Shinto – In Japan, recognizing the spirit of all things – from trees to mountains to interestingly shaped rocks – is part of Shinto. Older than writing in Japan, Shinto is the root of Japanese values and ways of thinking. Shinto is why the concepts of purity and impurity govern daily life, in the simple acts of gargling, hand washing, and removing shoes upon entry to a home. Shinto grounds the rites of passage in an individual’s life, like blessing children at ages 3, 5, and 7, and all birthday milestones – 14 or 15; 20; 60, 70, and 88 – thereafter. Many of the major festivals still celebrated in Japan are Shinto, and the practice of opening ceremonies – annually opening hiking trails, annually opening the sea, or the purification of new buildings – are also Shinto. And, of course, the centrality of nature in art and literature are Shinto. The pervasiveness of Shinto is fascinating – and that’s what today’s story is about.

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Transcript of Trees that Fight Back: Shinto & the Environment in Japan

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Averill: Trees live; some even get sick and die. Some are cut down in the prime of their lives by storms, beavers, or humans. If you stand alone in the middle of a forest, you can almost hear them talk to each other, in the rustle of leaves, the creak and groan of the wood, the nuts and fruits dropping to the loamy floor beneath. If you’re out in the forest, it’s almost easy to believe that a tree threatened might fight back. In Japan, recognizing the spirit of inanimate things – from trees to mountains to interestingly shaped rocks – is part of Shinto. Older than writing in Japan, Shinto is the root of Japanese values and ways of thinking. Shinto is why the concepts of purity and impurity govern daily life, in the simple acts of gargling, hand washing, and removing shoes upon entry to a home. Shinto grounds the rites of passage in an individual’s life, like blessing children at ages 3, 5, and 7, and all birthday milestones – 14 or 15; 20; 60, 70, and 88 – thereafter. Many of the major festivals still celebrated in Japan are Shinto, and the practice of opening ceremonies – annually opening hiking trails, annually opening the sea, or the purification of new buildings – are also Shinto. And, of course, the centrality of nature in art and literature are Shinto. The pervasiveness of Shinto is fascinating – and that’s what today’s story is about. In the 1970s, the Japanese government wanted to cut down a 700-year-old tree to build a train station. But that tree didn’t want to be cut down, and according to local legend, it got its way. Is this a case of tree wraiths cursing people? Is it the inherent environmentalism of Shinto and, by extension, Japanese culture? Or is it something entirely inexplicable?

I’m Averill Earls

I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: In a heavily forested, temperate, mountainous, and volcanically active archipelago like Japan, it is not particularly surprising that the people living there would develop an early animistic religion. When the very earth moves hundreds of times a year, and you don’t have any geiger counters to understand why, the spirit of all things seems as good an explanation as any. But this is certainly not unique to Japan; animistic religions, assigning divine or spiritual entities to elements of nature, are the earliest religions all over the world, reflecting humans trying to make sense of their environment.

Averill: Shinto, which means “way of the gods,” was a term first used in the 6th century of the common era. What we know about early Shinto is that it was generally practiced in one of two ways. Ujigami was based on the extended family shrine, and revolved around ancestor worship. This emerged largely from clan-based kinship networks in early Japan, and emphasized filial piety and hierarchies within the family. Hitogami Shinto was based on relationships of individual priest figures to specific kami. Kami as a concept encompasses a range of spirits and divinities. One’s ancestors are kami; but there might be kami in a gnarled old tree, a weirdly formed rock, the peal of thunder, a gurgling stream, or even a scurrying rat; and while there might be divinities in all kinds of natural phenomenon, there are also a few discernible kami who resembled Western gods.

