Chapter Two. The Household Shrine

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IN Japan there are two forms of the Religion of the Dead - that which belongs to Shinto; and that which belongs to Buddhism. The first is the primitive cult, commonly called ancestor-worship. But the term ancestor- worship seems to me much too confined for the religion which pays reverence not only to those ancient gods believed to be the fathers of the Japanese race, but likewise to a host of deified sovereigns, heroes, princes, and illustrious men. Within comparatively recent times, the great Daimyo of Izumo, for example, were apotheosised; and the peasants of Shimane still pray before the shrines of the Matsudaira. Moreover Shinto, like the faiths of Hellas and of Rome, has its deities of the elements and special deities who preside over all the various affairs of life. Therefore ancestor-worship, though still a striking feature of Shinto, does not alone constitute the State Religion: neither does the term fully describe the Shinto cult of the dead - a cult which in Izumo retains its primitive character more than in other parts of Japan.

And here I may presume, though no Sinologue, to say something about that State Religion of Japan - that ancient faith of Izumo - which, although even more deeply rooted in national life than Buddhism, is far less known to the Western world. Except in special works by such men of erudition as Chamberlain and Satow - works with which the Occidental reader, unless himself a specialist, is not likely to become familiar outside of Japan - little has been written in English about Shinto which gives the least idea of what Shinto is. Of its ancient traditions and rites much of rarest interest may be learned from the works of the philologists just mentioned; but, as Mr. Satow himself acknowledges, a definite answer to the question, 'What is the nature of Shinto?' is still difficult to give. How define the common element in the six kinds of Shinto which are known to exist, and some of which no foreign scholar has yet been able to examine for lack of time or of authorities or of opportunity? Even in its modern external forms, Shinto is sufficiently complex to task the united powers of the historian, philologist, and anthropologist, merely to trace out the multitudinous lines of its evolution, and to determine the sources of its various elements: primeval polytheisms and fetishisms, traditions of dubious origin, philosophical concepts from China, Korea, and elsewhere - all mingled with Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The so-called 'Revival of Pure Shinto' - an effort, aided by Government, to restore the cult to its archaic simplicity, by divesting it of foreign characteristics, and especially of every sign or token of Buddhist origin - resulted only, so far as the avowed purpose was concerned, in the destruction of priceless art, and in leaving the enigma of origins as complicated as before. Shinto had been too profoundly modified in the course of fifteen centuries of change to be thus remodelled by a fiat. For the like reason scholarly efforts to define its relation to national ethics by mere historical and philological analysis must fail: as well seek to define the ultimate secret of Life by the elements of the body which it animates. Yet when the result of such efforts shall have been closely combined with a deep knowledge of Japanese thought and feeling - the thought and sentiment, not of a special class, but of the people at large - then indeed all that Shinto was and is may be fully comprehended. And this may be accomplished, I fancy, through the united labour of European and Japanese scholars.

Yet something of what Shinto signifies - in the simple poetry of its beliefs - in the home training of the child - in the worship of filial piety before the tablets of the ancestors - may be learned during a residence of some years among the people, by one who lives their life and adopts their manners and customs. With such experience he can at least claim the right to express his own conception of Shinto.

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Those far-seeing rulers of the Meiji era, who disestablished Buddhism to strengthen Shinto, doubtless knew they were giving new force not only to a faith in perfect harmony with their own state policy, but likewise to one possessing in itself a far more profound vitality than the alien creed, which although omnipotent as an art-influence, had never found deep root in the intellectual soil of Japan. Buddhism was already in decrepitude, though transplanted from China scarcely more than thirteen centuries before; while Shinto, though doubtless older by many a thousand years, seems rather to have gained than to have lost force through all the periods of change. Eclectic like the genius of the race, it had appropriated and assimilated all forms of foreign thought which could aid its material manifestation or fortify its ethics. Buddhism had attempted to absorb its gods, even as it had adopted previously the ancient deities of Brahmanism; but Shinto, while seeming to yield, was really only borrowing strength from its rival. And this marvellous vitality of Shinto is due to the fact that in the course of its long development out of unrecorded beginnings, it became at a very ancient epoch, and below the surface still remains, a religion of the heart. Whatever be the origin of its rites and traditions, its ethical spirit has become identified with all the deepest and best emotions of the race. Hence, in Izumo especially, the attempt to create a Buddhist Shintoism resulted only in the formation of a Shinto-Buddhism.