I recently read an article on Kill Screen titled “The Unmistakable Influence of Shintoism on Videogame History.” The writer, Jack Flanagan, is primarily concerned with the emotional affect of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which makes the player feel good about being out and about in nature. Flanagan posits that, “The ‘Legend’ of The Legend of Zelda is set up to look like a medieval folklore, but in truth it is a Japanese folktale composed of Shintoist elements, which has been respun by Miyamoto.” In fact, he continues, no small number of Japanese games “are tied the teachings of Shintoism.”
What are “the teachings of Shintoism,” exactly? And what do they have to do with Japanese video games? I’d like to demonstrate that Shinto—as a broad amalgamation of local folk religions in Japan—is not particularly well-defined as a cultural influence on video games. Moreover, Shinto is only one of the contributing factors in Japanese attitudes regarding the environment.
Although it would certainly be interesting and productive to identify the specifically Shinto elements in The Legend of Zelda series, I think it also makes sense to place the games within the context of ecological conservation movements in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, it’s worthwhile to consider the more universal elements of international fantasy storytelling that appealed to people in the nascent console gaming industry.
This essay is less about The Legend of Zelda than it is about social and political currents in contemporary Japan, but I hope it can add nuance to our understanding of cultural background of the series, as well Japanese video games more broadly.
Let’s start off by defining what we mean by Shinto. The word means “the way (tō) of the gods (shin),” which are collectively referred to as kami. Japan is often described as being home to yaoyorozu no kami, which translates roughly to “eight million gods.” What this means is that there are an uncountable number of gods in Japan, and each of these gods has its own cult. Some cults are small (only a single family) while others are much larger, but all are local to a specific geographic landmark or region.
Some shrines are ostensibly devoted to the worship of the same god (Inari, the god of rice, is a good example), but such cults generally make it clear that they worship a specific regional manifestation of that god, which entails different relics and different festivals and various other means of worship. In other words, there are eight million ways to worship eight million gods.
We can make some generalizations about the practices pulled together by the typological rubric of “Shinto,” however. For example, it seems that the gods enjoy drinking, parties, babies, and the process of making babies. What they don’t like is death and suffering. These gods are therefore generally presented with offerings that represent “purity” and “freshness,” such as boughs of evergreen trees, unblemished white paper, and clear high-proof alcohol. The gods are worshipped with food, fireworks, and dancing at matsuri festivals in which young people hang out in gorgeous clothes and older people drink to remember what it’s like to be young.
Until very recently, there were no written doctrines associated with traditions of Shinto praxis. One doesn’t make a decision regarding what shrine to belong to because it’s based on the location of one’s residence or workplace. As for “the teachings of Shintoism,” there are precious few of them, especially because written orthodoxy has long been the specialty of Japan’s other major religion, Buddhism.
The various regional and local practices collectively referred to as Shinto were codified into something resembling an organized religion during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when Japan was attempting to modernize itself as rapidly as possible so as not to become a colony of one of the Western imperialist powers. As they established the foundations of their new nation, the Meiji statesmen had to create a sense of a “Japanese” identity in order to get people to do things like pay taxes and join the military.
While Western cultures considered “religion” (the translation of which, shūkyō, is another Meiji neologism) to be one of the defining traits of an advanced civilization, religious traditions that came from the Asian mainland—such as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism—couldn’t be considered appropriately representative of “Japanese” civilization. What the Meiji leaders therefore decided to do was to promote the ideology that their figurehead, the Meiji Emperor, was a god who was supported by all of the local and regional gods of Japan.
State Shinto, in which the emperor was configured as the divine descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, was a political construction used to motivate and justify Japanese colonial expansion and military aggression. After the Pacific War ended, Japan formally disavowed State Shinto, but its legacy has lingered on in Japanese politics.
Even now, the official visits of the Japanese Prime Minister to the Yasukuni Shrine to witness the Shinto rituals that honor the war dead generate widespread international outrage. As a result, there is a strong association between the ultra-nationalistic political Right Wing and the idea that there is any one religious tradition of Shinto that represents everyone in Japan.
Still, fifty years after the end of the Pacific War, it’s only natural for there to be games like Ōkami that incorporate homages to various aspects of “traditional” Japanese culture into their gleefully postmodern stories. In addition, popular writers such as Natsuo Kirino (the author of The Goddess Chronicle) are now comfortable enough with the heritage of post-war Japan to reclaim the myths promulgated by State Shinto with the express purpose of giving narrative agency to minority groups within Japan.