The Cool of the Morning a painting of a young Japanese woman in light, washed out colors

The Cool of the Morning, Kaburaki Kiyokata

Sarah: Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, is particularly important in the Japanese pantheon, and in a way represents the merging of the different facets or manifestations of Shinto. She is the kami of the all-powerful sun, but she is also worshipped by the imperial family as their ancestor. This was written down in the seventh century, when the imperial family wanted to solidify their claim to authority through divine right. Prince Shotoku, who ordered the recording of Japanese history (and his family’s divine right to rule), also described the major religions of Japan as a tree, in which Shinto is the roots of a tree, embedded in the very heart of the Japanese people; Confucianism is the trunk and branches, providing politics, morality, and education; and Buddhism is the flowers, where religious feelings bloom.

Averill: Confucianism and Buddhism, of course, came to Japan from the West; Shotoku was largely responsible for spreading Buddhism. But when the imperial family embraced Shinto, ultimately making it the imperial faith, it began to be standardized in a way that animistic religions elsewhere usually are not.

Sarah: Shinto tends to move in and out of the foreground of Japanese worship practices, in a sort of dance with Buddhism. Sometimes they share the spotlight, sometimes one is more prominent than the other, depending on who is in power in the Japanese government – imperial family vs shoguns vs fascists. Shinto doesn’t have a Siddhatha Gautama to give it a central doctrine, and other than believing that ancestors are spirits who live among us, it doesn’t give much direction for morality or after life questions. It’s more concerned with “this-worldly” stuff, stemming from its earliest manifestations as a system of asking for blessings and good luck – rather than asking for forgiveness for wrongdoings. Because of the lack of central doctrinality and the focus on the this-worldly stuff some scholars don’t even think of Shinto as a religion. It’s more a way of thinking and living, and possibly more useful as a way to understand Japaneseness. Jason Josephson has explored this specifically in the context of the adoption of Shinto as a state ideology during the Meiji period, starting in 1868.

Averill: Take note that Sarah said “state ideology,” rather than “state religion,” which is usually how Shinto is discussed within the Meiji period. Historian Jason Josephson argues that the Meiji state defined religion as private – and in theory, everyone was allowed to practice whatever religion they wanted on their own time. Shinto, on the other hand, was the public, de-Buddhistified, mandatory rituals that – by extension of the Meiji modernization and ideology – was effectively secular in theory and practice.

Sarah: And the Meiji period is really where we can bring our tree story to fruition. For one thing, Shinto was co-opted by the Meiji emperor, who had wrested control of Japan from the Tokugawa Shogunate. The forward-thinking emperor established a parliament to create a new ruling class of people, and launched Japan on a rapid industrialization and Westernization path. Pretty much everything about Japanese life changed in some way; the very way that Japanese men dressed shifted to the Western-style three piece suit, replacing the traditional kimonos in public life. Shinto, as the traditional faith of the imperial family, was essential to the ritualistic worship of the emperor and his family. Buddhism had been the religion of the shogunates; in the last decades of the 19th century, Emperor Meiji phased out Buddhism in the public realm. From then on the nation stood with Japan’s leaders in the Shinto opening of the sea ceremony, witnessed the tearing-down and rebuilding of the shrine at Ise every 20 years, and embraced the Japanese-ness of the daily and annual rituals of Shinto. State Shinto was purposeful and powerful. And it’s reassertion as the Japanese religion undoubtedly ushered in a return to those nature-focused sentiments.

A portrait of Miyaki Kozo wearing a suit during the Meiji Restoration

The court dress of Miyaki Kozo during the Meiji Restoration | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: In addition, under the Meiji emperor, who ruled until his death in 1912, Japan underwent rapid industrialization. Just as in the UK and America, industrialization was disastrous to the Japanese environment. Air pollution from factories and energy production facilities, clear-cutting forests for increased agricultural output, and mining were all detrimental and necessary to Japanese modernization. But the Japanese were also able to pick and choose European and American industrial practices, technologies, and sciences. A more enfranchised populace protested the environmental deterioration; in 1900, for example, when deforestation around a copper mine allowed frequent flooding to poison farmers’ fields and families, 2000 of them marched in protest on Tokyo. Government officials in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods were more likely to bend to these kinds of overt pressures. Ultimately clear-cutting of forests was stopped in Meiji Japan, and 70% of Japan remains forested as a result.

