Shinto Definition, History, Beliefs, & Lifestyle (08.06.2018)
Shinto, like Confucianism, is not a “religion” in the usual sense. Rather, it is an ancient and sophisticated form of animism closely linked to the worship of nature in the form of kamis, the spirits of nature, and the agricultural cycles of the year. Its beliefs and ways of thinking are deeply embedded in the subconscious of the Japanese people. There is no binding dogma to which everyone must adhere, nor are there defined prayers that must be repeated verbatim, as in Catholicism. There is no “holiest” place for worshippers, as there is in Islam (Mecca) and Judaism (Jerusalem). No person or kami is deemed holiest, as are Jesus in Christianity and Muhammad in Islam. There are no established services at all.
Instead, there are festival rites (matsuri), open to everyone-not only confirmed members-that differ from shrine to shrine, with only a few exceptions like Shogatsu (or Shogetsu, New Year’s Day).
Unlike Buddhism, Japan’s other major religion, the afterlife is not a primary concern in Shinto. The emphasis is on living well in this world, not preparing for the next. While Shinto has thousands of fascinating rituals, they have one thing in common: Their purpose is to purify and make the participants prosperous in the here and now, not in some heavenly hereafter. The rituals of Shinto are methods of mediating the relations of human beings to kami, people and things of the world that inspire awe.
During festivals, there are public rituals that are performed with great enthusiasm. Before New Year’s Day in Tokyo, for example, the Hie Jinja shrine has a public cleansing ritual in which the kami-represented in shrines by stylized folded paper or metal treelike images-are brought out to bless everyone present. Small paper dolls are handed out and, after prayers and long periods of “shrine music,” all the bad spiritual impurities accumulated by each person during the year are rubbed into the dolls, which are collected and then burned.
Origins and History
The origin of the Shinto faith goes back to ancient times and is probably connected to the animist religions of early Siberia. It is likely that, when the earliest ancestors of the Japanese reached the island, each tribe brought with it its own gods and rituals.
Whatever its initial impetus, Shinto seems to have established itself by the late Jomon period, between 10,000 and 300 B.C.E. Wherever or whenever it began, it is the primary faith of this nation of more than 100 million inhabitants, most of whom practice both Shinto and Buddhism.
Shinto’s approach to the world is to be found in ancient Japanese mythology and history. This history was orally transmitted between generations of Japanese people prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century C.E. For this reason it does not make sense to seek Shinto’s “founding” in a specific year or era. For much of its history it was a loose collection of local rituals and customs practiced in Japan during prehistoric times. However, the introduction of both Buddhism and Confucianism to Japan in 552 prompted the adoption of the term Shinto as an umbrella to encompass the religious history of Japan.
From a religious or philosophic perspective, the religion is complex. Shinto is unique in the way that it gives commensurate spiritual status to forces of nature, animals, and celebrated human beings.
These are known as kamis in Japanese. Some can be thought of as “gods,” the spirits of nature, or spiritual presences, but others clearly represent natural processes and objects. The word Shinto combines two kanji (characters in a Japanese writing system adapted from Chinese writing): shin means “god” in Chinese and to means “way” or “method” (Tao).
Thus, the word shinto means “the way of the gods.” Shinto philosophy does not include belief in a single all-knowing god or the notion of heaven as a place inhabited by the souls of the dead. The kamis are deemed to be essentially good, but there are some exceptions. Prayers are offered to the kamis for different purposes and occasions, like rain, crops, and the emperor’s coronation. In fact, the Shinto religion has no dogma, no credo, and no “sins” that must be punished in prescribed ways. Rather, its practice involves a mixture of rituals and beliefs that initially differed significantly from one village to the next.
The primary kami in the Shinto religion is the Sun goddess Amaterasu. This perhaps explains the Sun symbol on the Japanese flag. Japan’s other name “Nippon” is written in the kanji letters ni, which means “Sun,” and pan, which means “root,” resulting in the name commonly given to the country, land of the rising Sun. The modern name is a derivative of the Chinese intonation of the letters jeben.
Yet, the Sun does not command a loftier place among Shinto divinities; each kami has its place.
Kamis do, however, command respectful fear and awe. Among other kamis are the mountains; animals like the tiger, snake, and wolf; and the emperor himself. One imperial minister of the ninth century is regarded as the kami of calligraphy. With over 800 million kamis in the Shinto faith, Japan earned the nickname shinkoku, or “country of the gods.” The shrines managed by the Shinto priesthood in Japan number 100,000.
