The 15th GJS LectureShinto—A Religion of the Signifier?

Date and time: Nov. 7, 2016 (Mon.), 2:00-4:00PM
Venue: Main Conference Room (3rd Floor), The Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo
Speaker: Professor Fabio Rambelli (Religious Studies and East Asian Languages, University of California, Santa Barbara)
Language: English

Abstract: One of the main features of Shinto, as well as perhaps the most puzzling one, is the difficulty to define what it exactly is. Is it a primitive form of animism? or a sophisticated religion with a hierarchical pantheon? the indigenous religion of Japan? or a syncretism of different religions and beliefs systems? an ancient tradition that has survived until today? or a modern invention as an ideological tool for the support of the imperial regime? a fanatical form of state worship that justifies violence and aggression? or a peaceful form of nature worship? All of these definitions, and perhaps many more, are circulating today.
The main difficulty for the definition of Shinto is the frustrating lack of a solid conceptual basis in ancient texts for what was subsequently defined "Shinto." What these texts provide is essentially a set of signifiers (names, narrative frames, ritual patterns) with very few signifieds associated with them. The original set of signifiers was extremely poor, and those who chose to deal with them extensively (most authors in the Japanese cultural traditions did not...), had to exercise an enormous creative effort in order to make them relevant for whatever discourse they subscribed to. I would like to suggest that we are dealing here with a tradition that is predominantly focused on signifiers, forms, and ritual actions—which tend to lose their meaning and signifying only themselves or, at most, a vague and generic idea of “the past,” “tradition,” “continuity,” and “Japaneseness.” In this talk, I will focus on three specific examples: the medieval quest for the primordial god (kongenshin), the exegesis of the main purification ritual (Nakatomi no harae), and the proliferation of gods between the late Kamakura and the late Edo period.
I will also propose a semiotic way to look at the history of the Shinto tradition, away from standard representations of Shinto as a closed, limited, and xenophobic tradition. Rather, it would be more productive, and historically accurate, to look at Shinto as a container in which the Japanese throughout the ages have chosen to include a lot of stuff from the outside. In semiotic terms, Shinto is a semiotic device for assimilation in which the external was transformed into internal. This perspective encourages us to search for alternative research directions on aspects that are normally ignored by scholars, or to address them in a different way.

Organizer: The Global Japan Studies Network (GJS)
Co-organizer: Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, the University of Tokyo
Contact: gjs[at]