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2.1.5 Shinto

Shinto is a word that means “the way of kami” (kami means “mystical,” “superior,” or “divine”). Generally kami refers to the sacred, or divine power of the various gods or deities. Shinto was created to distinguish indigenous Japanese beliefs from Buddhism, which had been introduced into Japan in the 6th century AD. Shinto has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, and no fixed dogmas, but it has preserved its guiding beliefs throughout the ages. Shinto consists of the traditional Japanese religious practices, as well as the beliefs and life attitudes that are in accord with these practices. It is closely connected with the Japanese value system and the Japanese people’s ways of thinking and acting. Shinto can be roughly classified into the following three major types:
– Shrine Shinto (Jinja Shinto) constitutes the main current of Shinto tradition. Shrine Shinto includes the now defunct State Shinto (Kokka Shinto), based on the total identity of religion and state. Shrine Shinto is the form of the Shinto religion of Japan focuses on worship in public shrines. Shrine Shinto is the successor to State Shinto closed at the end of World War II and subsequently in the Japanese constitution. More than 80,000 shrines have formed themselves into an Association of Shinto Shrines. They no longer receive financial support from the government but are dependent on private contributions for their maintenance and for the support of their priests.

– Sect Shinto (Kyoha Shinto) is a relatively new movement consisting of 13 major sects that originated in Japan around the 19th century and of several others that emerged after World War II. Sect Shinto was one of the new religious movements that emerged during the latter part of the 19th century. These new movements taught different doctrines: some were based on mountain-worship groups, which were half Buddhist and half Shinto; some placed emphasis on purification and ascetic practices; and some combined Confucian and Shinto teachings. Thirteen sectarian Shinto groups of the Meiji period (1868-1912) were stimulated and influenced by Restoration Shinto.

– Folk Shinto (Minzoku Shinto) is an aspect of Japanese folk belief that is closely connected with the other types of Shinto. It has no formal organizational structure or doctrinal formulation; it is centred in the veneration of small roadside images and in the agricultural rites of rural families.

Note: State Shinto was the official religion of Japan from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 through World War II. It focused on the imperial household and public Shinto shrines. State Shinto was founded on the ancient concept of saisei itchi, the unity of religion and government. Traditionally, the kami (gods, or sacred powers), the Japanese emperor, the citizens, and the nation were all considered descendants of common ancestors. Shinto came to be dominated by Buddhism and neo-Confucianism, and military rulers overshadowed the emperor. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the government institutionalised Shinto. It assumed control of the Shinto shrines, established a Department of Shinto, and adopted restrictive policies against the other religions, including sect movements within Shinto. Though the 1889 constitution included a nominal guarantee of religious freedom, respect of Shinto shrines was considered the patriotic duty of all Japaneses. Shinto moral teaching (shushin) was made compulsory in the schools, and the political authorities fostered the divine status of the emperor.


At the core of Shinto are beliefs in the mysterious creating and harmonizing power (musubi) of kami, and in the truthful way or will (makoto) of kami. The nature of kami cannot be fully explained in words because kami transcends the cognitive faculty of man. Devoted followers are able to understand kami through faith, and usually recognize various kami in polytheistic form. Parishioners of a shrine believe in their tutelary kami as the source of human life and existence.

Ritual practices and institutions

Shinto does not have a regular religious service. People visit shrines at their convenience, on the occasions of rites or festivals (matsuri) but devotees may pay respect to the shrine every morning. Various Shinto rites of passage are observed in Japan. The first visit of a newborn baby to the tutelary kami, which occurs 30 to 100 days after birth, is to initiate the baby as a new adherent. The Shichi-go-san (Seven-Five-Three) festival on November 15 is the occasion for boys of five years, and girls of three and seven years of age, to visit the shrine to give thanks for kami’s protection and to pray for their healthy growth. January 15 is Adults’ Day, and it is the commemoration day for those Japanese who have attained their 20th year. The Japanese usually have their wedding ceremonies in Shinto style, and pronounce their wedding vows to kami. The majority of the Japanese are Buddhist and Shintoist at the same time, and have their funerals in Buddhist style. A traditional Japanese house has two family altars: one, Shinto, for their tutelary kami and the goddess Amaterasu Omikami, and another, Buddhist, for the family ancestors.