It would be foolish to argue that there are no influences from Shinto in the Zelda games, because such influences are unavoidable. An obvious example is the implicit association between the magical Keaton foxes in Majora’s Mask and the magical fox messengers of the aforementioned rice god Inari.
That being said, the naturalistic worldview of the Zelda series is linked with the influences drawn from two cultural currents of the 1980s and 1990s. The first set of influences comes from environmental conservation movements, and the second set of influences comes from the naturalistic worldview of Western high fantasy.
Partially because of the modernizing impulse that resulted in the creation of State Shinto, the Japanese state was not particularly reticent about destroying the environment in order to produce material resources to feed its empire. Entire mountains were stripped bare of trees, rivers and lakes were polluted with industrial waste and agricultural runoff, and wild animals were driven to extinction in order to provide safe pastures for livestock.
The large economic conglomerates (such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo) that financed these operations in the early twentieth century survived the Pacific War largely intact, as they were sheltered and supported by the seven-year American occupation, whose ultimate goal was to ensure that Japan did not become possessed by the specter of Communism. In addition, a post-war population boom resulted in the massive outward spread of cities, and rural land was bought and cleared so that suburbs could be built to accommodate growth.
Although there were small and isolated environmental protests in the late 1960s and 1970s, they generally only occurred in areas whose inhabitants had already been weakened by unchecked pollution and could be silenced by corporate settlements. Starting the in the 1980s, however, organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund had started to promote the idea that preserving environmental richness was directly linked to abstract anthropocentric concepts such as “quality of life.” As a result, conservation became linked to a capitalistic drive to consume the beauty of nature. Everyone wanted trees in their neighborhood, and pro-nature movies such as My Neighbor Totoro were associated with tie-in merchandising. Suddenly, nature was cool again.
Various Shinto shrines, which had to fight over real estate just like everyone else, were quick to jump on the “protect nature” train, promoting themselves as green spaces that raised property values. They also raised their own revenues by appealing to people’s “naturalistic” sensibilities. I don’t mean to come off as cynical about the capitalistic conversation movements promoted by Shinto shrines, because most shrines are entirely dependent on the good will of their local communities, and many employ sizable staffs of professional groundkeepers, gardeners, and botanists to maintain the small forests that surround them.
It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Japan that many of the environmental movements of the past four decades have originated in the city of Kyoto, which is famous primarily for three things: delicious food, gorgeous scenery, and elite universities. Kyoto is the home of many small businesses owners whose livelihood is based on the resources of the local environment, as well as scores of idealistic young people eager to find an alternative to destructive corporate interests. During the 1980s, the developers at Nintendo worked out of the company headquarters in Kyoto (as many still do), and it would have been difficult for them to have not picked up on the cultural zeitgeist that emerged from political, economic, and popular conversations concerning environmental conservation.
Meanwhile, the 1980s witnessed a surge of interest in the literary genre of high fantasy. This was spurred in part by renewed international interest in (and translations of) Tolkien and in part by the high fantasy-themed tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, which was enjoyed by youth and geek cultures around the world. Both foreign and homegrown fantasy had been a major aspect of Japanese subcultures since the 1960s when it piggybacked off the emerging genre of science fiction, and many of the children of the 1960s and 1970s would have grown up in possession of an easy familiarity with fantasy and sci-fi themes and tropes.
Although there is plenty of Japanese fantasy set in Japan (or otherwise “Asian” worlds), people were fascinated with the castles and towers and princesses and halfling heroes and fated swords and magical jewelry and goblins and orcs and evil wizard kings of Westernesque high fantasy. It therefore makes perfect sense that a lot of the geek media circulating within Japan during the 1980s—most notably anime and manga—looked like it had come straight out of a D&D rulebook. The major themes of high fantasy, such courage and power and wisdom, are universal. The pre-modern setting of many works of high fantasy was intensely appealing to people who had come of age in a post-industrial society in which very little was wild and free and unexplored.
It’s easy to look at Japan and say that “Japanese culture” celebrates nature because of Shinto, but the celebration of nature is obviously not unique to Japan. The worship of nature and ancestors that characterizes the Roman and medieval European settings of so much of high fantasy clearly has nothing to do with Shinto. A healthy respect for the environment is neither unique to or quintessentially a part of Japanese cultural identity. This is why we, as English-speakers, can so easily enter the worlds of the Zelda games, look around, and feel immediately at home.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Legend of Zelda franchise is culturally odorless, because it contains many direct references to the culture of its creators. Rather, I’d like to argue that the influences the series has received from various heterodox Shinto traditions are far from monolithic, and that they’re only one or two instruments in the symphony of context that serves as the cultural background music for each game in the Zelda series.