Shinto; Shintoism

Shinto is the native religion of Japan and was once its state religion.

Shinto is a general term for the activities of the Japanese people to worship all the deities of heaven and earth, and its origin is as old as the history of the Japanese. It was towards the end of the 6th century when the Japanese were conscious of these activities and called them ‘Way of Kami (the deity or the deities)’. It coincides the time when the 31st Emperor Yomei prayed before an image of Buddha for the first time as an emperor for recovery of his illness. Thus accepting Buddhism, a foreign religion, the Japanese realized existence of a tradition of their own faith.

After having gone through a long history since then, this indigenous faith, Shinto, has developed into four main forms: Koshitsu Shinto (Shinto of the Imperial House), Jinja Shinto (Shrine Shinto), Shuha Shinto (Sectarian Shinto), and Minzoku Shinto (Folk Shinto).
– Source: What is Shinto? Shinton Online Network Association


Lacking dogma or overarching principles, Shinto is based on ancient rites associated with beseeching the gods – some 8,000 of them – for bountiful harvests, prosperity and good health. The creed sees natural objects such as trees or mountains as spiritual beings, and its flexibility has allowed generations of Japanese to claim both Shintoism and Buddhism as their religions.

Shinto, however, also has its dark side. It is closely identified with the emperor as its head priest, and modernizers in the 1800s seeking to unify spiritual and political power made Shinto the state religion, setting the stage for the emperor-worship, jingoism and concepts of racial purity that fueled Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century.

Shinto was split from the state after World War II and the emperor renounced his divinity, though the Shinto elite, struggling to maintain its relevance in a modern, secular state, still loudly declares itself the legitimate guardian of Japanese native identity, pointing to the millions who crowd shrines on New Year and other auspicious days.
– Source: Building the gods’ home: Japan readies for ritual reconstruction of its most important Shinto shrine, AP, Feb. 5, 2005


Shinto is the native religion in Japan with its roots stretching back to 500 B.C., and is a poly-theistic one venerating almost any natural objects ranging from mountains, rivers, water, rocks, trees, to dead notables. In other words, it is based on animism. Natural wonders make the Japanese believe, out of an awe or reverence, that such wonders are created by the mighty, super-natural powers, and the ghost of a deity dwells in such objects. Also great warriors, leaders and scholars are often divinized. Thus anything, even a rotten head of a sardine, can be deified, so goes a cynical saying. To dedicate to those diverse deities, shrines were erected in a sacred spots throughout Japan. Among the natural phenomena, the sun is most appealing to the Japanese and the Sun Goddess is regarded as the principal deity of Shinto, particularly by the Imperial Family. We Japanese call our nation ‘Nippon’ in Japanese. It literally denotes ‘the Origin of the Sun’. The Japanese national flag is simple, one red disk in the center, and it symbolizes the sun.

The Japanese mythology relates that there was the goddess of the sun and the ruler of the heaven named Amaterasu {pronounced ah-mah-teh-rah-soo}, who was believed to be the legendary ancestor of the current Imperial Family. It asserts that she was once so offended by the misdeeds of her brother that she came down to the earth and hid in a cave. The universe was plunged into pitch darkness and evil thrived. The gods and goddesses gathered near the cave to talk about how to get her out. They held a party and a goddess began to dance in front of the cave, causing the crowd to roar with delight. As she whirled about, her clothes fell off, drawing cheers from the other gods. Curious about the fuss, Amaterasu peeked out from behind a jumbo rock blocking the cave’s entrance. The dancing goddess held up a mirror and said, “We are dancing to celebrate for a new goddess.”Amaterasu came out to see the new goddess, but what she saw was her own reflection. A powerful god grabbed her out and told never to hide again.

Today’s Emperor Akihito {ah-key-he-toh} is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Emperor Jinmu {gin-moo}, Japan’s legendary first emperor and a mythical descendent of Amaterasu. Though not often referred to today, the Japanese calendar year starts from 660 B.C., the year of his accession. The reigning emperors were considered to be the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and revered as a living god at one time or another. When the Pacific War was imminent in 1940, the fascist government was boasting it was the year of 2600 to exalt the national prestige, and it even made a song cerebrating the 2600th year.

With the introduction of Buddhism from China in the mid-sixth century, however, Shinto began to be overshadowed by Buddhism. Greatly affected by the new religion, Imperial Prince Shotoku {sho-tok} (574-622) institutionalized Buddhism as a state religion and built many great temples such as Horyuji in Nara Prefecture and Shiten’noji in Osaka. Many Buddhist temples today have a hall in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined in homage of his achievements. As a matter of fact, his portrait had been printed on the 10,000-yen bills until recently.

Entering the medieval ages, emperors and Shinto lost the reigning power and the nation was gradually controlled by the military rulers. The process of blending Buddhism with Shinto progressed, and in the Heian Period (794-1185) Shinto deities came to be recognized as incarnation of the Lord Buddha. The case in point was emerging of the syncretic school that combined Shinto with the teachings of the Shingon sect Buddhism. The basis of the school’s belief was that Shinto deities were manifestation of Buddha divinities. Most important was the identification of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu with Buddha Mahavairocana or Dainichi Nyorai {dye-nee-chee nyo-rye} in Japanese (the Great Sun Buddha). The well-known Japanese eclecticism in religion was already extant at this stage.

In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), however, Shinto was emancipated from the Buddhism domination by the military dictators, and Shintoist claimed that Shinto divinities were not incarnation of the Buddha but that Buddha himself was rather manifestation of Shinto deities. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine used to be a typical mixture of Shinto and Buddhism elements and a prime example of syncretism as Yoritomo Minamoto {me-nah-moh-toh yo-re-toh-mo} (1147-1199), the founder of the Shrine, was in the lineage of the Imperial Family.

After the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, the Emperor restored the sovereignty, and the new government institutionalized Shinto as the official state religion while implementing restrictive policies against Buddhism and other religions including Christianity. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine had to remove or thrown away all of its structures and objects associated with Buddhism. The Emperor turned living god, and those who dared to gaze directly at the divine Emperor were subject to arrest. Some critics say it was more fascistic than today’s North Korea since Kim Jong Il is not divinized yet. Today’s emperor is no longer a god, of course, but a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, according to the Constitution. Shinto, however, continues to be the Imperial Family’s religion, and traditional Shinto rituals are taking place in the Imperial Palace regularly. Its influences can be seen on the Japanese national holidays, many of which originate in Shinto rituals.
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– Source: Shinto, from A Guide To Kamakuza

This post was last updated: Oct. 26, 2007    

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