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
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.