According to Japanese folklore, the country’s islands were formed by Izanagi and Izanami, brother and sister gods in the Japanese creation myth, and their sexual union of Izanami and Izanagi created the Japanese race. In giving birth to the fire god Izanami was burned to death and went to the land of darkness. Izanagi tried to rescue her, but she had eaten the food of the place and could not leave; in disgust he left her rotting corpse and divorced her. As he bathed to purify himself afterward, other deities were born from him, including the Sun goddess Amaterasu, the Moon god Tsukiyomi, and the storm god Susanoo (impetuous male), the younger brother of the Sun goddess. Izanagi’s cleansing is the basis for Shinto purification rites.
The notion of evil does not exist in the faith.
The religion does have the concept of immortality, which can be achieved by pacifying the gods. To free oneself from the evils of the world requires following the different physical and social rituals of the Shinto faith. The most significant way in which other religions have influenced Shinto is the presence of a moral system based on Confucianism.
Presently there are about 150 or more sects of Shinto. Many of them have developed an aggressive outlook in an attempt to spread the faith beyond Japanese shores. Shinto can be found outside Japan, especially in places where big Japanese communities are present, as in South America and the United States. The more modern sects see brotherhood and world peace as being part of their values.
Until the fifth century C.E. when Japan first came into contact with Chinese culture, Shinto was merely a mixture of beliefs, practices, and myths.
During this phase, Japan had no scripts, painting, or cultures, possibly explaining the complete lack of idols. The arrival of Buddhism and the introduction of a writing system a bit earlier combined to make the development of a systematic compilation of Shinto beliefs a practical necessity. For one thing the Japanese were intimidated by the superior culture of the Chinese. By incorporating themes from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, the Japanese hoped to show the Chinese that the culture of Japan was on a footing with theirs. It was also hoped that, by tracing the lineage of Japan’s imperial house to the Sun goddess, Amaterasu, the divinity of the emperor would be unquestionable.
Thus within a very short span of time, in the early Nara period (710–84), two accounts regarding Shinto appeared: the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Things) in 712 and the Nihonshoki (The Chronicles of Japan) in 720. These mythological collections were intended to demonstrate the worth of the imperial family and its divine right to rule Japan. The compilation of Japan’s ancient traditions and mythology had a third effect as well: the number of priests, rituals, and temples proliferated.
From that time on the history of Japan has seen a spate of opposing movements, sometimes favoring Buddhism, sometimes Shinto. There was a concerted effort to mix the two religions, which produced clear defensive reactions on Shinto’s part, around the 13th and 18th centuries.
In the last phase, the state religion was Buddhism, and Shinto was there as the opposition against the central authority.
In 1868 during the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Japan was opening its doors to Western civilization, the government compelled Buddhism and Shinto to separate. It was then that Shinto took on four different shapes. These four different varieties of the religion are intermixed in accordance with the cultural universe of every Japanese individual. They comprise the foundation of Japan’s value system.
The first form, a result of the end of the shogun era and the return of the Meiji Dynasty, was the Shinto of the imperial house, which emphasized the worship of Amaterasu, the Sun goddess and the emperor’s divinity. When Japan lost World War II, this type of Shinto was banished, and the emperor was, once again, shorn of his divinity. Once of a public nature, this religious cult is now strictly private.
The second form was the Shinto of the temples, the oldest and the most familiar. These are the rites performed in scores of Japanese temples that are members of an association called Jinja honcho.
Shinto of the sects is the third of the Shinto groups. This movement is the sum of the 13 diverse movements that came into being in the 19th century.
The most celebrated of these movements Tenrikyo was started by a woman in 1838 Miki Nakayama (1789–1887), who wrote the holy scripture called Ofudesaki between 1869 and 1882; it is made up of almost 12,000 verses. It is the revelation of God the Parent and teaches the positive way of salvation; its adherents number more than three million. Other sects include the Confucian sects, the revival sects, and the faith-healing communities.
Popular Shinto, the fourth type, is based on the ancient folk traditions, but it also contains elements borrowed from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
Its adherents engage in a variety of magic practices including divination and spirit possession.
Unlike most religions Shintoism has no specific commandments for its followers, apart from wanting its adherents to live a simple life in harmony with each other and nature. There are four affirmations of the spirit of Shinto. The first affirmation is that of the Shinto tradition and the family. The family is deemed to be the most important factor in preserving traditions. A family’s chief celebrations concern those relating to marriage and birth. The second Shinto declaration is the love of nature.
