Shintō - the Way of Gods
Meaning “the way of the gods”, Shinto (神道 shintō) is the native religion of Japan. It is a form of animism which stresses the importance of harmony between humans and nature. It involves the worship of kami, which could be translated to mean gods, nature spirits, or just spiritual presences.
Shintō has shrines, called jinja (神社) or sometimes taisha (大社), jingu (神宮), hachimangu (八幡宮), tenmangu (天満宮), tenjin (天神), etc.
Some kami are very local and can be regarded as the spirit or genius of a particular place. Still, others represent primary natural objects and processes, for example, Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun goddess. Shintō also comprises most of the Japanese traditions and festivals (matsuri).
After World War II, Shintō lost its status of a national religion; most Shintō practices and teachings, once given a great deal of prominence during the war, are no longer taught nor practised today, and some remain mainly as everyday activities like omikuji.
- Definition of Shintō
- Practice and Teaching of Shintō
- Four affirmations
- Sin and Impurity
- Cultural Effect of Shintō
- Important Shrines
The earliest origins of Shintō are lost to history, but it seems to have been established by the late Jomon period. Most likely, after the arrival of the earliest ancestors of today’s Japanese, each tribe and area had its collection of gods and rituals with no formal relationship between each of the areas. Following the ascendency of the ancestors of today’s Imperial family to a position of power among the other groups, their ancestral deities were given prominence over the deities of other groups, though different systems continued to coexist.
The introductions of writing in the 5th century and Buddhism in the 6th century had a profound impact on the development of a unified system of Shintō beliefs. In a brief period, the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Things, 712) and the Nihonshoki (The Chronicles of Japan, 720) were written by compiling existing myths and legends into a unified account. These accounts were written with two purposes in mind. First, the sophistication of the narratives and the introduction of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist themes into the narratives were meant to impress the Chinese with the sophistication of the Japanese. The Japanese felt intimidated by the advanced culture of the Chinese and so hoped to produce a work rivalling it. Second, the narratives were meant to shore up support for the legitimacy of the Imperial house, based on its lineage from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Much of the area of modern Japan was under only fragmentary control by the Imperial family, and rival ethnic groups (including, perhaps, the ancestors of the Ainu) continued to war against the encroachment of the Japanese. The mythological anthologies, along with other poetry anthologies like the Manyoshu and others, were all meant to impress others with the worthiness of the Imperial Family and their divine mandate to rule.
With the introduction of Buddhism and its rapid adoption by the court, it was necessary to explain the apparent differences between native Japanese beliefs and Buddhist teachings. One explanation saw the Japanese kami as supernatural beings still caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth. The kami are born, live, die, and are reborn like all other beings in the karmic cycle. However, the kami played a unique role in protecting Buddhism and allowing its compassionate teachings to flourish. This explanation was later challenged by Kukai, who saw the kami as different embodiments of the Buddhas themselves. For example, he famously linked Amaterasu, Sun Goddess and ancestor of the Imperial family, with Dainichi Nyorai, a central manifestation of the Buddha, whose name is literally “Great Sun Buddha”. In his view, the kami were just Buddhas by another name.
Kukai’s syncretic view held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period. At that time, there was a renewed interest in “Japanese studies,” perhaps as a result of the closed country policy. In the 18th century, various Japanese scholars, in particular, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), tried to tease apart the “real” Shintō from various foreign influences. The attempt was largely unsuccessful since as early as the Nihonshoki, parts of the mythology were explicitly borrowed from Chinese doctrines. (For example, the co-creator deities Izanami and Izanagi are compared expressly to yin and yang.) However, the attempt did set the stage for the arrival of state Shintō, following the Meiji Restoration.
Following the Meiji Restoration, Shintō was made the official religion of Japan, and its combination with Buddhism was outlawed. During this period, it was felt that Shintō was needed to unify the country around the Emperor as the process of modernisation was undertaken with all possible speed. The arrival of massive Western gunships and the collapse of the shogunate convinced many that the nation needed to band together if it was going to resist being conquered by outside forces. As a result, Shintō was used as a tool for promoting Emperor (and Empire) worship, and Shintō was exported into conquered territories like Hokkaido and Korea.