Sarah: Scholars like Brendan Barrett continually point back to the influence of Shinto to explain this environmentally conscientiousness. While farmers getting sick off of copper solvents in the flood plains probably had more self-preservation on their minds than environmentalism, the Meiji period also saw a resurgence of nature and environment themes in art and literature.

Averill: In the early Meiji period, the push to Westernize really shaped the aesthetic in painting and the visual arts. But by the turn of the century, traditional Japanese aesthetics regained popularity. Everything from the decoration on vases to oil paintings to poetry incorporated nature in same way. We will link to a great primer on Meiji period art so you can look at some of the beautiful work that came out of Japan at this time – like an intricately cast silver stand that looks like an ocean wave and holds up a crystal sphere; or the paintings that I think of from this time that have a lot of gold and silver paint in them, and tend to be tranquil nature scenes. I actually have one of these tryptych paintings of storks in a swamp, with a few twisty trees at the edges, that I inherited from my grandparents. They had a Japanese exchange student way back in the 60s, and she gave them this painting — in a bamboo frame — as a thank you gift. Meiji period artists like sculptor Takamura Kotaro blend Western style with Japanese themes, and he’s a kind of weird example, because he is also known for his poems, and even his poems invoke Nature themes.

There is no road ahead of me
The road follows behind me
O Nature
Magnificent father, you gave me independence,
Watch over and protect me forever
Always fill me with your vitality
For this long journey of mine
For this long journey of mine.

Sarah: Like most Shinto-grounded thought, this movement focused on humanity’s oneness with nature; we are not greater or above our physical environment, and by extension, we must protect it. Perhaps this sentiment is the heart of the conscientiousness that Barrett argues permeated Japan, moving communities to protest actions they saw as harmful.

Averill: In Neyagawa, a suburb of Osaka, Japan, a 700-year-old kusunoki tree twists out of the ground, standing some 65 feet tall at its highest. A tree native to the region, as well as southern China, Korea, and Vietnam, the kusunoki – or camphor, in English – blooms with little white flowers in the spring among bright green leaves. The leaves smell most strongly of camphor – that sort of heady aromatic undertone of everything from embalming fluid to mint and rosemary – when crushed. Camphors like this one are often made up of multiple trunk stems splitting off from the same root system and stretching wide and tall. For generations the Neyagawa tree, called the Big Kusu Tree of Kayashima by the locals, grew tall and sprawling, and people respected it for its grandness. In 1910, the Japanese government built a train station next to the tree, and those waiting for a locomotive ride into Osaka could enjoy the shade of the big tree.

Sarah: Side note: by the time Big Kusu enters the historical record, Japan was basically a parliamentary democracy. Shinto was the State “religion,” the country had undergone a rapid industrialization, and things like trains were common and widespread. Like many of the new democracies in the early 20th century, however, the Taisho government was unstable, and fell fairly quickly to fascist elements, and the Shōwa period started. In the pre-1945 period, the Shōwa emperor was worshipped as a living god, and the military ran the authoritarian government. These were the folks who invaded China in 1937, and sent bombers into Pearl Harbor in 1941. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 – prefaced by the atomic bombs that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands and creating disastrous ecological effects – Japan was occupied by the Allied forces, who excised state religion, returned Japan to a democracy, and demoted the Emperor God down to a constitutional monarch. The Shōwa emperor lived and ruled until 1989.

