What is Shintoism?
Shintoism is a belief system that originated in Japan and is followed by 104 million people worldwide. While Shinto is a distinct religion, Japanese people don’t tend to classify it as so; it is more a way of life than it is about explaining the world. Instead, its followers often regard it as Japan’s indigenous religion and as a nature religion. The word Shinto comes from the written Chinese kanji of “Shen”, meaning “divine spirit”, and “Tao”, meaning “way”, to form the meaning of “Way of the Spirits”.
Shinto’s central belief is worshiping kami, which are spirits that inhabit the natural world. From landscapes and forces of nature to people and animals (both living and dead), all objects are believed to have kami.
Unlike the western concept of gods, Kami is not omnipotent nor perfect. They, like humans, sometimes make mistakes and misbehave. The goal is for humanity to strive towards exemplifying qualities of good kami.
Shinto is the oldest surviving and widely practiced Japanese religion, but unlike many religions, Shinto doesn’t have a straightforward origin story. Instead, it appears to have evolved from different cultural practices from ancient Japan, with limited historical records. Early adoptions of Shinto beliefs are believed to have emerged in the period of the Yayoi culture (c. 300 BCE – 300 CE), and the earliest written record that describes Shinto is the “Kojiki” (“Record of Ancient Matters”), dating 712 CE.
Like many prehistoric societies, Ancient Japanese people held animistic beliefs (that objects, places, and creatures possess a spirit), which withstood the faith in kami.
Shinto and Buddhism
Shinto considered a syncretic religion (a fusion of different beliefs and practices), differs from Buddhism, which has a more evident doctrine and ideas (although there are many conflicting but coexisting forks of it, such as Zen and Pureland). However, both religions have become intertwined in Japan after centuries of coexistence.
Shinto is more ambiguous than Buddhism and has no religious texts or set doctrine. Moreover, whereas Buddhism has a clear origin, Shinto predates any historical records, and it is unknown who or where it originated from.
Buddhism and Shinto also have different beliefs about the afterlife. Shinto believes that after death, a person’s kami passes on to another world and watches over their descendants. This is primarily why ancestral worship still plays an essential part in modern-day Japan.
Rituals and beliefs
The overriding belief in Shinto is to promote harmony and purity in all aspects of life. Humans are considered fundamentally sound, and evil spirits cause evil. Therefore, Shinto’s purpose is to pray and offer to the kami to keep away evil spirits.
Shinto followers can worship in shared public shrines; however, many choose to do so in their own homes and set up their own shrines. These shrines are called “kami-dana” and are a shelf on which people place offerings to the kami.
As mentioned earlier, in Ancient Japan, Shinto and Buddhism became closely intertwined and coexist to this day. Because of this, some Buddhist figures (the botatsu or “enlightened beings”) have become prominent kami with believers of Shinto.
Three of these figures include Amida (ruler of the Pure Land, i.e. heaven), Kannon (protector of children, women in childbirth, and dead souls), and Jizo (protector of people suffering pain and the souls of dead children). Another famous figure worshipped in both faiths is Hachiman, a god of archery and war.
Core values of Shinto
- Purity. The idea of purity in Shinto is nearest to the western notion of evil and pollution, called “Kegare” in Japanese. This does not just refer to physical uncleanliness, but energy too, and these are addressed through purification rituals.
- Makoto (sincerity). Makoto refers to the honesty of the heart. If goodness and gravity are not in your heart, all acts are pointless.
- Harmony with nature. Since kami can possess anything, it is nature itself. As you can find kami everywhere, keeping places clean and aware of the environment is essential.
- Matsuri (festivals). Matsuri, and Shinto festivals, bind a community together and bring good fortune to it.
- Focus on here, now. Shinto strictly focuses on the present and celebrates what we know and have.
Amaterasu, also known as Amaterasu Ōmikami, which translates to “Great Divinity (that which) illuminates Heaven”, is the celestial sun goddess. She is perhaps the most important Shinto deity.
She was born from the left eye of her father, Izanagi, who made her ruler of “Takamagahara”, the “High Celestial Plain”, where all kami live. Followers of the Shinto faith have worshipped Amaterasu for thousands of years, and she is credited with inventing the cultivation of rice and wheat, silkworms, and weaving with a loom.
Amaterasu’s primary shrine of worship is the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan’s most prominent Shinto shrine. She is manifested in a mirror as one of the three Imperial Treasures of Japan.