The era of state Shintō came to an abrupt close with the end of World War II. It appeared that the kami had failed to provide a Divine Wind (kamikaze) to turn back the foreign invaders. Soon after the war, the Emperor even issued a statement renouncing his claims to the status of “living god.” In the aftermath of the war, most Japanese came to believe that the hubris of the Empire had led to their downfall. Lust for foreign territory blinded their leaders to the importance of their homeland. In the post-war period, numerous “new religions” cropped up, many of them ostensibly based on Shintō, but on the whole Japanese religiosity decreased.
Following the war, Shintō has, for the most part, persisted without the focus on mythology or the divine mandate of the Imperial family. Instead, shrines tend to focus on helping ordinary people gain better fortunes for themselves by maintaining good relations with their ancestors and other kami. Shintō ways of thinking continue to be an important part of the Japanese mindset, though the number of people who identify themselves as religious has suffered a sharp decline.
Definition of Shintō
Shintō is a difficult religion to classify. On the one hand, it can be seen as merely a highly sophisticated form of animism and may be regarded as a primal religion. On the other hand, Shintō beliefs and ways of thinking are deeply embedded in the subconscious fabric of modern Japanese society. The afterlife is not a primary concern in Shintō, and much more emphasis is placed on fitting into this world, instead of preparing for the next. Shintō has no binding set of dogma, no holiest place for worshippers, no person or kami deemed holiest, and no defined set of prayers. Instead, Shintō is a collection of rituals and methods meant to mediate the relations of living humans to kami. These practices have originated organically in Japan throughout many centuries and have been influenced by Japan’s contact with the religions of other nations, especially China. Notice, for example, that the word Shintō is itself of Chinese origin and that much of the codification of Shintō mythology was done with the explicit aim of answering Chinese cultural influence.
Conversely, Shintō had and continued to have an impact on the practice of other religions within Japan. In particular, one could even make a case for discussing it under the heading of Japanese Buddhism, since these two religions have exercised a profound influence on each other throughout Japanese history. The Japanese “New religions” that have emerged since the end of the Second World War also show a clear Shintō influence.
Some feel Shintō was used as a legitimising ideology during the militaristic phase of Japanese history following the Meiji Restoration. Because Shintō has no absolute source of authority, some feel that the beliefs of the people were hijacked by radical nationalists, who desired to unify the Japanese people against the “inferior” people of other nations. Others wonder if the emphasis Shintō places on Japanese exceptionalism made such developments inevitable. Even today, some far-right factions within Japanese society want to see a greater emphasis placed on Shintō and increased reverence shown to the Emperor as part of a project to restore Japan to its “rightful place” as the leading nation of the world. However, for most Japanese, Shintō is not about expressing disdain for other nations but expressing one’s love of the natural landscape of Japan and the people and spirits that reside within it.
The most immediately striking theme in the Shintō religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphic forms, with a formidable corpus of myth attached to them. The kami, though, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word 預l though divine, they are close to us; they inhabit the same world as we do, make the same mistakes as we do, and feel and think the same way as we do.
Those who died would automatically be added to the rank of kami regardless of their human doings. (Though it is thought that one can become a ghost under certain circumstances involving unsettled disputes in life.) Belief is not a central aspect in Shintō, and proper observation of ritual is more important than whether one “truly believes” in the ritual. Thus, even those believing other religions may be venerated as kami after death, if there are Shintō believers who wish them to be.
Practice and Teaching of Shintō
Unlike many religions, one does not need to profess belief in Shintō to be a Shintōist publicly. Whenever a child is born in Japan, a local Shintō shrine adds the child’s name to a list kept at the shrine and declares him or her ujiko, lit. name child. After death, an ujiko becomes an ujigami, lit. name kami. One may choose to have one’s name added to another list when moving and then be listed at both places. Names can be added to the list without consent and regardless of the beliefs of the person added to the list. However, this is not considered an imposition of belief, but a sign of the welcome of the area kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death. Those children who die before addition to the list are called mizuko, lit. water child, and believed to cause troubles and plagues. Mizuko are often worshipped in a Shintō shrine dedicated to stilling their anger and sadness. These shrines have become more popular with the growth of abortion in modern Japan.
