The Shinto religion is as old as the Japanese people. It has neither a founder nor sacred scriptures. Adherents believe that the world is created, inhabited, and ruled by kami, varied spirits running the gamut from those that reside in trees, rocks, oceans, and entire mountain ranges to spirits that act as guardians to various trades such as fisherman, laborers, or entire villages.

There’s no real way to describe kami other than the emotions it evokes: wonder, fear, and awe. Buddhists regard the kami as a manifestation of various Buddhas, but the Shintos believe that the Buddha is another kami or nature deity.

Shinto is one of two religions practiced by the Japanese people, the other being Buddhism. The two faiths have not always seen eye to eye on doctrine, but the differences haven’t altered their peaceful coexistence.

Shinto was affected by the influx into Japan of Confucianism and Buddhism in the sixth century. Unlike the migration of other religions to foreign locations, this one did not cause conflict and disruption, at least for some years. Instead, both arrivals melded into the culture and a cross-fertilization of religious and cultural influences took place.

During the first century of Buddhism in Japan, it had a great influence on the arts, literature, and sciences and was the dominant religion of the upper classes. Buddhism evolved and merged with many aspects of Shintoism to incorporate the worship of kami. Buddhist priests then began to run many Shinto shrines and Shinto priests were demoted to the lower steps of the hierarchy ladder.

From earliest recorded times until the later part of the nineteenth century, Shinto and Buddhism coexisted without incident. The intermingling of Buddhism and Shinto even extended to sharing some rituals. For instance, Buddhists supervised the preaching and conducting of funeral services; Shinto priests oversaw the birth and marriage rituals. This didn’t last forever, of course; eventually the Shinto priests wanted to establish and preserve their own identity. As a result, the Shinto priests began to assert their own ancient traditions in contrast to the foreign, more sophisticated Buddhist practices.

In 1868, things changed when the Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne. The Emperor used Japan’s myths — linking the sun goddess to the emperor — to promote being worshiped as a living god. He then put Shinto shrines and priests under governmental control; State Shinto became the national religion. Then the discord started. Buddhist estates were seized, temples were closed, and Buddhist priests were persecuted.

Interestingly, Shinto could not coexist with Catholicism that arrived in the form of European missionaries. Initially, the guests were welcomed. However, the influx of more missionaries and their message proclaiming loyalty to a pope in faraway Rome began to anger the Shinto. In 1587, Christian missionaries were banned from Japan. For the next fifty years, many initiatives were enacted to abolish Christianity from the islands of Japan.

The state was divided into two: Shrine Shinto (Jinja Shinto) and Sectarian Shinto (Kyoha). Jinja was the larger group of the two and was the original form of the religion. A third sect called Folk Shinto (Minkoku) also developed; it was not an organized sect and was centered in agricultural and rural families. Shinto has had a proclivity to form subsects; altogether, there are more than 600 of them. However, when State Shinto evolved it promulgated nationalistic and racist overtones. In State Shinto, priests became civil servants. Many of them opposed the regime, but to no avail; State Shinto became mandatory throughout Japan.

State Shinto played a very significant role in Japanese society during its involvement in the Second World War. It wasn’t until the defeat of Japan that it was officially discredited and banned by decree of the Allied occupation forces. Nevertheless, many Shinto followers apparently still held that the emperor was divine and a direct descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

After the Second World War, Shinto was completely separated from the state and returned to being a nature-based, community-oriented faith. The shrines no longer belonged to the state, but to the Association of Shinto Shrines.


Central Beliefs

Shinto is very deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and traditions. It is an optimistic faith, believing all humans are fundamentally good and evil is caused by evil spirits. Its rituals are directedtoward avoiding evil spirits through rites of purification, offerings, and prayers. Shinto lacks a fully developed theology; it has no concepts that compare to Christian or other beliefs concerning the wrath of God or the dogma of separation from God due to sin. All humanity is regarded as kami’s child, so all life and human nature is sacred.

The absolute essence of Shinto philosophy is loyalty. It is of greater importance for a follower of Shinto to demonstrate loyalty than to do good deeds for others. A follower is absolutely loyal to the family, his superiors, his job, and so on. That doesn’t mean that Shinto followers don’t think about others. On the contrary, they would see the philosophy of loyalty as being the ultimate thought for others. So strong is the concept of loyalty that a person who commits harakiri (suicide by cutting one’s own stomach) does so to prove loyalty after having failed to meet the Shinto code of conduct.

The sun goddess Amaterasu is the closest that Shinto comes to having a deity. Her name means literally, “that which illuminates heaven.”

Traditions are preserved through the family. A love of nature is sacred; close contact with nature is equated to close contact with the gods. Natural objects are worshiped as sacred spirits; for instance, rocks, birds, beasts, fish, and plants can all be treated as kami. Physical cleanliness is paramount, which is why followers of Shinto frequently take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouths.

There are three Shinto sects — Shrine Shinto, Sectarian Shinto, and Folk or Popular Shinto. Shrine Shinto revolves around the more than 100,000 shrines throughout Japan. Sectarian Shinto has five subsects: Pure, Confucian, Mountain, Purification, and Redemptive. The Purification Shinto performs rites of purification to purify the soul, mind, and body from evil. All the sects are concerned with the environment and the cleansing of pollution. Pure Shinto fosters nationalism and is opposed to foreign influences. Loyalty to the state is a central element. Confucian Shinto follows the ethics of Confucianism. Redemptive or Faith-Healing Shinto believes in a divine source such as the sun goddess.

