Max’s blog


宗教-Shukyo…the correct word?

We’ve been using this word throughout class.  It’s very roughly translated as religion.  I looked up the two kanji that make up the word in my kanji dictionary.  The character (Shuu) means denomination, sect, or even “religion” alone.  The second character (kyou) means doctrine, faith, and teach.  By putting the two together, it’s said that the word means religion.  Is that so?  Many scholars say otherwise.

Ian Reader gives a great example of this in one of our most recent readings we did in class.  Firstly, I was very impressed with how he gave original meanings of the word.  He says that it was originally of Chinese origins meaning Buddhism.  Then “was used to indicate Buddhist traditions whose authority was based in textual transmission rather than in direct personal transmission from and enlightened master.”  He further goes on to quote Pye with “…it is a clear equivalent for ‘religion’ as in the phrase ‘the study of religon’, and it was not invented by westerners.”   I feel that all though it wasn’t invented by westerners, it was certainly influenced by us.  As Professor Roemer noted today, when Japan was deciding what word to actually use in dictionaries, there were several possible words.  One was Shukyo, another Shuka, and the other was Shuha (I believe).  I believe the problem with using Shukyo and translating it as religion is that there is a lot of miscommunication with that.  From a western perspective, we will think of religion from probably a Christian or at least monotheistic view.  Where as…this isn’t exactly the true meaning.  Shukyo is more of a very broad term, often changing meanings and expanding.  It stands for perhaps the practices and rituals (if those are proper words) used within Japanese religiousness.  The matter of the fact here is that Shukyo is a very mistranslated word.  I feel that it is inappropriate to translate it as religion alone.  So what else could we translate it as?     When being a language student, this is very hard to come up with.  Because, when you actually do run across this word in text or conversation, you don’t want to translate is as a big, long definition.  You need a simple word for it.  Other than religion, this is very hard to do.


Whoa, November?  What happened to the time.? I suppose I’ve slacked with the blogging.  Nonetheless, here comes more.


In our most current reading of Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions, quite a few questions and confusions arose during my readings.  The reading was over Ancient Japan and Religion, by Matsumura.  First off, he begins his writing with unusual styles using worldviews split into “vertical” and “horizontal” views.  This confused me for several reasons in class.  Firstly, this is my first religious studies class to have ever taken.  Given, I’ve been studying Japanese language and culture for six years now, I normally haven’t studied anything with this type of terminology.  One could assume a “vertical view” such as physically: heaven is above us, we live on Earth, hell is in Earth’s core.  That is my ideology of a vertical worldview.  But then, you put a Japanese emphasis on that and I am lost.  Perhaps some clarity will be given in the future, but for now, I’m quite confused.

One very important thing I gathered in this chapter is the importance of two main topics.  One, the importance that women played in folklore and myths.  Secondly the sheer importance of the sun which is even stated to be “worshiped” by some which could almost be comparable of the sun god Rah in Egyptian mythology.

“At Miwayama there are shrines in various places, from summit to its foothills, dedicated to the worship of sunrise and sunset at times of seasonal changes” (132).  I think it’s very important to note how important a role the sun played in the early Japanese myths.  Obviously, they had a very keen and intelligent observation of the sun, how it effected the seasons, and more importantly, crops.  I also find it very interesting that words such as hi no miko 日の御子- literally, sun child of the emperor.  Furthermore, the sun goddess- Amaterasu, plays a very important role in Japanese myths of being the light, and possibly reason for life itself.  With out the sun there would be no life.

To continue , I will talk about the importance of women played in myths.  Firstly, when looking at early texts such as the Nihon Shoki or Kojiki, there was a role of men being superior than women- which can clearly be explained as the books were being used very much so for political agenda at the time.  On the contrary, compare this to The Tale of Genji 源氏物語- possibly the world’s first novel, written by a Japanese woman,  Murasaki Shikibu.

I will go back to the example of Amaterasu, the sun goddess.  She plays an important role in myths.  Then you can question, why is Amaterasu a woman?  Did she have to be to have the same effect on people?  I believe the answer is yes.  Here you have a ever so powerful Kami, the Kami, and it’s a woman.  People view that and show much respect to the simple fact.  Furthermore, you can look at examples of Princess Himiko.  She was respected a great deal, and she was also involved in shamanism and “magic”.  “Himiko’s magc could be considered as one part of a form of governance divided between male and female” (137).  You could also say because of this, that magic was indeed respected for a while with Princess Himiko.