Averill: In early postwar Japan, many Shinto shrines were taken down to make way for roads and buildings. Japan recovered economically quite rapidly – akin to the “economic miracle” in Western Europe after the war – and became one of the fastest growing economies in the world, second only to the United States until the 1990s, when it was surpassed by China, and entered a period of stagnation. According to Aike Rots, Shinto made a resurgence in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s – reforming as what Rots calls a “Shinto environmentalist paradigm,” which drew on the connections between Shinto shrines, rituals, and nature; and that the proponents of Shinto environmentalism emphasized an “ancient ecological knowledge,” which instructed the Japanese how to live in harmony with nature. The ancient knowledge claims are, perhaps, exagerrated; but the emergence of this paradigm in postwar Japan is important to consider, particularly with regard to our Big Kusu tree — but also Japanese culture and ‘environmentalist’ practices more broadly.

Sarah: In 1972, the local government of Neyagawa wanted to build a new, larger train platform to accommodate the traffic going in and out of Osaka through the Kayashima stop. Neyagawa was a burgeoning suburb, and the 1910 platform simply was not meeting the demands of commuters using the train. They announced their intentions to build the multi-level platform, which would include cutting down Big Kusu, which was exactly in the middle of where the planned platform would stand.

Averill: The people of Neyagawa – and Big Kusu itself, according to local legends – were not happy. A kami resided in Big Kusu, and when threatened, the kami resisted. There were rumors that a white snake, a symbol of the Shinto deities, had been seen slithering around the trunk of the tree. A man who tried to cut off a limb developed hay fever. And residents reported seeing smoke rising from the tree – some accounts said from its roots, and others said from its top. The locals were all worked up, and pressed their govenrment officials until they agreed not to cut down the tree. Instead, though considerably more costly than the original design, the platform was built around the tree. Construction began in 1973, and finished in 1980. It included a rectangular opening in the ceiling of the platform, which allowed the tree to continue to grow upward and outward.

A red torii at the Shinto shrine at Itsukushima

The tori at Itsukushima Shrine | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Today, Big Kusu, still inside the train platform, is properly surrounded by a Shinto shrine. You probably already have some idea of what a Shinto shrine looks like, but we’ll post a few examples in our blog post for this episode. The entrance is flanked by the torii, which is basically a gate. The torii are usually the most recognizable elements of a shrine – these are the red beams that look like an H with a hat sitting on top. The elements making up the rest of the site vary; sometimes the stairs behind the torii lead to a pretty elaborate compound of buildings, serving the needs of worshippers and kami alike, including an administrative building, a honden or building that would enshrine the kami, the ‘lion-guard’ statues that protect the space, a hand-washing station, and more. Sometimes shrines are much simpler, consisting of a torii and nothing more. But most have structures of some kind, in part because of the influence of Buddhism on Shinto after the 7th century.

Averill: Big Kusu’s shrine is not particularly special. There are about 80,000 shrines in Japan today, and can be large, small, or even portable. The shrine at Ise, which houses the imperial family’s kami, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, is ritually taken down and rebuilt every 20 years. This has been done since its construction in the year 4 BCE. But there aren’t many reminders in the urban parts of Japan that there might be something greater than the consumerist, modern, industrial world that Japan has created for itself. A Shinto shrine inside a commuter train platform surrounding a 700 year old tree might be the exception.

Sarah: Currently, despite a population of 127 million, with most people living in areas with over 5000 people per square kilometer, about 12% of Japan is protected parkland. By comparison, the United States – many, many times the size of Japan in terms of landmass, but only a little more than double the population – has only 14% of the land designated as protected parkland. In the United Kingdom, more comparable as another island nation with a highly dense population, only 7% of the land is protected by the National Parks system.

Averill: Obviously you don’t need a pervasive religious inclination to have a respect for nature and the environment. “National Parks” were created by countries all over the world in the early 20th century. Conservation and environmental protection legislation was passed in most industrial nations in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in response to the truly horrific effects of a century of coal-burning, chemical waste-dumping, and landfill creation over the previous two centuries. And certainly the Japanese, both before and after industrialization, are not the epitome of an environmentally-friendly and conscious people. Anthropologist Peter Kirby illustrates some of the most blatant scenes of Japanese disregard for the environment in four vignettes that are too good not to just quote here and now!