Folk Shinto, the most diverse form of Shinto, involves superstition, the occult, and ancestor worship. Thousands of deities are part of Folk Shinto and many adherents have rituals that are centered on the kami-dana (kami shelf), a small shrine used for daily worship. Memorial tablets made from wood or paper are inscribed with the names of an ancestor. At special lifecycle events such as births, marriages, and anniversaries, candles are lit and the head of the family offers food and flowers to the deities.

Parishioners of a shrine believe in their kami as the source of life and existence. All the deities cooperate with each other. To live a life in accordance with the will of a kami is gives mystical power to the recipient and provides power and the approval of the particular kami.

In some shrines, statues of the kami are present, but images are not commonly found. The foremost Shinto shrine in Japan is the grand shrine of Ise, Amaterasu’s chief place of worship. The most common representation of the kami in a shrine is a mirror, which is what Amaterasu left behind to represent her presence.


Worship and Practices

Shinto does not have a schedule of regular religious services. Followers decide when they wish to attend a shrine. Some may decide to go when there is a festival, of which there are many, or on the firstand fifteenth of each month. Of course, some Shinto go every day.

A devotee attending a shrine follows a ritual. First, she must cleanse the mouth and hands (purity is a vital part of Shintoism). If a person has been in contact with blood — for instance, a menstruating woman — she is forbidden to enter. When a person enters the shrine area, she passes through a tori (bird), a special gateway to the gods that demarcates the finite world from the infinite world of the gods. Once inside the shrine, worshipers can buy a prayer board. Some have prayers printed on them or a depiction of an animal. Adherents believe that animals are messengers of the gods.

Once she approaches the shrine, the worshiper claps her hands together to let the kami know of her presence, then makes an offering of money, which is put into a box in front of the shrine. It is appropriate to bow twice deeply, clap the hands twice, bow deeply once more, and pray. When a priest is present in the shrine, he will bang a drum to alert the kami of his presence. In a purification ceremony, the priest will deliver prayers and then pass a purification stick over the head of the worshiper to draw out all the impurities.

Japan has over 80,000 Shinto shrines. Some, particularly in outlying districts, are tiny; others, elaborate and large. The small shrines seldom have a priest; the local people look after the shrine, opening the shrine doors at dawn and closing them at dusk.


Rituals and Customs

Shinto priests perform the rituals and are usually supported by young ladies (miko) in white kimonos. The young ladies must be unmarried; often they are daughters of priests. There are also a few female priests.

A newborn child is taken to a shrine to be initiated as a new adherent somewhere between thirty and 100 days after the birth. When boys are five years old and girls three years and seven years of age, they go to the shrine to give thanks for kami’s protection and pray for healthy growth. This is done at the Shichi-go-san (Seven-Five-Three) festival on November 15. Another festival for young men to commemorate their twentieth year is celebrated on January 15.


Japanese festivals are designed to express pride and patriotism. The New Year festival requires much preparation. Houses are cleansed of evil influences and the kami-dana is provided with new tablets,flowers, and other items. Special foods are prepared, and houses are decorated with flowers, straw, paper, pine branches, and bamboo sticks.

A Girl’s Festival is held each March 3; it is intended to honor family and national life. The Boy’s Festival is held each May 5 and is meant for families to announce to the community their good fortune in having male children.

A festival of the dead called Bon is held in the middle of the year in which souls of dead relatives return home to be fed by their families. At the conclusion of the feast, farewell fires light the way for the relatives on their journey home. As the majority of Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist, they have their funerals in the Buddhist manner. Only those who adhere exclusively to Shinto will follow the Shinto ceremony and services.

The most famous Japanese festival is the ancient Cherry Blossom Festival, held in early spring. Obviously, it is the celebration of the cherry blossom trees, which can frequently be seen on the grounds of shrines or on holy mountains. This festival is another example of the Shinto reverence for nature.

New Year’s Day is the largest festival. It draws millions to shrines all over the country. There will be much praying and asking for blessings of the kami, and the celebration will mark the beginning of an auspicious new year.


Sacred Texts

There are no holy writings in Shinto, but they do possess some 800 myths, some of which have been enshrined. Shinto literature tends to be based on the interpretation of mythology. Two major texts formthe basis of the Shinto sacred literature: the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon (Chronicles of Japan), written in 712 and 720 respectively. These derive from oral traditions and were passed on and compiled. Apparently, because of the lack of a Japanese alphabet at that time, they were written in Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds.

Of all the myths’ subjects, the most famous and important one is about the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami (Great Divinity Illuminating Heaven). One myth states that she was born from the god Izanagi when he used water to purify his left eye after a visit to the nether world. Another says she was born after intercourse between Izanagi and Izanami (Nihon Shoki 720 C.E.). She was the sun goddess and assigned to rule the High Celestial Plain. Later, she sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, to pacify the Japanese islands, having given him a sacred mirror, sword, and jewels that became the Imperial Regalia. Her great-grandson became the first Emperor Jimmu.

The Kojiki contains myths, legends, and historical information on the imperial court. The entire writings were re-evaluated by Moto-ori-Nori-naga, who wrote the complete Annotation of the Kojiki in forty-nine volumes.

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