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Shinto history

The traditional belief system of Japan has no fundamental creeds or written teachings, and is not particularly evangelical. However it resonates with a veneration for Japanese tradition and the invisible presence of innumerable spiritual powers, or kami. Thus the spiritual insights attributed to Japan’s ancient inhabitants are regarded as just as valid now as throughout all the vicissitudes of history. Shinto is essentially a body of ritual to relate with kami in a way that is respectful, warm, open, positive and vibrant. Local festivals (matsuri) have become so much part of social life and enshrine so much traditional Japanese morality and social behaviour that participation seems natural common-sense, good neighbourliness and part of being Japanese. Shinto has thus become a vehicle for many themes, and need not operate merely on the basis of conscious ‘belief’.


‘Shinto’ combines the Chinese characters for kami, the way, (implying the way to/from and of the kami.) It was originally chosen by government in the seventh century to distinguish ‘traditional’ worship from Buddhism. Shinto, however, is clearly not simply an indigenous native cult but reflects much of the ancient shamanic traditions common to its Asian neighbours. Historians can also pinpoint how Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and, more recently, Christian philosophy and customs have been adopted because of the attractions and challenges of Chinese, Korean and Western civilization. At times Shinto has also been used by the Japanese State to unify the nation under the Emperor, as a national religion, against foreign enemies.

This background of political and academic debate has usually been alien to most Japanese people, who have always spoken simply of ‘the kami’, (never ‘Shinto’) and practise a mixture of Buddhism and Shinto without any sense of contradiction. Furthermore, few Japanese would refer to either Buddhism or Shinto as ‘religion’, or shukyou, which is usually equated with pushy evangelism and quibbling over dogma.


Japan’s earliest histories, the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, were compiled on the orders of the imperial family in AD 712 and AD 720 respectively, for the purpose of justifying the royal lineage, and describe many of the most important kami. Although there was an obvious political aim to unite all the regional and clan deities under the authority of the imperial, Yamato, clan-deity Amaterasu Omikami, the kami of the sun, these legends provide an explanation for most Shinto rituals and the starting point for any official, Shinto ‘theology’.

Some basic concepts that emerge are:

1. Kami are not necessarily the same as ‘gods’. They can die, and decompose like mortals. Some are human. There is no easy divide between what is animate and inanimate, cultural and natural, human and divine. Rather, all creation is an expression of spiritual powers. All things are bound together in a kind of spiritual family, and it is natural therefore to try and relate with the world emotionally, as well and materially and scientifically. Spiritual power is not spread equally, but can be recognised as especially powerful in particular phenomena and these are the kami.

2. The kami are invisible and countless. Shinto focuses upon those that reveal their importance to people. Particular kami are identified with the kitchen, safety on the roads and education etc. Others are identified with places, especially forests, mountains or waterfalls, that seem especially numinous, or natural phenomena that are especially awesome, such as wind and thunder. Individuals too, who seem possessed of a special charisma or just very successful, might be called kami. Other, less important spiritual forces are recognised, such as mischievous elements like fox-spirits, kitsune, or tree-spirits, tengu. These maybe called on to communicate with us through mediums, to explain their behaviour. On special occasions, the kami may also possess a medium to send an important message.

3. Individuals should venerate and entertain the kami most important to them. Not only because their good will is required but also because they appreciate that individual’s concern. They are not all-knowing, and want to be informed about significant events. They love most to see individuals enjoying themselves in a happy community.

4. There is no teaching about the original creation of the universe, nor about any future end or final judgement. Likewise, there is no clear description of any after-life. After a person dies, they simply merge with their ancestral kami and have no individual soul such as is taught in Christianity or Buddhism. Primary identity thus reflects membership in a community and social roles.

5. Purity is essential to a right relationship with the kami and the avoidance of failure or disease. Many rituals feature the exorcism of sins in order to be restored to original purity. Cleanliness, sincerity (makoto) and politeness in particular signify freedom from bad external influences, and reliability. The kami are especially repelled by blood and by death. Traditionally, women were banned from shine events during menstruation; those who worked with dead bodies, such as tanners, were not tolerated and soldiers required special purification after battle.

Shinto Shrines (jinja)

Shinto shrines and rituals very carefully mark entry into a special world. Even in a bustling city, shrines offer a different atmosphere. Surrounded by evergreen trees, and approached on a noisy gravel path, they still everyday conversation. There is a special silence, broken only by ritual hand-claps, or the sound of cows and seasonal insects. Shinto ritual, including music (gakaku) and dance (kagura), is characterized by slow, measured pace, appropriate to the timeless kami and quite different from daily life outside. On special occasions (matsuri) a mass of local people will be crowded together in noisy festivity, letting themselves go in front of the kami in ways they would never dream of doing outside the shrine.

