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FOUNDED: c. 500 c.e.


The term Shinto refers to the worship of local divinities, called kami, in the Japanese archipelago. "Shinto" literally means "the way of the kami." It is difficult to pinpoint the historical origins of this Japanese religion. It has no founder, so its beginnings cannot be connected with an individual. Indeed, the location of the origins of Shinto in history depends upon how the term Shinto itself is defined. For centuries nativist scholars in Japan (kokugakusha) and apologists for the imperial family have claimed that Shinto is the expression of the natural and innate spirituality of the Japanese people. They have argued that this spirituality—styled Yamatodamashii, or "the spirit/soul of Yamato," Yamato being the name for ancient Japan—is unique to the Japanese as a people and has not changed over the centuries. They have projected the origins of Shinto back into the misty past and connected it with a divinely ordained political order. From a modern perspective, claims such as these are ideological and xenophobic in nature; they are not historically grounded. Yet, while it is impossible to accept this picture of Shinto as historically accurate, the very fact that so many Japanese scholars and Shinto apologists have proffered it is itself useful for the historian of religions. It tells us that defining and dating Shinto has always been a political act, one related to the rhetorical construction of a collective identity and to the goal of legitimating imperial rule.

The noun kami, which is both singular and plural in usage, is usually translated as "deities," "divinities," or "gods." In contrast to the mainstream traditions of the three Western monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), which hold that the divine and the human are categorically different forms of being, in Japan the line between the human and the divine is blurred. The emperor and empress, for example, were long held to be living kami in human form. The founders of some socalled new religions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were also considered to be living kami (hitogami or ikigami). More important, kami are not necessarily beings at all. Islands, mountains, rocks, trees, springs, rivers, waterfalls, whirlpools, and any number of other phenomena are referred to as kami. This has led some scholars to suggest that Shinto is a form of animism. Yet not all natural phenomena are sacred; only those that evoke a specific sort of response (for example, wonder, awe, a sense of the uncanny, or fear) in people are said to possess kami nature.


In an important sense the terms Japan, the Japanese, and Shinto are anachronisms when they are used in reference to the JMmon period (c. 8000–200 b.c.e.) or even the early centuries of the Common Era. No nation as such, no racially or ethnically distinct and unified people, and no unified religion were found in the Japanese archipelago during this time.

The earliest written records that may refer to the islands today known as Japan are Chinese texts. The third-century c.e.Wei Chih (History of the Kingdom of Wei), for instance, speaks of the land of the Wa, an island chain with many different principalities. The largest, Yamatai, was ruled by a woman who exercised shamanic powers, going into trances and communicating with the gods. The people practiced divination using tortoise shells and tattooed their bodies. It would be a stretch to call this Shinto, however, since so little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the time. In the period just before writing was introduced, the people organized themselves into many extended clans (uji). Each clan was united by the shared worship of the clan kami. The political leader of each clan (ujigami) also served as the chief ritualist—a pattern that was to be followed by the emperors and empresses later, after the establishment of a centralized kingdom. The people lived in an oral society in which all knowledge (e.g., religious, technological, and genealogical) was preserved and handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Immigrants from the present-day Korean peninsula brought writing to the islands, as well as other new technologies (iron forging, bronze casting, and pottery, for example), in the early centuries of the Common Era. They also introduced various aspects of the Chinese and Korean peninsular cultures, including religious values, concepts, and practices; cosmological constructions; and social and political structures.

Rice paddy culture was introduced to the region in the Yayoi period (c. 200 b.c.e.–250 c.e.). The subsequent agricultural revolution allowed the people to shift from a hunting-and-gathering stage of culture to one of surplus food stores, expanded permanent settlements, differentiated social classes, and occupational specialization. Gradually, some clans gained hegemony over others and began to exercise broader control over more people. Numerous large burial mounds (kofun), often in the shape of a keyhole, date from this time. The largest of these, said to be the burial site of Emperor Nintoku (reigned 313–99 b.c.e.), covers 80 acres. Although it is anachronistic to refer to the rulers at this time as "emperors," the presence of such impressive kofun indicates that some clans had the power to marshal the labor of thousands of persons for extended periods of time.

The large-scale changes wrought by the introduction of agriculture were not limited to the socioeconomic realm, however. Equally important, agriculture produced a revolution in religious imagery, symbolism, and practice. It is no accident that the architectural form of Shinto shrines resembles that of ancient granaries in Southeast Asia and Polynesia. The ritual calendar of the people came to be punctuated with rites and festivals related to the agricultural cycle, from the rituals for the planting of rice seedlings to the harvest festival in the fall. Moreover, when a centralized sacred kingship developed in the sixth and seventh centuries, the rulers styled themselves as the guarantors of fertility and bountiful harvests throughout the land, just as the Chinese emperor did. This intimate relationship between the ruler and agriculture is clearly in evidence in the myths preserved in the eighth-century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihonshoki (Chronicle of Japan), especially those concerning Amaterasu, the sun goddess.


An important symbol of Shinto is the torii. It is an open gateway that consists of two upright bars and two crossbars. Torii are found in front of almost every Shinto shrine, functioning as a boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds.

In an important sense it is the dual presence of agricultural rites and a centralized sacral kingship that permits us to speak of the emergence of Shinto. The term Shinto or the phrase "the way of the kami" does not refer to a timeless indigenous religion. Rather, it was coined in response to the presence of other sacred ways, most especially Taoism and Buddhism, brought from the Asian mainland. In terms of East Asian civilizations, Japan is fairly young—much younger than the Korean or Chinese civilizations, for instance. The earliest narrative texts from Japan date only from the eighth century c.e. The Kojiki (712), Nihonshoki (720; also known as Nihongi), and the Man'yMshū (late eighth century), among the earliest texts from Japan, provide valuable information about the religion of this time (at least among the elite) and preserve many myths. It is difficult to say, though, how far back into the past the religious beliefs, values, and practices found therein can be projected. Only a few contemporary Shinto apologists accept the chronology of the Nihonshoki, which dates the founding of Japan to 660 b.c.e., during the reign of the legendary emperor Jimmu. No serious historian does so. This chronology includes legendary figures with Methuselah-like life spans, as well as historical figures who lived closer to the time of the chronicle's composition.

The so-called Japanese historical chronicles actually present a "mythistory," not unlike that found in the Hebrew Bible. A "mythistory" blends myths—narratives with divine actors—into historical narratives of human action in order to create an ontological distinction and a pedigree for the ruling elite or for a people. In this case, it also seeks to legitimate a social hierarchy with an uneven distribution of wealth, power, privilege, and prestige. The Kojiki, Nihonshoki, and Man'yMshū all came out of the elite sectors of society. The Kojiki, for instance, was first ordered to be committed to writing by the emperor Temmu (reigned 673–86). The "mythistory" these works recount claims that the imperial family is descended directly from Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Like the pharaohs of Egypt, the rulers of ancient Japan claimed to be suprahuman or, more precisely, kami in human form (arahitogami). It is unknown how many people believed this to be true, but the assertion became the official position and was at the center of the imperial cult.

In 645 and 646 court leaders promulgated the Great Reform (Taika) in an attempt to restructure the political realm, to formalize a social hierarchy with the emperor at the top, and to create a hierarchy of religious institutions. Land grants were made to numerous Shinto shrines (such as Ise, Izumo, and Kashima), which gained prestige by becoming identified with the imperial family. This reform was followed in 701 by the TaihM Code (TaihM Ritsuryo), which established a Bureau of State (DajMkan) and a Bureau of Kami Affairs (Jingikan) at the top of the government hierarchy. The TaihM Code solidified the government's investment in the state-sponsored kami cults, both in economic terms and in terms of symbolic legitimation. It also sought to strengthen government control over Buddhist institutions. These reforms may be seen as efforts to weaken clan-based religio-political institutions and to replace these with imperially sponsored and controlled ones. While the TaihM Code was never fully implemented, the ideal of a divine emperor as the sacred center of the land and the cosmos was to continue to attract supporters down to the modern period.

As time went on, the imperial court began to grant additional titles, special hereditary rights, and prerogatives to specific families and to members of occupational guilds (be). From the second half of the ninth century until the mid-twelfth century, the Nakatomi family (later known as the Fujiwara) parlayed the hereditary status of its members as priests into real political power for several centuries. Nakatomi men became powerful ministers in the government, while daughters were strategically married into the imperial family in order to assure that Fujiwara grandchildren would accede to the throne. Numerous shrines and temples, controlled by aristocrats, were granted tax-free landholdings and estates and thus became sources of great wealth. As a result the religion of the wealthy elite, like their lifestyle, came to differ in some important ways from that of the peasants and laboring masses. Nevertheless, the religion of the elite and that of the commoners continued to share many beliefs and practices. Historians of Shinto have yet to investigate fully the ways in which the religious worlds of commoner and elite were both alike and different.

In the Nara period (710–94) Buddhism gained significant government support and patronage, most especially from the emperor ShMmu (reigned 701–56), who himself took the tonsure (i.e., shaved his head and donned Buddhist robes). From the start, however, Buddhism was assimilated with the kami cults in various ways. In 742 ShMmu issued an edict in which he declared that people should worship the kami but know that the original forms (honji) of these kami were actually various Buddhas. This is an expression of the Buddhist concept of assimilation, known in Japanese as honjisuijaku. An important example of the identification of a kami with a Buddha is the god Hachiman. The emperor sought to cast a great bronze Buddha (daibutsu) for TMdai-ji, the Great Eastern Temple, as a protector of the country. Things did not go well, however. The casting failed, the imperial treasury ran short of funds, and many of the people in the countryside began to grumble about being forced to contribute labor and funds. With the success of the project in jeopardy, two developments turned the tide.

First, according to the Shoku Nihongi, the kami Usa Hachiman in Kyushu delivered an oracle that he would "lead the kami of heaven and earth" to support the project. In gratitude the emperor had this kami enshrined in TMdai-ji as its protective deity. There Buddhist priests recited sutras before this kami, who came to be known as a bodhisattva—that is, a fully enlightened being who forgoes entrance into paradise in order to bring all living things to enlightenment and salvation—and as the divinized spirit of the legendary emperor L. In time the syncretic cult of Hachiman would become one of the largest and most widespread in the country. It is important to recognize the extent to which the kami cults and the worship of Buddhist deities were intertwined. In the city of Nara the Buddhist temples TMdai-ji and KMfuku-ji and the Shinto Kasuga Shrine were, to use the term of the scholar Allan Grapard, an integrated "multiplex." That is, these institutions were not independent, just as the worship of Shinto and Buddhist deities was not distinct.

Second, Emperor ShMmu turned to GyMgi (670–749), a charismatic Buddhist leader who had won wide-spread acclaim among the commoners. GyMgi was not a fully ordained priest; rather, he practiced a shamanic form of Buddhism that blended mountain asceticism, divination, and faith healing with the boddhisattva ideal. Religious figures like GyMgi were known as ubasoku or hijiri. They represent a type of religious leader, the holy man, who combines social activism with an implicit (if not explicit) critique of the religious and political establishment. As might be expected, some of the ecclesiastical heads of Buddhist institutions did not appreciate such unauthorized figures encroaching on what they considered to be their religious "turf." Reportedly, GyMgi traveled to the Ise Shrines in order to present a relic of the Buddha to Amaterasu. There he received a favorable communication from the kami authorizing him to solicit funds for the completion of the giant statue. (At a more mundane level, the discovery of new deposits of gold also enabled the court to complete the giant Buddha statue.) As was the case with Usa Hachiman, reports of oracles from kami served to suggest that Buddhist forms of devotion were not antithetical to the worship of the kami. Significantly, the commoners called GyMgi "GyMgi bosatsu"—the bodhisattva GyMgi. In doing so, they extended the concept of hitogami (a kami in human form) to a Buddhist figure, though one out-side the power elite associated with the court. The common people would continue to exercise their own power and prerogatives to acknowledge individuals as holy or divine over the following centuries, right down to the present.

The amalgamation of Buddhism and Shinto accelerated in the Heian period (710–1185), after the capital was moved to Kyoto. The two most influential schools of Japanese Buddhism—Tendai (in Chinese, T'ien-tai) and Shingon—were both esoteric schools. That is, they taught that, besides an exoteric truth and teaching that could be publicly communicated, there was also a deeper esoteric, or secret, religious truth. The concept of honjisuijaku (true essence and trace manifestation), found in the Lotus Sutra, was used to argue that Japanese kami were the temporally and spatially local manifestations of eternal Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The success of such identifications led to the building of Buddhist temples on Shinto shrine grounds, and vice versa, a pattern that was to be the norm through the 1870s. For their part, Shinto priests associated with Tendai and Shingon institutions formulated their own version of the identity of kami and Buddhist divinities. The origins of SannM Itchijitsu Shinto (Mountain King-One Truth) can be traced to SaichM (767–822), the founder of the Tendai school. He worshiped the kami of Mount Hiei, where he established his headquarters and monastery, as the Buddhist avatar SannM Gongen, the Mountain King, who was identified with Yakushi, the healing Buddha. Similarly, he worshiped the kami of Lmiwa as the historical Buddha.

Shinto priests affiliated with the Shingon school of Buddhism promulgated RyMbu Shinto, which identified the kami of the Inner Shrine of Ise with the Great Sun Buddha and the kami of the Outer Shrine with the Buddha of the Diamond Realm. This form of Shinto also incorporated the use of such other elements of Buddhist practice as esoteric mantras (dharani); mudra, or magical hand signs; and mandalas (elaborate paintings used in meditative practice, as objects of worship, and as teaching devices) that represent key Buddhist concepts and beings. In 859 the Yoshida Shrine, a branch of the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, was established on a hill in the northeast sector of Kyoto. The kami enshrined there was Kasuga DaimyMjin, or Ame-no-koyane-no-mikoto, the ancestral deity of the Fujiwara. The Yoshida, or Urabe, family remained close to the imperial family and to the Fujiwara, which after all were also becoming one and the same through marriages of convenience. The Yoshida priests offered lectures on the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, extolling the divine origins of the imperial family and the prestige of their own sacerdotal line.


the sun goddess
a kami in human form
Fukko ShintM
the "pure Shinto" of the scholar Motoori Norinaga
Shinto assistant head priest
haunting spirit of a wronged individual
Shinto head priest
a Shinto-Buddhist deity popular with samurai
purification rites
sacred space demarcated by a rope (shimenawa) or other marker
a living kami in human form
Buddhist philosophy of the assimilation of Buddhas and kami
sacred stone circles
Shinto ritual dances
Shinto deity or deities
lower-ranking Shinto priest
bodily or spiritual pollution
vital spirit or energy
Japanese nativist school of scholarship
eighth-century Japanese mythological text
eighth-century Japanese poetry anthology
wandering spirits of the dead
Shinto festivals
female medium or shaman
Nihon shoki
eighth-century chronicle of Japanese history
senior Shinto priest
Shinto liturgical prayers
ubasoku, or hijiri
mountain ascetics and holy men
yuitsu genpon sMgen shintM
"unique original essence Shinto"
shinjin goitsu
the essential identity of kami and humans
the "body" of a kami, the object into which it descends following a ritual summons
gate marking the entrance to the grounds of a Shinto shrine

Two other developments in the Heian period bear mention. First, the belief in goryM, the haunting spirits of persons who had died violently or who had been wronged, spread rapidly. GoryM were attributed with the power to cause illness, madness, death, fires, lightning strikes, and other calamities. One of the most famous goryM was that of Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), a scholar, poet, and government minister who was falsely accused of treason and sent into exile in Kyushu, where he died. After an oracle announced that a series of "natural" disasters had, in fact, been caused by Michizane's angry spirit, the emperor pardoned him posthumously and had his spirit enshrined and worshiped. This marked the formal beginning of the practice of deifying such individuals and of the pacification rites known as goryM-e. Tens of thousands of young people throughout contemporary Japan visit Shinto shrines dedicated to Temman Daijizai Tenjin, Michizane's divinized form. Popularly known as Tenjin-sama, this kami is prayed to for success in school entrance exams. Only the shrines dedicated to Inari, the rice harvest deity, or to Hachiman are more numerous.

The rise of the Kumano cults must also be noted. During the Heian period three shrines and sacred sites in the mountainous Kumano region—Hongu, Shingu, and Nachi—emerged as important pilgrimage sites, which were to become mass pilgrimage sites in the following centuries. The Kumano pilgrimage was popular with aristocrats and even emperors. Kumano is famous for its ShugendM priests, known as shugenja or hijiri, who practiced various forms of severe asceticism in the mountains. The cult was deeply influenced by the Shin-to-Buddhist amalgamation described previously. The Kumano Mandala, which portrays the surrounding areas as a natural mandala, is a famous national treasure. Before the development of modern forms of transportation, simply getting to these pilgrimage sites was an arduous task that tested the faith and commitment of the pilgrims. Kumano remains an important religious area, though today visitors can travel there in comfort by rail, car, or ferry.

The Kamakura period (1185–1333) was marked by the rise of military rulers and the relative decline of the imperial family and old aristocracy. Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–99) moved the administrative capital north to Kamakura in 1192, leaving the court in Kyoto isolated and its trappings of prestige tattered. To be sure, the series of military dictators made more or less perfunctory nods to the imperial family, but real power had slipped from imperial into military hands. The military rulers at times supported Buddhist cults, but not surprisingly the amalgamated cult of Hachiman, the god of war, grew significantly at this time. Many samurai (members of the warrior caste) also practiced forms of Zen Buddhism, as well as worshiping at Shinto shrines. Again, many portrayals of Japanese history fail to convey the extent to which Buddhism (here Zen) and the kami cults were intertwined in the lives of the people.

