by Jolyon Baraka Thomas
Shortly after midnight on the first day of this year, my wife and I joined a string of couples and young families streaming up the hill to our local Shintō shrine. After ritually purifying ourselves with water at the small temizuya fountain, we walked up a short flight of steps and waited in line behind people as they tossed coins into the offering box and stumbled through the “official” method of venerating the deities known as kami: two bows, two claps, leave hands together in a prayer position, another deep bow.
Many of the people in front of us got the protocol wrong. They ribbed each other about it as they stepped away to let those behind them go through the motions in turn. Some of our neighbors appeared quite earnest in making wishes for the New Year. Others were perfunctory and indifferent. My spouse and I surreptitiously high-fived each other after getting the synchronization of our bows and claps down almost perfectly. We’re not devotees, but we regularly stop by local shrines and pay our respects to the deities who may or may not reside there. I guess you could say that we practice.
The ritual expressions that take place at shrines in the Japanese new year provide the impression of timeless tradition. As one queues before the ornate haiden, or worship hall, one can easily feel connected to generations of Japanese people who have been doing the same thing for millennia.
But while it builds on earlier communal rituals, the hoary tradition of hatsumōde, or New Year’s shrine visits, actually began in the late nineteenth century through advertising campaigns run by train corporations aiming to boost ticket sales. Whereas visits to major shrines had previously been sporadic and largely associated with sex tourism (major shrines invariably had brothels conveniently located adjacent to them, and historians have documented how pilgrims often rhapsodized about the sex workers more than they did the deities), shrines now represented a type of leisure travel destination accessible via a glamorous new mode of transport. Hoteliers built inns close to rail stations to facilitate, and capitalize on, the brand-new tradition.
I start with this story about the relatively recent and very capitalist origins of annual shrine visits because it is a concrete example of how many of the rituals, sites, and institutions that go by the name “Shintō” today are of very recent provenance. This is important because Shintō is suddenly on the minds of many Americans thanks to Netflix’s new show about personal transformation, domesticity, and spiritual awakening. The show is, of course, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Released in the midst of a contentious government shutdown and vehement national debates over border walls, Kondo’s show has sparked controversy of its own. Some decry the show as vapid nonsense. Others suggest that the only one “cleaning up” is Kondo, who is no doubt raking in cash hand over fist as people buy her books and organizing accessories. And Kondo has ardent converts and true believers, both on the show and on the internet.
I was initially hesitant to join the many people churning out hot takes in response to Kondo’s show, and I remain uncertain about whether contributing to the hype is warranted or wise. But as a scholar of Japanese religions who specializes in Shintō, I couldn’t remain silent when I started to see a worrying pattern.
Since Kondo’s show first appeared on Netflix, some people have taken umbrage at her mild suggestion that books can be clutter. A writer in the Guardian described her decluttering method as “woo-woo nonsense,” a comment that came off to some as unnecessarily dismissive of Kondo and her many devotees.
However, popular defenses of Kondo are even more problematic. Specifically, well-intentioned people dismiss the critics as racists who denigrate Kondo’s “Shintō animism.” (A few also link Kondo’s aesthetic sensibilities to Zen Buddhism, but I’ll simply note that for most Americans today uncapitalized “zen” works as an adjective rather than the proper noun it actually is, and has ironically proven to be a really effective tool for selling the very sort of tchotchkes that Kondo says her audience should release.)
The reality is, the concepts of “Shintō” and “gentle animism” that Kondo’s defenders deploy instantiate the very racism they seek to challenge. Her defenders are trading in shockingly Orientalist fantasies about timeless Asian wisdom and white ignorance, and some of them seem to have little awareness of how Japanese auto-narratives perform political work.
A basic rule of thumb for anyone seriously interested in Japan is to never take claims about Japaneseness at face value. Claims to Japaneseness allow individuals to cloak personal opinions and idiosyncratic proclivities in the mantle of national identity. Experts call this nihonjinron, or speech that presents Japanese people as essentially different from other humans. This logic supports claims of cultural uniqueness and racial superiority while also preserving the “mystical Orient” trope. For example, Kondo’s book is subtitled “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” There is nothing culturally specific about folding shirts, chucking out junk, or putting things back where they belong. Why would Kondo’s publisher add this unnecessary adjective to the title, if not to cash in on lucrative stereotypes about Asian wisdom?
To be sure, Kondo’s defenders are on solid ground when they tie her method to Shintō. Kondo claims that her early experience as a shrine maiden (miko) helped develop her current tidying business. But we should never trust just one informant, even a former shrine maiden, when trying to understand a complex tradition. The same thing goes for a country of 126 million people who clearly have wildly different ideas about both Shintō and tidying up.
Kondo’s defenders deploy many inaccurate old chestnuts about Shintō having no formal doctrine, claim that it is exclusively or essentially “Japanese,” or suggest that all Japanese people believe that spirits exist in everything. Leading scholars in Shintō studies have persuasively shown that each of these alluring claims is misleading. On the internet, however, they persist as shared wisdom and common sense.
Kondo physically embodies Orientalist fantasies about the Asian sage. With her spritely appearance, heavily accented English, diminutive stature, and ritualized methods of communing with her clients’ possessions, she seems to have tapped into some sort of magical power. Indeed, Kondo’s Japanese-language publications refer to the “magic” (mahō) of her method, and her clients evidently seek transformation: “I want it to be strong enough to change me,” says her frazzled female devotee in Episode 1.
When people describe Kondo’s method as “animistic,” they reproduce the contestable notion that Japanese people unanimously believe that all objects are endowed with spirits. This positive, recuperative usage of the term masks the long, sordid history of anthropologists using “animism” to dismiss non-Europeans’ ritual practices as either bad religion, bad science, or both. So when Kondo’s defenders call her “an animist hero,” they use a term that undermines the very points they are trying to make about race and religion.
An additional irony lies in the fact that “animism” only exists in the Japanese language as a foreign loan word. It has no indigenous equivalent. The concept of animism entered Japan, along with a host of other concepts like “religion,” at the close of the nineteenth century. When people use the word animizumu in Japan today, they often do so precisely because the word is resistant to critical analysis. Describing Japanese traditions as “animistic” makes them intuitive or felt rather than thought or argued. This rhetorical strategy is great for making bulletproof political assertions. Nobody can disprove an intuition. But crucially, those who deploy this logic often use it in defense of supremacist claims. For example, some Japanese nationalists claim that Japanese people have a unique, ineffable understanding of how to solve our global environmental crisis. Anyone who has witnessed rapacious Japanese capitalism firsthand can easily disprove this by citing the near-total replacement of native forest with monocultures of industrial cedar, rampant overfishing of the world ocean, or the excessive packaging that comes with any quotidian purchase.
We should hesitate before calling anyone an animist. Kondo’s defenders are right that dismissive takes are potentially hurtful, but calling her method “Shintō animism” ironically reinforces the very racism they intend to challenge. It reproduces Orientalist stereotypes, builds on a problematic tradition of anthropological theorizing about civilization and savagery, and gives reassuring fodder to Japanese supremacists. Say what you will about Marie Kondo and her method, but don’t call her an animist.
Jolyon Baraka Thomas is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2019) and “Spirit/Medium: Critically Assessing the Relationship between Animism and Animation,” in Fabio Rambelli, ed. Spirits and Animism in Contemporary Japan: The Invisible Empire (Bloomsbury, 2019). Tweets @jolyonbt. (jolyon.thomasresearch.org)