Sarah: During a routine safety check at a Tokyo community pool, three Japanese swimmers, two women and one man in their late twenties, sit on the pool edge and confess their discomfort with the fact that the pool water is heated by recycled energy from a major waste-incinerator complex—in the middle of which the pool lies—whose enormous smokestack looms hundreds of feet above the swimming area. The community has been bombarded for months by media reports regarding the dangers of toxic pollution from incinerators in Japan.

Averill: At a marina along the coastline, tossed cans, plastic bottles, and other flotsam bob in the crevices of massive concrete tetrapods that create a breakwater there. On the long path to the parking lot, a middle-aged Japanese man, finding a pile of waste abandoned by yachters and others—public trash cans are extremely scarce in Japan—pulls out a lighter and starts burning the heap of plastic bags, food wrappers, Styrofoam trays, and leftover food garbage to protect against vermin, thereby creating a plume of acrid smoke that soon envelops the jetty.

Sarah: Four men tee off at a golf course on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Despite their good-natured grumblings, the men are forbidden to smoke on the course due to the highly flammable gases wafting up through vents from the millions of tons of waste decomposing beneath the manicured fairways. In the distance on all sides, the expansive bayscape surrounding them is filled with similar islands made of garbage—an “inland sea” of wastelands that provide valuable real estate for infrastructure and development.

Averill: As befits the “Land of the rising Sun,” the acme of Mt. Fuji in summer is packed with hundreds of hikers huddled against the bitter cold and high winds at 12,388 feet (3,776 meters) to view the sun-rise, the first moment the sun touches Japan. Though Mt. Fuji is regarded as a sacred peak, and holds unparalleled significance in Japanese culture, the surface of the mountaintop is encrusted with drink cans, energy tonic ampoules, empty water bottles, wrappers, and other detritus dropped by exhausted climbers who squeeze between the improbable noodle shops, vending machines, and souvenir stalls that crowd the summit. As the dense stream of bodies, four or so abreast, shoulder-to-shoulder, trudges up the main trail, more climbers are able to reach the peak’s volcanic summit and consume its amenities while returning hikers spill down the various descents like human lava.

Sarah: These vignettes start on page 3 of Kirby’s book – which we highly recommend you pick up for a fascinating counterpoint to the defense of Big Kusu. While all of these are fascinating, I want to focus for a moment on the last one, which actually comes first in Kirby’s book. Mt. Fuji is, of course, an important natural phenomenon in Shinto Japan. Fuji is an active volcano. With Japan’s hundreds of earthquakes every year – some markedly larger than others, of course – it is constantly on the brink of eruption. The Shinto worship of the Fuji kami, a goddess named Konohanasakuya-hime, is grounded in its ability to both destroy and create. She provides water, which the people at the foot of the mountain rely on for their rice fields and for drinking. But she could just as easily wipe them and their livelihoods off the face of the planet. And while fewer than 5% of the Japanese population identifies as “Shinto” religiously, 80% of Japanese people actively participate in Shinto rituals and worship at shrines every year.

A light colored Japanese painting of Mt. Fuji with a rising dragon in the foreground

Ryu sho ten, or Dragon Rising to the Heavens, by Ogata Gekko. The mountain depicted is Mt. Fuji. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: So it’s pretty astounding that visitors treat the mountain so poorly.

Sarah: Exactly. Which raises the question – why was Big Kusu protected, when there are islands made of trash and Mt Fuji is covered in hiker detritus?

Averill: The basic answer is, of course, that people can be and are contradictory and complicated. And stupid. And weird. I do think that Shinto is important to this conversation. It may not govern all actions of the Japanese people as a whole, or of their government; it obviously doesn’t even govern the actions of many, many individuals. Aike Rots argument that this ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’ emerged in fairly recent decades carries a lot of weight. On the one hand, it would be foolish to say that because Shinto is an ancient indigenous religion, Japan is predisposed to being more environmentally conscientious. Clearly, with the trash islands and the litter all over Mt Fuji, that is not pervasively true. But the impact of the modern iteration of Shinto does seem quite powerful.