The historical vicissitudes of the imperial family, as well as various powerful clans and military figures, all of whom rose to great heights of power and prestige only to fall to a ruinous state, seemed to many persons to be powerful and poignant evidence of the Buddhist teaching that this was the Age of Declining Dharma (mappM). This teaching held that the world and its inhabitants were in decline, with humans no longer able to practice and master earlier forms of religious practice. Millennial expectations of various sorts became widespread. Nichiren (1222–82), for example, was a Tendai Buddhist priest who came to believe that the teachings and practices of all the Buddhist sects, as well as of other religious traditions, were false and dangerous distortions of the Truth. Believing that he lived in the age of mappM, he placed his exclusive faith in the Lotus Sutra. Unlike most Japanese religious leaders, Nichiren attacked any position supporting religious pluralism or suggesting the identity or functional equivalence of different religions. Moreover, he offered a nationalistic, even xenophobic, vision of Japan's special role in salvational history. On the one hand, Nichiren promoted a message of religious exclusivity, but on the other, he saw Japan, "the land of the kami," as destined to play a critical role in sacred history. In other words, he viewed human history as a part of a universal plan of salvation. A strong supporter of the imperial cause, he was deeply troubled by the defeat of the imperial forces in 1221. He predicted absolute chaos and catastrophe for the country, including invasions by foreign forces, if the people did not return to an exclusive reliance upon the Lotus Sutra. When an invading Mongol fleet was destroyed in a typhoon, Nichiren credited this miraculous escape to kami-kaze ("divine winds"), a term he coined. He believed that Japan was destined to become a theocratic state ruled under a reformed Buddhism. Tellingly, his own priestly name combined the characters for "sun" and "lotus," suggesting a critical identification of the land and the Lotus Sutra in his own person. Indeed, he came to believe that he was an incarnation of JMgyM (Viśistacāritra), the bodhisattva to whom the historical Buddha had entrusted the Lotus Sutra centuries earlier.

A Shinto response to a Buddhist claim of preeminence was forthcoming, although not immediately. Urabe (also Yoshida) Kanetomo (1435–1511) sought to revive the Ise Shinto cult and to restore its unique prestige and status. A noted scholar, he proffered his own form of exclusive and nationalistic religion, although in Shinto form. He argued against the concept and practices of honji-suijaku and for the restoration of a pure Shinto, which he called yuitsu genpon sMgen shintM—the unique original essence Shinto. In significant ways this form of Shinto remained influential over the following centuries.

The intertwined relationship of Buddhist and Shin-to institutions and practices was radically altered in the 1870s when the Meiji government authorized the forced separation of Buddhist and Shinto deities in cultic sites, while establishing State Shinto as the national cult. The separate status of Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines in present-day Japan is, thus, a modern development. It does not reflect the situation that had existed in the land for many centuries. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw the development of many so-called new religions. These religions generally have a founder who underwent some form of divine possession or revelatory experience in which a kami or Buddha expressed its divine will. Often lay-based, these new religions come in Buddhist forms (for example, Reiyū-kai, SMka Gakkai) and Shinto forms (for example, Tenri-kyM, KonkM-kyM), mixing aspects of faith healing with folk religious practices.


Shinto is not a doctrinal religion. There is no formal, standardized, or orthodox system of belief per se. Rather, most shrines or sects are free to develop their own expressions of religious style and practice. Shrines affiliated with specific larger shrines, however, often follow the lead and ritual calendar of the head shrine. Since World War II the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja HonchM) has issued a series of publications through the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics of Kokugakuin University, which serve as a general statement of Shinto beliefs and concepts. While Shinto priests are versed in topics such as morality, sincerity, purity, and so forth, they rarely preach on these subjects.


Shinto does not have a moral code distinct from that of Japanese culture more generally, which has been deeply influenced by Confucian, Neo-Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist values and ideals. Western authors have often noted, however, that Shinto does not possess a concept of sin akin to that found in the Western monotheisms, nor does it have a concept of humankind as fallen or inherently sinful. Rather, according to the religious anthropology of Shin-to, human beings have an innate moral sense of right and wrong or—perhaps more precisely—of propriety and impropriety. This is because humankind is descended from the kami and, thus, there is no radical ontological distinction between kami and human beings. Indeed, Shinto authors speak of shinjin goitsu, the essential identity of kami and humans. For both kami and human beings, improper actions and improper interpersonal relationships can lead to moral blemishes (kegare) or a state of pollution. These blemishes can be washed away, as it were, by performing rites of purification (harae) and by correcting personal attitudes and actions.

The mythic paradigm for understanding kegare and harae is found in the story of the kami Izanagi's descent into the underworld (told in the creation accounts of the Kojiki and Nihonshoki). There the female creator, Izanami, suffers severe burns in giving birth to the fire kami, passes away, and enters Yomi no kuni, the Land of Darkness. Her spouse, Izanagi, desires to see her again and descends into the realm of the dead. In the course of events, he violates a taboo on viewing her. This provokes her anger, and he is forced to flee the underworld, pursued by its denizens and cursed by Izanami. After his escape from this "most unpleasant land, a horrible, unclean land," Izanagi performs a rite of purification. In doing so he brings into existence a number of kami, including Amaterasu and her sibling, Susano-o.

In some respects Shinto proffers a form of situational ethics rather than absolute rights and wrongs. Suicide, for instance, may occasion either public censure or acclaim, depending on the circumstances. An individual who kills himself merely to escape personal problems may be judged to have been weak or selfish, while a person who commits suicide in order to take responsibility for a perceived failure that affected a collective unit (family, company, or the nation) is not. The figure of the loyal retainer, who faithfully serves his master or avenges his death but then commits ritual suicide (junshi) to take responsibility for his own failures and transgressions, has held sway in the Japanese popular imagination since the medieval period. From the many retellings of the eighteenth-century story of the 47 rMnin (masterless samurai or swordsmen) to the ritual suicides of General Nogi Maresuke and the writer Mishima Yukio in the twentieth century, each generation has grappled with the issues of what constitutes moral conduct and what to do in the face of conflicting moral duties.

It must be recognized that Shinto codes of moral conduct have changed over time, just as Christian ones have. The famous twentieth-century author Natsume SMseki captured this in his novel Kokoro (1914). The novel's main protagonist, Sensei (Teacher), tries to explain in a letter to a young friend why he has decided to commit suicide after hearing that General Nogi had taken his own life following the death of Emperor Meiji: "Perhaps you will not understand clearly why I am about to die, no more than I can fully understand why General Nogi killed himself. You and I belong to different eras, and so we think differently. There is nothing we can do to bridge the gap between us." In other words, a moral imperative of one period may not prevail in another. Nor, for that matter, may the moral duty of one person or class of persons necessarily be the same for others. Thus, the moral code of the samurai class was not the same as that of farmers, merchants, or priests.

In general, the Shinto-based new religions of Japan place a heavy emphasis on each individual's responsibility for maintaining proper relationships with others, including one's ancestral spirits. They also teach that an individual must assume responsibility not only for his or her actions but also for the reactions of others to them. For instance, if a wife is ignored by her husband or finds him irritable, she should not blame him; rather, she is instructed to examine herself in order to discover what she may have done to provoke this reaction and, then, to rectify it. Shinto ethics, then, are informed by Confucian and Taoist elements and cannot be neatly separated from Japanese social ethics more generally. The Neo-Confucian emphasis on loyalty to one's superiors, the submerging of one's personal desires to the collective good, and moral obligation all were used in the modern period to mobilize the Japanese people in support of nationalist and expansionist policies.


No Shinto texts have the status that the Bible has for Christians or that the Koran has for Muslims. That is, there are no divinely revealed works that all persons accept as the full and final word of God. Members of one of the Shinto-informed new religions have their own sacred texts, but the members of other religious communities do not recognize their status as scripture. To take but one example, the sacred texts of Tenri-kyM play no part in the communal life of the followers of Lmoto-kyM; the converse is also true.

Largely because of the influential works of nativist scholars—such as Motoori Norinaga—in the early modern and modern periods, the Kojiki has come to hold a certain privileged status, but this has not affected the cultic status of hundreds of kami who were not mentioned in the Kojiki. Over the centuries, however, numerous shrines and priestly families have used inclusion in the Kojiki of a kami that they enshrine and ritually serve in order to gain status and prestige within the religious world of Japan. Similarly, the ancient norito, or sacred prayers that are recited at imperial shrines, have gained a wider currency, although again they are hardly universal or required.


Like the members of most religious communities, Shinto participants employ many symbols in their lives. White, for instance, is a ubiquitous symbol of purity. In the Great Purification Rituals at the end of the year and in late June, hitogata (literally "person-form"), or paper cutouts, are rubbed over a person's body in order to take on the aches and pains and to absorb the tsumi (imi or kegare—spiritual defilements) that have accumulated. Symbolizing long life and vitality, kadomatsu are New Year's wreaths made of pine boughs enclosing diagonally cut bamboo stalks. Amulets (ofuda) containing the name of a kami—and thus symbolizing the kami's presence and protection—may be carried in a purse or billfold or hung in a car.

At most shrines there are small wooden tablets tied to large wooden display boards. Visitors purchase these tablets and write simple petitions on the backs of them, such as "I want to find a husband" or "I want to pass the university entrance exam." These tablets, known as ema (literally "horse pictures"), are offered to the kami. The horse pictures symbolize the actual horses that were once offered to the deities, as well as a wish for the delivery of the petition. Ema may also have zodiac signs, shrine insignia, or natural scenes on them rather than horses.


Shinto is a diffuse religion that was without an overarching ecclesiastical structure for most of its history. A number of historical leaders or innovators, however—proponents of Neo-Confucianism and members of the nativist, or National Learning, school (kokugaku)—bear mention.

Yamazaki Ansai (1618–82), a Neo-Confucian scholar, founded a form of Confucian Shinto known as Suika, or Suiga, Shinto—the Shinto of Divine Revelation and Blessings. He maintained that the one true teaching was that of Sarutahiko-no-mikoto, the earthly kami who had guided Amaterasu from the High Heavens to the earth and Japan. Ansai also promoted reverence for the emperor. He held that, as a direct descendent of Amaterasu, the Japanese emperor was united with the heavenly sun.

Yamaga SokM (1622–85) was a member of the kogaku, or Ancient Learning school, which stressed the importance of returning to the original texts of both Confucianism and Shinto and using philological methods in the search for truth. He identified Shinto with the way of the Confucian sages, arguing that they were one and the same, not distinct traditions. He is representative of numerous thinkers and activists who sought to combine Neo-Confucian thought and ethics with Japanese emperor-worship and nationalism.

The nativist, or National Learning (kokugaku), movement maintained that the worship of the kami, especially the sun goddess, was the essence of "pure" Shin-to (that is, Shinto before it became associated with Buddhism and Confucianism). Scholars locate the beginning of this movement in the work of a Shingon Buddhist priest, Keichū (1640–1701). Keichū came to believe that the poems of the Man'yMshū preserved the pure ancient Japanese language. Almost single-handedly he revived widespread interest in this poetry anthology, and he made it accessible to readers once again through his careful annotations. Keichū extended his critical methodology to other works of classical literature, including The Tale of Genji and The Tales of Ise, in an attempt to recover their original meaning and intent. This understanding of the significance of poetic language and its relationship to an earlier, pure spirituality recalls the ideas of the philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) and certain Romantic thinkers in Europe. The connection drawn between the Man'yMshū and other works of classical Japanese literature and a pure Japanese or Shinto spirituality by Keichū and other nativist scholars has remained influential in present-day Japan. For example, The ManyMshū, the English translation of 1,000 verses by the Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai, was first published in 1940, the year Japan formed an alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy under Benito Mussolini. The introduction to this anthology remains an important example of the modern ideological use of literary artifacts to construct a pure, unique, and innate Japanese spirituality and a "timeless" divine sociopolitical order.

Kada Azumamaro (1669–1736) and Kamo no Mabuchi (1697–1769) also contributed to the kokugaku movement. Kada, the son of a Shinto priest, continued Keichū's study of the Man'yMshū and classical Japanese literature. His immediate goal was to get the government to establish a school of National Learning, which would identify and eliminate Buddhist and Confucian obfuscations of the original meaning of Japanese texts. His proposed curriculum covered the way of the kami, history, law, and literature.

Kamo no Mabuchi became a disciple of Kada shortly before the latter died. Mabuchi continued and extended the work and teachings of his master. His school in Edo became widely influential, and his many works reached a large audience. In addition to studies of the Man'yMshū, he studied and wrote on the Shinto norito (liturgical prayers) of the Engishiki and other works of Japanese literature. He borrowed the Confucian concept of poetry as a guide and corrective to power politics, even as he substituted Japanese for Chinese verse and denigrated the Confucian tradition. Like other nativist scholars, Mabuchi romanticized the Man'yM period as a golden age in which the people spontaneously expressed themselves in poetry. Moreover, he argued that, because of the divine rule of the Japanese emperors, the land was blessed and the relations between the sovereign and the people were harmonious and free of all discord. Like many others before and after him, Mabuchi sought to identify Shinto with the Japanese national body (kokutai) and the imperial system.

Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) was perhaps the most influential spokesman for the National Learning movement. Rather than emphasize the central importance of the Man'yMshū, however, he pointed to the Kojiki. For Norinaga the Kojiki was the repository of pure Japanese spirituality, or Yamato-damashii. He derided the thought of Yamazaki Ansai for attempting to promote Confucianism under the guise of Shinto. His goal was once again to restore Shinto to its original state of purity—thus, the name Fukko ShintM (Restoration Shinto) is sometimes used to refer to his school. Although Shinto is sometimes criticized for not having a well-developed system of ethics, Motoori Norinaga included national morality among his four subjects to be studied and taught, in addition to national history, national literature, and Shinto and the body politic. His work has also influenced the discourse on Shinto in numerous important ways, not least in his suggestion that human emotional responses to things and events in the world are the essence of a pure religion and spirituality, not reason or a set of beliefs. In his pioneering works on classical Japanese literature, he linked aesthetic responses to religious ones in ways that many Japanese scholars of religion and literature have continued to follow.

Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) also promoted the restoration of imperial rule. His teachings were later to have great influence on samurai leaders of the Meiji Restoration, who overthrew the Tokugawa regime, reinstalled the emperor as the head of state, and sought to establish a national Shinto cult centered on the emperor. Hirata also posited the existence of a hidden or concealed world after death, where the spirits of the deceased continued to exist. This was a significant innovation in Shinto thought and one that introduced a dualism that some scholars have argued was influenced by Christianity.

Other important leaders have included the founders of new religious groups—the so-called new religions—in the Tokugawa, Meiji, and modern periods. Tenri-kyM, KonkM-kyM, Kurozumi-kyM, Lmoto-kyM, SukyM Mahikari, PL KyMdan, Seicho-no-Ie, and Sekai Kyūsei-kyM are a few examples of Shinto-based "new religions." None of these founders ever became a spokesperson for the Shinto world as a whole; rather, their spheres of influence were more circumscribed. Nevertheless, their careers and religious roles collectively represent an important characteristic of Shinto history: Innovation and new revelations are always possible at the grassroots level through forms of divine possession and divine communication. Moreover, immediate contact with the kami is available not only to the clergy but also to laypersons—to women as well as men and to the uneducated as well as the highly educated.

Nakyama Miki (1798–1887) founded Tenri-kyM after experiencing repeated instances of divine possession by the kami Tenri-o-no-mikoto, or Oyagami (Parent Deity). Many of her visions and revealed teachings were recorded and are now the central sacred teachings and scripture of this populous, wealthy, and influential religion. Miki also performed faith healings and shamanic rites, including ecstatic dancing.

Kawate Bunjiro (1814–83), the founder of KonkM-kyM, was believed to be a kami in human form (ikigami). He taught a form of positive thinking while emphasizing that a person should live according to the will of the kami in this life and not search for an afterlife. If a person lived his or her life properly, according to Bunjiro, then the goodness, happiness, and prosperity that can be enjoyed in this life themselves become sacralized. The focus of KonkM-kyM and other new religions on this life, as well as the prevalence of prayers for practical benefits (genze riyaku), has recently attracted the attention of scholars studying religions in contemporary Japan.

Deguchi Nao (1836–1918) was a peasant woman who had been widowed and reduced to abject poverty. She sought to provide for her children by gathering and reselling rags and discarded clothing. Familiar with KonkM-kyM and Tenri-kyM from her youth, this illiterate woman began to experience attacks of divine possession, which continued for more than twenty years. Nao's divine messages had millennial overtones, promising a rectification of the world order and the fall of the rich and powerful for having distorted the divine will. A son-in-law who took the name Deguchi Onisaburo (1871–1948) later assumed the leadership of the community that formed around Nao. He himself participated in the tradition of severe asceticism in the mountains, undertaking regimens that produced religious visions that he recorded in hefty volumes. Onisaburo was also a talented organizer and administrator and systematized the teachings and practices of Lmoto-kyM. The rapid growth of the religion apparently threatened some members of the government, which led to his arrest in 1921 and the destruction of the Lmoto-kyM headquarters. By the 1930s, however, Lmoto-kyM had become a strongly nationalistic movement, though the independence of its leaders again led it afoul of the government. Over the years Lmoto-kyM has spawned a large number of other new religious groups.


Several major theologians of Shinto were also important leaders in the development of the religion, as discussed above in EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS. One of the most important theologians was Urabe, or Yoshida, Kanetomo (1435–1511), the founder of Urabe Shinto, also known as Yuiitsu or Yoshida Shinto. In the wake of the devastation of the capital, Kyoto, in the Lnin War, he promulgated teachings of the uniqueness of Japan, while rejecting honji suijaku, the Buddhist teaching that assimilated kami to various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the subsumption of the Yoshida Shrine by the Kamo Shrine, he strenuously promoted specific aspects of the Ise Shinto traditions. Among other things, he claimed that the kami Ame-no-koyane-no-mikoto was the original source of the uniqueness of Shinto and of Japan as a country. Buddhism and Confucianism were held to be the flowers and fruit of this root. Not surprisingly, this kami was the ancestral deity of the Nakatomi/Fujiwara family and the deity enshrined in the Urabe-dominated Kasuga Shrine in Nara and the Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto. In the Kojiki creation myth, Ame-no-koyane accompanies Ninigi-no-mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess, in his descent from the High Heavens in order to pacify this world and to establish divine rule. Ame-no-koyane—and by extension the Urabe/Yoshida sacerdotal lineage—is closely associated with the imperial regalia. This is due in part to the claim of officials of the Yoshida Shrine that in 1487 the shintai (objects into which the kami descend after a ritual summons) of the Inner and Outer Shrines of Ise had escaped a destructive fire by miraculously flying to the Yoshida Shrine. The teachings of Kanetomo were only the latest in a long line of theological "innovations" by members of the Urabe/Yoshida line of ritualists. These are more properly seen as permutations within the long-standing strategy of adapting to changing sociopolitical situations while protecting the prestige of the sacerdotal lineage. For example, in 1330 Urabe Jihen left the Yoshida Shrine in order to study the syncretic Tendai sannM cult and teachings at the monastic complex on Mount Hiei. Apparently he found the priority given to Buddhist figures in this cult unacceptable, however. He then traveled on to Ise, where he studied the esoteric tradition of the Watari priestly line of the Outer Shrine. Subsequently Jihen developed a theology in which even the Buddhas and bodhisattvas were declared to have kami nature. This essentially inverted the Buddhist honji suijaku teaching. Yuiitsu Shinto, which incorporated Buddhist and Confucian elements, was highly influential from the fifteenth century to the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century.

