General Information

Shintoism was the primitive religion of Japan before the coming of Buddhism, which is currently the main religion of Japan. Shintoism is a very simple religion. It gives only one command, the necessity of being loyal to one's ancestors.

Its early aspects were naturalistic, which included spiritism, totemism, nature worship, and a crude sort of monotheism. Early Japanese worshipped the sun, thunder, earth, volcanoes, tigers, serpents, trees, shrubs, vines, etc. and even stones. A later stage is more intellectual and ethically oriented.

The only deity actually recognized in higher Shintoism is the spiritualized human mind.

For the masses, Shintoism has about 800,000 gods, mostly the deified heroes of the Japanese. The chief god is Amaterasu, the Sun God, from whom the Imperial Family of Japan traces its roots.

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General Information

A linguistic definition of Shinto is somewhat anathema to Shinto.

But anyway, Shinto is awash with idols. There is (almost) no god that you cannot point to. Shinto approves of the representation of God in the material. Having said that, in Shinto thought too there is an insistence that God is spiritual: the kami is the power in the mountain, the tree, the sun and not these objects themselves. But Shinto is extremely "idol tolerant". Conversely, Shinto is I believe, very logo-clastic, it believes that God can not and should not be expressed in words.

Shinto is a loose collection of faiths without any written commandments or creed. It is conveyed by ritual, practice, and behaviour rather than by word. The following linguistic description of Shinto is, therefore, at best an external analysis rather than "Shinto doctrine" since Shinto avoids linguistic definition to the extent that other religions avoid idolatory.

An infinite number of gods or spirits are revered in Shinto, but at the supreme level in the Shinto cosmology is the unity of Nature from which all things are born. Humans depend upon the spirits, which are features of nature (such as mountains, waterfalls, trees and the sun) and our human ancestors. The spirits depend upon humans and by being enshrined and how revered they come to be.

While born pure and at one with nature, humans become defiled through their participation in society. In order to purify themselves they must worship the spirits. Shintoists perform simple and often silent prayers, rituals and offerings to the spirits at Shrines and at altars within the home. They try to maintain an attitude of gratitude and humility. Shintoists believe that when they die they eventually become one with the spirits and in turn, with nature to which all things return.

The number 13 (of sects) came from the number that were approved by the Meiji (late nineteenth, early 20th century) Japanese government. Shinto was reorganised by the government. This had the effect of

  1. Removing the "foreign" Buddhist elements
  2. Reducing the amount of lay spirituality and "superstision"
  3. Reorganising the remainder around the panthenon as described in the Kojiki myth.

As part of (2) the government had religions practioners register and they only recognised 13 religions sects outside of their new State/Shrine Shinto framework.

T Leuers


{shin' - toh}

Advanced Information

Shinto is the indigenous religious tradition of Japan. Unlike some religions, Shinto has no historical founder; its roots lie deep in the prehistoric religious practices of the Japanese people. Nor does Shinto have any canon of sacred scriptures, although important elements of its mythology and cosmology may be found in ancient Japanese chronicles (the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki), and ritual prayers called norito were compiled into written collections at an early date.

The name Shinto is actually the Sino Japanese reading for the more purely Japanese kami no michi, which means the "way of the kami." The kami are innumerable Japanese deities that may be thought of as full fledged gods (such as the sun - goddess Amaterasu, from whom the imperial family is said to descend); the divinized souls of great persons (warriors, leaders, poets, scholars); the ancestral divinities of clans (uji); the spirits of specific places, often of natural beauty (woods, trees, springs, rocks, mountains); or, more abstractly, the forces of nature (fertility, growth, production).

Kami are generally worshiped at shrines (jinja), which are established in their honor and house the go - shintai (sacred objects) in which the kami are said to reside. Worshipers will pass under a sacred arch (torii), which helps demarcate the sacred area of the shrine. They will then purify themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouths, approach the shrine itself, make an offering, call on the deity, and utter a silent prayer.

Special times for worship include important moments in the life cycle of individuals (birth, youth, marriage, and, more recently, school entrance examinations) and festival dates (matsuris) that reflect the rhythm of the year: the New Year, the advent of spring, rice planting, midsummer, harvesting, and so on. In addition, each shrine will usually have its own special matsuri particular to its own history or foundation. On any of these occasions the shrine will be crowded with worshipers, many of whom may wish to have their fortunes told or to receive special blessings or purifications from the Shinto priests. Certain shrines have also taken on national importance. The Grand Shrine of Ise, for example, is sacred to Amaterasu. Because she is associated with the imperial family, her shrine is a national center of pilgrimage - the focal point for paying respect to the emperor and, through him, to Japan.

With the establishment of Buddhism in Japan during the Nara and Heian periods (710 - 1185 AD), Shinto quickly came under its influence as well as that of Confucianism and Chinese culture as a whole. On the one hand, it became more highly structured, following the Buddhist lead. On the other hand, certain kami came to be thought of as manifestations of particular Buddhas or bodhisattvas. (Amaterasu, for example, was identified with the cosmic Buddha Vairocana.) Thus the two religions both mixed and coexisted at the same time.

During the Tokugawa period (1603 - 1868), the Buddhist sects became tools of the feudal regime and neo Confucianism served as the guiding ideology. Shinto was overshadowed in the process. Gradually, however, certain nationalist scholars, reacting against what they considered foreign ideologies, turned more and more to Shinto as the source of a uniquely Japanese identity.

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868 - and the disestablishment of both the Tokugawa regime and the Buddhism that had accompanied it - Shinto naturally came to the fore. In the 1880s the government guaranteed freedom of religion to practitioners of all faiths but also drew a distinction between shrine Shinto (sometimes called state Shinto) and sect Shinto. The former was a nominally secular organization by means of which the state transformed shrines into centers of a patriotic and nationalistic "cult" applicable to followers of all faiths.

