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Chapter Overview

Shinto is an indigenous Japanese religion which illustrates the love for beauty in nature pervading this small country. Outside of Japan, it is common only in Hawaii and Brazil. Japanese people greatly respect artistic pleasure; thus, it comes as no surprise that this natural sensibility has shaped Shinto's artful world view, a world view that especially emphasizes the kami (the spirits) of waterfalls, rocks, trees, plants, and even families.

Origins and some distinguishing characteristics

Shinto religion is based on the reverence for the spirits of nature and the unseen world. Interestingly, Shinto does not have a known founder (unlike Jainism, Buddhism, or Confucianism), nor does it have a sacred scripture, an explicit ethical code, nor a concept of sin. Instead, it appears to have emerged from farming communities and did not even need to be identified with a specific name until Buddhism spread to Japan during the sixth century C.E. After that time, this indigenous sacred way sought to distinguish itself from Buddhism. Then it was named "the divine way" shen -tao .

As a response to the incursion of Buddhism in the 6th Century, the sacred stories of Japan's indigenous religions were collected in the Kojiki - Chronicles of Ancient Events. This collection includes stories that describe the special creation of the Japanese islands by two kami who become the divine parents of all the other gods and goddesses. The chief of these spirits is Amaterasu - the sun goddess. All of the Japanese emperors are believed to have descended from the line of Amaterasu.

Not much is known about Shinto before the time these stories were collected. More than likely the indigenous religion was loosely organized and included ancestor worship, animism, and a large number of gods and goddesses. With the coming of Mahayana Buddhism, however, kami and Buddhist deities and bodhisattvas merged. The Japanese thought of the bodhisattvas and deities as kami revealed to India and China. In addition, distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism began to emerge including Pure Land Buddhism, Zen and Nichiren.

Reaction set in during the Tokugawa regime 1600-1867 when foreign influences were pushed aside and official support was given to Shinto. This was the era of the idealization of the samurai (the feudal knight) and the warrior code of conduct that was known as Bushido. This code of conduct includes loyalty to one's master, politeness (Confucianism) and death before dishonor.

In 1889 the Constitution allowed other religions to be practiced freely, but it was decided that the state would support Shinto. Thus, the government supported the major shrines and declared that the Emperor was "sacred and inviolable." State supported Shinto was abolished at the end of World War II.

Main Features of Shinto

The three central aspects of Shinto are (1) affinity with natural beauty, (2) harmony with the spirits (kami) (3) purification rituals.

1. Natural beauty and symmetry have always been important in Japan. For example, historically the agricultural life of the country revolved around two important patterns of nature experiences: first, planting and harvesting, and second, the roles of the sun and elements in keeping the land productive. Mount Fuji was believed to be a sacred symbol of the divine power that forced the land up through the sea. 

2 The Shinto reverence for the natural order and the world of nature leads into the second major feature of this religion: honoring the kami. The divine is both immanent and transcendent. Kami are believed to surround us everywhere, hovering over and behind the material world. The word kami can be translated as god or spirit, but these interpretations do not say everything important. Kami can be either singular or plural in meaning. The word refers to a single essence revealed in many places. Kami is more of a quality than a being or beings. Kami can refer to the deities of heaven and earth as well as the spirit that is in human beings, animals, trees, plants seas and mountains. Shinto religion finds the sacred in everything. Kami keep the sun and moon and stars in motion and stir wonder and awe in humans. They can exist in rocks, trees, and other forms of nature, but also in processes such as reproduction and creative imagination.

Often shrines are constructed to recognize and honor the presence of kami. There are some eight thousand public shrines in Japan honoring the kami. The typical major shrine includes a torii - a gate that marks off the sacred space of the kami. Usually, a shrine will have an inner and outer shrine. The inner shrine contains objects important to the deity it represents. In some cases it may be completely empty - especially if there is already a spiritually powerful site. (for more information on Shinto shrines visit

Followers of Shinto are likely to have a shrine in the home where a mirror symbolizes the purity and clarity of the universe. This is a god shelf or kami-dana containing objects of religious significance to the family, images of deities or names of ancestors. Some households have simple, but meaningful, daily rituals which honor the kami. Here offerings of incense may be offered along with prayers. These spirits can also be honored by formal temple celebrations. For one's life to be lived in harmony with nature, one needs to follow the kami. The word for this process is kannagara.

A third distinguishing feature of Shinto is its beliefs in purification. Shinto has no concept of sin; rather, it teaches that evil actions can contaminate individuals by causing them to accrue impurities that poison innocence and offend the kami. This is called tsumi: the quality of impurity. To rid one's self of these impurities, Shintoism prescribes ritual washings in natural phenomena such as a waterfall or the ocean. Purification rituals are an important aspect of this sacred path. Rituals of purification known as oharai may also be performed by Shinto priests.

In addition to living in affinity with natural beauty, honoring the kami, and purification rituals, Shinto is further characterized by its celebrations or festivals. These festivities are associated with the calendar year and special turning points throughout one's life. One begins four months before the birth of a baby, due to the belief that this is when the soul enters a fetus. At 32-33 days after birth, a child is taken to the family s temple for initiation. Other ages such as turning 13, first arranging one s hair as a woman at 16, marriage, becoming 61, 77, or 88, are also occasions for ritual celebrations. Seasons are also celebrated, especially New Year's.

Today, Shinto peacefully and fruitfully coexists with Buddhism and Confucianism. A Japanese person may use Shinto rituals for especially joyous occasions such as birth and marriage, but turn to these other religions for events such as funerals, or for understandings of suffering. Also today, increasing urbanization, pollution, and technological production offer fertile areas for the major tenets of Shinto to address and hopefully influence for the better.