Mention also should be made of some of the major scholarly Japanese interpreters of Shinto to the West. Masaharu Anesaki's historical survey History of Japanese Religion (1930) remained the standard work until Joseph M. Kitagawa published his Religion in Japanese History (1966). In the early twentieth century Genchi Kato published several influential articles on Shinto in the Transactions of the Japan Society of London, as well as a translation of the ninth-century chronicle Kogoshui. Sokyo Ono's Shinto: The Way of the Kami (1962) is an insider's view, as are the publications of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics of Kokugakuin University. Tsunetsugu Muraoka's Studies in Shinto Thought (1964) and Naofusa Hirai's Japanese Shinto (1966) also bear mention. Hori IchirM's Folk Religion in Japan (1968) was an important introduction to the significance of popular religious beliefs and practices for an appreciation of Japanese religions. SMkichi Tsuda (1873–1961) is perhaps the bestknown critical historian of Shinto and early Japanese history to have run afoul of governmental authorities for demonstrating that the historical chronology of the ancient imperial chronicles was unreliable. Kuroda Toshio (1926–93), for his part, argued persuasively that Shinto and Buddhism were institutionally intertwined through most of Japanese history.


The organizational structure of Shinto has varied greatly over time and from place to place. The early kami cults were local and independent in nature. Over time some shrines or shrine-temple multiplexes began to establish networks of branch shrines. This led to different "schools" of Shinto (for example, Yoshida Shinto) having their own organizational structures. At various points in history Japan's central government also sought to organize, and exercise control over, religious institutions. The Heianperiod Engishiki listed 22 shrines in rank order, with Ise at the top. The later establishment of a system relating specific shrines to the imperial shrines of Ise is another example of how these institutions were organized. This section will discuss the general internal organization of Shinto shrines today and the current national organizational structure.

Individual shrines of sufficient size and resources generally have the following hierarchical leadership structure: the gūji, or head priest, who has day-to-day overall authority over the shrine, though he ultimately answers to a board of trustees; the gon-gūji, or assistant head priest; the negi, or senior priest(s); the kannushi, or priest(s); and the miko, or female shrine assistants (single young women who assist in rituals and perform kagura, or Shinto ritual dances).

The Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja honchM), an organization created after World War II, regulates the Shinto shrines affiliated at a national level. This group represents the collective interests of the shrines in the political and legal spheres; it also takes the lead in handling public relations, both domestically and internationally. The association publishes a newspaper or newsletter, distributed to all members and to subscribers, which serves as the main vehicle for representing Shinto as a whole to the shrines themselves and to the world. The association also ranks shrines, as well as priests, in a hierarchy with the imperial shrines at Ise ranked at the top, as might be expected. The Jinja honchM is intimately involved in priestly appointments and licenses priests through examinations. Shrines dedicated to the kami Inari have their own organization and are not members of the Jinja honchM. Locally, priestly ranks are color coded, with the color of a priest's hakama (silk pantaloons) indicating his status. For example, in some shrines the head priest wears purple hakama with insignia; an assistant head priest wears purple with no insignia; and others wear light blue. Nationally, priests may be awarded one of four ranks, usually based on length of service, which are distinct from an individual's local rank and status. All shrine priests are ordained after requisite studies at either Kogakkan University in Ise or Kokugakuin University in Tokyo. The latter was originally established as an institution dedicated to kokugaku, or nativist studies.


Most Shinto shrines should be thought of as both buildings and the sacred sites on which these stand. This is because Shinto worship does not require physical structures to house the kami. Indeed, most of the earliest religious sites in the Japanese archipelago were holy sites where contact with the deities was possible. In prehistoric Japan circular arrangements of stones around a vertical pillar sometimes marked such spots. At other times trees or rocks demarcated such holy places. In presentday Japan himorogi (sacred sites) are demarcated by straw-plaited ropes (shimenawa), which are decorated with branches from evergreen sakaki trees and paper strips (shide). Kami are also regularly worshiped in open spaces known as iwasaka. Priests are not in residence at all shrines; rather, there are innumerable small and miniature shrines throughout Japan where a Shinto priest might occasionally be called to perform a ritual but where more often laypersons offer their own prayers. Small, unattended shrines are also sometimes found in the midst of rice paddies, where the farmers offer their own prayers to the ta no kami (rice paddy kami) for a successful harvest. Visitors to the roofs of Japanese department stores, where carnival rides and (in the summer) beer gardens are located, will also often find miniature Shinto shrines, where rites of blessing and purification are occasionally performed by priests engaged for these services. Shrines may also be found in the wedding halls of hotels and department stores. All of these different forms represent places where the kami were (and are) ritually invited to descend in order to receive worship and prayers for practical, this-worldly concerns.

Shinto shrine buildings differ in architectural style. Some styles are named after the most famous shrines where they were used, such as the Gion, Hie, Hachiman, Kasuga, and Sumiyoshi styles. More readily recognizable as a distinctly Shinto architectural feature are the torii, or gate markers, at the entrances to shrine grounds. Torii generally consist of two upright pillars with two cross beams, which may be straight or curved. There is usually at least one torii at each entrance to the shrine grounds, although there can be more. Some shrines have a corridor of torii—sometimes consisting of hundreds of these gates—through which visitors walk. Individuals, families, businesses, or confraternities donate funds to purchase the torii, as well as the stone lanterns that dot the pathways. In addition, they may create endowments for the upkeep of the torii.

What Is a Kami?

Translating the term kami, which is used to refer to Shinto divinities, has been a persistent problem, especially because Shinto concepts of divinity are different from Western ones. Etymologically the term means "high" or "superior," but in usage it refers more generally to all beings, places, and things that provoke a sense of awe or reverence in human beings. The eighteenth-century nativist scholar Motoori Norinaga offered one of the most famous definitions: "Generally speaking, 'kami' denotes, in the first place, the deities of heaven and earth that appear in the ancient texts and also the spirits enshrined in the [Shinto] shrines; further-more, among all kinds of beings—including not only human beings but also such objects as birds, beasts, trees, grass, seas, mountains, and so forth—any being whatsoever which possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary, and is awe-inspiring, is called kami."

Shrine and temple grounds are often islands of green in the concrete jungle of modern industrial and urban centers in contemporary Japan. Visitors to Shinto shrines in urban centers are often struck by the atmosphere created by the mature trees, mosses, and ferns and the play of light and shadow surrounding the shrine buildings. It is important, however, to recognize the extent to which the contemporary religio-aesthetic experience of Shinto shrine grounds is shaped by the contrasting experience of the surrounding space. The sense of sacredness is not necessarily the same over time. Prior to the industrial age, the green space around Shinto shrines would not have been anything of special note or distinction, for most of the countryside was forested. It was only after the processes of industrialization and urbanization had covered over much of the green space in the cities of Japan that Shinto shrines (and Buddhist temples) became places where one could commune with nature.

It is a mistake—indeed, a form of anachronism—to project the modern concept of "nature" and a modern spiritual feeling for nature into the past. To be sure, many modern Japanese and Western scholars have made much of Shinto's being a nature religion or a "green" religion, with a built-in ecological sensitivity, but this characterization has been overdone. When this view is offered by Shinto priests and Japanese nationalists, it represents, at best, an overly romantic self-image and, at worst, a crass attempt to deflect attention from the extensive environmental destruction that Japanese industrialization and capitalist economic growth policies, which were not opposed by the Shinto establishment, have caused domestically and internationally. When Western scholars offer this representation of Shinto, they are participating either in an unexamined parroting of Japanese claims or in the continuing Western romanticization of an enchanted "traditional Japan" that, it is implied, is somehow still accessible. The assumption that nature is the same over time and in all places may be true in a pedantic sense (the sun and the moon are the same celestial objects everywhere, for example), but it is misleading in more important ways. The religious significance of, say, the rising and setting of the sun or the waxing and waning of the moon varies considerably not only among different cultures but over time within a given culture as well.


Shinto kami are associated with phenomena of various sorts. Specific natural sites are considered to be sacred, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers and streams, rocks, waterfalls, caves, natural springs, ponds, and groves or individual trees. Some kami are identified with certain types of locations, such as roads, crossroads, paddy fields (ta no kami), and even toilets. Natural phenomena—including the wind, lightning, the sun, the moon, and the stars—also have kami associated with them. It is misleading, however, to suggest that Shinto is a nature religion, for many kami are not natural phenomena, nor is everything in the natural world sacred.

In order to define kami, some Western scholars have had recourse to Rudolf Otto's famous phenomenological definition of "the numinous" in his book Das Heilige (1917; The Idea of the Holy [1923]), but again the parallel is far from exact. For Otto "the holy," or the numinous, involves a sense of the wholly other (ganz ander); many kami, however, are immanent in this world or, indeed, a part of it. Mount Miwa, near Nara, for example, is worshiped as a kami. It was not until the early Heian period (794–1185) that, in response to Buddhist art forms, the Japanese began to represent kami in human form in paintings and sculptures. Even today few Shinto shrines house an image of the kami worshiped there. Rather, shrines usually have an object—a sword or a brass mirror, for example—known as the shintai (body of the kami), into which the kami descends after being ritually summoned. The anthropomorphic statues of kami that do exist are also considered to be shintai.

In addition to the kami associated or identified with natural phenomena, there are two types of human kami. First, there are hitogami (living kami in human form). For example, some of the founders of new religions in the modern period are considered to be (or to have been) living kami, as is the emperor. Similarly, individuals may be recognized locally as hitogami because of their deep spiritual nature, their ascetic practices, their experiences of divine possession, and so on. The second type of human kami is the goryM. GoryM are the haunting spirits of deceased persons who suffered some great wrong while alive. They can cause mental illness, widespread disease, lightning strikes, and other troubles. Once a goryM has been identified through divination, the spirit is given a kami name and enshrined, and rites of pacification are performed for it. Prayers and petitions are subsequently offered to goryM.

In addition, in numerous festivals children are taken to embody the kami as they ride in the mikoshi (portable shrines in the form of a festival cart or palanquin) or as they perform kagura (sacred dances)—that is, they "house" the deity in their bodies for the duration of the ritual. Any thing or person that becomes the temporary "seat" of a deity is thereby made sacred for the duration of the deity's presence. Popular Japanese performance arts, such as kagura, No drama, Kabuki, and some traditional forms of puppetry also involve ritual acts of sacralization. For example, preceding the performance of the okina (Old Man) No plays, the actor performs a rite to call down a kami into the mask he will wear onstage. The actor "becomes" the deity during the performance. After taking off the mask, the actor performs a rite to send off the kami. Such practices are believed to be the traces of shamanic possession rites.

Another type of human kami is the marebito, a visiting or wandering god or demon. In earlier centuries the Shinto-Buddhist mountain ascetics known as yamabushiwere believed to be marebito. These mysterious figures lived on the periphery of towns and villages and were regarded with a mixture of fear and reverence because of the occult powers they reputedly gained in the mountains. When they visited villages, they functioned in certain regards as ritual scapegoats, performing exorcisms and purification rites before carrying evil and accumulated spiritual pollution out of the villages. In contemporary Japan local young men portray marebito or demons (oni) in many Shinto festivals of blessing, exorcism, and purification. The namehage of Akita, ferocious figures in masks and straw costumes, are instances of this type of deity.

Kami may also be animals, either species indigenous to Japan or mythological or fantastic beasts from China or India. Animal kami include deer, bears, monkeys, lions, tigers, dogs, foxes, badgers, serpents, eagles, catfish, and dragons.


Shinto and Shinto-Buddhist festivals are known as matsuri. All matsuri have a tripartite structure involving calling down the kami, entertaining the kami (kami asobi), and sending off the kami. The primary function of a festival, then, is to ritually invite the temporary presence of a deity, provide entertainment, petition the deity for various reasons, and, finally, to effect a controlled return to the ordinary state of things, though with both the deity and the cosmos (or town) ritually renewed or purified. Renewal and purification are central to Japanese festivals, the purpose of which is to rejuvenate or "recharge" the world or to remove the pollution (kegare) that naturally accumulates.

Some matsuri are seasonal—that is, they are especially designed to renew time or to continue the cosmic and agricultural cycles of time. In the past the harvest festival (niiname-sai), which dates from the early historical period, not only celebrated the harvest but also served as the preferred time to ritually install a new emperor or empress. In this way it explicitly linked the renewal and continuity of the sociopolitical order to the agricultural cycle. The harvest festival is celebrated throughout Japan on 23 and 24 November. The emperor offers rice harvested from special paddy fields and other foods to the sun goddess and to other kami. He himself partakes of these offerings as he communes with the kami. Other seasonal festivals include New Year's; the Change of Seasons (setsubun) in February, which involves exorcism; the vernal equinox; rice planting time; and the autumnal equinox.

Yet other festivals are related to the stages or cycles of human life. In January there is the Coming of Age festival for those who have reached their majority (age 20 in contemporary Japan). In March the Doll Festival (hina matsuri) is celebrated by families with daughters, as well as at shrines around the country. A boy's festival is celebrated later in the year, at which time families with male children fly colorful windsocks in the shape of carp (koi-nobori) outside their homes. In November the Shichi-go-san festival is a rite of passage for five-year-old boys and girls aged three and seven. The nationwide festival of Lbon sees many Japanese returning to their native towns for the festivities. The spirits of ancestors are invited back during this festival and led by lanterns or candles to special sites where ritual dances, known as bon odori, are performed to entertain them. Ancestors are considered to be continuing presences in the life of the community. Thus, death and the ritual transformation of the deceased into an ancestor are seen as stages in the natural order of things.

Towns and villages throughout Japan have their own annual festivals. It is impossible to list all of them or even the most famous ones. It will be useful, however, to note some of the different types of matsuri in terms of the character of their performance. In many festivals, the deity is transported through the streets in a mikoshi (a miniature shrine or palanquin). The kami may be present in the form of straw sandals, a seat cushion, pounded rice cakes, a sake barrel, a puppet or paper cutout, drums, or other object. In some matsuri young men, naked except for a loincloth, carry the mikoshi. These young men represent the strength and vitality of the community and undergo rites of purification prior to the festival's start. Numerous matsuri involve competitions, ranging from a tug-of-war or mock battle to searches for an object symbolizing divine power. Some festivals continue to feature sumo wrestling matches between adults or children, with the results believed to be a form of divination. Sumo wrestlers often take place names, recalling that in the past in ritual bouts they became the temporary hosts of the local earth kami. Related to these forms of competition are the various kenka matsuri (fighting matsuri) in which teams violently engage one other. In some rites competing teams attempt to knock the other team's mikoshi off the shoulders of the carriers or off the road. In some coastal festivals boats carrying mikoshi bump each other in races or ritual combat. The teams usually are sponsored by and represent specific neighborhoods, which are identified on the participant'shappi coats (short, belted coats with wide sleeves) or headbands.


Shinto worshipers are not required to wear any special form of dress during shrine visits. Shinto priests and female shrine attendants, however, wear distinctive forms of dress that date from the Heian period (794–1185) but ultimately were borrowed from Chinese ritual usage. When performing important rituals, priests wear hats known as kanmuri, which are distinguished by a taillike feature on the back. For more ordinary occasions they wear eboshi, pointed or thimble-shaped hats. Priests wear silk robes and pantaloons (hakama), with the color reflecting the season or the age and rank of the priest. Contemporary priests wear lacquered wooden shoes and carry a shaku, a flat elongated piece of wood that functions as a scepter.

Female shrine attendants wear vermilion hakama over white robes, and they wear special head ornaments on ritual occasions. These headdresses are usually in the form of flowers and blossoms, which traditionally were used to attract the kami. They recall the traditional role of women as ritual mediums (miko), as well as a number of popular beliefs. For instance, the long black hair of maidens was believed to be especially attractive to kami, including those that caused disease. During times of plague, women were warned to wear their hair up and never to comb their long hair in public for fear of attracting the kami of the plague.


Shinto does not have strict dietary laws for participants. Most Japanese are not vegetarians and consume fish, fowl, and meat. On some occasions, however, an individual may abstain from consuming specific foods that are believed to offend a given kami. More commonly, special dietary practices involve the serving of certain foods during festivals. For example, pounded rice cakes (mochi), which symbolize the full moon, are commonly made and consumed during the New Year's holiday, though they are also frequently used in ritual offerings throughout the year. Rice wine (sake) is an integral part of all offerings made at shrines. After being ritually offered to the kami, it is served to the participants in the ritual and referred to as o-miki. Sake is also consumed at weddings and festivals and on other ritual occasions, while bottles or barrels of sake are often offered at shrines.

Is Shinto a Religion?

When the term or category "religion" was introduced into Japan in the nineteenth century, a neologism—shūkyM—was created to translate it. An ongoing discussion then ensued over the question of whether Shinto was a religion. At first hearing, this sounds odd to Western ears, but the question is a serious one, and any answer to it has serious political and legal consequences. In the early Meiji period (1868–1912), Shinto priests—because of their long-standing performance of state rites devoted to the kami, or divinities—sought special recognition and status for the kami cults. Eventually only national and imperial shrines were granted this status, along with direct government support; most shrines did not receive such recognition.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, the issue of whether Shinto was a religion surfaced again. The new Japanese constitution included provisions for freedom of religion and the separation of religion and the state. In response, an influential group of conservative nationalists revived the argument that Shinto was not a religion per se; rather, they contended, it was an expression of the spiritual nature of the Japanese people. Since the late 1960s the consecutive conservative governments have repeatedly sought to pass legislation that would define the Yasukuni Shrine, the national shrine that offers rites and ceremonies for the spirits of Japan's war dead, as a nonreligious institution. The opposition to these efforts has been strong and vocal. In many ways this struggle resembles the ongoing contestation of issues concerning the separation of church and state in the United States. In both cases competing notions of national identity are also deeply involved.