It is important that the shrines blend in with the environment chosen by the kami. Traditionally built from wood and generally left untreated, they need regular repair or rebuilding, and the work of the local community is thus bound to the life of the local shrine. This is still the tradition of Japan’s most celebrated shrine, the Grand Shrine of Ise, dedicated to Amaterasu, and reconstructed in ancient style every generation. Worship is done primarily in the open air, and the key buildings enshrine the tokens that are the focus of veneration.


The kami do not ‘live’ in the shrines, and must be summoned politely. The approach to each shrine is marked by one of several great gateways, or torii, and there will be a basin to rinse hands and mouth. A shrine is usually dedicated to one particular kami, but may host any number of smaller shrines, representing other kami that local people should also venerate. Sacred points, such as entrances or particular trees and rocks, will be marked off by ropes of elaborately plaited straw, or streamers of plain paper.

The kami are usually summoned by pulling a bell-rope outside the shrine, making a small money offering followed by two hand-claps, a short silent prayer, and two bows, but variation is tolerated and this procedure is longer at the most important shrines. The primary audience is always the kami.

Matsuri, for example, seem great fun but always begin with an invitation by priests facing away from the people, towards the kami, and inviting them to attend, and end with priestly farewells on their departure. Traditionally, the professional priesthood was limited to the great shrines, and local people took it in turns to be the priest. But recently the professional priesthood has grown to about 20,000, including 2,000 women priests. All except the smallest shrines will be the responsibility of a team of priests (guji) of various ranks, assisted by a team of local (unmarried) girls (miko) who perform ceremonial dances (kagura) and other services.


Most new priests are now university graduates, usually from Shinto universities, and are often from priestly families. There is no equivalent to a Pope or leader of Shinto, and each shrine is independent. But most shrines are linked together through the national shrine organisation (jinja honcho) which provides information and administrative services, and helps represent Shinto overseas.

Shinto Today

There are four major seasonal events: New Year, Rice- Planting (spring), O-Bon (a visit by the ancestors in mid- July or August) and Harvest Thanksgiving (autumn). In addition there will be the festival days of the local kami. There will also be special events to mark rites of passage, such as presenting a new- born baby to be recognised and protected by the local kami, followed by further presentations during childhood (boys aged five, girls aged three and seven), then a coming-of –age ceremony when 20. Within the last 100 years, marriage has also begun to be celebrated at the local shrine. Funerals are left to Buddhist priests, since shrines must avoid pollution.

Most traditional family homes feature a kamidana or shelf on which amulets and tokens of the kami are displayed. Particular rooms associated with pollution or danger, such as the toilet and kitchen, may also feature amulets.


The failure of Japan’s brutal adventure into mainland Asia from 1894 to 1945, in the name of the emperor, has complicated his place in Shinto. The emperor has been promoted as Shinto’s high priest, Japan’s primary link with the most important kami – notably Amaterasu O-mikami – since the very foundation of the Japanese state by the Yamato clan around the early sixth century. Between 1868 and 1945, this tradition was interpreted to make him head of state, and State Shinto was promulgated as the chief arm of government, but the emperor was not given any clear mandate to rule.

Since 1945, the Japanese constitution forbids any formal link between its members of government and religious activism. When the crown prince formally becomes an emperor the Shinto ceremony in theory makes his body the host of a kami. But in Japanese law the Emperor is now merely the symbol of the Japanese nation and not a religious figure. He still has a busy schedule of rituals to perform, such as offering the first fruits after harvest to (other) kami.

The myth that all Japanese are ‘children of the kami’, especially Amasterasu and O–mikami, through the emperor, has made it easy to generate a proud nation unified on the basis of a common ethic origin. It fails, however, to respect the rights of those whose roots do not lie in the Yamato tradition, such as the Ainu or Okinawans, or immigrants, and claim the right to be different.


Since around the middle of the nineteenth century, as Japan faced up to all sorts of crises due to foreign imperialism and internal change, a variety of local Shinto cults appeared. Typically, they introduced new, hitherto unknown kami, who could help the people and meet the new challenges. Often they assumed an international character, unlike traditional Shinto, and sought to compete with Christianity as evangelical, saviour religions. Insofar as they played down the significance of the emperor, they were suppressed until 1945. Since then, some such as Tenri- kyo, Sekai Kyusei Kyo and Mahikari have enjoyed spectacular success for example in Southeast Asia or South America, where similar spirit- based cults are indigenous.

This section is adapted from an article written by Michael Shackleton, director of the International Centre at Osaka Gakuin University in Japan, and published in World Religions ed. Martin Palmer, London, Times Books, 2002.


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