What we today call Shinto has been at the heart of Japanese culture for almost as long as there has been political entity distinguishing itself as Japan. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine describes the ritual cycle at Suwa Shrine, Nagasaki's major Shinto shrine. Conversations with priests, other shrine personnel, and people attending shrine functions supplement John K. Nelson's observations of over fifty shrine rituals and festivals. He elicits their views on the meaning and personal relevance of the religious events and the place of Shinto and Suwa Shrine in Japanese society, culture, and politics. Nelson focuses on the very human side of an ancient institution and provides a detailed look at beliefs and practices that, although grounded in natural cycles, are nonetheless meaningful in late-twentieth-century Japanese society.
Nelson, who teaches Asian studies at the University of Texas at Austin and who has lived and taught in Japan, offers a richly detailed, anecdotal study of Shintoism-the ancient, distinctively Japanese religion often misunderstood by the West. As Nelson explains in the cogent introductory chapters, Shintoism is "a body of ritual practices essentially agricultural in design and animistic in content" yet which somehow manage to attract participation from among urban-dwelling Japanese. Particularly difficult for Westerners is the idea of Kami-essentially what is inexplicable and wondrous in the world. By focusing on the seasonal ritual sand ceremonies of one Shinto shrine, the more than 400-year-old Suwa shrine in Nagasaki, Nelson succeeds in capturing the "moods and motivations" of Shintoism, and in putting a human face on many mystical practices. Ritual is central to Shintoism, and Nelson clearly describes the four basic ceremonies: purification, presentations (offerings), petitions (prayers or "beautiful words" with mystical properties) and participation-before offering specific examples of each. The ceremonies are divided into the four seasons, and each one described includes interviews with, or anecdotes from, participants-such as a Shinto priestess who used to play in a rock band and still sees herself as "a thoroughly modern Japanese woman." Throughout, Nelson demonstrates that Shintoism has survived 2000 years by its "adaptation and resourcefulness" regarding the changing needs of its participants to remain the living religion it is today. (June)