The encounter with Buddhism

Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan in AD 552. In the 8th century some people started to interpret Shinto from a Buddhist viewpoint. Shinto kami were viewed as protectors of Buddhism and shrines and tutelary kami were built within the precincts of Buddhist temples. Thus kami, like all creatures, were said to be suffering because they were unable to escape the endless cycle of transmigration; Buddhist discipline was supposed to help. Buddhist temples were built within Shinto shrine precincts, and Buddhist sutras (scriptures) were read in front of kami. By the late 8th century kami Buddhist statues were placed in the inner sanctuaries of Shinto shrines. In some cases, Buddhist priests were in charge of Shinto shrines. From the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192-1333), theories of Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation were formulated. Buddhist Shinto was popular for several centuries and was influential until the Meiji Restoration.

Ise, or Watarai, Shinto appeared in Ise during the 13th century and was the first school of anti-Buddhist Shinto; it attempted to exclude Buddhist influences, and also tried to formulate a pure Japanese version. Konton (chaos), or Kizen (non-being), was the basic kami of the universe for Watarai Shinto and was regarded as the basis of all beings, including the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Purification, which had been practiced since the time of ancient Shinto, was given much deeper spiritual meanings. Shojiki (defined as uprightness or righteousness) and prayers were emphasized as the means to be united with kami. Yoshida Shinto, a school in Kyoto that emerged during the 15th century, inherited various aspects handed down from Watarai Shinto, and also showed some Taoist influence.

Buddhism adapted itself to Shinto, the native religion of Japan, and to its shrines, festivals, and rites. Buddhism absorbed the functions of the four priestly classes of Shinto. When Shinto was restored as the national religion of Japan in the 19th century, the Shinto and Buddhist priests were assigned their respective duties and offices by the State Department of Religion. This dual sacerdotal combination ended in 1875, because Buddhism and Shinto were basically incompatible. This resulted in Shrine Shinto becoming the national faith under the Imperial family, maintaining its divine status, cultic practices, and priesthood, but leaving Buddhism free to propagate its own way.

History to 1900

Much remains unknown about religion in Japan during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages but, probably, the religion of these ages has some connection with Shinto. Yayoi culture, which originated in the northern area of the island of Kyushu in about the 3rd or 2nd century BC, is directly related to later Japanese culture and hence to Shinto. Among the primary Yayoi religious phenomena were agricultural rites and shamanism. The unit of society at that time was the uji (clan or family), and the head of each uji was in charge of worshiping the clan’s ujigami. The prayer for good harvest in spring, and the harvest ceremony in autumn, were two major festivals honouring the ujigami. Divination, water purification, and lustration (ceremonial purification), became popular, and people started to build shrines for their kami. Ancient Shinto was polytheistic. People found kami in nature as well as in outstanding men. They also believed in kami of ideas such as growth, creation, and judgment.

Political and social roles

Until the end of World War II, Shinto was closely related to the state. Offerings to kami were made every year by the government and the Imperial Household, and prayers were offered for the safety of the state and people. “Shinto ceremonies and political affairs are one and the same” was the motto of officials. Villagers prayed to the tutelary kami of the community for their peace and welfare. After the Meiji Restoration, the government treated Shinto like a state religion and revived the system of national shrines, which dated from the 9th century or earlier. Although the Japanese constitution enacted in 1889 guaranteed freedom of faith, priority was given to Shinto. Most of the national holidays were related to Shinto festivals. This Shinto was called State Shinto. State Shinto was regarded as a state cult and a national ethic and not as “a religion.” By 1945 there were 218 national and approximately 110,000 local shrines. The number of Sect Shinto groups was limited to 13 after the organization of Tenri-kyo. Legally these 13 sects were treated as other religious bodies, similar to Buddhism and Christianity. After the end of World War II, the Allied Powers ordered the Japanese government to disestablish State Shinto. The number of Shinto shrines had been decreasing since the beginning of the Meiji era. At present, about 99 percent of the shrines belong to the Association of Shinto Shrines established in 1946, and most of the others are independent or belong to small groups. Numerous new religious bodies, including Shintoist groups, have emerged since 1945.

