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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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  • Comment number 4. Posted by roger douglas

    on 29 Sept 2011 19:03

    Hello Melvyn,

    You are testing us in this series - all ancient subjects so far so it will be a relief to get to the shallower waters of the enlightenment next week!

    I can't see that you have ever had a discussion on the Conference of Berlin 1884-5 which resulted in the partition of Africa. A momentous event with consequences reaching to this day but barely on the radar for many people including me, and I used to be a historian!

    Yours,

    Roger Harrison

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Paul

    on 29 Sept 2011 18:09

    Dear Mr Melvyn Bragg,

    Thanks for bringing us a well informed conversation about many unknown aspects of Shinto, aired on September 22nd.
    Notwithstanding the academic background of the participants, there was a flaw in the geographical information about Shinto. The statement that Shinto cannot be practiced outside Japan, is refuted by an event that happened on the afternoon of that same day of September 22nd in the Metropole of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where the Shinto Foundation Europe has celebrated its 30 Years Anniversary with a Shinto Ceremony, including Gagaku music, in the City Hall of Amstelveen. The Shinto ceremony was conducted by a Dutchman who is kannushi of the Holland Yamakage Shinto Shrine since 1981.
    See: http://www.shinto.nl/30_years_shinto_europe.htm
    While people become more aware of nature, the interest for Shinto is growing all over the world.
    You are welcome to visit the Holland Yamakage Shinto Shrine in Amsterdam and experience the energy of universal Shinto.

    Yours sincerely,

    Paul DL

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by merryhaddock

    on 25 Sept 2011 12:41

    Dear Melvyn & Crew:

    Another sterling edition, and that's all I have to say on that matter.

    I am writing as a plea so that you might, at some point in the not too distant future, produce programs on: The Ainu People of Japan, and the origins/complexity of Father Christmas.

    Your illumination would be much appreciated.

    Keep it up,

    Sincerely,

    Kevin

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by FirstNen

    on 24 Sept 2011 22:55

    Hello Melvyn Bragg.

    The programm was very good.
    After that I have got appetite for more. I found in the archive 'The Siege of Vienna'.
    And I must write following about the second programm.

    I always liked your programms. They were for me very interesting. Today I have listened to 'The Siege of Viena' from the archive. I was disappointed. All have been shown from Westerneres point of view. I am a Pole. The Poles were the nation struggling with the Ottoman Empire at least since 1444 by Varna(Bulgaria), and also Hungary. The polish hussars under the king John III. Sobieski defeated turkish army by Vienna. Before Vienna there have been many wars where Poles have defeated Turks but also were defeated by them. Without Poles Vienna would be taken by the Turks. I think in the program the experts have said to little about that and tried to diminish the real effort of polish hussars (somthing about 'opend door') and nothing about previous efforts of Poles, Hungarians, Albanians and Serbs in wars against Turks. In this time only Poles and their cavalry could stop turkish army and they did it. The hussars in this time were as tank divisions in the World War II. The programm lasted 41 minutes and about polish effort (clue effort) the 'experts' have been talking one or two minutes.(In the same way as another English presenters about polish efforts at Monte Cassino or Enigma. It seems that English have problems by speaking about polish military successes.)
    Resume: From now on I do not know if the topics you speak of are fully shown to the listeners from all points of view. It would be nice if you could throw more light at efforts of Poles, Hungarian, Russians, Cossacs in Ukraina, Greeks, Albanian, Serbs in wars against Mongols and Turks since Ghengis Khan to siege of Viena and later untill liberation of Balkan and Greece. Western Europe knows fast nothing about struggles of Eastern Europe nations against very mighty aggressors comming to Europe from Asia. I think Eastern Europe nations defended Western Europe, first against Mongols and second against Ottoman Empire. So Italy, Spain, France, England and Germany could relatively prosper not knowing and realizing the danger from East.

    Perhaps for history topics you could invite experts from involved nations. And if you speak about history topics involving Poles ask the professor Norman Davies. He is an expert in history of Poland.

    Thank you for your time.
    Best regards
    First Nen

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