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26/03/2017
BBC Radio 4

    Ed's note: We're running the In Our Time newsletter weekly on the Radio 4 blog. You can hear this episode (and the huge archive of previous episodes) on the In Our Time website - PM.

    How you can make an academic conversation about Shinto (which consists of so many negatives) both lively and even jolly beats me, but the three academics who turned up this morning managed it, I think.

    As soon as the programme finished, Richard Bowring said "I hope you're none the wiser"! I thought he was remarkably good, but when he told us that this was the first time he had ever been on the radio I was even more impressed. Perhaps there's not a great call on the services of the Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge, but judging from the way he dealt with questions which to a great scholar (which we on the programme were very reliably informed he is) with such courtesy, despite the fact that they must have seemed, again and again, like taking Thor's hammer to a slender tack, was exemplary.

    And I made a joke after the end of the programme! There had been so many negatives expressed that I suggested that the programme remembered a Noh play. We are firmly in the land of The Diary of a Nobody here.

    Lucia Dolce burst into a paean of praise about the iconography of the kami who were also Buddhas. It seems we left the impression that these shrines were empty places saved by a mirror, but, no, there were some wonderful things there and they needed the attention they failed to get.

    The main point that Richard made after the programme was that Shinto, without a written doctrine, without an original sacred source, without a single revelatory leader, was always at the stage of recreating itself. And the hold or the grip that it had, and has, is that it deals with the origins of Japan; it deals with what is Japanese. There had been many stages along the way for Japan, where they thought that they came nowhere in the list of countries which had a proper past. People and ideas came in from Korea, from China, from the Pacific islands. Shinto did for Japan what Joshua - according to Martin Palmer - did for the Jews in the 11th century BC, i.e.: made of the different tribal accounts a single narrative story which was their story and one which they accepted, or pushed off (his phrase). So Shinto is about lineage every bit as much as religion.

    Lucia came in with the notion that it was not as important as Buddhism. That the Japanese claimed the Buddha for themselves. Their story is that although the Buddha originated in India and spread through China and Korea, it was in Japan that he reached his apotheosis. It was the last country to receive the Buddha and they received him in his perfect form. There were some mutterings around the room, but there was also extremely respectful attention paid to this.

    Out then with bags and baggages into Soho to my mini-offices, now cluttered up with people as we drive through the last filming weeks of the programmes we're doing for BBC Two on class and culture. Filming, filming, filming. Peter Hennessy this afternoon in the Travellers Club, Pete Townsend in a working man's cafe in Pimlico yesterday, Vivien Duffield and Grey Gowrie in the Royal Opera House a week or so ago, Ferdinand Mount in a Unitarian church in Islington in the same week, Alan Bleasdale up in Liverpool last Monday, back to Wigton over the weekend to do the outline links. I have certainly reeled around Britain over the last four months and there are one or two things to say. It is far from being a broken society. It is full of resilient, humorous, tolerant people doing very well under pressures put on them by successive mismanaging governments. (A lot of my anecdotal evidence there comes from the scores of people I met while doing the Reel History series, which is going through the frames on BBC Two at the moment.)

    Sunny day. Prospect of a walk from Soho, through a couple of parks, and an encounter with Peter Hennessy to talk about class and culture (again for the BBC!). What a lucky life!

    Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time

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