an attempt to create a completely new discourse and put into the particular context of political and social changes in the Japanese state at the end of 7th and the beginning of the 8th century. The jingi cult, its myths and rituals were heavily influenced by Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist ideas and concepts. The very title of tennō is derived from Yin-Yang astronomy and divination practice: it referred to the Pole Star as the stationary axis of the rotating universe. As for Buddhism, it is vital to emphasize that its introduction to the Japanese archipelago pre-dates the creation of the jingi system itself! Therefore, it is not surprising that Buddhism apparently influenced the cult of “heavenly and earthly deities”. We must also keep in mind that the jingi system itself underwent significant historical changes since its creation.  In the 10th and 11th centuries A.D. it still existed nominally, but in fact it was replaced by a new system of jingūji or “shrine-temples”, all of which were (with perhaps the exception of Ise) administered by Buddhist monks.

Even though later Shintō thinkers and nativists of the early modern and modern period perceived the jingi cult as the very essence of the “Japanese spirit”, it is misleading to see it as any kind of indigenous ethnic creed of the ancient Japanese. This ideological way of interpreting the jingi cult does not survive critical scrutiny.

Breen and Teeuwen’s work on Shintō should be studied thoroughly by all students of religions in Japan. It can serve as a good example of a well-informed, critically based historical account on the topic. It allows the gaining of both methodological insight and theoretical background necessary for studying the complex domain of religions in Japan. The example of Shintō also reveals the importance of studying the history of Chinese religious and philosophical thought and its influence in the Japanese environment.


[1] I am taking advantage of this exceptional opportunity provided by the review platform of CHINET: it allows me to return to the topic of Shinto in the scholarly writings of John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, as I have already examined it in my review article published in the Journal of Religion in Japan (Leiden: BRILL, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2012, s. 194–196). This text includes some ideas and remarks I had to cut from the final version of the review article.

[2]Kuroda, Toshio (1981), Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion. In: Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 1–21.

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