Because Shintō has co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it isn't straightforward to disentangle Shintō and Buddhist beliefs about the world. One might say that where Buddhism emphasises the afterlife and ending the cycle of rebirths, Shintō emphasises this life and finding happiness within it. Though Buddhism and Shintō have very different perspectives on the world, most Japanese do not see any need to reconcile these two very different religions and practice both. Thus, it is common for people to practice Shintō in life yet have a Buddhist funeral. Their different perspectives on the afterlife are seen as complementing each other, and frequently the ritual practice of one will have an origin in the other.
Though Shintō has no absolute commandments for its adherents outside of living “a simple and harmonious life with nature and people”, there are said to be “Four Affirmations” of the Shintō spirit:
- Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.
- Love of nature: Nature is sacred; to be in contact with nature is to be close to the kami. Natural objects are worshipped as containing sacred spirits.
- Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shintō take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouth often.
- Matsuri: Festivals in which worship and honour are given to the kami.
Sin and Impurity
Shintō does not teach that anything is a sin per se. Rather certain deeds create a kind of ritual impurity that one should want to be cleansed merely for one’s own peace of mind and good fortune, and not because impurity is wrong in and of itself. Evil and wrong deeds are called “Kegare”, lit. “dirtiness”, and the opposite notion is “Kiyome”, lit. “purity”. Normal days are called “Ke”, lit. “day”, and festive days are called “Hare”, lit. “sunny” or simply “good”. Killing anything for a living should be done with gratitude and with worship for taking their life to continue one’s life; it should be kept to a minimum. Modern Japanese continue to place great emphasis on the importance of “aisatsu” or ritual phrases and greetings. Before eating, one should say “itadakimasu”, lit. “I will humbly receive”, to show proper thankfulness to the preparer of the meal in particular and more generally to all those living things that lost their lives to make the meal. Failure to show proper respect is a sign of pride and lack of concern for others. Such an attitude is looked down upon because it is believed to create problems for all. Those who fail to take into account the feelings of other people and kami will only attract ruin for themselves. The worst expression of such an attitude is the taking of another’s life for personal advances and enjoyments. Those killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold “urami”, lit. a grudge and become “aragami”, a powerful and evil kami that seeks revenge. This same emphasis on the need for cooperation and collaboration can be seen throughout Japanese culture even today. Thus, at modern Japanese companies, no action is taken before consensus is reached (even if only superficially) among all parties to a decision.
Purification rites are a vital part of Shintō. These may serve to placate any restive kami, for instance, when their shrine had to be relocated. Such ceremonies have also been adapted to modern life. For example, a ceremony was held in 1969 to hallow the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, a Shintō priest frequently blesses new buildings made in Japan during the groundbreaking ceremony, and many cars made in Japan have been blessed as part of the assembly process. A more personal purification rite is the purification by water. This may involve standing beneath a waterfall or performing ritual ablutions in a river-mouth or the sea. The third form of catharsis is avoidance; that is, the taboo placed on certain persons or acts. For example, women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji until 1868, in the era of the Meiji Restoration. Although this aspect has decreased in recent years, religious Japanese will not use an inauspicious word like “cut” at a wedding, nor will they attend a wedding if they have recently been bereaved.
The principal worship of kami is done at public shrines, although home worship at small private shrines (sometimes only a high shelf with a few ritual objects) is also common. It is also possible to worship objects or people while they exist. While a few of the public shrines are elaborate structures, most are small buildings in the characteristic Japanese architectural style. Shrines are commonly fronted by a distinctive Japanese gate (torii) made of two uprights and two crossbars. These gates are there as a part of the barrier to separate our living world, and the world the kami live in. There are often two guardian animals placed at each side of the gate, and they serve to protect the entrance. There are well over 100,000 of these shrines in operation today, each with its retinue of Shintō priests. kami are invoked at such important ceremonies as weddings and entry into university. The kami are commonly petitioned for quite earthly benefits; a child, a promotion, a happier life. While one may wish for ill bidding on others, this is believed to be possible only if the target has committed wrongs first, or if one is willing to offer one’s life. Though Shintō is popular for these occasions, when it comes to funerals, the most Japanese turn to Buddhist ceremonies, since the emphasis in Shintō is on this life and not the next. Local Shintō shrines host almost all festivals in Japan, and these festivals are open to all those that wish to attend. While these could be said to be religious events, the Japanese do not regard these events as religious since everyone can attend, regardless of personal beliefs.
