Recently, I found this interesting article by the Japan Times about efforts to keep Shinto relevant in the 21st century. The article talks about the efforts to reach out foreign guests and let them experience Shinto life in its own terms, how it approaches nature and so on.
One interesting point in the article is the following:
After becoming a priest at Kamigamo Shrine, Inui saw tour guides give foreign tourists misleading information about Shinto by explaining it in terms of monotheism.
He came to the conclusion that the best way to prevent foreign visitors from developing erroneous perceptions is for priests themselves to communicate with them, so he strived to develop his English skills at the Interfaith Center of New York while working there under a temporary transfer program.
I have kind of noticed this problem too: Japanese religion has difficulty articulating itself to foreign audiences.
The problem is complicated because Westerners tend to compare Shinto and Buddhism in the same monotheistic terms as Christianity, which is confusing. English is based on Christian-culture, and so many of our religious words have a Christian origin. Even Buddhist-English terms like “monk”, “pray”, “nun” and so on all have Christian connotations.
Likewise, Japanese priests, unfamiliar with English or monotheistic religions, struggle to articulate their beliefs. I’ve seen how some Shinto/Buddhist books will translate teachings directly from Japanese to English, and the word-choices are just wrong or misleading unless you are already familiar with the religion.
This is a big challenge for both sides I guess: learning to understand each other. I’m glad to see people like Rev. Inui who are trying to help bridge the cultural/language gap though.
P.S. Photo above is from Wikipedia, showing part of the Upper Kamo Shrine in Kyoto.