Shrine visits usually do not entail any formal worship service presided over by a Shinto priest. Rather, most visitors simply perform a simple purification rite by rinsing their mouth and washing their hands at the ever-present water basin; some may proceed to offer a prayer before the inner shrine. The petitioner will clap his or her hands three times, fold them together in prayer, bow his or her head, and silently offer a prayer or petition. A visitor may have a special rite or prayer offered on his or her behalf by a priest, however. Most shrines make available lists of the most popular rites and their respective prices. Such rituals can also be arranged by telephone or fax beforehand.

All Shinto shrines also have public rites that are performed at specific times. The Great Purification Rites of winter and summer are the most common such rites. These rituals are presided over by priests and shrine assistants, though laypersons may perform specific roles in the full festival performances.

All Shinto shrines seek to promote visits by the faithful, though depending on the shrine, they might attract people locally, regionally, or from throughout Japan. Some shrines have become major pilgrimage sites. Mount Fuji has long been a popular pilgrimage site, as have the Grand Shrines of Ise. Pilgrimage routes frequently include both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, a testimony to the fact that for most of Japanese history the typical religious structures were shrinetemple and temple-shrine complexes rather than discrete religious institutions. In addition, some new religions, such as Tenri-kyM, sponsor pilgrimages to the group's headquarters. Pilgrims often wear white happi coats and headbands inscribed with the group's name or with words of encouragement.

In contemporary Japan few Shinto shrines perform funeral rituals in part because death is considered to be polluting and dangerous. The ancient myth of Izanagi and Izanami tells how death came into the world and how humans became mortal. It also clearly implies that the pollution associated with death can be purified through ritual actions. With the introduction of the practice of cremation in the early eighth century, Buddhist priests assumed primary responsibility for funerary rites. Much later, in the wake of the government sponsored separation of Shinto and Buddhism in the late nineteenth century, this division of labor became even more marked, as Buddhist temples were physically separated from Shinto shrines.

Whereas Buddhist priests perform funerary rituals, Shinto priests perform most weddings in Japan. In the twentieth century, however, many weddings moved from shrines proper to freestanding commercial wedding parlors or wedding halls in hotels or department stores. Weddings have become a big business in modern Japan, and Shinto priests have adapted to the shifts in consumer taste. They officiate in their traditional robes, hat, and so on, though the groom will wear a tuxedo and the bride a traditional kimono, to be quickly exchanged afterward for a Western-style bridal gown for a photo session. The newlyweds share a cup of sake to seal their vows.


In addition to weddings, several other rites of passage are celebrated in Japan. Families often celebrate a newborn's first visit to a shrine. The annual Shichi-go-san festival held on 15 November honors girls who have reached the ages of three and seven and boys who have turned five. The saiten-sai, usually celebrated on 15 January, is a fairly recent innovation that marks the coming of age of twenty-year-olds. While these are the formal rites of passage, the liturgical calendar of every Shinto shrine includes "natural" rites of passage—that is, ceremonial markings of the passage of the solar year, the lunar cycle, and agricultural cycles of planting, growth, harvest, and dormancy. One of the central themes informing the Shinto worldview is the interrelatedness of human and natural cycles.


Almost all Japanese participate in Shin-to rites and activities, though there is no formal rite of initiation into the religious community akin to, say, baptism in Christianity. Shinto is not in general an evangelistic religion, so historically there has been little effort to convert other persons, especially non-Japanese, to Shinto. This being said, two important exceptions must be noted. First, during the modern period of Japanese imperialism in the twentieth century, the government established Shinto shrines in Korea, Manchuria, and other areas under Japanese control as part of its effort to legitimate its occupation under the ideological aegis of State Shinto. Members of the local population in these areas were sometimes required to participate in shrine activities. Second, some Shinto new religions, such as Tenri-kyM and Kurozumi-kyM, have sought to convert individuals both within Japan and abroad, though with mixed success.


Throughout much of Japanese history, Shinto shrines were conjoined with Buddhist temples. Thus, religious intolerance has not characterized Shinto. The most notable exceptions to this are the violent repression of Christianity by the shoguns (military governors) Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) and the Meiji government's forcible separation of Shinto and Buddhist establishments in the late nineteenth century. The shogun's violent repression of Christian communities, known as kirishitan, seems to have been based on political considerations, including fear of the power of some kirishitan daimyM (provincial military rulers who had converted to Christianity) and the influence of foreign missionaries. While Shinto leaders did not instigate the persecution of Christians, neither did they oppose the government's policies. Their conduct was quite different in the nineteenth century, when some nationalists actively sought to restore Shinto as the state religion and to purify Shinto by excising all Buddhist elements from shrine grounds.


For much of its history Shinto has been a locally based religion. Most shrines served local villagers or the inhabitants of urban neighborhoods. Without an umbrella ecclesiastical organization, no explicit orthodoxy developed within Shinto, including any clear-cut statements on social justice. In some ways most Shinto leaders, like their Buddhist counterparts, were products of their ages and thus shared many of the widespread social and cultural prejudices. For instance, until the twentieth century few persons spoke out against the broad-based discrimination against burakumin (outcaste) communities in Japan or against persons of Korean descent. Those Shinto leaders who have spoken out against social injustice in Japan and around the world have done so as individuals rather than as spokespersons for Shinto as a whole. Since World War II many Shinto nationalists have resisted pressure from Asian nations to apologize for atrocities committed by Japanese forces. Similarly, they have been slow or unwilling to take responsibility for any complicity the Shinto establishment had in Japanese imperialism. More recently, a number of Shinto leaders have embraced ecological causes as an area in which Shinto has much to offer the world. Some have suggested that Japan's rice paddy culture is an ideal form of living responsibly in the natural world.


Shinto leaders support the values of the traditional East Asian patriarchal family. Based on Neo-Confucian ideals, the ideal Japanese family includes the husband as breadwinner, the wife as home-maker, their child or children, and perhaps the grandparents—all living under one roof. Caring for one's elderly parents is viewed as an act of filial piety. It is expected that the eldest son (or daughter, in the event there is no son) will bear this responsibility. In contemporary Japan, however, shifting social values and economic realities have led to a decline in the number of extended families living together, a fact that is lamented by more conservative religious leaders. Socioeconomic factors have also led to a negative birthrate in Japan precisely at the time when the elderly population is growing rapidly. The resultant situation has placed tremendous pressure on the social welfare system and revealed fissures in the family support system. The Shinto establishment, however, has not presented any clear-cut policy solutions to these problems. Shinto leaders often stress that a person's extended family also includes his or her ancestors. In important ways, the ancestral cult remains a central part of Shinto practice and the Shinto worldview in the twenty-first century. The Shintooriented "new religions," especially, have placed renewed emphasis on the moral importance of ancestral rites.


Contemporary Shinto leaders are enmeshed in controversial issues facing the Japanese people as a whole. Frequently, these are political issues rather than social issues, such as abortion or divorce. The more conservative and nationalist faction has strenuously resisted pressure from former colonized nations for Japan to acknowledge its moral and legal responsibility for its imperialistic policies. Similarly, in the so-called textbook wars, Shinto nationalists have lobbied for history texts that downplay Japanese imperialism, mass killings of foreigners, the government's support of forced prostitution or the use of "comfort women" for the troops, and so on during the Pacific wars.

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, too, remains at the center of a long-standing dispute over the propriety of enshrining and memorializing the war dead, including convicted war criminals. Created in the early twentieth century as a part of the State Shinto apparatus, the Yasukuni Shrine and affiliated sub-shrines throughout the country have continued to provoke controversy concerning the proper relationship between religion and the state. Visits to Yasukuni by the prime minister and cabinet members regularly cause storms of protest domestically and elsewhere in East Asia, as does continued state support for the shrine. While no direct financial support is provided, more subtle forms of symbolic support for this cultic complex contribute to the blurring of the constitutional separation of church and state. Finally, in the wake of the Aum ShinrikyM affair—in which a controversialNew Age religious group manufactured sarin nerve gas, released it in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and was involved in kidnapping and murder and in the "brainwashing" of members—official surveillance and regulation of religious groups has reemerged as a national issue. In general, Shinto organizations have not opposed the strengthening of government controls or the expansion of police powers in monitoring religious groups.


The deep and lasting impact of Shinto throughout Japanese cultural history is undeniable. Conversely, the impact of history on Shinto has been equally great. Shinto shrine architecture has provided the inspiration for the clean and sparse lines of many other Japanese buildings, including houses. The modern architectural concept of negative space is indebted in part to the nonintrusive nature of Shinto architecture. Negative space focuses attention on the space between pillars and other physical structures rather than on the structures themselves.

Shinto ritual performances have influenced Japanese aesthetics and art forms, from dance and drama to puppetry. The concepts of purity and pollution have also impacted Japanese understandings of propriety and beauty. For many centuries Shinto and Buddhism were closely interrelated, as has been discussed; thus, it is difficult to clearly separate the cultural impact of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.

Gary Ebersole


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views updated May 23 2018


Shinto, sometimes called Shintoism, is a religion native to Japan. The word Shinto comes from two Chinese characters, shin, meaning "god," and to, meaning "the way." So the word Shinto can be translated as "the way of the gods." (The Japanese language incorporated into its vocabulary many words from the Chinese.) From the late nineteenth century through 1945, Shinto was the state religion of Japan. Most of its followers continue to live in Japan. It would be difficult for a non-Japanese to "convert" to Shinto, and Shinto does not actively seek members.

In many respects Shinto is not a formal religion. Rather, it is a reflection of Japanese culture and history, to which many elements of folk belief are added. Folk beliefs are those held by the common people of a country. Unlike many other world religions, Shinto was not founded by a prophet who spread the message of God, and it has no central religious center. In many respects, Shinto is more a life philosophy, a set of beliefs and guidelines on living life. Shinto's main belief is to live in harmony with all things. The gods of the religion are called kami, which may be translated as "spirits of nature" or "life forces." Kami are believed to exist everywhere in the physical world, from rocks and trees to the wind and sky, and live side-by-side with humans. The spirits of ancestors who have died are also considered to be kami.

Counting the number of Shinto followers is not easy. The religion evolved as part of an effort to unite the Japanese people under their ruler, the emperor. It used the commonality of Shinto practice to bind people who otherwise may have little in common together in a shared cause: the Japanese state. Additionally, Shinto is a very tolerant religion that absorbed the influences of Buddhism and other religions with which it interacted. Many Japanese who follow Buddhism, for instance, may also have some Shinto aspects to their practice. Such factors make it difficult to determine with any certainty just how many Shinto followers exist. Some polls show that about 3.3 percent of Japanese people identify Shinto as their primary religious affiliation. Other polls give much higher percentages, up to 40 percent. The best estimates are that about four million people are Shinto, making it the fifteenth-largest religion in the world.


The sun goddess.
Folk (Minzoku) Shinto:
Shinto that emphasizes folk beliefs, or common beliefs, of rural agricultural laborers.
Four Affirmations:
A code of conduct by which Shintoists live, including emphases on tradition and family, nature, cleanliness, and worship of the kami.
The male figure in the Shinto creation myth.
The female figure in the Shinto creation myth.
The gods or divinities of Shinto; the life force or spirit associated with places, natural objects, and ancestors.
A "kami shelf" or altar in a private home.
The chief text of Shinto, a work that combines history, myth, and folk belief.
The "Land of the Rising Sun"; the Japanese name for Japan.
Prayers to the kami.
The Shinto new year.
Sect (Kyoha) Shinto:
Shinto as it is practiced by a number of sects, or groups, formed primarily in the nineteenth century.
Shinbutsu bunri:
The separation of Shinto and Buddhism when Shinto was declared the official state religion.
Shinbutsu shugo:
The combination of Shinto and Buddhism.
Literally, "the way of the gods" or "the way of the kami."
Shrine (Jinja) Shinto:
The traditional, mainstream practice of Shinto, with emphasis on the local shrine.
State Shinto:
Shinto as it was practiced after it was declared the official state religion in the late nineteenth century until 1945.
The Shinto god of violence and the ruler of the oceans.
The gate that marks the entrance to a shrine. Its shape is regarded as a symbol of Shinto.
The Shinto moon god and the ruler of night.
A "named child" whose name is entered at birth at the local Shinto shrine.

History and development

The origins of Japanese civilization, and of Shinto, are shrouded in legend and history. Historians believe that around 35,000 to 30,000 bce humans first migrated to the Japanese islands, probably from Mongolia or Siberia through Korea, or possibly from Polynesia. Historians date the formation of a more stable civilization to some time around 10,000 bce, the start of the Jomon period, which extended to about 400 bce. It is believed that Shinto beliefs emerged in Japan late in the Jomon period.

During this period the concept of the kami originated. Japanese society was divided into separate clans. These clans were not connected by a central government or by a sense of national identity. Each clan was headed by a chieftain, and each worshipped a divinity, a kami. Part of the chieftain's job was to oversee the ceremonies devoted to the kami.

These clans were often in conflict with one another. When one clan overran another, the kami of the defeated clan became subject to that of the conquering clan. In this way the hierarchy, or order, of the kami constantly shifted. Later, when the Japanese began to form a more centralized government with a supreme emperor at its head, this belief in kami was used to give authority to the emperor. Because the emperor claimed direct descent from Amaterasu, the sun goddess, the emperor's clan was more powerful than any other clan and possessed the right to rule Japan.

Two historical events had a major impact on the development of Shinto. One was the introduction of writing in the fifth century of the Common Era. The other was the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century. By the seventh century Japan had fallen under the influence of its much larger neighbor, China. Many elements of Japanese culture at this time reflected the influence of the Chinese, including Buddhist beliefs. The Chinese wrote about and documented their history. Under this influence Japanese writers began to do the same. (None of their seventh-century works survive.) Their goal appears to have been to establish the divine right of Japanese emperors to rule.

The Divine right to rule

In 673 the emperor Tenmu seized the throne of Japan. His rule was shaky because he continued to face opposition from rival ethnic groups and clans. Tenmu ordered that a history of Japan be compiled that would legitimize his rule by showing that he was descended from the gods. This history was transmitted orally. In 712 it was written down as the Kojiki, a text that further cemented the imperial court's dominance over Japan. In 720 a second text called the Nihonshoki was also written down. These two books are the earliest surviving texts written by the Japanese.

Shinto at this time was still regarded as a folk religion, filled with superstitions and myths. A superstition is a belief or practice based on the fear of the unknown, while a myth is a story of historical events that claims to explain a practice or belief. In the centuries that followed, Shinto and Buddhism coexisted and joined in a process referred to as Shinbutsu shugo, a phrase formed from the written Japanese characters for "Shinto," "Buddhism," "learn," and "join together." The mingling of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs is a natural development when two religions exist side-by-side. They often adapt to and take on aspects of one another. Over time, one religion will usually become dominant. This state of affairs lasted until 1867, although in the eighteenth century various Japanese scholars tried unsuccessfully to separate Shinto beliefs from those of Buddhism.

These efforts paid off in 1867 at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1869–1912), the end result of a civil war. During this war the emperor of Japan fought to take power away from the Japanese shoguns. Shoguns were powerful military governors who had wielded more power than the throne for centuries. At this time Shinto was made the official state religion of Japan, and, in a process called Shinbutsu bunri, Shinto and Buddhism were separated. In fact, efforts to join them were outlawed.

Becomes state religion

Japanese leaders thought that making Shinto the national religion would help to unify the country. They believed that the people had to unite behind their emperor and the Japanese empire because of the shocks of civil war. Leaders felt the need to modernize and industrialize (or modernize through the development of business and technology) the country, but they also feared that foreign powers would invade and colonize the Japanese islands. Adding to this fear of colonization was the arrival in 1853 of the "Black Ships," four American vessels under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry (1794–1858). Perry negotiated a trade agreement with Japan, ending two hundred years of Japanese isolation from most of the rest of the world. Later that same decade Japan established formal diplomatic ties with the United States and other Western nations (the countries of Europe and the Americas). Japanese leaders believed that since Japan was going to enter into the modern world, it had to have a strong national identity. One way to forge such an identity was to have a national state religion that was unique to Japan. Shinto was that religion.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Shinto became a way of gaining the support of the people and creating a sense of intense patriotism, or devotion to one's country. In 1871 the Ministry of Divinities was formed to establish a hierarchy, or structure of authority, of Shinto shrines. At the highest level was the Ise Shrine to Amaterasu that became a national symbol for the divine rule of the Japanese emperor. At the base of the hierarchy were smaller shrines throughout the country.

In 1872 the Ministry of Divinities was replaced by the Ministry of Religion, which required people to register at local Shinto shrines (rather than at Buddhist temples). The ministry required that the nation's young people be taught an official history of the nation's origins and to respect the emperor as divine. Further, the government enacted the "Imperial Rescript on Education," which required students to recite an oath saying that they were willing to give up their lives for the emperor. Portraits of the emperor were distributed, and people were encouraged to worship them.

Emperor worship, and the presumed divinity of the emperor, justified aggressive expansion of the Japanese empire throughout the Pacific region in the 1930s and after the outbreak of World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). However, U.S. military might proved too much for the Japanese. By 1945 it was clear to most Japanese that their nation would be defeated, although the nation refused to surrender until August 1945. Some historians believe that Japan would have surrendered earlier if the United States and its allies had assured Japanese authorities that the emperor could remain on the throne.

In the final months of the war, Shinto was enlisted to encourage patriotism and willingness to die for the emperor. A prominent example was the kamikaze pilots, who deliberately crashed their bomb-laden planes into enemy ships. Note that kami forms a portion of the word kamikaze, which literally means "divine wind" or "wind from the gods."

Popular decline

The period of Shinto as state religion abruptly ended in 1945 with the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. The Japanese emperor abandoned his claim that he ruled by divine authority, or that he was a living god. Many people became unhappy with Shinto because it had been used to justify the government's desire for territory before and during the war. The number of people who identified themselves as followers of Shinto fell sharply.