The most widely worshipped of all kami is the sun-goddess Amaterasu. However, the Japanese do not specifically worship her or call her name to ask for help. Her main shrine is at Ise, but many lesser shrines are dedicated to her. Within the shrine, she is often symbolised by a mirror. Alternatively, the inner sanctum may be empty. This emptiness does not mean non-existence; rather, everything that one sees through the mirror is the embodiment of Amaterasu and every other kami. Until the end of World War II, the Tenno (Emperor) was believed to have been descended from Amaterasu and father of all Japanese, and was, therefore, a kami on earth (an ikigami or “living kami“); this divine status was popularised during the Meiji restoration. This did not prevent military governors (shōgun) from usurping power, but the emperor was always seen as the true ruler of Japan, even when his rule was only nominal. Although Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status in 1946 under American pressure (ningen-sengen), the imperial family remains deeply involved in the Shintō ritual that unifies the Japanese nation symbolically. Because Shintō doesn’t require a declaration or enforcement to be worshipped, which is actually “unharmonious” and is something to be avoided, this declaration while serving political reasons, is religiously meaningless and merely means that the state enforcement has ended.
In medieval times, wealthy people would donate horses to shrines, especially when making a request of the god of the shrine (for example, when praying for victory in battle). For smaller favours, giving a picture of a horse became customary, and these ema are popular today. The visitor to a shrine purchases a wooden tablet with a likeness of a horse, or nowadays, something else (a snake, an arrow, even a portrait of Thomas Edison), write a wish on the tablet and hangs it at the shrine. In some cases, if the wish comes true, the person hangs another ema at the shrine in gratitude.
Cultural Effect of Shintō
The influence of Shintō on Japanese culture can hardly be overestimated. Although it is now near-impossible to disentangle its influence from that of Buddhism, it is clear that the spirit of being one with nature that gave rise to this religion underlies such typically Japanese arts as flower-arranging (ikebana) and traditional Japanese architecture and garden design. A more explicit link to Shintō is seen in sumo wrestling: the purification of the wrestling arena by the sprinkling of salt and the many other ceremonies that must be performed before a bout can begin is Shintō in origin. It is still widespread for Japanese to say, “Itadakimasu” (“I humbly partake”) before eating, and the Japanese emphasis on proper greetings can be seen as a continuation of the ancient Shintō belief in kotodama (words with a magical effect on the world). Many Japanese cultural customs, like using wooden chopsticks and removing shoes before entering a building, have their origin in Shintō beliefs and practices. Also, some other Japanese religions, including Tenrikyo, have originated from or been influenced by Shintō.
- Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, a shrine to the Imperial sword Kusanagi
- Chichibu Shrine, Saitama Prefecture, dedicated to Omoikane and Amenominakanushi Okami
- Heian Jingū, Kyoto, dedicated to Emperor Kammu and Emperor Kōmei
- Hikawa Shrine, Ōmiya-ku, Saitama
- Hokkaido Shrine, Sapporo, Hokkaido
- The Ise Jingu, Ise, Mie, dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, also called Jingu
- The Gassan Hongu, Yamagata, dedicated to Tsukuyomi Okami
- Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture, a World Heritage Site and one of the National Treasures of Japan
- Iwashimizu Shrine, Yawata, Kyoto
- Izumo Taisha, Izumo
- Kasuga Shrine, Nara
- Katori Shrine, Chiba Prefecture, dedicated to Futsunushi
- Kumano Shrines, Wakayama Prefecture
- Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, the shrine of Emperor Meiji
- Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture
- Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
- Sendai Tōshō-gū, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture
- Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
- Three Palace Sanctuaries, Kōkyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo
- Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa
- Usa Hachiman Shrine, Ōita Prefecture, dedicated to Hachimanno-Mikoto
- Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo), a shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead.
Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto (JREF Media Gallery)
Shinto ceremony at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya (JREF Media Gallery)
Atsuta Shrine (熱田神宮) in Nagoya; Shinto ceremony on the National Foundation Day.
Shinto wedding (Photo credit: bsterling / CC BY-SA)