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Shinto in Japan

What is Shinto?

Shinto is the animistic native religion of Japan and is a personal faith in the kami.  Kami, the spirits in all things, are the central objects of worship in Shinto.  Often translated as the "Way of the Gods," it literally means the "Kami Way." 


Why study Shinto?

Shinto has always existed in Japan and its evolution reflects Japan's history.  It is deeply rooted in contemporary Japanese culture; it has influenced many Japanese norms, values, beliefs and practices.  Therefore, understanding Shinto helps us to better understand contemporary Japanese culture.


History of Shinto

The origin of Shinto is unknown; it has neither an acknowledged founder nor sacred texts.

In the Jomon Period, Shinto is created and a multitude of different unrelated kami are worshiped.


In the fifth century Japan is unified under Emperor Yamato.  The Imperial family used Shinto to legitimize its authority; stories were written about the ancestral kami of the of the family.  The first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, was said to be the descendent of Amaterasu.


Although there are no sacred texts in Shinto there were several ancient texts written during this period which describe the historical and spiritual basis of Shinto.  The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), written in the eighth century, are the first and second oldest Japanese books.  They contain the early history of Japan and the Japanese people, including the creation of Japan and the origin and history of the Imperial family.  Other primary sources of information on Shinto are the Kujiki (Chronicle of Ancient Events), Kogoshui (Gleanings from Ancient Stories) and Engi Shiki (Detailed Laws of the Engi Period).


Shinto was influenced by other philosophies and religions including Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.  As Buddhism became more prominent in Japan and was institutionalized as a state religion, Shinto and Buddhism merged together in an attempt to explain the differences between their teachings.  This lasted until the Edo period when there was a closed country policy and a movement away from foreign influence occurs.


More information on Zen Buddhism in Japan.


Shinto was institutionalized as a state religion after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and Buddhism and Christianity were banned.  The emperor was portrayed and worshiped as a God in an attempt to unify the country for modernization.  State Shinto was used to promote nationalism and eventually militarism before and during World War II. 


After World War II Emperor Showa announced that he was not a God.  At this time Japanese religiosity greatly decreased and Shinto became what it is today.



The Japanese story of creation is written in the Kojiki.  It explains the creation of Japan, the Japanese and their social structure.

This following story is a simple version of the story of creation.


In the Age of the Kami, the kami of the Center of Heaven (Ame-no-minaka-nushi-no-kami) appeared and gave birth to the kami of birth (Taka-mimusubi-no-mikoto) and growth (Kami-musubi-no-mikoto).  Then the kami Izanagi, the first man, and Izanami, the first woman descended from the High Plain of Heaven and gave birth to the Great Eight Islands of Japan and all other things. 

The Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, was the kami of the High Plain of Heaven, the Moon Goddess, Tsukiyomi, was the kami of the realm of darkness and their brother, Susanoo, was the kami in charge of earth.  Susanoo behaved badly and the Sun Goddess became angry and hid herself in a celestial cave, throwing the heavens and earth into darkness.  The heavenly kami put on entertainment and brought her out of the cave, returning light to the world. 




Susanoo was banished to the lower world, Japan, for punishment.  A descendant of Susanoo, the Kami of Izumo ruled the invisible world and the grandson of Amaterasu, Ninigi, descended from the High Plain of Heaven and ruled the visible world.  The great grandson of Ninigi was Emperor Jimmu.


Types of Shinto

There are several types of Shinto, reflecting the evolution of Shinto and the diverse beliefs of followers of Shinto.  Some forms of Shinto include Popular Shinto, Domestic Shinto, Sectarian Shinto, Imperial Household Shinto, Shrine Shinto and State Shinto.

The oldest and more prominent form of Shinto is Shrine Shinto.  It places importance on worshiping kami at shrines where other forms, such as Domestic Shinto, place importance on worship kami at home alters.  After the Meiji Restoration there were nearly 200,000 Shinto shrines which were nationalized and organized in the Shrine System.  Currently there are nearly 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan.




Shinto is a personal religion.  There are neither strict religious doctrines nor strong central authority.

There are "Four Affirmations" of the Shinto Spirits; tradition and family, love of nature, physical cleanliness and matsuri.


Shinto teaches that, although there is no right and wrong, ritual impurity is created by certain actions.  Ritual impurity is bad for everyone.

Ritual purificiation is central to Shinto.  Worshipers must purify themselves by washing with water before offering prayers.  Places are often purified to placate kami.




Wikipedia on Shinto

Kojiki Manga



Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono

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