Shinto: The History and Practice of Japan’s Native Religion

Shinto: The History and Practice of Japan’s Native Religion

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Fushimi Inari Shrine Gate
Shinto is more than a religion - it's also an indelible part of Japanese culture. Krys Suzuki discusses the structure, beliefs, and complex history of Japan's native faith.


Historically, Japan is home to one of the world’s oldest religions. Many, if not most, of Japan’s cultural values as well as its political systems as we now know them are rooted in religious traditions and beliefs. That religion is Shinto (神道), with foundations based on the concepts of harmony, peace, and respect for nature.

The word “Shinto” translates to “way of the gods”. It is polytheistic, recognizing a multitude of 神 (kami, or spirit-like gods) and 氏神 (ujigami, or deity-like gods) as opposed to one almighty being. Its founder is unknown. There are no known religious texts such as the Bible, nor are there any official prophets of the word. If anything, Shinto can be more likened to Greek mythology with its multitude of kami and accompanying legends than to the more charismatic and proselytizing religions one finds in the West.

Major Shinto Deities

The ujigami, or gods of Shinto, were based on uji, or specific clans, and represented astrological and geographical forces much like the gods and goddesses of Greek lore. The major deity, Amaterasu-Omikami, uniquely takes on a female shape and is worshipped as the Sun Goddess. Other notable Shinto deities are Tsukuyomi, the moon god; Izanami and Izanagi, or the creator gods responsible for the creation of Japan; and Susanoo, the storm god and brother of Amaterasu.

The Emperor as a Deity

One major difference in the genealogy of these gods, however, is that rather than being purely spiritual or mythical beings, their descendants are actual human beings incarnated into the physical world – namely, The Imperial family. It is said that the very first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, directly descended from these gods, establishing the Imperial family as deities themselves early on in Japanese history.

Because of this, politics and religion were deeply intertwined in early Japan, with the emperor believed to have a direct connection to the gods and viewed as a divine and spiritual being. However, contrary to popular belief, the emperor was not entirely worshipped as a deity himself and was largely unimportant to the daily rulings of the land for much of early history.

Though Shintoism played a huge role in the ceremonies and traditions carried out by society, most of the politics and the ruling of the country was actually carried out by the noblemen with the emperor kept hidden from the public eye, and it wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration that the people began to attribute a god-like status to the Imperial family in an attempt to restore Shintoism back to the national religion of Japan.

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Shinto and Buddhism

Kongouji, a Buddhist temple in Kawachinagano, Osaka
One of the most fascinating aspects of Shinto in Japan is how it evolved to co-exist alongside Buddhism. Pictured: Kongouji, a Buddhist temple in Kawachinagano, Osaka. (Picture: Yama / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

To understand why the Meiji Restoration occurred and what led to the reestablishment of Shintoism as the main religion of Japan, we need to first understand the evolution of these religious beliefs as influenced by the arrival of other belief systems, such as Buddhism and Confucianism.

Buddhism arrived in the 6th century as part of the Sinification of Japan, along with Confucianism and Taoism. Because Japan had never been conquered by the Chinese, and because of China’s great success, particularly under the Tang Dynasty, Japan respected China and was more willing to incorporate certain Chinese systems into their own government in the hopes of political gain. This included Chinese belief systems such as Buddhism, which shared many similarities with Shintoism, such as the emphasis on purity, peace, and harmony. Rather than rejecting these beliefs, and with no formal doctrines of their own, the Japanese allowed these religions to coexist, and widely adopted many of the Buddhist traditions and rituals, resulting in both religions intertwining over time. (This is why many present-day Japanese rituals and ceremonies are inherently Buddhist in nature).

The combination of Buddhism and Shinto eventually took a political role within the Japanese government, in which the Emperor performed religious ceremonies for the people, and even developed a liturgical calendar for the court. This lead to the development of a new form of Shinto called Ryobu Shinto (literally ‘double Shinto’), a term coined based on the teachings of Yoshida Kanetomo, a Shinto priest from the Sengoku period, the founder of Yoshida Shinto, and an important figure in the evolution of Shintoism. In his works, he classified Shinto into three categories, and one of these is what he called “combinatory Shinto based on the dual fundamental mandalas of Shingon esoteric Buddhism,” or Ryubo Shinto. Kanetomo would spend most of his life working to bring Shinto back to its origins.

As these influences became stronger, however, Shinto was almost completely dominated by Buddhism, and this combination of beliefs became established as a state religion in retaliation to the threat of Christian missionaries in the 17th century, and both would not be separated again until the 19th century.

Shinto and Nationalism

One of the biggest factors in the reestablishment of Shinto as a religion was Japanese nationalism. As Shinto legend establishes the emperors of Japan as an unbroken lineage from the first emperor, a descendant of Sun Goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, and the native Japanese people as descendants of the founding kami of Japan, the Japanese began to hold a strong sense of pride in their supposed divine origins.

This story of the origins of the Japanese political system wrote the Imperial family as direct descendants from the gods, establishing their divinity, with the implication that it is under the gods’ will that the Emperor should rule Japan. The Meiji Restoration capitalized on this belief, giving it more importance than it had previously within Shinto teachings. This led to the creation and development of Shinto as the state religion and the establishment of the emperor as a deity.