Nature is sacred; to be in touch with nature is to be in close contact with the kami. Shintoists worship natural objects, since they believe the objects have sacred spirits. The third Shinto affirmation is physical hygiene. Followers of the Shinto faith wash their hands, take regular baths, and rinse out their mouths frequently. The last Shinto affirmation is matsuri. It is any festival set aside for the kamis; there are many of these festivals each year.
The influence of Shinto on Japanese culture can never be overstated. It is practically impossible for Shinto to free itself from the influence of Buddhism; however, it is obvious that the notion of being one with nature gave rise to Japanese arts like ikebana (flower arranging), as well as traditional Japanese garden designing and the country’s unique architecture.
An even clearer connection to Shinto is seen in the national sport of sumo wrestling. The cleansing of the wrestling area before the bout, which is performed by sprinkling salt, is doubtless Shinto in origin.
Japanese people generally say, “Itadakimasu,” which means “I humbly partake,” before consuming food, and the Japanese citizen’s stress on proper greetings can be linked to the Shinto belief in kotodama (“words that magically affect the world”).
Japanese customs like eating with wooden chopsticks and removing footwear before entering a house or a building are Shinto in origin. Also various other minor Japanese religions, including Tenrikyo, have been greatly influenced by Shinto.
Holidays and Religious Observances
Although Shinto has numerous festivals throughout the year, many of them connected to the seasonal cycle, among the largest and most enthusiastically celebrated ones are Shogatsu (Shogetsu), New Year’s Day; Setsubin, Welcoming Spring; ShichiGo-San, Children’s Coming of Age; Hina Matsuri, Girls’ Day; Hana Matsuri and Ohanami, Celebrating Buddha and Blossom Viewing; Tango-no-sekku, Boys’ Day; Tanabata, the Star Festival; Obon, Festival of the Dead; Tsukimi, Autumn Moon; and Omisoka, Ringing Out the Old.
Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year festival is probably the most important, and popular, festival of the year. The holiday runs from December 31 to January 7, with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day the most important celebrations. Although it is true that many of the traditions and customs associated with Shogatsu are Chinese in origin, many more are uniquely Japanese. As in other cultures, the beginning of a new year also means a new beginning in one’s life.
Although it falls at the end of the old year (December 31), Omisoka, which involves all the preparations for Shogatsu, the New Year’s festival, is an equally important celebration in Japan. Purification of oneself and home and getting rid of evil influences are crucial during this period. Before January 1, houses and businesses are thoroughly cleaned: the old is thrown out and debts, obligations, and relationship problems must be resolved.
Kadomatsu (boughs of pine, bamboo, and plum) are found at the door of most homes and businesses, and beautiful arrangements are also placed inside to bless the dwelling.
As New Year’s Day approaches, an amazing assortment of special foods is prepared. These are called osechi and require great time and effort to make. Special balls of kanami mochi, a kind of rice paste, are placed on the family shrine or in a prominent place in the house. (On the 7th day of January, the dried mochi is broken into pieces, fried, and then eaten.) Before January 1, all the nengajou, New Year’s Day cards, must also be sent so that they will arrive on time. On New Year’s Eve, families often eat a special soba (buckwheat noodles) on their best dinnerware.
Other people may spend the last hours of the old year in a bath or with thousands of other people, mobbing a shrine or temple. A special sake, full of flecks of gold-leaf, is often served.
One ancient Omisoka tradition that originated in China is the ritual performed at the moment that ends the old year, destroys all “sins,” and announces the renewal of the world: the midnight ringing of temple bells. At midnight on December 31, temples and shrines herald the new year with the joyanokane, the ringing of a bell 108 times.
The source of the ritual of ringing the New Year bell exactly 108 times goes back to the origins of Japanese Buddhism, as well as other cultural traditions. Buddhism, various pagan gods, mathematics, and a number of other things originally came to China from India.
One of these was the goddess Benten-sama, originally the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, a consort of Brahma and the goddess of the river waters and of fertility and wealth. Sarasvati is the patron of speech, writing, and learning, and of the arts and sciences as well. Buddhist sutras and the so-called magical language used on memorials is a variant form of Sanskrit, and the prayer beads (juzu) that Japanese Buddhists use are also from India where they are called mala (“circle”). Juzus, which symbolize the world and the circle of the heavens, always have 108 beads.