Shinto literature and mythology

Broadly speaking, Shinto has no founder. Nor has it any official scripture that can be compared to the Bible in Christianity or to the Qur’an in Islam. The Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon-gi, or Nihon shoki (“Chronicles of Japan”), are regarded in a sense as sacred books of Shinto. They were written in 712 and 720 AD and are compilations of the oral traditions of ancient Shinto. It is possible to construct Shinto doctrines from them by interpreting the myths and religious practices they describe. The core of the mythology consists of tales about the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestress of the Imperial Household, and how her direct descendants unified the Japanese people under their authority. In the beginning, according to Japanese mythology, a certain number of kami simply emerged, and a pair of kami, Izanagi and Izanami, gave birth to the Japanese islands, as well as to the kami who became ancestors of the various clans: Amaterasu, the ruler of Takama no Hara; the moon god Tsukiyomi no Mikoto; and Susanoo (Susanowo) no Mikoto, the ruler of the nether regions, were the most important among them. A descendant of Amaterasu, Jimmu, is said to have become the first emperor of Japan. Japanese mythology says that the Three Sacred Treasures (the mirror, the sword, and the jewels), which are still the most revered symbols of the Imperial Household, were first given by Amaterasu to her grandson.

Nature of man and other beliefs

In Shinto it is commonly said, “man is kami’s child.” This means:

– A person was given his life by kami and his nature is therefore sacred.
– Daily life is made possible by kami, and, accordingly, the personality and life of people are worthy of respect.

An individual must revere the basic human rights of everyone (regardless of race, nationality, and other distinctions) as well as his own. The concept of original sin is not found in Shinto. On the contrary, man is considered to have a primarily divine nature. Purification removes, symbolically, the dust and impurities that cover one’s inner mind. Japanese mythology speaks of an eternity of history in the divine edict of Amaterasu. In its view of history, Shinto adheres to the cyclical approach, according to which there is a constant recurrence of historical patterns. Shinto does not have the concept of the “last day”: there is no end of the world or of history. It is required of Shintoists to live fully each moment of their life, making it as worthy as possible. The Imperial system is an example of unity and harmony assuming the highest cultural and social position in the nation. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), Shinto was used as a means of spiritually unifying the people during repeated wars.

Place of Shinto in Japanese and world religion

Shinto, together with Buddhism, is closely related culturally and socially to the life of the Japanese people. Its relationships to other religions in Japan are generally cooperative and harmonious. Most Shintoists believe that cooperation between different religions could contribute to world peace. Shintoists insist on maintaining their own characteristics and inner depth while working toward the peaceful coexistence of human beings.

Varieties of festival, worship, and prayer

Each Shinto shrine has several major festivals each year, including the Spring Festival, Autumn Festival, an Annual Festival, and the Divine Procession. The Divine Procession usually takes place on the day of the Annual Festival, and miniature shrines (mikoshi) are carried on the shoulders through the parish.
The order of rituals at a grand festival is usually as follows:

– 1. Purification rites.
– 2. Adoration, the chief priest and the entire congregation bow to the altar.
– 3. Opening of the door of the inner sanctuary.
– 4. Presentation of food offerings.
– 5. Prayers.
– 6. Sacred music and dance.
– 7. General offering (symbolic offerings using little branches of the evergreen sacred tree to which strips of white paper are tied).
– 8. Taking offerings away.
– 9. Shutting the door of the inner sanctuary.
– 10. Final adoration.
– 11. Feast (naorai).

Types of shrines

A simple torii (gateway) stands at the entrance of the shrine precincts. After proceeding on the main approach, a visitor will come to an ablution basin where the hands are washed and the mouth is rinsed. Usually he will make a small offering at the oratory (haiden) and pray. Sometimes a visitor may ask the priest to conduct rites of passage or to offer special prayers. The most important shrine building is the main, or inner, sanctuary (honden), in which a sacred symbol called shintai (” kami body”) or mitama-shiro (“divine spirit’s symbol”) is enshrined. The usual symbol is a mirror, but sometimes it is a wooden image, a sword, or some other object. Only the chief priest is allowed to enter inside the inner sanctuary to see it.