About Shinto

  • Belief. Shintoists believe that spirits called kami surround humans and provide them with the knowledge and wisdom necessary for leading a peaceful and full life.
  • Followers. Shinto is the fifteenth-largest religion in the world, with four million followers. While most live in Japan, many have settled in countries throughout the world.
  • Name of God. The Shinto term for a god is kami, although kami are understood to be spirits closely associated with nature and ideas.
  • Symbols. Prominent symbols of Shinto include the tori, or gate leading to a Shinto shrine; any image of the sun, representing the sun goddess, Amaterasu; and the emperor's ceremonial dress, consisting of a mirror, a jeweled necklace, and a sword.
  • Worship. Religious services are held in shrines, but many Shintoists also worship in their homes. Religious services can be conducted by any Shintoist, although priests and priestesses assist worshippers. The primary responsibility of the priest-hood is to care for the shrine.
  • Dress. Shintoists do not wear any special attire, but they do remove their shoes before entering a shrine.
  • Texts. Shinto does not have a sacred scripture. Two important works, the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, contain myths, or stories, that have played an important role in Shinto and Japanese culture.
  • Sites. No particular site is considered more sacred than any other by Shintoists, who believe that all of Japan is sacred. Many pilgrims, however, climb the nation's mountains, such as Mount Fuji, believing them to be the home of kami.
  • Observances. Shinto festivals are highly significant. They include the Spring Festival, the Harvest Festival, and the New Year Festival. In addition, each locale is likely to have its own annual festival.
  • Phrases. Shinto has few characteristic phrases. One common word used by many Shintoists is Itadakimasu, which means "I humbly partake," and is said before eating.

At the same time, many Japanese continued to practice Shinto rituals. In the postwar period Shinto reverted to more of a folk religion. People visited Shinto shrines, for example, as a way of improving their lives by remaining on good terms with their ancestors and the kami. New religions have developed in Japan, many of them incorporating Shinto beliefs. Shinto has become not a religion enforced by the state but a set of cultural values that in large part defines Japanese culture.

Sects and schisms

Four main varieties of Shinto can be identified. One is State Shinto. State Shinto was officially banned after 1945, but a small minority of Japanese nationalists who want to return Japan to its place as a major world power continued to advocate it. The other three varieties include Shrine Shinto, Sect Shinto, Folk Shinto.

State Shinto developed in 1869. Japan's emperor Meiji wanted to restore Shinto as the nation's national religion. He demanded that Shinto ceremonies be conducted for Japan's leaders and set up a government department to oversee the religion. The emperor also established himself as the head Shinto priest. The Japanese people were required to express their respect and loyalty to the emperor through Shinto ceremonies. It is this form of the religion that was used to encourage Japanese support for war during World War II (1938–45; a war in which the United Kingdom, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Shrine, or Jinja, Shinto is the main form of the religion practiced in the early twenty-first century. It refers to the local shrine as the focus of Shinto life and practice. Shrine Shinto follows the religion's traditional practices.

Sect, or Kyoha, Shinto began in the nineteenth century and contains thirteen sects, or subgroups. These sects do not have shrines but worship in meeting halls. Each has a different focus. Mountain-worshipping sects worship such mountains as Mount Fuji. Others include faith-healing sects, purification sects, sects that practice Confucianism, and so-called Revival Shinto (a sect that has tried to separate Shinto from Chinese Buddhist and Confucian beliefs).

Folk, or Minzoku, Shinto refers to a variety of Shinto practices that reflects Japan's early history, with emphasis on such folk practices as divination (predicting the future), spirit possession, and faith healing conducted by shamans, religious professionals that control various spiritual forces, can look into the future, and can cure the ill with magic. Folk Shinto is generally practiced in small rural villages.


One of the chief branches of Shinto that emerged in the nineteenth century is Tenrikyo, a name that means "Teaching of the Divine Reason." In 1838 a peasant woman named Nakayama Nike began to experience religious visions. She later became known as Oyasama, meaning "Honored Parent." The sect she founded claims as many as two million members worldwide. While Tenrikyo can be thought of as a religion, many people regard it as a life philosophy. Many Japanese Christians, for example, also take part in Tenrikyo rituals.

The focus of the religion is the concept of yoki yusan or yoki gurashi. These words are formed from the characters yo, meaning "positive"; ki, meaning "spirit" or "energy"; and either yusan, meaning an "excursion" to imply an outgoing life, or gurashi, referring to everyday life or "livelihood." Unlike other Shintoists, followers of Tenrikyo believe in a single creator-god, Tenri-o-No-Mikoto, a name that means Lord of Divine Reason.

It should be noted that another Japanese religious movement, Aum Shinrikyo, is not in any way affiliated with Shintoism, but rather combines Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. Aum Shinrikyo, now called Aleph, gained worldwide attention in 1995, when several members of its leadership carried out a gas attack on Tokyo's subway system, killing twelve people and injuring thousands.

Basic beliefs

Contemporary Shinto beliefs are often blended with other religions in Japan, such as Buddhism. The funeral rites for many practicing Shintoists, for example, are likely to be Buddhist. (A common expression is "Shinto marries and Buddhism buries," meaning that marriage rituals tend to be based on Shinto rituals, while funeral ones are based on Buddhist beliefs.) This makes it difficult to identify the religion's practices or beliefs as strictly Shinto. Identifying basic beliefs is also made difficult by Shinto's lack of a formal structure overseen by the clergy (priesthood) or by a spiritual leader.

Focus on life, not afterlife

There are, however, some beliefs held by all branches of Shinto that can be considered common to the religion. One is that Shinto is not an otherworldly religion that emphasizes an afterlife. The goal of Shinto is to nurture contentment and success in this life. In fact, it is often said that Shinto and Buddhism divide up the universe between them. While Buddhism emphasizes the afterlife and the cycle of death and rebirth leading to ultimate salvation, or deliverance from sin, Shinto emphasizes life in the world and a person's relationship with the spirits and his or her ancestors.

Role of the kami

The second common aspect is the role of the kami, referred to collectively as Yaoyorozu no Kami. This phrase literally translates as "eight million kami," a way of expressing the idea of a large number before the concept of infinity was understood. Kami are often thought of as gods or divinities, but this translation of the word does not capture their full meaning. The chief kami is the sun, personified as Amaterasu, the sun goddess. However, virtually anything can be an expression of a kami: a rock, the moon, a waterfall, a flower, a formal garden, and even abstract concepts such as an organization or growth.

The concept reflects the Shinto belief that the world is filled with spirits, or a life essence, so objects, places, activities, and even abstract ideas can be personified (brought to life) as kami. Kami are thought to guide people in their decisions and to help them achieve a life of contentment. Ancestral spirits are also considered to be kami. Shintoists believe that every person has a soul or a spirit, referred to as a tama or reikon. When a person dies, he or she is listed at the local shrine as ujigami, or a "named kami," and is now regarded as a clan or local deity (god).

Further, kami are not spirits that exist above and beyond the human realm, as divinities in most other religions are. Instead, they exist in the world and are even capable of making mistakes. Not all kami are contented or even good. Some work mischief in the world (ono, or "demons"). The souls of people who die by violent means are referred to as yurei, or "tormented ghosts," who seek revenge in the world. The kami of children who die young (mizuko) are thought of as angry, and they have to be calmed through rituals at local shrines.

Live a simple, harmonious life

Shintoists do not follow any set of guidelines other than to live a simple and harmonious life. This is often expressed by the phrases makoto no kokoro or magokoro, usually translated as "sincerity," "uprightness," or "having a true heart." Many do follow the "Four Affirmations," which include:

  1. Tradition and family: Shintoists regard the family and family life as the place in which Shinto traditions can best be preserved.
  1. Love of nature: Shintoists believe that the natural world is sacred. Any natural object can be regarded as divine and as an embodiment (representation) of a sacred spirit. Many religious scholars therefore regard Shinto as an animistic religion, meaning one that reveres objects in the natural world.
  2. Cleanliness: Shintoists believe in personal cleanliness. They typically bathe, wash their hands, and even rinse their mouths frequently, particularly before entering a shrine. The emphasis on cleanliness reflects the Shinto attitude toward sin. Shintoists believe that certain evil deeds, called kegare ("dirtiness"), can create a kind of ritual impurity. (The opposite is kiyome, meaning "purity.") Sin does not require "forgiveness" from the gods. Rather, sin is a state that causes discomfort for the person who commits it. A sinner can restore a sense of contentment by purifying him or herself of the "dirtiness" of the evil deed.
  1. Worship of the kami: The fourth affirmation concerns matsuri, a word that refers collectively to the many Shinto festivals held each year to worship the kami. These festivals are local rather than national and are dedicated to one or more of the kami.


An important aspect of Shinto life is the concept of purification. Historically purification rites were conducted to calm a disturbed kami when, for example, a shrine had to be moved. In modern life similar rituals are held for any number of purposes. During groundbreaking for a new building, Shinto priests purify the plot of ground (a process called jichinsai). Automobiles on the assembly line are often blessed, and new car owners often take their cars to shrines to have them blessed and purified. Similarly, new airplanes are blessed and purified during their first flight. A purification ritual was held during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. Individuals also practice purification rituals by standing beneath a waterfall or bathing in the sea.

The concept of purification also dictates that people avoid certain activities. Even in modern life, purification is achieved by avoiding certain words or activities. Recently bereaved people (people whose loved ones have just died, for example) typically do not attend weddings, and the word cut is never used at a wedding because it is believed to bring bad fortune to the newly married couple.

Sacred writings

Just as it lacks a formal theology, Shinto does not have a sacred scripture. The Shinto text that comes closest to representing a sacred writing is the Kojiki, an eighth-century text and the earliest surviving document written by the Japanese. In some respects, it is difficult to categorize the Kojiki. It is part scripture (holy text), part history of early Japan, and part folktale and myth.

The Kojiki, which means "Record of Ancient Matters," was in large part a political document. It originated in 673, after the emperor Tenmu seized the throne of Japan and ordered a history of Japan to be compiled. Tenmu believed that the records of many of his courtiers, imperial officials, and the chief families in the realm had been changed and corrupted. He wanted to see a more accurate history and, more importantly, one that would support his rule by showing that he descended from the gods. Accordingly, he commissioned a court reciter, Hieda no Are, to begin memorizing a genealogy (family tree) and a collection of stories. Hieda no Are was ideal for the job. He had an excellent memory for any written text he looked at and could later recite it with complete accuracy.

After Tenmu's death in 686, the genealogies and stories Hieda no Are had compiled existed solely in his memory. Not until 712, during the reign of Empress Genmei, was the material Hieda no Are had memorized written down by O No Yasumaro. This work was called the Kojiki. This was just a year after the imperial capital of Japan had been moved to Nara under the Yamato court. (Yamato is the family name of a dynasty or succession of emperors and empresses.) The Kojiki further cemented the court's dominance over Japan.

The Kojiki contains 180 sections. The first third of the book is a mythic account of the creation of the world, the birth of the gods and goddesses, the creation of the Japanese islands, and the descent of the gods and goddesses to Japan. The remaining text is more historical and chronicles the line of succession of the Japanese emperors, linking those emperors with the gods and goddesses. It also records the taboos (actions forbidden by authorities in different religions), rituals, and ceremonies that were important to Shinto.

The Story of creation

Of particular importance to Shinto, particularly to State Shinto, is the story of creation contained in the Kojiki. This story contributed to the myth of Japanese exceptionalism. This was the idea that Japan and the Japanese people were in some way unique and favored among the world's nations and peoples, an idea fostered during the decades leading to World War II. The creation story relays that, before anything else existed, chaos reigned as formless matter. The first celestial gods and goddesses sprang out of this chaos onto the Plain of High Heaven. These gods and goddesses were born as eight pairs of men and women, who were both mates and siblings. The eighth of these pairs, Izanagi and Izanami, would be the first to have children.

The pair stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, where they dipped a jeweled spear into the chaos. When they pulled the spear out, drops fell from it, forming the Japanese island of Onogoro. Izanagi and Izanami descended to Onogoro, where they built a palace and a ceremonial pillar. They also devised a wedding ritual around the pillar. When they completed the ritual, their "children" were the other islands of Japan and the spirits that ruled them. In time these spirits came to be called kami.

Tenth-century records show that a number of shrines were built to Izanagi and Izanami in the Kinki area of Japan, an area that includes the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. Later the Taga shrine was built for the worship of Izanagi in Omi, which is now the Shiga prefecture, or district. This shrine became the most popular place for worshipping the couple.


In 720 a second text called the Nihonshoki, containing other stories Hieda no Are had committed to memory, was put into writing. The Nihonshoki can be considered the other major Shinto text from this era. Some of the material in the Nihonshoki overlaps that of the Kojiki, such as the creation story. In this version, though, some of the elements that reflect poorly on Izanami are not included.

Sacred symbols

The sun plays a prominent role in Shinto symbolism, reflecting the influence of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. While the nation is called Japan in the West, the Japanese name for the country is Nippon (or Nihon), which means "Land of the Rising Sun." The Japanese flag, the Hinomaru (which means "sun circle"), consists of a white background with a red circle representing the sun.

When entering a Shinto shrine, the worshipper passes beneath the tori (or torii), a gateway that separates the finite (limited) world from the infinite (unlimited) world of the gods. Images of the tori are often thought of as the symbol of Shinto and can be found on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and other items.

In connection with Amaterasu are three sacred symbols that are found in Shinto shrines and that form the regalia, or ceremonial dress, of the emperor. One symbol includes a mirror (kagami), which is believed to reflect the light of Amaterasu. The second symbol is Amaterasu's jeweled necklace (magatama). The third is a ceremonial sword that represents the sword of Susano-o, Amaterasu's brother. According to Shinto mythology, Susano-o tricked the eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon of the Hino River into drinking sake, an alcoholic beverage made from rice. As the dragon lay drunk, Susano-o killed it, and inside one of its tails he found a sword.

Protective symbols

Shintoists display many stone representations of the kami. Shrines are often guarded by the koma-inu, a pair of lion-dogs that are thought to ward off evil spirits, though some shrines use images of foxes instead. Similarly, the dosojin are stone markers, usually in human form, that are placed in a variety of locations: at the entrance to villages, on street corners and bridges, in mountain passes, and along country roads. These figures, too, are thought to ward off evil spirits and to offer protection to pedestrians, travelers, and pilgrims.

In January each year, "fire festivals" called Dosojin festivals are held. Shrine decorations and ornaments are burned in a fire fed with bamboo. According to traditional belief, the sound that the crackling fire makes provides clues about whether the upcoming year will be lucky or not. Children throw their calligraphy (artistic handwriting) into the fire, and ashes flying heavenward are a sign that the child will become a good calligrapher.

Purification symbols

Other Shinto symbols have to do with purification rights. Elements that can be used to purify include water, sand, fire, sake, and salt. A person entering a shrine purifies him or herself by washing his or her hands in a bowl. Traditionally, people even rinsed their mouths (although this practice is no longer widely followed). In a shrine compound, a fire burns, and visitors often waft the smoke from the fire over their heads to burn away impurities and to gather the blessings of the gods. Many traditional Japanese still follow the practice of purifying the home by sprinkling water at the home's gate each morning and evening.

Others place small piles of salt (mori shio) at the home's entrance or around the four corners of the home's plot to purify it. Salt is sprinkled on land before ground is broken for a new building, and restaurants place small piles of salt at their entrances to purify the establishment and encourage people to enter. Some historians believe that this practice originated historically as a way to attract wealthy travelers, who were more likely to arrive on horseback, because the horse would stop to lick the salt.


Shinto worship is highly ritualized, meaning it has an established series of acts in a ceremony, and is designed to be pleasing to the senses. Shinto shrines are constructed in a way that takes into account the beauties of the natural world. Attending a Shinto shrine is as much an artistic experience as it is a religious one. While Shinto rituals seem to be ancient, many in fact are relatively modern in their origins.

Much Shinto worship takes place in the home. Many homes contain shrines called kami-dana, or the "kami shelf," where people place offerings of food or flowers and say prayers. The shelf also contains amulets, or ornamental charms, to ward off evil; a mirror, the symbol of the sun goddess, Amaterasu; a small replica of a shrine; and any objects that the family has purchased at a shrine. In this way, the family links its home to the shrine.

Public worship takes place at shrines (jinja). No particular day of the week is set aside for worship. People attend shrines for many reasons. A student, for example, might attend a shrine to ask the kami for success on an examination, or a suitor may wish for success in making a marriage proposal. In earlier centuries, wealthy people would donate a horse to a shrine when making a request of the shrine's kami. In modern life, people often purchase ema, or small wooden tablets that contain a representation of a horse (or another animal, such as a snake). On the back of the ema they write a prayer or wish, then hang it in the shrine.

Worship in shrines is led by priests and priestesses, who recite prayers to the kami called norito. These prayers are highly formal and recited in poetic language, with emphasis on certain words that are thought to be auspicious, or to bring good fortune (and while avoiding inauspicious words that bring bad luck). Although Shinto priests and priestesses do lead prayers, their main function is to maintain the shrine.


A typical Shinto ritual, such as those held at festival times, consists of a number of parts and begins with passage under the tori into the world of the gods. After purifying themselves by ritually washing their hands, worshippers pass into the shrine's sanctuary, where they bow before the altar. (An inner sanctuary can be entered only by priests and priestesses.) Food offerings are made, often consisting of rice cakes, based on the belief that each grain of rice is a symbol for a human soul. Then, the priest or priestess leads prayers on behalf of the worshippers. Many of these prayers date from as far back as the tenth century.

Music and dance are typically part of the ritual (as well as of Shinto festivals). Ritual dances called kagura are performed by trained dancers, accompanied by musical instruments. Symbolic offerings to the kami are made, consisting often of twigs from a sacred tree. After these offerings are removed, the sanctuary is closed, and the priest or priestess may deliver a sermon, though this is optional. The ritual is followed by a ceremonial meal, although in modern times the "meal" consists only of the ceremonial drinking of sake.

Spirits in Nature

Kami are the gods and spirits of the Shinto religion. They are spirits or energies that exist in and influence the world. They are present in the physical world in all things, particularly in nature. Kami are present in mountains, trees, and the wind. They exist side-by-side with humans. Kami can influence natural and human events and respond to prayers. They are not perfect, however, and may make mistakes or even behave badly.

