John K. Nelson - Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan

I read a review of this book that got me interested in acquiring it. In that review it was said that Enduring Identities is a great place to start for those seeking to understand Shinto. It also said that this book is very rewarding. I would have to disagree with the face of both statements. However, if you modified them to say something like "portions of this book are a great place to start and very rewarding" then I would agree.

The book starts off with dozens of pages essentially begging the reader to put Enduring Identities down and never pick it up again. It reads like something written only to increase the author's academic credentials by doing little outside referencing the (apparently boring) works of others. Then, all of a sudden, things take a turn for the better and Nelson delves into several far more interesting topics. The questionnaires he provided to visitors of Kamigamo are interesting to hear about, as are most items in this book in which the author speaks as himself and not as one trying to incorporate countless anthropological theories while referencing them in minute detail. Unfortunately, he lapses back into "John Doe said blah, blah, blah in 1985 (John Doe, 1985)" mode far too often.

While reading I frequently wished that someone had gone through my book before me with a yellow highlighter and marked up just the interesting parts. After a while I started pre-checking paragraphs before I read them. If the paragraph contained one or more references I knew I should skim it. If the upcoming paragraph contained many references then I knew I must skip it. The referencing is way overdone at times. For instance, on page 94, a part of one sentence reads, "Like the farmers in Spain studied by Behar, Torigoe (1988), Inoue (1985), Owa (1986), Bock (1970), and Fujiki (1992)..." Does anybody wanting to read a book about Shinto care about farmers in Spain or the fact that the author can reference six different sources about them?

Getting past the fact that this book is not readable in many, if not most, parts there are some gems buried in the pages. Nelson's interviews with shrine visitors and priests are very enjoyable. The chapter entitled "Kamigamo's Yearly Ritual Cycle" in which each of the shrine's rituals are detailed with date, time, and description is very valuable (especially if you live in the area or plan to visit Kyoto for an extended period of time). Crow Sumo and the scandal of a head priest were also interesting to read about. The end notes are frequently more entertaining than the main text as, again, you hear the author's thoughts instead of him spending an entire page quoting and referencing others.

In summary, Enduring Identities is not aimed at general audiences. Someone looking to this book as a great place to start will likely stop reading before they get to any material that benefits them. Nelson really should have written two books--one for the masses and another one to sit on a shelf and not be looked at in order to get promoted at his university. Mingling the two here doesn't do the person interested in learning about Shinto a whole lot of good.

from the publisher:
Enduring Identities is an attempt to understand the continuing relevance of Shinto to the cultural identity of contemporary Japanese. The enduring significance of this ancient yet innovative religion is evidenced each year by the millions of Japanese who visit its shrines. They might come merely seeking a park-like setting or to make a request of the shrine's deities, asking for a marriage partner, a baby, or success at school or work; or they might come to give thanks for benefits received through the intercession of deities or to legitimate and sacralize civic and political activities.

Through an investigation of one of Japan's most important and venerated Shinto shrines, Kamo Wake Ikazuchi Jinja (more commonly Kamigamo Jinja), the book addresses what appears through Western and some Asian eyes to be an exotic and incongruous blend of superstition and reason as well as a photogenic juxtaposition of present and past. Combining theoretical sophistication with extensive fieldwork and a deep knowledge of Japan, John Nelson documents and interprets the ancient Kyoto shrine's yearly cycle of rituals and festivals, its sanctified landscapes, and the people who make it viable.

At local and regional levels, Kamigamo Shrine's ritual traditions (such as the famous Hollyhock Festival) and the strategies for their perpetuation and implementation provide points of departure for issues that anthropologists, historians, and scholars of religion will recognize as central to their disciplines. These include the formation of social memory, the role of individual agency within institutional politics, religious practice and performance, the shaping of sacred space and place, ethnic versus cultural identity, and the politics of historical representation and cultural nationalism. Nelson links these themes through a detailed ethnography about a significant place and institution, which until now has been largely closed to both Japanese and foreign scholars.

In contrast to conventional notions of ideology and institutions, he shows how a religious tradition's lack of centralized dogma, charismatic leaders, and sacred texts promotes rather than hinders a broad-based public participation with a variety of institutional agendas, most of which have very little to do with belief. He concludes that it is this structural flexibility, coupled with ample economic, human, and cultural resources, that nurtures a reworking of multiple identities--all of which resonate with the past, fully engage the present, and, with care, will endure well into the future.