In Indian astrology, the circle of the heavens was divided into twelve areas with specific meanings.
Each area was ruled by a constellation of the Zodiac. The passage of time was conceived of as a journey through the influence of the twelve powers, each represented by an animal. This system was used to determine the exact moment when such things as the new year would occur. Each zodiac sign was further divided into nine “digits,” just as a circle is divided into 360 degrees. This last division brought the numerical total of the heavenly circle to 108, and this number became sacred and symbolized the cycles of life and time in India, China, and Japan.
It is traditional to stay up all night to see the sunrise of the first morning of the new year. In earlier days, people went to the top of a mountain to watch the sunrise, but any skyscraper will do.
New Year’s Day, Shogatsu, is the big festival day. Almost everyone dresses in their finest clothes and visits a temple or shrine to pray for good luck in the coming year (hatsumode). Many leave their old omamori (charms) at the shrine to be destroyed and buy new ones. The most important is the hamaya, a charm in the shape of an arrow hung somewhere in the house to protect it and the family for the coming year. Families then visit relatives and children are given otoshidama, small envelopes of gift-money.
After this, the children play any of several traditional games such as is hayoeta, a badmintonlike game, karutatori, an ancient card game once played only among the nobility, or sugoroku, a game played with dice. Traditional Shogatsu toys are the koma (top) and takoage (kite).
The Obon festival season, celebrated in the last half of August, is a “twilight time” in Japan, when the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead is temporarily parted and one’s ancestors return to Earth to commune with their living relatives.
Obon originated so long ago that it is impossible to know just how old the festival is. In this it is similar to the ancient Western festival of Samhain, the pagan festival still celebrated as Halloween. But, while Halloween observances have lost virtually all of their original meaning and force, the modern Japanese celebration of Obon still welcomes the return of the spirits of the dead with elaborate dances and rituals.
The most famous is the circular dance called Bon Odori, a lively dance that conceals an ancient and spooky ritual. Originally, the purpose of Bon Odori was to summon the spirits of departed relatives so the living could dance with them, so in practice, everyone dances alone. During Obon families visit their ancestral haka (“grave”) to clean it and leave the ancestors’ favorite sake, cigarettes, or food along with common flowers, incense, and mochi (“rice”) sweets. Families that continue to honor older traditions also make a small horse doll out of eggplants and leave this on the grave as well. The spirits of the dead can use the “horse” to return again to the world of the living for a visit.
Although the Japanese enjoy their visit with their long-gone relatives-keeping them up-to-date on family affairs and, perhaps, getting some help- they don’t want them to stay too long. Japanese culture is full of stories of spirits that decided they would rather stay than go back to the land of the dead. To make this a less likely outcome of Obon, people build huge bonfires to help their ghostly ancestors return whence they came.
Hokkaido: Hokkaido, situated in the northeast corner of the country, is the second largest of Japan’s four islands. The island is about the size of Denmark and Switzerland combined. In contrast with the rest of Japan, Hokkaido’s culture is not tied to a conservative history, and it is receptive to Western influence. It is the Hokkaido shrine, however, where the enormous influence of the nationalistic tenet of Shinto is felt. In addition, the renewal of Shinto traditions can be witnessed across the island.
Honshu: Shinto’s most holy shrine is at Ise, in the southeastern part of the island of Honshu. In the temple of the Sun goddess is the mirror that the goddess is supposed to have given to the celebrated first emperor, Jimmu (r. 660–585 B.C.E.), in the seventh century. The oldest shrine (perhaps from about the fourth century C.E.) and next in order of significance is Izumo Taisha Jinja near Izumo, in western Honshu. The kamis are believed to gather there every October.
Kyushu: Kyushu is the southernmost island and claims to have some of the most ancient historical sites in Japan. Kyushu is famous for being the geographical base of the Shinto-inspired rise of imperial might during the mid-19th century, when the military hold in Edo (now known as Tokyo) ended about 250 years of uninterrupted rule.
Shikoku: Shikoku is famous for being the island where the well-known Pilgrimage of the 88 Temples takes place. In the northeastern region of the island of Shikoku lies Kawaga. Out of the 88 temples in the famed pilgrimage of Shikoku, 22 are situated in Kagawa. Though the pilgrimage is mainly Buddhist in inspiration, there are some exceptions. In the Kotohiragu shrine, we see a stark example of the coming together of Buddhism and Shinto. Here Kompira, a god with origins from Indian Buddhism, is revered as the guarding divinity of seafarers.