Some kami have names, while others are simply referred to as kami. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is one of the most well-known kami. The kami Izanami and Izanagi created the islands of Japan. Susano-o is the kami of the wind. He can both cause and protect against disasters. A tanuki is a mischievous kind of kami who often appears in Japanese folklore. One such story is "The Magic Kettle," in which a Buddhist monk captures a raccoon-like tanuki that was dirtying his freshly cleaned kitchen.

Thousands of miles away from Shinto's founding in Japan, the belief of spirits in the natural world is shared by Native American religions. There are many different forms of Native American religion. These grew up within the different Native American tribes and often reflected the geography of where the tribes lived on the North American continent. Native American religions in general, however, are connected through their belief of a sacred or spiritual presence in nature. Special rituals, or ceremonies, developed around nature. These include ceremonies requesting rain or a good hunt. These ceremonies may be similar to a Shinto follower sending prayer to a kami.

Animals and plants used for food were seen as gifts from nature. Native Americans use them with great respect to the spirits of nature that gave them these gifts. The greatest spirit of Dakota (Sioux) religion is Wakan-Tanka, the source of all that is. Wakan-Tanka means "Great Mystery." Among his creations are the sun, Earth, and sky. As with Shinto's kami, Native American spirits can also behave badly. The Raven, Manabozho, and Coyote spirits are known for creating mischief and tricks.

Observances and pilgrimages

One of the Four Affirmations of Shinto is to honor the kami. This is accomplished not only through prayer and rituals but also through festivals. The word matsuri is used to refer to any occasion when praise or thanks are offered to a god. The word means "to serve" or "to entertain," but it is also used to refer to Shinto festivals, which typically are related to the agricultural seasons. These festivals combine formal rituals with joyous celebration.


Each festival is held in honor of a different kami. An image of the kami is typically carried on a mikoshi, or palanquin. (A palanquin is an enclosed litter or box carried on the shoulders of men by means of poles.) The mikoshi is regarded as a portable shrine or altar, and the kami is regarded as a guest who is visiting the community and its permanent shrine to bring some sort of honor or blessing. In addition to processions, other festival events are likely to include sumo wrestling, feasting, and dramatic presentations. Shinto festivals tend to be loud and colorful, and food occupies a prominent place. They appeal to the senses in much the same way that shrine worship does.

The most important festival for Shinto is the celebration of the New Year (Oshogatsu) on January 1. Some of the most prominent shrines in Japan have more than one-half million visitors during the New Year festival, and one, the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, had three million visitors in 2003. The New Year is a time when people offer thanks to the kami and ask the kami to bless them with good fortune during the coming year. They also make resolutions for the new year to the kami. The Dos-ojin Festival or "Fire Festival" follows each year on January 15, when the ornaments and decorations used during the New Year festival are burned.

Two of the most important agricultural festivals are the Spring Festival (called Haru Matsuri or Toshigoi-no-Matsuri), held on February 17 to pray for a good harvest, and the Autumn Festival (Aki Matsuri or Niiname-sai), held on August 15 to thank the kami for a good harvest. Finally, celebrations in honor of Amaterasu are held each year on July 17 and December 21 (the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year) to emphasize her role in giving light to the world.

Each year a community holds its annual festival, or Rei-sai. This festival is held in honor of the local kami, an image of which is carried in procession in a mikoshi. The festival includes music and dancing but also more solemn religious observances. Some of these festivals have become world famous. During the Tenjin Matsuri held in Osaka, the kami are launched downriver as fireworks are displayed. During the Danjuri Matsuri, also in Osaka, an expensive shrine is carried through the streets before large crowds of spectators.

Two important holy days are associated with people's ages. On one, called Seijin shiki, or Adults' Day (January 15), those who reached their twentieth birthday during the preceding year attend a shrine to give thanks. The other, called Shichigosan, is held on November 15. On this date, parents take their children ages three, five, and seven to the shrine to give thanks for a healthy life and to pray for good fortune in the future. The name of the holy day comes from the Japanese words for seven (shichi), five (go), and three (san).


Shinto identifies no particular site as especially holy. All of nature and existence are considered sacred in Shinto. For centuries, however, the mountains of Japan have received special attention. Japan consists roughly of 80 percent mountainous and hilly terrain. Human activity, such as farming, has always taken place on the plains, so the mountains were historically thought to be mysterious and dangerous places that served as the home of many kami. Farmers believed that the mountains were the source of blessings, where clouds gathered to provide life-giving rains through the growing season. The kami were thought to withdraw to the mountains when the growing season ended. They also saw the mountains as home of the dead. Archaeologists (scientists who study the physical remains of civilizations) have found examples of stone altars constructed at the foot of mountains, where, it is believed, early people offered prayers to the mountain kami.

Shinto Weddings

Until recently, the majority of weddings in Japan were conducted in Shinto shrines according to Shinto rituals. This practice, though, has been declining. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of weddings are Shinto. More and more couples are choosing to have Western, Christian-style wedding ceremonies with the bride wearing a Western-style dress.

Nonetheless, many couples do follow Shinto traditions. The ceremony itself is attended by only close relatives in the sanctuary of a shrine. Both the bride and the groom wear white kimono, or long robes with wide sleeves. The bride's hair is elaborately arranged. After a Shinto priest or priestess conducts the ceremony, the couple take part in a purification rite and the ceremonial drinking of sake in a ritual called san-san-kudo, or the "three times three" exchange of nuptial (wedding) cups. The couple then make ceremonial offerings to the kami. The ceremony is generally followed by a reception for friends and family. During the reception, the predominant color scheme is red and white, which are thought to bring good fortune. Typically, the bride changes into a second wedding dress for the reception.

For at least one thousand years, and probably longer, people have been making pilgrimages into Japan's mountains. At the top of many of Japan's hundreds of mountains are Shinto shrines, and many mountains have tori, or gates, at their bases. The most popular site for such a pilgrimage is Mount Fuji, Japan's tallest peak (12,388 feet, or 3,776 meters). It is mistakenly believed that Mount Fuji is Japan's "most sacred" site, but Shintoists do not regard Mount Fuji as any more sacred than the islands' other mountains. It attracts many pilgrims and visitors, approximately 400,000 each year, not only because of its majesty but also because it is only about 60 miles (97 kilometers) from Tokyo, the capital city. Other mountains climbed by pilgrims include Mount Nantai San, overlooking Lake Chuzenji outside the ancient town of Nikko, and Mount Aso San, a name given to five peaks found at the center of the world's largest active volcanic region.

Everyday living

It is possible to make two contradicting statements about the influence of Shinto on everyday life in Japan. From one perspective, Shinto has little effect on everyday life. When compared to Islam, for example, whose followers take part in daily prayer rituals and whose religious beliefs influence almost every aspect of daily living, Shintoists lead what appear to be entirely secular (nonreligious) lives. No particular day or time is set aside for worship. People do not routinely read a sacred scripture or wear any particular dress. Men are not required to wear a beard or a turban, nor women a veil, and the religion has no specific rules, guidelines, or required rituals that people follow.

At the same time, it is possible to say that Shinto influences almost every aspect of Japanese life. However, it does so more as a cultural tradition and set of values than as a formalized religion. To be "Shinto" and to be "Japanese" are almost one and the same; Shinto has been referred to as the "religion of Japaneseness." For example, Shinto, through the kami, emphasizes living a life in harmony with nature. This cultural value is carried out in architectural styles and in the design of Japanese homes, which are built to capture the beauty and harmony of the natural world. Japanese home building codes require the builder to include a garden and to position windows so that the occupants can look out on it. Formal gardens in Japan, in effect, become an expression of Shinto.

Similarly, Shinto urges its followers to lead simple and unadorned lives. This belief is reflected in the size of Japanese homes. The average home size in Japan (including apartments) is about 800 square feet (74 square meters). In the United States newly constructed homes in the early twenty-first century average about 2,200 square feet (204 square meters). Most apartments in the United States are likely to be at least twice the size of an average Japanese apartment. The Japanese tend to drive much smaller cars than Americans do as well. Useful items are rarely disposed of in landfills. It is a common practice to place a used but serviceable item of furniture or other household objects out on the curb where they can be salvaged by others who can use them. These conditions and cultural norms reflect the crowded conditions of Japanese urban life, but the Japanese acceptance of this situation also reflects the fundamental goal of Shinto, leading a life of harmony and contentment.

Living in harmony with nature includes living in harmony with other people. On crowded Japanese subways, for example, workers are hired to jam people into the subway cars. During rush hour, subway riders around the larger cities routinely stand fully and tightly pressed up against the people who surround them. Japanese society is well known for its formality, a way of defining social relationships. The language is complex because different words that mean the same thing, even for such simple things as numbers, are used depending on the social status of the person one is addressing. Great emphasis is placed on harmony in such arenas as sports. Many competitions are allowed to end in a tie; violence among spectators is unheard of; taunting opponents would be considered dishonorable; and baseball players show their gratitude to a home run hitter by greeting him at home plate with teddy bears and flowers.

Harmony also reigns in the business world. Business decisions are usually reached by consensus. Agreement, at least on the surface, has to be reached before decisions are made. Japanese negotiators rarely say "no"; instead, they might say something like "This matter requires further consideration" as a way of allowing the other party to save face. A typical business contract in the United States might run to hundreds of pages. A similar contract in Japan might be only a page or two; the assumption is that all parties will adhere to the spirit of the agreement and do all they can to avoid conflict. Top Japanese corporate executives earn on average only about eight times what their lowest paid workers earn, as a way of promoting harmony among workers. The figure for the United States is variously estimated as three hundred to one thousand times more. Japanese workers often stand and sing a company song before the workday begins, another way of promoting harmony and unity. None of these characteristics of Japanese life are prescribed by Shinto, but Shinto provides the philosophical underpinning for them. They are peculiarly "Japanese," and to be Japanese is to be Shinto in one's daily life.

Shinto's influences

The greatest impact that Shinto had on world historical events was during the years before and during World War II. During these years Shinto was proclaimed the official state religion of Japan. It was used to foster an intense patriotism and worship of the emperor, who was regarded as a living god. The Japanese military used Shinto to promote a willingness to die for the emperor, making Japan a formidable fighter during the war.

In contemporary life, the impact of Shinto is much more peaceful. One expression of Shinto beliefs that people around the world are likely to know is sumo wrestling. These bouts feature huge men who practice Shinto rituals before and after the competitions, such as sprinkling salt in the wrestling arena to purify it. Sumo wrestling is probably at least fifteen hundred years old, although the earliest records date to about the eighth century. Historically, the purpose of sumo bouts at shrines was to ask the gods for a good harvest. Another cultural influence that has increased in popularity is anime (often spelled animé to guide pronunciation as "an-ih-may"). Anime is a highly stylized form of animation used in films and comic books. Many examples of Japanese anime contain Shinto themes and images.

Other Japanese/Shinto practices that have spread worldwide include formal Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) and origami, an intricate form of artistic paper folding. Origami was likely brought to Japan from China after the Chinese invented paper-production processes. The Japanese began to practice the art form in about the fifteenth century. In the twentieth century, Japanese artist Akira Yoshizawa launched a worldwide revival of origami.

According to Japanese legend, a person who forms origami images of one thousand cranes (the bird) will obtain his or her heart's desire. In the 1950s a young girl named Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of the atomic bomb blast over Hiroshima in 1945 who was dying of leukemia because of the bomb's radiation, learned of the legend and tried to fold one thousand origami cranes before her death. She died before she could complete her task, but her schoolmates finished it for her, and she was buried with a wreath of one thousand origami cranes. A statue of Sadako Sasaki with an origami crane flying from her outstretched hand stands in the Hiroshima Peace Park.

The religion that was once used to encourage aggressive nationalism (loyalty and devotion to country) and military might has thus evolved in the modern world back to its roots as a religion of peace, cooperation, and harmony. While many observers state that Shinto is a declining religious tradition, it continues to impact Japanese society and culture in innumerable ways.

For More Information


Chamberlain, Basil Hall. Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters, reissue ed. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Davis, F. Hadland. Myths and Legends of Japan. New York, NY: Dover, 1992.

Evans, Ann Llewellyn. Shinto Norito: A Book of Prayers. Victoria, B.C., Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2002.

Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: The Kami Way. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2004.

Philippi, Donald L., trans. Kojiki, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1982.


"Religion and Ethics: Shinto." British Broadcasting Corporation. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Robinson, B. A. "Shinto." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Schumacher, Mark. "Shinto and Buddhist Corner: Shinto Concepts." Onmark Productions. (accessed on June 5, 2006).


views updated Jun 11 2018


Church of World Messianity

Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha

Healing Society Movement

Honkyoku Shinto

Honmichi (Original Way)

Konko Churches of North America (KCNA)

Ryugu, U.S.A.


Sukyo Mahikari

Taishakyo Shinto



Church of World Messianity

960 S Kenmore Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90006

Sekai Kyusei Kyo, generally known by its English name, the Church of World Messianity, is also known as Johrei Fellowship. It was originally founded by Mokichi Okada (1882–1955), usually referred to by his honorific title, Meishusama. Raised in poverty and beset with illness and business failure, Okada in the 1920s turned to religion and joined Omoto, one of the newer religions of Japan. In 1926, however, he began to receive revelations, as a result of which he began to see himself as a channel for the Light of God. He understood his mission to be the transmission of Johrei, the Light of God for the purification of the spiritual body. Such purification would lead to the elimination of spiritual clouds, resulting in health, prosperity, and peace, ultimately creating an ideal world, a paradise on earth.

In 1934 Okada left Omoto and founded Dai Nihon Kannon Kai (Japan Kannon Society). As World War II approached, innovative religious groups were suppressed, and Okada had to give up the practice of Johrei until after the war, though the movement continued to grow. During the war, Okada moved to Hakone and constructed a “paradise,”a model of a future paradise on earth. A second such model was built in Atami a few years later. After a series of name changes, the church assumed its present name, Sekai Kyusei Kyo, in 1957, two years after Okada’s passing, which occurred on February 10, 1955. Okada was succeeded by his wife, Yoshi, who served as spiritual leader until she passed away in 1962. Their daughter, Itsuki Fujieda, took over at that point and is still serving as the church’s spiritual leader.

In the years after the war, members of the church immigrated to the United States. Okada sent Rev. Kiyoko Higuchi and Rev. Henry Ajiki to the United States to organize the church. The first center outside of Japan was incorporated in 1953 in Honolulu, Hawaii, followed by the second one in Los Angeles, California, in 1954.


During the past 40 years, more than a dozen centers have been established in many states, including several on the East Coast. Internationally, the church has spread to nearly 40 countries, including Brazil, Korea, and Thailand.


Johrei Newsletter.


Clarke, Peter B. “Modern Japanese Millenarian Movements: Their Changing Perception of Japan’s Global Mission with Special Reference to the Church of World Messianity in Brazil.”In Japanese New Religions: In Global Perspective, ed. Peter B. Clarke. London: Curzon Press, 2002.

Introductory Course of World Messianity and Joining the Church. Los Angeles: Church of World Messianity, 1976.

The Light from the East: Mokichi Okada. Atami, Japan: MOA Productions, 1983.

Members’ Handbook. Atami, Japan: Church of World Messianity, n.d.

M. Okada, A Modern-Day Renaissance Man. New York: M. Okada Cultural Services Association, 1981.

Teachings of Meishu-Sama. 2 vols. Atami, Japan: Church of World Messianity, 1967–1968.

Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha

Hawaii Ichizuchi Jinga, 2020 S King St., Honolulu, HI 96817

The Rev. Shina Miyake founded the Hawaii Ichizuchi Jinga in Honolulu in 1913. In 1963, on the occasion of the group’s fiftieth anniversary, a rebuilt shrine building was dedicated.


Not reported. There is one shrine in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Healing Society Movement

2450 W Broadway, No. 108, Mesa, AZ 85202

The Healing Society Movement utilizes Dahnhak, a movement that originated in Korea based upon the ancient Eastern practice of qigong. While related to ancient traditions, the modern Dahnhak movement was founded by Seung-Han Lee, who opened the first center in Seoul, South Korea, in 1985. Following an enlightenment experience at Mo Ak mountain in South Korea, he took the spiritual name Ilchi (literally “a finger pointing to the truth”), by which he is now known. Lee had engaged in a process of spiritual seeking and development that led him to explore older approaches to spirituality. He modernized what he had discovered to create Dahnhak. The movement has subsequently spread to North and South America.

The practice of Dahnhak centers upon the appropriation and use of ki (also known as chi), the life force, a common element in various Eastern meditation systems, exercise formats, and martial arts. Dahnhak defines ki as the cosmic energy that circulates throughout the universe, which is the true essence of every living entity. Dahnhak practice follows a five-step program in which qigong exercises are introduced successively in order to introduce the individual to ki energy, to allow the accumulation of ki in the body’s lower energy center (the Dahnjon), and the awakening and development of the Middle Dahnjon. The result of basic practice should be a state of habitual joy and peace. At a more advanced stage, the body energy meridians (the same energy paths identified in acupuncture systems) are opened so that the body is fully aligned to the energy flow of the universe. The goal of Dahnhak practice is Human Perfection in which the illusion of the ego is released and one identifies with the True Self, at which point there is a mystic realization of one’s unity with all that exists.

Lee moved to the United States in 1994 and in 1997 established the Sedona Dahn Institute, now known as Healing Society in Action, which has become the center of the movement in the West. The many centers are headed by Dahnhak master teachers trained by Lee.

The Healing Society Movement also utilizes the practice of Brain Respiration, which is a five-step self-improvement program designed to help people both physically and mentally by repairing the brain energy circuits, awakening and developing one’s brain potential, and maximizing one’s own natural healing power. It also teaches its philosophy of “Peaceology,”which regards the Earth as the living maternal source of all human life and the homeland of all human beings. This philosophy promotes the idea that we are “Earth-Humans”not separated from each other by nation, religion, or race.

In 2000 Lee joined together with Neale Donald Walsch, who had channeled the popular New Age volumes Conversations with God, to establish the New Millennium Peace Foundation, which has as its goal the building of a lasting world peace by raising human awareness. The group’s Web site offers online consultations and classes as well as messages, meditations, and healing tips.


Not reported. More than 300 Dahnhak centers worldwide are in Korea, Japan, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.


Healing Society in Action.