Shinto places of worship
Shinto shrines, known as “jinja”, are places of worship and the dwellings of the kami. Sacred objects of worship that represent the kami are kept in the innermost chambers of the jinjas and cannot be viewed by anyone.
Newborn babies are brought to a shrine a few weeks after birth, and couples hold their wedding ceremonies at shrines.
There are around 80,000 shrines dotted all over Japan! Each shrine has an annual festival where people gather to pay their respects to the kami and celebrate with food, music, dancing, and sake.
Every village, town, or district in Japan will have its own Shinto shrine dedicated to the local kami.
Not all shrines are buildings – they can also be rocks, trees, and mountains if they are considered unique to kami.
A large shrine can contain several smaller sub-shrines. Shinto shrines can cover several thousand acres or a few square feet. They are often located in the landscape in a way as to emphasize their connection to the natural world.
Japanese people visit shrines as and when they want to, and will often see the local shrine when they want the local kami to bless them with good fortunes, such as good exam results.
Shinto festivals are called “matsuri” (“to entertain” or “to serve”) and center on a particular kami who are treated as guests of honor at the ceremony.
The festivals tend to be very active events, with processions, dramatic performances, dancing, sumo wrestling, and feasts. In addition, the parades often feature a “mikoshi” (a “divine palanquin”) which is used to carry a kami or an image of a kami. The mikoshi is transported around the local community to purify it and bless its future well-being.
Along with the annual local matsuri festival, two other critical yearly festivals include the three-day Shogatsu Matsuri, or Japanese New Year festival, and the Obon Buddhist celebration of the dead returning to the ancestral home (which includes many Shinto rituals).
Because Shinto originates in the agricultural prehistory of Japan, many of its festivals surround the farming seasons.
Shogatsu Matsuri – Japanese New Year
Japanese New Year is the most important holiday in Japan, and it is celebrated for three days, from January the 1st to January the 3rd. During this period, most businesses close, and families spend the holiday together.
Each year marks a fresh start, and you are supposed to complete all duties before the end of the year. “Bonenkai” parties (“year forgetting” parties) are thrown and symbolize leaving the old year’s worries and troubles behind.
A selection of dishes is prepared during the New Year celebrations called “osechi-ryōri”, typically shortened to osechi. Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried. Ozoni is another popular dish served, which is a soup that includes mochi rice cake and other ingredients that vary depending on which region of Japan you’re in. Finally, eating “toshikoshi soba” (buckwheat noodles) is expected on New Year’s Eve.
Many Japanese people visit a shrine or temple during this period, and Japan’s most famous shrines, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, attract several million people!
Shinto is a fascinating religion, so we’ve compiled a list of crucial Shintoism facts:
- There are millions of “gods” in Shintoism, and a Japanese phrase encapsulates this is “Yaoyorozu no kami”, meaning 8 million kami.
- Several of the oldest shrines in Japan include Izumo Taisha, Fushimi Inari, and Tsubaki Grand Shrine.
- When a kid is born in Japan, their name is added to a list at their local shrine, making them a “family child”. So when they come to pass at the end of their life, they will become a family spirit.
- Worship consists of hand-clapping, silent prayer, and offerings made at the shrine
- The most important Jinja (shrine) in Japan is at Ise. This shrine is devoted to the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Glossary of Shinto shrine terms
- Torii – These gates mark a shrine’s entrance (see picture below). They are mostly made of wood and painted orange and black, although they can come in various colors.
- Komainu – a pair of guardian dogs or lions that often sit on each side of a shrine’s entrance.
- Purification trough – fountains of which their water is used for purification (washing hands and mouth) before entering the shrine’s main hall.
- Main and offering hall – the main hall (honden) holds the shrine’s sacred object in its innermost chamber, while the offering hall (haiden) is where visitors pray and offer at.
- Stage – some shrines have locations for kagura dance or noh theatre performances.
- Ema – visitors write their wishes on wooden plates called ema (see picture below) and then leave them at the shrine. Most people wish for good health, passing exams, love, and wealth.
- Omikuji – fortune-telling paper slips are found at many shrines and temples. Visitors randomly draw them and receive either good or bad fortune depending on what’s written on their labels. Bad luck can be left behind by tying the omikuji around a tree’s branch.
- Shimenawa – straw ropes mark the boundary to something sacred and can be found on torii gates, around sacred trees and stones, etc.