In the 1930s shrine Shinto was used by the ultranationalists and militarists as one of several vehicles for their views. Sect Shinto, on the other hand, was a separate category for various popular religious groups (a total of 13 Shinto "denominations" were distinguished), which were thereby separated from the state sponsored shrines and had, like the Buddhist sects and Christian denominations, to rely on private, nongovernmental support. These sect Shinto groups were, in many instances, the prototypes of various new religions that have emerged in Japan during the 20th century, especially since World War II.

With the end of World War II and the American occupation of Japan, the shrine Shinto system was dismantled and Shinto as a whole was disassociated from the state. Following that period, however, the shrines were revitalized and today remain one of the sacred focuses of Japanese religious sentiment.

Joseph M Kitagawa And John S Strong

W G Aston, Shinto: The Way of the Gods (1905); D C Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism (1963), and The National Faith of Japan (1938); G Kato, A Study of Shinto (1971); S Ono, Shinto: The Kami Way (1962).


Additional Information

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Beginning about 500 BC (or earlier) it was originally an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism. Its name was derived from the Chinese words "shin tao" (The Way of the Gods) in the 8th Century AD. At that time, the Yamato dynasty consolidated its rule over most of Japan, divine origins were ascribed to the imperial family, and Shinto established itself as the official religion of Japan, along with Buddhism.

The complete separation of Japanese religion from politics did not occur until just after World War II. The Emperor renounced his divinity at that time.

Shinto has no real founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a very loosely-organized priesthood.


Most Japanese citizens follow two religions: both Shinto and Buddhism. Buddhism first arrived in Japan from Korea and China during the 8th century AD. The two religions share a basic optimism about human nature, and for the world. Within Shinto, the Buddha was viewed as another Kami (nature deity). Meanwhile, Buddhism in Japan regarded the Kami as being manifestations of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Shinto does not have as fully developed a theology as do most other religions. Their religious texts discuss the High Plain of Heaven and the Dark Land which is an unclean land of the dead, but give few details. Shinto creation stories tell of the history and lives of the Kami. Among them was a divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, who gave birth to the Japanese islands. Their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans. Amaterasu (Sun Goddess) was one of their daughters. She is the ancestress of the Imperial Family. Her descendants unified the country. Her brother, Susano came down from heaven and roamed throughout the earth. He is famous for killing a great evil serpent. The Sun Goddess is regarded as the chief deity. There are numerous other deities who are conceptualized in many forms.

Some are related to natural objects and creatures, from food to rivers to rocks. There are Guardian Kami of particular areas and clans. Some are exceptional past people, including all but the last of the emperors. Some are abstract creative forces. They are seen as benign; they sustain and protect. There are no concepts which compare to the Christian beliefs in the wrath of God, His omnipotence and omni-presence, or the separation of God from humanity due to sin.

Ancestors are deeply revered and worshipped. All of humanity is regarded as Kami's child. Thus all human life and human nature is sacred. Believers revere musuhi, the Kamis' creative and harmonizing powers. They aspire to have makoto, sincerity or true heart. This is regarded as the way or will of Kami. Morality is based upon that which is of benefit to the group. Shinto emphasizes right practice, sensibility, and attitude.

There are Four Affirmations in Shinto:

The desire for peace, which was suppressed during World War II, has been restored.


Shinto recognizes many sacred places: mountains, springs, etc. Each shrine is dedicated to a specific Kami who has a divine personality and responds to sincere prayers of the faithful. When entering a shrine, one passes through a Tori a special gateway for the Gods. It marks the demarcation between the finite world and the infinite world of the Gods. In the past, believers practiced misogi,, the washing of their bodies in a river near the shrine. In recent years they only wash their hands and wash out their mouths in a wash basin provided within the shrine grounds. Believers respect animals as messengers of the Gods. A pair of statues of Koma-inu (guard dogs) face each other within the temple grounds. Shrine ceremonies, which include cleansing, offerings, prayers, and dances are directed to the Kami. Kagura are ritual dances accompanied by ancient musical instruments. The dances are performed by skilled and trained dancers. They consist of young virgin girls, a group of men, or a single man. Mamori are charms worn as an aid in healing and protection. There come in many different forms for various purposes. An altar, the Kami-dana (Shelf of Gods), is given a central place in many homes.

Seasonal celebrations are held at spring planting, fall harvest, and special anniversaries of the history of a shrine or of a local patron spirit. Followers are expected to visit Shinto shrines at the times of various life passages. For example, the annual Shichigosan Matsuri involves a blessing by the shrine Priest of girls aged 3 and 7 and boys aged 5.

Forms of Shinto

Around 1900 AD, Shinto was divided into:

These three forms are closely linked. An image may be installed by a member of one of the Sectarian Shinto sects who worships at a particular shrine. Shinto is a tolerant religion which accepts the validity of other religions. It is common for a believer to pay respect to other religions, their practices and objects of worship.

Shinto Texts

Many texts are valued in the Shinto religion. Most date from the 8th century AD:

Estimates of the number of Shintoists vary a lot. Some sources give numbers in the range of 2.8 to 3.2 million. One states that 40% of Japanese adults follow Shinto; that would account for about 50 million Shintoists. Others state that about 86% of Japanese adults follow a combination of Shinto and Buddhism; that would put the number of followers of Shinto at 107 million.

One source estimates 1000 followers of Shinto in North America. The Canadian Census (1991) recorded 445 in Canada.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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