Shinto and Politics: How Shinto Changed to Meet Political Needs

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 sought to return Japan to its divinity and rebuild a sacred foundation for the “New Japan.” In order to do this, Shinto needed to be completely separated from Buddhism, which required much effort after a long period of intermingling beliefs. Because of this, an even stronger emphasis was placed on the divinity of the deities and Imperial family than before, pushing the Goddess Amaterasu back to the forefront as the one responsible for officiating the role of the Emperor, as well as the high priests of Shinto.

With this reorganization and reestablishment of Shinto as the official national religion of Japan came a great change. State-funded jinja, or Shinto shrines, mushroomed all over the nation and became the major uniting factor of the Japanese as a people. However, quite ironically, it was also during this time that Shinto was declared as not religious, rather an “inseparable aspect of the Imperial way”, thereby establishing it as a “non-religious religion.” As we’ve discussed before, this was partially an ingenious attempt to decrease resistance among Buddhists and followers of other religions to adopting Shinto as the state creed. [2]

Shinto Today

Prayers at a Shinto shrine
A woman performs prayers at a Shinto shrine. (Picture: zak / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Minkan Shinto (民間神道; Folk Shinto), or Shinto as it is practiced today, is thought of as less a religion than a fundamental moral-ethical code of Japan, for the main reasons of both providing religious freedom, and preventing state and constitutional conflict. For this reason, despite both Shinto and the Japanese government being rooted in actual religion, it is regarded as a separation of church and state.

And while being abolished as the official state religion at the end of World War II, Shinto has nonetheless survived these dramatic changes throughout history and remains the central theme of the rituals and community festivals of today.

Present-day Shinto rituals are mostly centered on daily life and life events, such as marriage, birth, and death, as well as community events such as matsuri, or festivals. True to its original form, Shinto remains without any specific doctrines or organizations. Deities are not so much glorified anymore, though they are respected, and there is no concept of heaven or hell.

People still visit shrines on various occasions, usually for prayer and for paying respects to their ancestors and deceased relatives. It is believed that when a loved one passes on, their spirit remains on this earth to watch over their living family members, and to protect the well-being and prosperity of the household and the generations to come.

In a sense, Shinto is now practiced in accordance with what people need and experience in their day-to-day lives, and exists to maintain peace and harmony in one’s life. A Bit About Shinto Shrines

As previously mentioned, Shinto shrines, called jinja (神社), exist all throughout Japan. They can be located in parks, as part of a building, or in the middle of nature, and are always marked by the two-pillared gate called torii (鳥居). With about 80,000 in existence throughout the country, they remain an important part of people’s daily lives, and are visited for a number of reasons, both traditional and personal.

Jinja are sacred areas of designated land said to house the spirits and kami, and so are treated with respect. Naturally, then, there are important manners and etiquette which must be followed when visiting a shrine.

Omairi (お参り), or visiting a shrine, follows a set of rules and steps. First, you must remember that you are visiting a sacred place, so are encouraged to dress appropriately, and refrain from revealing garments such as short shorts and miniskirts. If wearing a hat or any kind of headgear, you should also remove it before proceeding through the torii. Also, make sure to bow your head in respect before passing through.

When walking, it is expected that you keep to one side of the path to the shrine, and avoid walking directly in the middle. The middle of the path and the torii are said to be where the kami walk, and not for humans to traverse.

Purification

Before entering the shrine, you will come to a small basin of water. This is where you purify yourself before approaching the main shrine. To properly purify yourself, scoop some water with the ladle and pour some on your left hand, then right. Next, hold the ladle in your right hand again and pour some water into your left, which you will now use to gently wash, or purify, your mouth. (NEVER put your mouth directly on the ladle!) Lastly, vertically hold the ladle and let any remaining water trickle down the handle, cleansing it. (Yes, this step is important and must be done, even when visiting during cold weather!)

At the Main Shrine

When you reach the main shrine, there is another sequence of steps that are important to follow. First, bow slightly before approaching the shrine. There will be a box in front of you for offerings – gently toss in a coin. (Value does not matter, but it is common for people to offer ¥100, and sometimes ¥500, coins.) Now is when you greet the kami.

Ring the bell two or three times. This is to signal to the kami that you have arrived and can be thought of as a greeting. Next, deeply bow twice (90 degrees), followed by clapping your hands twice. Here is where you thank the gods, pay your respects, and offer any intentions. Bring your prayer to a close with a final deep bow.

At many shrines, you can purchase small wooden charms called ema after paying your respects, in which you can write your wishes and hang them in a designated area for the gods to see. There are also a variety of other charms such as hamaya, (holy arrows) and omamori (protection amulets) that people can buy and bring home for protection, good fortune, and to ward off evil spirits. Finally, you can even buy omikuji, or fortunes, which are small papers with horoscope-like predictions written. [3]

Shinto has evolved in Japan over the centuries. With its history of flexibility and adaptability, it will most likely continue to remain and evolve for a very long time.

Sources

[1] アマテラスオオミカミ(天照大御神)とは|伊勢神宮の神社史や神話の姿. https://bit.ly/3opESWv

[2] 神道について。https://www.ichigayahachiman.or.jp/shinto/shinto3.html

[3] 神社の正しい参拝方法は?手洗い・手水のやり方、二拝二拍手一拝・二礼二拍手一礼の違いやマナー. https://allabout.co.jp/gm/gc/220578/

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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