Overview Essay

Shinto and Ecology:
Practice and Orientations to Nature

Rosemarie Bernard, Waseda University



Shinto (or kannagara no michi, literally “the way of the deities”) is Japan’s indigenous religion. Shinto refers to diverse and localized religious beliefs, ritual practices, and institutions. On the one hand, Shinto encompasses local community practices, while on the other it also includes the elaborate and highly structured ceremonial practices of the imperial institution and, in earlier historical periods, of the state. From its beginnings in early Japanese history, Shinto has been profoundly influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Syncretic interaction with Buddhism, in particular, has been strong historically. Yet, at the beginning of Japan’s modernization Shinto would be officially separated from Buddhism at the level of divinities worshiped, ritual practices, and institutional structures. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Shinto ritual practices were centralized and reorganized according to a hierarchy that brought even the smallest outlying Shinto shrines within the fold of state administration, with the emperor and his rituals at the center. The effects of those modern transformations were profound as regards ceremonial practices and institutional structure, but less so upon the most fundamental beliefs that are characteristic of the Shinto orientation to the world.

Today, there are more than 80,000 Shinto shrines that are scattered all over the Japanese archipelago. There deities are worshiped and rituals are still performed according to the general patterns established by the state for all shrines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet this is carried out in keeping with localized tradition and regional or community preferences. Regionality of Shinto religious practice accounts for great diversity in Shinto, while those different instances share certain basic beliefs and values.

It is impossible to consider the topic of Shinto and ecology without making reference to the broader issue of Japanese cultural attitudes to the natural environment. This is because what one might describe as Shinto beliefs are often values that are entrenched in Japanese folk culture in general, and which find expression in other areas beyond religion, from sociopolitical organization to aesthetics, and so on. Yet, as Conrad Totman has noted in his work on the history of forestry in Japan,1 the destruction of the natural environment gradually increased to such proportions that the archipelago came to stages of severe environmental degradation several times, only to be barely saved by systematic, usually centrally managed, programs of reforestation. Indeed, it is an irony that a country in which the boundaries between culture and nature are so fluid should have undergone such a degree of environmental degradation. However, such historical developments must also be understood against the background of Japanese culture, according to which nature is valued not as “wild nature,” but instead as “humanized” or “culturalized” nature. In Japan, nature is “cultivated” by culture. Nature is idealized in its “cultured” forms. Some would argue that historically religions, including Shinto, have played a part in the wanton exploitation of forest resources. On the other hand, Japanese indigenous religion and its orientation to the world, which are interconnected with nature and aesthetics, have a great deal to offer in the struggle to conserve the environment.

The Shinto beliefs and attitudes toward nature which are relevant to the problem of environmental preservation include three key points. First, great value is accorded sacred space and time, generally as shrines in groves, the boundaries of which are demarcated as distinct from the secular world. The location of Shinto shrines in local landscapes is an important dimension of their sacredness. As Japanese folklorists have often emphasized, the traditional Japanese village, in close proximity to a community shrine, is focused on agriculture, with seasonal worship of deities offered the fruits of production. The agricultural cycle provides the rhythms of ritual activities that punctuate the year. Cyclical time, periodic time repeats itself as an eternal process.

The second point notes a close relation between nature, deities (kami), and human beings. The interactivity of those three is such that human beings also act upon the world they inhabit with nature and deities. Preventing the natural world from devolving into a state of chaos is the goal of certain ritual action. Discretion towards nature and the kami is essential, since they nurture human life. In Shinto, and in Japanese folk beliefs more generally, the natural and social environments are interrelated. In spatial and topographical terms, this is manifested in the arrangement of traditional residences in relation to fields, mountains, and rivers. The community shrine, situated in a forested grove, is the very expression of the community itself (in a Durkheimian sense) that sacralizes itself in the demarcated domain of sacred space.

Finally, the idea of purification is a key aspect of all ritual activity in Shinto. Purification (harae) is performed to reestablish order and balance between nature, humans, and deities. Regularly performed as part of all ritual, as well as on special occasions during the year, purification ceremonies counteract pollution (kegare). Harm done or accreted pollution can be neutralized by means of ritual purification. The latter, in particular, is a key dimension of the relationship between the Japanese and nature, which warrants “cultivation” and exploitation of the environment on the one hand, yet which on the other emphasizes the need to rectify imbalances between nature, humans, and deities. Religious belief is not only a matter of thought, but equally of practice. While many Japanese are likely to believe that by virtue of their cultural identity they live in harmony with nature, one cannot help but recognize the ecological devastation of many parts of Japan. Shinto is a diverse set of beliefs and practices which have been deeply embeded in Japanese cultural history. Shinto ritual, in particular, has had a role to play in Japan’s modernization, and continues to be affected, as is all of Japanese society, by the impact of technological and economic change. At present, the only significant green spaces in crowded Japanese urban centers are the groves that surround Shinto shrines. Even the simple preservation of those shrine groves is a difficult task to achieve given the onslaught of pollution as well as pressures to make spatial concessions to further urban growth. The Shinto community is aware of the importance of its special position as guarantor of groves of urban and outlying greenery. Moreover, they are aware of the crucial challenges of translating tradition into modern relevance, so as to transform belief systems into environmental practice.

About this Author

Rosemarie Bernard is an anthropologist who has done research on Shinto ritual, specifically on the rites of renewal at the Grand Shrines of Ise, and on Japanese imperial ritual. From April 1993 to March 1994 she was an Information Officer in the Public Relations Section of Jingu Shicho (the bureaucracy that manages The Grand Shrines of Ise). She is currently a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. She is editing the forthcoming volume, Shinto and Ecology, in the CSWR/Harvard University Press World Religion and Ecology book series.


1 Conrad Totman, The Green Archipelago (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990).

Header photo: Itsukushima Shrine, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima, Japan