Lastly I would like to discuss the ending of the chapter and my disappointment in it.  One particular topic I am interested in with Japanese religion is Kami- and more specifically the animals which are considered to be Kami.  The last section of the chapter, The Concept of Kami is a very weak and almost confusing, pathetic paragraph dealing with the topic.  One sentence “Also animals that are considered to be special (e.g. foxes, snakes) and auspicious beings (e.g white deer, white snakes), and even whose minds are not normal can be considered as possessing a form in kami nature” (140-141).  Firstly, I wish that Matsumura had elaborated on why animals considered to be special can be kami.  Also, the ending of the sentence was most confusing.  “…even whose minds are not normal”.  I’m not sure what to make of this statement.  Does this mean trees or plants?  I could almost interpret that as a person who is unique and thinks in different ways, or possibly even someone who is mentally handicap.  To say they least, I hope we further our discussions on Kami, especially why certain animals are considered to be Kami.


In order for me to express my opinions to the best of my abilities, I feel it is necessary to provide information on who I am.  Not only this, but provide my background in Japanese and religion.

I am a second semester sophomore at Ball State University majoring in Japanese and minoring in Geography and Travel and Tourism.  This will be my sixth consecutive year of learning Japanese on an education basis- meaning I have been studying since my freshman year of high school.  I am constantly fascinated with the Japanese language and culture, which is why I decided to take this class.  I want to emerge myself the culture more and broaden my knowledge on the religion.

I have traveled to Japan twice both on an educational purpose with small groups from my high school.  My first trip I stayed a week traveling the major cities on Honshu including a night in Atami- known for their hot springs.  My second trip was for two weeks on Honshu and exploring the southern islands of Kyushu.  We traveled to many shrines and temples, and of course explored the cities and cuisine.

Me on the left in traditional yukata with a friend at a small shrine in Tokyo.

Now that I have introduced myself I feel like I can express my reflections on my readings much easier.  I will be discussing what I thought of the first chapter out of Swanson & Chilson’s Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religion.  My first point I would like to discuss is the term shukyo 宗教.  Swanson ans Chilson described it as the term of “religion”, though this is such a rough translation because the view of religion from a Japanese perspective and a western perspective are completely a skewed.  This, however, is a topic they bring up stating “the attitude of religion in Japan is also influenced by the differences in the understanding of “religion” as compared to the West…” (4).  It’s important to note that we (as cultures) come from different backgrounds, thus a term for religion can have quite a different meaning than another.

The next point I found very interesting was mushinronsha 無神論者, or roughly, atheist.  Here’s a good thing to point out, that translation is roughly atheist.  It would be better defined as “person with no faith or belief system”.  As Swanson & Chilson discussed, “atheist has a different connotation in Japan…it is a rejection of ‘religion’ than a lack of belief in the divine”. (6)  Japanese society has stopped trusting organized religious groups, this doesn’t mean that they are not spiritual however.  As discussed in class, they might belong to a “family religion” meaning that they have a parent or grandparent buried at a Buddhist cemetery, so they are Buddhist.

Lastly, one thing in our reading that stuck out to me was the cultural aspect of Shinto to Japanese people.  While such a low percentage of Japanese actually identify themselves as Shinto, Shintoism still plays a major roll in daily lives for many Japanese.  For example “New Year’s visits to shrines and temples, funeral rites, visits to ancestral graves- are viewed as social customs, devoid of ‘religious’ meaning” (9).  I found this to be true on my trips to Japan.  When visiting shines or temples in Japan, it wasn’t uncommon to see a businessman or woman to simply walk up to a prayer bell, ring it, say their prayer, and be on with their daily lives.  Does this make them a religious person?  I don’t think so, it is simply a cultural aspect of Japan and that it is a routine that they have.

4 Responses to Max’s blog

  1. Doc Roemer says:

    Do you feel you understand better ‘kami’ after the discussion last week and the quote from Norinaga Motoori?

    • makusuwolf says:

      Yes, I do. Don’t get me wrong, but due to previous studies, I feel I have a pretty solid understanding of Kami. However, the reading did a poor job on describing what they were.

  2. Doc Roemer says:

    You should check out Brie’s blog. She spends some time dissecting the different worldviews in that reading.

    Readers: the article Max is citing on shukyo is
    It’s an excellent article and a reply to another key scholar in religious studies. Certainly something to check out!

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