Lee, Seung-Heun. Dahnhak: The Way to Perfect Health. Seoul, Korea: Dahn Publications, 1999.

———. Healing Society: A Prescription for Global Enlightenment. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Road Publishing, 2000.

Honkyoku Shinto

Honkyoku-Daijingu Temple, 61 Puiwa Rd., Honolulu, HI 96817

Honkyoku Shinto bases its beliefs on the ancient Shinto text the Kojiki and sees itself as the Way of Nature, the spontaneous manifestation of the order of being taking form in human life. Worship is centered upon Amenominakanushi no kami (The Deity Who Is Lord of the Center of Heaven), the primary source of all. On the altar of the Honkyoku shrine are a mirror and a ball, which symbolize God. This absolute deity gives rise to two other deities: Takamimusubi no kami and Kamimusubi no kami. The world arises from the interaction of these two very different deities. From them arise other deities, the Japanese Imperial family, and the Japanese people. Through the ancestors of those now living, the people are tied to the divine as a great spiritual body. Shinto faith is best expressed in practice, reverence to the gods and one’s ancestors, devotion to the Imperial family, and patriotism.

Honkyoku Shinto prospered during the first half of the twentieth century. On the eve of World War II it could report over 3,300 centers and 1.2 million members in Japan. It was also the earliest Shinto group to establish itself in Hawaii. The Daijingu Temple in Honolulu was founded around 1906 by Rev. Masasato Kawasaki. Because of its intense Japanese nationalism, it was closed, and the property confiscated, during World War II. A new temple was built after the war. In 1949 a statue of one of the Shinto goddesses confiscated and sent to Japan by the U.S. government was returned and enthroned at the Honolulu temple, then located on Buckle Street.

The Honkyoku temples in Hawaii hold monthly public services, but most worship is individual and private. There are annual festivals on New Year’s Day and the second Sunday of September. As of 2003 Bishop Kazoe Kawasaki was head of the Honolulu temple.


There are two Daijingu temples, one in Honolulu and one in Hilo, Hawaii. In 2003 the Honolulu temple was reported to have 4,000 members.

Honmichi (Original Way)

4431 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010

Honmichi (Original Way) was established in 1925 as Tenri Association for the Study of Heavenly Truth (Tenri Kenkyukai) by Onishi Aijiro (1881–1958). Onishi, a former leader in Tenrikyo, believed that the founder of Tenrikyo, Nakayama Miki (1798–1887), was a mediator of divine truth to the Tenrikyo movement but that her mission had ended in August 1913, at which time the kami of truth, KanrodaiSama, chose him as the tenkeisha (revealed one) and appointed him to replace her.

Onishi established his independent work after being expelled from Tenrikyo in 1924. However, he quickly ran into trouble with the government when in 1928 he and several members were arrested for having distributed a pamphlet, Kenkyu Shiryo (“Research Materials”), that denied the divine status of the emperor and prophesied war and national crisis. Onishi spent seven years in jail. In 1939, after being freed, he distributed the pamphlet again and he and his members were again arrested for the same crime. His group was disbanded and he spent the rest of World War II in jail. In March 1946, under the new freedoms of the postwar era, Onishi restarted his movement under its new name, Tenri Honmichi (Original Way of Heavenly Truth), later dropping the first half of the name.

Honmichi’s movement derives many of its beliefs from Tenrikyo and its scriptures—the Ofudesaki (Tip of Divine Writing Brush) and the Migakura-uta— which had been revealed to Nakayam Miki. Honmichi worship centers on the veneration of a group of ten kami or gods, of whom the most prominent is TenriO-no-Maced (God of Heavenly Reason). These kami form the core of the universe. Honmichi also emphasizes the Tenrikyo notion of hinokishin (voluntary activity of a mental and physical kind), which calls on members to combine the movement’s teachings with selfless service to others.

Honmichi considers “right-mindfulness”to be the key to health, happiness, and peace. Right-mindfulness may be attained with the assistance of Kanrodai-Sama, the proper state of mind, and upon aligning the mind with the will of God. A lack of right-mindfulness correlates with misfortune, sickness, and unhappiness—evil forces that obstruct God’s efforts to assist humankind. Honmichi members hope to create a paradise on earth in which humans can live in peace and harmony. However, they also believe that a world war and other catastrophes will afflict humanity prior to the manifestation of the paradise state.

Honmichi members began migrating to the United States in the 1970s and have recently formed the single overseas branch of the movement in Los Angeles. After Onishi’s death in 1958, he was succeeded by his grandson, Onishi Yasuhiko (b. 1960), who is viewed as Aijiro’s reincarnation and thus the new Kanrodai-Sama.


As of 2008, the membership of Honmichi in Japan is estimated to stand at 320,000. There are several hundred adherents associated with the center in Los Angeles.


Clarke, Peter B., ed. A Bibliography of Japanese New Religions. Eastbourne, Kent, U.K.: Japan Library, 1998.

Shimazono, Susumu. “The Development of Millennialistic Thought in Japan’s New Religions: From Tenrikyo to Honmichi.”In New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change, ed. James Beckford, pp. 55–87. London: Sage, 1986.

Konko Churches of North America (KCNA)

PO Box 221130, Sacramento, CA 95822

The Konko Churches of North America (KCNA) is an organization of several churches in the United States, Canada, and Japan that practice the Konkokyo tradition. Konkokyo was founded in 1859 by Bunjiro Kawate (1814–1883) (later given the title Konko Daijin), a Shinto farmer, who after years of misfortune and illness had a revelation of God as Tenchikane no kami, the parent God of the universe. God revealed to him that the prosperity of men is the ultimate purpose of creation and that God without that purpose realized is morally imperfect. In 1885 Konkokyo was recognized as one of the thirteen approved forms of sectarian Shinto in Japan, but in 1900 it was finally recognized as a separate religion.

The interrelation of God and man is the key to Konkoyo teaching. Man cannot exist apart from God, and God’s work can only be complete through man. Konko Daijin was the mediator who informed humankind of this fellowship. Priests continue to function as mediators, just as Konko Daijin functioned. The process of mediation (toritsugi) is quite similar to Roman Catholic confessions.

Rites and ceremonies follow Shinto practice but are demythologized. Konkokyo is monotheistic and does not practice divination or magic. Much more emphasis is placed on the sermon, piety, and social concern. Belief in God with sincerity and a pious life are cardinal virtues. Social concerns have led to the founding of a hospital, a public library, museum, leper missions, and prison work.

Konkokyo was established in the United States in 1919 by Mr. and Mrs. Bunjiro Hirayama, who founded the Konko Kyo Association of Seattle, Washington. A second center was opened in Tacoma in 1923. Three years later the Rev. Kokichi Katashima, a Konko official from Japan, visited the Washington centers and, on his return route to Japan, organized believers who had recently migrated to Los Angeles and Honolulu. The work grew until the disruption of World War II and the internment of most of the leadership. The San Francisco headquarters were reestablished in the fall of 1945. The post–World War II freedom of religion in Japan has allowed Konkokyo to grow and spread as a vigorous movement.


Not reported. In 2008 the organization reported 12 churches in the United States (apart from Hawaii), 2 in Canada, and 1 in Japan. The Konko Missions of Hawaii (KMH) comprises an additional six churches.


Konko Review.


Konko Churches of North America.

Daily Service Book. San Francisco: Ministerial Staff of Konko Churches of America, 1971.

Fukuda, Yoshiaki. Outline of Sacred Teaching of Konko Religion. San Francisco: Konko Missions of North America, 1955.

Hombu, Konkokyo, ed. The Sacred Scriptures of Konkokyo. Konko-cho, Japan: Konkokyo Hombu, 1933.

Konko Daijin, A Biography. San Francisco: Konko Churches of America, 1981.

Konko Kyo’s 50 Years in America. San Francisco: Konko Churches of America, 1976.

Ryugu, U.S.A.

11958 Hartsook St., North Hollywood, CA 91607

Ryugu, U.S.A., is a Shinto organization headed by Himiko Fujita, known among her followers as Mother Otohime, and revered as a living Shinto goddess. She was born near Mt. Aso at Kumamoto, Japan. Her followers claim that her birth was heralded in the writings of Degichi Onisabuo (1871–1948), the founder of Omoto, and Yoshisane Tomokiyo, founder of Tenkokyo Shinto, two Japanese new religions. As a child she had experiences of the ancient “holy spirits.”Then in 1949 she was spiritually awakened and came to know the great love of Mother Deity.

In 1958 she felt led by Heaven to go to the Kansai district and began training herself for spiritual perfection at the sacred area on Ohmine Mountain. Her various spiritual experiences climaxed on October 7, 1973, as she stood before a great stone, Ama-no-lwato (the Heavenly Gate of the Rock Cave), at Himuki, Kumamoto Province. As she looked at the stone, it suddenly opened and the Shinto deity Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) appeared to her in the form of a mermaid. Striking Himiko on the forehead, the goddess said, “I have lain hidden behind the Great Rock Gate for twelve thousand years, but I have now come back to life again in thy soul in order to prevent the world from extinction.”These words gave Mother Otohime her mission in life.

In 1981 Mother Otohime had a dream. A snow white horse carried her on a flight over a Shinto shrine at the foot of a mountain. A short time later she was taken by a friend to the Izumo Great Shrine in Tamba Province. It was the shrine of her dream. She decided to remain and serve Amaterasu as a shrine maiden. As part of her duties, she left the shrine on a tour of 46 countries, including the United States, to bring to each a special stone with divine energy from Ryugu Kai (the Sea Goddesses). Ryugu, U.S.A., was formed as a result of her visit.

Ryugu is an expression of the maternal love of the goddess and comes as a blessing on the world. Mother Otohime offers the opportunity to all human beings to have their inner Rock Gate opened, which will bring to consciousness old memories of the love of Amaterasu and a merger of God and Human into a state of oneness.


Not reported.


c/o Kameo Kiyota, 310C Uulani St., Hilo, HI 96720

Shinreikyo is a post–World War II Japanese healing group based on Kami-nomichi, the Way of God. Shinreikyo was founded by Master Kanichi Otsuka (1891–1972), viewed by his followers as the great sage (who was to appear as Buddhism lost its power) and the messiah that Christians expected at the Second Coming. The message of Shinreikyo is that Kami-no-michi is the way to happiness and prosperity. It is identified with Nippon Seishin, the Japanese spirit, common to all Japanese since ancient times and based on the laws of the universe. Such intense nationalism is typical of much Shinto.

At the center of Shinreikyo is its belief in healing miracles. Master Otsuka is said to attack disease in the three existences of past, present, and future. Accounts of healings of serious illnesses fill Shinreikyo literature. Shinreikyo came to the United States in 1963 when Kameo Kiyoto established a branch in Hilo, Hawaii. Literature in English is distributed by the Metaphysical Scientific Institute in Japan.


Not reported.


Koepping, Klaus-Peter. “Ideologies and New Religious Movements: The Case of Shinreikyo and Its Doctrines in Comparative Perspective.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 4/2–3 (June–September 1997): 103–149.

Sukyo Mahikari

23151 Camino Altozano, Rancho Santo Margarita, CA 92688

Alternate Address

International Headquarters: 2-956-1 Kamiokamoto-michi, Takayama City, Japan 506-0055.

Mahikari is the Japanese word for Divine True Light, believed to be a spiritual and purifying energy. Mahikari began in 1959 when Kotama Okada (1901–1974), at the time a member of the Church of World Messianity, received a revelation from God explaining how the use of the Divine Light of the Creator could produce health, harmony, and prosperity. Mahikari is viewed as a cleansing energy sent by Sushin, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, that both spiritually awakens and tunes the soul to its divine purpose. In 1960 he organized what became known as the Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan (Church of World True Light Children). Okada soon became known as Sukuinushisama (Savior).

God also revealed to Okada the existence of a Divine Plan. According to his teachings, all of the phenomena of the universe have been controlled by the Plan of the Creator. Under this plan, human souls are dispatched to Earth for the specific purpose of learning to utilize its material resources in order to establish a highly evolved civilization governed by spiritual wisdom. These revelations and teachings are to be found in the Mahikari scriptures Goseigen, The Holy Words, an English-language edition of which was published in 1982.

Okada dedicated his life to teaching the art of the Divine Light to anyone desiring to be of service to the Creator. Today it is taught in a three-day session at which attendees may learn to radiate the Light through the palm of the hand, a process known as Mahikari no Waza. At the time of initiation, new members receive an omitama, a pendent used to focus the light.

Just prior to his death in 1974 Okada passed the mission to his daughter, Seishu Okada, the present spiritual leader. Under her guidance, a new headquarters complex has been established at Suza, Takayama City, Japan. In 1985, a research center, the Civilization Research Institute (CRI), was established to bring science and spirituality together to examine pressing world issues. To that end, the institute hosts a series of seminars, international conferences, lectures, forums, and symposia on a number of topical subjects. Practitioners of Sukyo Mahikari have been active in the community, especially in the area of preservation and conservation of the environment and planting millions of trees around the world.


Not reported. In 2008, Sukyo Mahikari reported 18 centers in the United States, 1 in Puerto Rico, and 3 in Canada. There are associated centers in 14 countries.


True Light.


It should be noted that the Church of World Messianity, of which Okada was a member prior to his revelations concerning Mahikari, has a similar teaching concerning what it calls johrei, God’s healing light.

Also, after Okada’s death, the leadership of his daughter was challenged by a prominent member, Sekiguchi Sakae. He filed a lawsuit and, upon winning, took possession of the former headquarters of the group. His son now leads a second Mahikari group in Japan.


Sukyo Mahikari.

Davis, Winston. Dojo. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Goseigen, The Holy Words. Tujuna, CA: Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan, 1982.

Tebecis, A. K. Mahikari, Thank God for the Answers at Last. Tokyo: L. H. Yoko Shuppan, 1982.

Taishakyo Shinto

215 N Kukui St., Honolulu, HI 96817

Izumo Taishakyo Shinto, also known as Izumo Oyashirokyo, was one of the original 13 religious Shinto sects (as distinguished from the Shrine Shinto) in existence before World War II. It was founded in 1882 by Takatomi Senge at the ancient Grand Shrine of Izumo, located at Taishamachi, Shimane, Japan. The divinity that is enshrined there is one of the three Creator Gods, Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, the god of the spiritual and physical world, who settled the world and created the foundation upon which mankind and the rest of the universe exists. The group’s teachings are set forth in the “Great Way,” a catechism published in 1881. Man is to act in a sincere, virtuous, and trustworthy manner and must maintain proper relationships with his family, society, the leader of his country, God, and his environment. Man has a soul, born without sin, and upon death, the soul returns to the divine world.

The Hawaii Izumo Taisha was founded in 1906 by the Rev. Katsuyoshi Miyao as an affiliate of the Taishakyo sect. In 1923 a master shrine builder was brought from Japan to construct a shrine in Honolulu, Hawaii. Katsuyoshi Miyao died in 1935 and was succeeded by his son, the Rev. Shigemaru Miyao. During World War II, the shrine property was taken over by the city, due to the forced relocation of the Rev. Shigemaru Miyao, his family, and other leaders of the shrine organization. After release from the relocation camp, Miyao resumed church work at a temporary structure and reorganized and reincorporated the shrine organization in July 1952. After over 10,000 petitions were gathered in 1953 and lengthy hearings were held, first by the city’s board of supervisors and then by the court, the shrine property was finally returned in 1962. The original shrine built in 1923 was soon thereafter moved to its present site due to redevelopment of the original site. The shrine was finally repaired and restored in 1969. In 1996, the shrine observed its ninetieth anniversary celebration.


In 2001, Taishakyo Shinto had approximately 200 members.


Tenrikyo Mission Headquarters in America, 2727 E First St., Los Angeles, CA 90033

Of the various groups termed “new religions”in Japan, Tenrikyo is one of the largest, with more than two million members. The teachings of Tenrikyo had their origin in 1838, when Miki Nakayama, the wife of a well-to-do farmer in central Japan, began to go into trances and spoke as if God were speaking through her. Shortly after that she began to give away her family’s possessions, finally reaching the depths of poverty. For a period of nearly 50 years she taught what had been revealed to her in trances to an ever increasing number of followers attached to her initially by her spiritual healing. According to the teachings of Tenrikyo, which Nakayama gave to the followers, the world is completely sacramental: everything is God; there is nothing but God, and all human beings were originally created by God with the intent that they live a life of joy, in peace with one another, being all brothers and sisters and of God. Nakayama committed the teachings to a book called the Ofudesaki (“Tip of the Writing Brush”), and instructed followers in several means of attaining the life of joy. The Ofudesaki is considered the Tenrikyo book of scriptures.

Tenrikyo teaches that human beings are essentially good but that during one’s daily life “mental dust” is accumulated. The various kinds of dust identified are miserliness, covetousness, hatred, self-love, grudge-bearing, anger, greed, stinginess, and arrogance. These dusts cloud the mind, preventing one from truly seeing and understanding God’s intent for human beings. By working to sweep this dust away, the mind will be opened to God’s intent and thus to a joyous life, which Tenrikyo equates to salvation.

Of the several means of sweeping away this constantly accumulating dust, the most important is the service, to be performed with music, song, and dance. The service is performed monthly at every Tenrikyo church and mission worldwide. The principal part of the service is the repeated prayer “Ashiki o harote tasuku tamae, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto” (Sweeping away evils, please save us, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto), accompanied by hand motions symbolic of dust being brushed away from the mind. Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, or Lord of Divine Wisdom, is the formal name of God in Tenrikyo; another name more commonly used by followers is Oyagami-sama, or God the Parent, alluding to the father and mother nature of God as taught by Nakayama.

The rise of Tenrikyo coincided with a period of popular revolt in Japan. Because of the nature of its teachings, Tenrikyo is a strongly missionary religion, which brought it into conflict with the Japanese authorities in its early days. During the last 20 years of her life, Nakayama (called Oyasama, or “beloved parent,”by her followers) and many ardent followers were severely persecuted by Japanese authorities, both civil and religious. It was not until after World War II that Tenrikyo as an independent religion was freed of government control.

Nakayama died in 1887. Her followers believe that she continues to reside and work, in spirit, for world salvation at the jiba (sanctuary) of Tenrikyo’s main shrine in Tenri, Japan.

