Book review: Shinto: The Kami Way

Shinto: The Kami Way.Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

If you’re interested in Japan, you’re probably aware of Shinto imagery. Even if you’ve never been, even if you’re not really that interested in religion, you’ll know some of its signifiers. Red gates, either in profusion or alone in the sea. Trees tied with paper. Clean temples and guardian animals.

You just don’t know it yet.

Reading Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way was my attempt to try and underpin my personal interest in the religion – as an observer, rather than a participant – with some knowledge. I’ve had my eye on the book for some time, as it’s been one of the most referenced works when I’ve tried to research the subject, so I figured it was worth a look.

I had assumed the text was a fairly recent publication, but it’s not. The Tuttle version is a reprint (perhaps an expansion?) of a journal-printed text from the 1950s. In this regard, it suffers from fairly stolid language. While the age of the copy within probably won’t affect your conception of Shinto too much – it has remained pretty much the same apart from the organisation/administration of temples (changed only through government fiat, restoration and war defeat) for its history – this isn’t the text to pursue if you’re after something that grapples with the religion’s modern face.

Put simply, the book tries to explain the concept of kami – like gods, but also not – and how they interact with both their surrounds and the residents thereof. In this regard, it is fairly successful: it forces the reader to see Shinto as a religion without texts: it’s something people do rather than something people are taught out of a book.

Ono’s text is pretty easy to read, and it does offer a good description of the religion, which (along with Buddhism) provides a key to understanding parts of the Japanese society and mindset. There’s a good description of the architecture and function of temples. But most importantly, the author places much emphasis on the fact that the religion is something people feel deeply, in a way that is incommunicable to even fellow adherents, let alone foreigners. It’s something that you either get or you don’t, and if you’re not Japanese – well, you just won’t.

(Speaking of difficulty of understanding, the Kindle version of this book is pretty messy: there’s typographical issues throughout, and the footnoting isn’t particularly useful. Some spelling errors lead me to assume this is an OCR-interpreted version of the text, and if possible I’d recommend prospective readers find a hard copy, rather than the current lamentable digital edition.)

I already had gleaned a fair bit about Shinto through my travels and general nosiness, but Ono’s work filled in some of the gaps I had. I wish it were a little more modern, but as a starting point it’s not a bad one.

(My Goodreads profile is here.)

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