So, let’s get started about this whole shinto thing. Everything here is about shinto. The university exists, more or less, just to produce shinto priests (kind of like a huge catholic seminar). The classes today and yesterday were mostly about shinto history, shinto matsuri (festivals), shinto heritage, shinto rituals. We learned how to do the sanpei correctly, the thing were you clap your hands two times in front of a shrine. This is all very cool and fascinating. To my even bigger excitement, today’s class even ended up in a meta-discussion about the discussions, which is, I’d say, my favorite kind of discussions. In this instant, it was all about what shinto actually “is“, especially with respect to our particular positions as, I dunno, researchers? Educated cultural tourists? I was surprised, I have to say (and I continue to be so), how little the teachers from various subjects (history, language, sociology) reflect or rather communicate their own stance toward shinto.
Let me be clearer: I have no idea what I was expecting. And I am not even sure I am approaching this correctly. This is what makes these questions really interesting questions. Lets try this with some applied dialectics.
On the one hand, I would be expecting some kind of, I don’t know, maybe not “critical distance”, but rather a reflection of whether a scholar is approaching a topic with historical interest, or from a cultural perspective, or as a kind of believer? Does this sound about right? I thought so at first, but then, I am not so sure. We have huge theological faculties at home, in Tuebingen even a whole department of “dogmatics”. I does not get more dogmatic than a department of dogmatics. And I kind of doubt that professors there are very apologetic about it. I am not even sure I am entirely convinced that one’s personal belief, whatever it is, is necessarily important to be a great scholar, up to a point. That’s why they are professionals, and there are internal standards for that. Or to be even blunter: I kind of doubt that you would expect any kind of personal convictions if you sign up for a tour through the vatican. Or maybe you would get them, but in an case very affirmatively.
Okay. What makes these questions so fascinating, in the case of the Kôgakkan University in particular and shintoism in general, is that your personal belief is kind of irrelevant anyway. No one wants to “convert” anyone to shintoism, because the kami do not necessarily want anything from you. They want their offerings, because they like food as much as the next guy, so someone better hand them their food. And if you visit the place where they hang out – the shrine is kind of a giant mensa – then don’t misbehave by disrespecting the proper decorum. That’s it. This kind of boils down to the discussion we had today what this whole sanpei-ritual “actually means”. And one way to see it is that it means absolutely nothing. At least not in the sense that we would expect. You do the bows. You get your hands right. You do the clapping. You bow again. You leave. That’s it. You are not supposed to think anything special, pray for anything, belief in anything. You can do all that, but you can also pray to Buddha at the same time, or just enjoy the silence. No one cares. The kami like their food (and the food in Ise is, generally, really amazing so far, so why wouldn’t they?). You just have to get the form right. Because it is just that, a form, and it symbolizes, well, nothing. Or so I think. The answer what all the young shinto-priests in university training are actually learning is, indeed, ten million movements, rituals, gestures, very much so like the people who do the martial arts things. Do you even have to “believe” in anything to practice shinto sincerely if you just get your forms right?
And now my interest is triggered since, of course, now we are turning this whole thing into a question of semiotics, right?
So, Sybille Krämer, a German media philosopher (whose book “Media, Messenger, Transmission”, by the way, got translated into Japanese lately) made this big point that Martin Luther kind of “semioticised” christianity, which is to say, he turned it into a structure of signs. In the sense of “conventionalized symbols”. The idea is simply that the Holy Communion, in the protestand church, just symbolizes christ. In the way that, I dunno, a picture of a dove symbolizes the concept of peace, since we agreed upon that. In contrast, in the catholic church, the idea is that the Holy Communion does not symbolize anything but actually *is* god. His flesh and blood. You get the point: convention versus ontology. So Krämer’s point is, if I remember right, that we have to understand catholicism (or the idea behind it) much more in terms of performativity instead of semiotics, presence instead of reference. However, and maybe you see where I am going with this, shintoism wouldn’t quite fit into this grid, because here you have the real performativity that doesn’t point toward any hetero-reference. But instead, it is just what it is, apparently: a bow, a clap, nothing more.
Except, I am not so convinced. Not of Krämer’s argument and not of this much too simple grasp of shintoism. Let’s see where we can take this in the next weeks. One obvious angle to approach the dichotomy is, I think, that to “free” a sanpei from any kind of “transcendental reference” (meaning: taking it as “pure form” without “meaning”) would mean that, for starters, nothing could ever go wrong. This line of thought would lead, I think, back to the question whether this “form” itself is something that was agreed upon at one point (and could, thus, be altered).
Okay. So at this point you thought this blog was going to be funny and full of nice pictures from Japan. Enter: Disappointment! I am actually going to think something about the stuff that I am supposed to be thinking about here. From time to time. But there is actually a good reasons for that. At the end of the course, everyone has to do a presentation about a topic of his or her own choosing, related to Ise and/or shinto. And since I want to work with the vocabulary I have (I am lazy and like to spend some time with seeing things and eating food), I am turning this into a semiotic problem. There you go. Tomorrow there will be funny stories again. And funny pictures are even following right after the message from our sponsors (thanks to Olga who made them).
Ise: a good place to hang out as a kami who likes food.