Sarah: Right – and today Shinto has been essentialized by politicians as Japanese “tradition” and “culture”; it is not ‘religion,’ which makes it acceptable for politicians to make big public shows of worshipping at shrines. Very recently Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has proposed changes to the Japanese constitution, which would allow for state support of Shinto shrines, defining them as Japanese ‘culture,’ ‘heritage,’ or ‘tradition,’ rather than ‘religious’ sites. For those who do consider Shinto a religion, this is obviously problematic; there are strict rules separating state and religion in Japan, which were laid down by the Allied powers after WW2. Because State Shinto fed into the fascism of the Shōwa period, such separation was seen as necessary in the rebuilding of Japan. But what this movement speaks more to is the continued reinvention of Shinto with each successive regime. It can be both essentialized as Japanese ‘tradition,’ and also be embraced or used for its environmentalist elements by people like the locals of Neyagawa, or someone like Hayao Miyazaki.

Averill: Yes! I’m glad you bring Miyazaki up. Because his films tend to have strong Shinto environmentalist messages and imagery. I’m thinking of Nausicaa: In the Valley of the Wind, which has these powerful creatures that operate much like kami do in various myths. They belong to or represent the ‘toxic jungle’ – made toxic, btw, by some ancient war waged by humans – and can be friends to people, but can just as easily kill those who threaten their home. The commentary on human abuses of the environment are unmistakable. I actually was first introduced to Miyazaki’s animation by a poorly edited version of Nausicaa called Warriors of the Wind, which was dubbed in English and released in the United States in 1985. That version downplayed the environmental warrior and Shinto elements and made it more of a girl Jesus fighting evil story, but even then, you can’t help but see the world decimated by human warfare, the horrific man-made war machines, and the centrality of wind power to humanity’s survival. It’s incredible – and I think probably my first real exposure to eco issues. And I think that’s the point of Miyazaki’s anime. It’s accessible and instructive for children. It reaffirms these Japanese “traditions” of Shinto environmentalism – as recently imagined as those may actually be, depending on who you ask – and, if nothing else, reflects the pervasiveness of these concepts in Japan.

Sarah: And particularly the reoccurrence of that nature/ecology theme in Japanese art and literature.

Averill: Absolutely.

Show Notes and Further Reading:

The Shinto Directive issued by the Allied Occupying forces to the Japanese government after WW2.

The primer to Meiji period art and sculpture that I promised.

John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, A New History of Shinto (John Wiley & Sons, 2010)

Roger Davies, Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2016).

Peter Kirby, Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2011).

“宗教団体数,教師数及び信者数”. Statistical Yearbook of Japan. Statistics Japan, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. 2015. Retrieved 14 Apr 2018.

Brendan Bartlett, “Environmentalism in Periods of Rapid Societal Transformation: The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom and the Meiji Restoration in Japan,” Sustainable Development (1999).

Sara Gates, “Mount Fuji Is In A ‘Critical State’ And Could Be Ready To Blow, Researchers Say,” Huffington Post (July 2014).

Franz Lidz, “Why Mount Fuji Endures As a Powerful Force in Japan,” Smithsonian Magazine (May 2017)

Rokas L, “This Japanese Train Station Was Built Around A 700 Year Old Tree, And Here’s Why,” Bored Panda April 2017

Aaron Netsky, “Kayashima Station,” Atlas Obscura

Frank Ravitch, “The Shinto Cases: Religion, Culture, or Both—The Japanese Supreme Court and Establishment of Religion Jurisprudence,” BYU Law Review (2013)

Aike Rots, “Public Shrine Forests? Shinto, Immanence, and Discursive Secularization,” Japan Review (2017)

Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, (Stanford University Press, 1983).

Trees the Fight Back: Shintoism and Environment in Japan.


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