In its missionary activities, Tenrikyo spread to Korea and China in the first decades after receiving government recognition as a sect of Shinto in 1906. In 1927, at the time of Tenrikyo’s fortieth anniversary, two missionaries, Yone Okazaki and Rinzo Torizawa, were sent to Seattle and began to work among members already living in the Pacific Northwest. By the beginning of World War II, churches and parishes had been established along the West Coast from San Diego to Vancouver, and by 1973 congregations had spread eastward to Chicago and New York.


In 2001 the North American headquarters reported 62 churches, 67 fellowships, and 5 mission centers in the United States, mostly in California. There are 800 yoboku (missionaries), and an estimated membership of 3,000.

Educational Facilities

Tenri University

Tenri Seminary Schools

Tenri Language Institute (a school for missionaries going to countries overseas). All are located in Tenri City, Japan.


Tenrikyo Newsletter (English). • Progress (New York; English). • Ichiretsu (Japanese). • Seijin (New York; Japanese).


Tenrikyo Mission Headquarters in America.

The Life of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo. Tenri, Japan: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters, 1982.

Nishiyama, Teruo. Introduction to the Teachings of Tenrikyo. Tenri, Japan: Tenrikyo Overseas Mission Department, 1981.

Oyasato Research Institute, Tenri University. The Theological Perspectives of Tenrikyo. Tenri City, Japan: Tenri University Press, 1986.

Takano, Tomoji. The Missionary. Trans. by Mitsuru Yuge. Tenri, Japan: Tenrikyo Overseas Mission Department, 1981.


Hawaii Dojo, 888 N King St., Honolulu, HI 96817

Tensho-Kotai-Jingu-Kyo is a religion built around a remarkable charismatic figure, Sayo Kitamura (1900–1967), usually referred to as “Ogamisama”(The Great God) by her followers. A Japanese woman married to a farmer, Kitamura had no particular religious convictions until 1943, when a series of divine revelations began. She reported that the Absolute God, Tensho-kotai-jin, had descended into her body and told her to be the founder of the “Kingdom of God on Earth.”The new religion spread rapidly and was registered with the government in 1947.

Tensho-kotai-jin is seen as the Absolute God of the universe, the heavenly Father (as in Christianity), and the eternal Buddha. The almighty God is a male-female pair, who by possessing Ogamisama (Kitamura) formed a trinity. Ogamisama’s followers (like Ogamisama herself) described her in deific terms. She was seen to have powers of prophecy and healing. Ogamisama proclaimed 1946 as the first year of the New Era.

Ogamisama’s sermons were sometimes “sung” while in a state of ecstasy and were always delivered spontaneously. Ogamisama taught her followers the prayers she received from God for the redemption of negative spirits and for world peace. As one way to express inner joy and gratitude, followers perform a dance (an ecstasy dance) in a state of non-ego.

Ogamisama’s role is to establish the kingdom here and now by spreading God’s teaching to humanity. The individual’s responsibilities include a focus on purifying the world of the six roots of evil (regret, desire, hatred, fondness, love, and being loved excessively), redeeming evil spirits, severing personal karma, and continuing to improve the state of the soul with sincerity and courage.

Ogamisama made her first trip to Hawaii in 1952. She advised her listeners to burn the relics of Shinto and Buddhism, because they belonged to the past. The result of her trip was the establishment of eight branches of her religion. In October 1964, she began a nine-month worldwide tour that brought her to America for the last time. The movement had become worldwide by the time of her death in 1967. She was succeeded by her granddaughter, Kiyokazu Kitamura (b. 1950), revered as “Himegamisama.”

The Tensho-Kotai-Jigu-Kyo’s active evangelistic program is supported by a number of publications. The central document is Prophet of Tabuse, which introduces very briefly the life and teachings of Ogamisama. A periodical is published in Japanese, English, and Spanish, and other literature is available in 10 different languages. In the United States, there is an annual gathering of members (doshi) for a conference in each of the three divisions of the work—Hawaii, Northern California, and Southern California.


Not reported. In 1992, there were 13 Tensho-Kotai-Jingu-Kyo branches in Hawaii. Most of the mainland U.S. membership is located in several California communities, as well as in Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Bound Brook, New Jersey. Worldwide, centers are found in 76 countries.


Voice from Heaven.


Clarke, Peter B. “Modern Japanese Millenarian Movements.”In Japanese New Religions: In Global Perspective, ed. Peter B. Clarke, pp. 129–182. Richmond, Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 2000.

Hamrin, Tima. “Illness and Salvation in Tensho Kotai Jingukyo.” In Japanese New Religions: In Global Perspective, ed. Peter B. Clarke, pp. 240–257. Richmond, Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 2000.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. “Logic of Salvation: The Case of a Japanese Sect in Hawaii.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry 16, no. 1 (winter 1969/1970): 45–53.

Nishiyama Shigeru, and Fujii Takashi. “The Propagation and Spread of Tensho Kotai Jingukyo within Japanese American Society on Hawaii Island.” New Religions: Contemporary Papers in Japanese Religions, ed. Nobutaka Inoue. Tokyo: Kokugakuin University, 1991.

Ogamisama Says.… Tabuse, Japan: Tensho-Kotai-Jingu-Kyo, 1963.

The Prophet of Tabuse. Tabuse, Japan: Tensho-Kotai-Jingu-Kyo, 1954.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Shinto, composed of two ideographs, literally means the "way of the kami. " Although kami can be translated as gods or deities, it also refers more generally to spirit-beings, the supernatural, or to a sacred quality in which an individual can even participate. Shinto refers to what has become a religious tradition indigenous to Japan that recognizes the existence of the kami governing various aspects of reality. There is no primary revelatory text from which doctrines emanate. Instead, doctrines have become established over time, with evidence showing conceptual interaction with Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism over the centuries.

The sacred as represented by the kami, in whom lie the constructive "way" of creation, harmony, and uprightness, plays a central role. These truths can be discerned through faith and ritual. While beneficial and malevolent forces are both recognized, they are not necessarily strictly separated, since good and evil are understood as closely related. In Shinto mythology, for example, it is not unusual for the effects of particular gods to change from one to the other depending on the kami 's circumstances.

Central to Shinto is the concept of purity and purification of one's inner and outer selves. Purification of the inner self involves living before the kami in reverence and worship. Shinto recognizes that life lived with such reverence shapes attitudes of heart and mind, leading to magokoro ("heart of sincerity"). This, in turn, influences all of man's relationships to himself, to others, and to the world leading to harmony and peace. In this way, man also partakes in the divine as he lives in accordance to the way of the kami. The purification of the outer self involves the observance of various ritesamong which are included rites for different stages in an individual's life, and festivals (matsuri ) at various times of the year.

Contrary to common perceptions, for most of its past, Shinto did not exist as an independent religion. In this sense, presenting a summary of the "history of Shinto" may misleadingly reify its existence when it was not truly there as a distinctive religious tradition. The term as it is understood today did not become common parlance until the twentieth century. Still, since modern Shinto reflects the broader tendencies of folk religion in Japan's history, and since the tradition claims historicity, the history of Shinto as it is often presented remains significant.

It is standard to present the origins of Shinto as being historically discernible as far back as the Yayoi period (roughly 300 b.c.e. to 300 c.e.) in which uji, or clans, worshipped the ujigami, its tutelary deity. While these kami were often ancestral, others represented various aspects of nature or ideas. As the Yamato clan, from which the imperial line is said to come, gradually grew powerful, the authority of its tutelary deity also expanded. During the seventh and eighth centuries, Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions deeply influenced Japanese folk belief. Efforts in the eighth century made Buddhist and Shinto philosophies compatible in a process called shimbutsu shûgô (unifying of gods and buddhas). Shinto kami became protectors of Buddhism, making it possible to have Shinto shrines within Buddhist temples. Such Buddhist-Shinto accommodation became more explicit during the Kamakura period (11921333): Ryobu (Dual) Shinto taught that the two realms of the universe in Shingon Buddhism corresponded with the two kami (Amaterasu and Toyouke) of the Ise Shrine; and, Sannô Shinto taught that the fundamental truth of the universe was equivalent to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who was the source of the universe. Buddhism, however, generally remained more politically powerful and much of what is referred to as Shinto during this time may, in fact, be more Buddhist.

Shinto as a more distinct religious tradition is said to become more recognizable in reactions to Buddhist dominance that occurred in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the thirteenth century, Watarai (or Ise) Shinto taught that kami were the basis of all beings including buddhas and bodhisattvas. In actuality, however, the Watarai tradition continued to assume compatibility with Buddhism. In the fifteenth century, hints of Shinto as a distinctive religion appear. Yoshida Shinto, established by Yoshida Kanetomo (14351511), taught that Buddhism and Confucianism were second-hand versions of Shinto, and that indigenous knowledge of truths had been handed down through generations through his lineage. Although Yoshida Shinto's influence would be subdued during the Tokugawa period (16031867) when Neo-Confucian philosophy legitimized the state, it continued to inform Shinto beliefs leading to the development of Nativist Studies (Kokugaku) and the thinking of Motoori Norinaga (17301801). This would eventually coalesce in Fukko (Restoration) Shinto that called for the restoration of imperial rule, resulting in the Meiji Restoration and the start of Japan's modern history.

Following the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, Shinto was made a state religion that taught the national ethic of reverence for and submission to the emperor. Kokka (State) Shinto, as this form is called, was very much a modern creation and was used aggressively by the state to nurture a loyal and nationalistic population. In the postwar period, though some traditionalist conservatives are known to seek revivals of this in some form, due to its disestablishment in the postwar constitution, Shinto no longer has such close connection with the state and is substantially weaker.

Still, Shinto belief and practice continue and exert their shaping influence upon attitudes and values of many Japanese. Shinto weddings, or festivals marking the calendar such as obon in the summer, the November festival for children, or New Year's Day, all remain popular and have become deeply embedded in national life. This has invited a new generation of scholars to move beyond viewing Shinto only in its statist form, to seeing it as a rich and lively tradition that continues to flourish in modern Japanese society. Although its close association in both beliefs and practice with the people and politics of Japan has given Shinto a parochial sensibility not conducive to spreading overseas, its continuing vitality has raised questions regarding the place of folk religion in the modern era and has won scholarly interest.

See also Japanese Philosophy, Japanese Thought ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia ; Sacred Places .


Breen, John, and Mark Teeuwen, eds., Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000. Provides a general overview covering various topics.

Grapard, Allan G. "The Shinto of Yoshida Kanetomo." Monumenta Nipponica 47, no. 1 (spring 1992).

Hardacre, Helen. Shinto and the State, 18681988. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. A classic work explicating the construction and consequences of State Shinto in the modern era.

Kuroda, Toshio. "Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion." Journal of Japanese Studies 7, no. 1 (winter 1981): 121. An important critique of the normal historical genealogy presented for the ancient existence of Shinto.

Littleton, C. Scott. Shinto: Origins, Ritual, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places Oxford, U.K., and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Picken, Stuart D. B. Essentials of Shinto: An Analytical Guide to Principal Teachings. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

. Historical Dictionary of Shinto. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

. Shinto: Japan's Spiritual Roots. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1980. An accessible and beautiful visual introduction to various aspects of Shinto as practiced in Japan.

Schnell, Scott. The Rousing Drum: Ritual Practice in Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1999.

Smyers, Karen A. The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.

Teeuwen, Mark. "Attaining Union with the Gods." Monumenta Nipponica 48, no. 2 (summer 1993).

Teeuwen, Mark, and Fabio Rambelli, eds. Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honj Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Genzo Yamamoto


views updated May 17 2018






Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. Although its origins extend back into Japans prehistory, Shinto has undergone significant periods of development throughout the countrys history, and it continues to be an important part of Japanese culture.


Although Shinto can be traced back to Japans Jomon period (c. 11,000-400 BCE), it was during the Yayoi period (c. 400 BCE250 CE) that the key elements associated with its developmentwet rice agriculture, fertility rituals, and stable, long-term communitiesappeared. During this time, local shrines were established and many of the beliefs and practices seen in Shinto today came into existence. During the Kofun period (c. 250-592 CE), Shinto became associated with a large-scale process of political consolidation. Although there remained small shrines in local communities, large Shinto shrines were built at Ise and Izumo on the eastern and western sides of the central Japanese island of Honshu, reflecting the more centralized political structure that was emerging. By the early Nara period (early eighth century), the first written histories of Japanthe Kojiki (712) and the Nihon shoki (720)included myths associated with Shinto that served to legitimize the imperial line and the leadership of the Japanese state. Primary among these was the mythic descent of the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu, from the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

The introduction of Buddhism into Japan from China around the middle of the sixth century also brought a new dimension to the development of Shinto. Buddhism, which had a much more extensive theology and culture (art, architecture, and literature) associated with it, came over time to coexist peacefully with Shinto, rather than to compete with it. The two religionsShinto, with its connections to fertility and life, and Buddhism, with its theology reaching beyond the present worldgrew to support one another. Beginning in the eighth century, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were often located together on the same site. In 743 the Shinto deity Amaterasu and the cosmic buddha Vairocana were officially declared to be two dimensions of the same reality. In the centuries that followed, the syncretistic relationship between Shinto and Buddhism continued to develop.

During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), a shift away from Buddhism occurred, and a stronger connection to Confucian thought (introduced into Japan during earlier contact with China) developed. During this time, Shinto came to be used as a mechanism of support for political and social unity. This role of Shinto reached its peak during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the preWorld War II and wartime portions of the Showa period (1926-1989), when Shinto branched off into Sect Shinto (retaining its local characteristics and Buddhist connections) and State Shinto (which became an official state religion and was used to instill a sense of loyalty to the country). Under State Shinto an Office of Shinto Worship (Jingikan) was established, and a system of national shrines was given official support and patronage. Reverence for the emperor, who was now considered to be a Shinto deitysacred and inviolable in the words of the Meiji Constitution (1889)and support for the Shinto concept of kokutai (body politic or national essence) was required in Japanese schools. Following Japans defeat in World War II (1939-1945), State Shinto was banned, the emperor was forced to renounce his divine status, and Shinto in large degree returned to its earlier pattern of local shrines and its connections with Buddhism. With key modifications, the religion continues in modern times to play a significant role in Japanese culture.


A central feature of Shinto lies in a belief in the existence of spirits or deities in nature known as kami. These spirits are usually associated with natural phenomena, such as a mountain, a waterfall, a large tree, or an unusual rock.

The surrounding area then comes to be considered sacred, and a shrine (jinja ) is erected there. Various rituals are performed at the shrine, among the most important being food offerings and rites of purification. In the beginning, the shrines were strictly local in character, and agricultural fertility was a central purpose of the rituals performed there. Annual shrine festivals (matsuri ) were events of great importance in the local community. Over time, certain shrines came to be thought of as connected with particular needs and serve as places to pray for human fertility, success in business, or even (in modern times) success in passing college entrance exams. Some shrines assumed regional significance. Other shrinesas mentioned in the preceding sectionreflected a larger, national purpose.

Over time also, shrine architecture came to follow certain basic styles or types. The earliest shrines (exemplified today by the great Ise Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu) were constructed of unpainted wood, but after the introduction of Buddhism, many shrines were painted a brilliant vermillion red, displaying the Chinese Buddhist influence. Large gateways (torii )also of varying stylesmark the entrance or approach to a shrine. Other important shrine features include stone dogs (komainu ) guarding the shrine entrance, a place of purification (chozuyu ) where worshippers stop to wash their hands and rinse their mouths prior to approaching the main shrine building, the main sanctuary (honden ) where the kami is believed to reside, the collection box (saisen-bako ) where money is thrown to express gratitude to the kami, and a special bell (suzu ) connected to a rope, which worshippers ring to announce their arrival.

In addition to participation in the annual shrine festival, people also visit shrines on national holidays such as New Years (shogatsu ) or the summer Bon festival (obon ). Most Japanese are married in a Shinto wedding ceremony, and there are other shrine ceremonies celebrating various life passages, such as the first shrine visit for a newborn child (hatsu-miyamairi ) or national Coming-of-Age Day (seijin-no-hi ) for twenty-year-olds, which takes place on January 15. Finally, many traditional Japanese sports (sumo, for example), as well as other forms of traditional culture, have their roots in Shinto.


Since the end of World War II and the banning of Shinto as an official state religion, Shinto practice has focused primarily on its role as an aspect of traditional culture. More than 100,000 shrines existed in the country in 2003, ranging from small neighborhood shrines to large shrines of national significance. Japanese tourists flock to the famous shrines in historic cities like Kyoto and Nara. National holidays and family rites of passage, as well as matsuri, are celebrated at local or neighborhood shrines. It remains common for people to have a small Shinto family altar (kamidana, god shelf) located above the entrance to their homes. Although occasional controversies surface regarding holdovers from Shintos earlier role as a state religionthe periodic controversy, for example, surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating the war dead in TokyoShinto, for the most part, is a colorful and happy form of religious expression, the darker side of human existence being left to Buddhism with its funeral rituals and ideas concerning the next life. Most Japanese consider themselves, at some level at least, adherents of both religious traditions.

SEE ALSO Buddhism; Imperialism; Meiji Restoration; Nationalism and Nationality; Religion; Rituals; Symbols; World War II


Inoue, Nobutaka, ed. 2003. Shinto: A Short History. Trans. Mark Teeuwen and John Breen. London: Routledge Curzon.

Kodansha. 1983. Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. 9 vols. Tokyo: Author.

Littleton, C. Scott. 2002. Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, John K. 2000. Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Scott Wright


views updated May 14 2018


Shinto is a practice of religious rites based on the Japanese polytheistic idea of kami (deity). The word Shintō literally means "Way of Kami." Scholars of Shinto often maintain that it is the indigenous religion of Japan. Certainly Shinto has no obvious foreign origin, although there have been Korean and Chinese influences in the development of Shinto.

Institutional Shinto

Jinja Shinto (Shrine Shinto) is the institutional form of Shinto. Jinja Honchō (the Association of Shinto Shrines) in Tokyo is the administrating office for about eighty-thousand Shinto shrines in Japan. Ise Jingū (the Grand Shrine of Ise) in Ise, Mie Prefecture, which enshrines Amaterasu Ōmikami (the Sun Goddess), is considered to be the most sacred Shinto shrine. The emperor of Japan is considered to be the divine descendant of Amaterasu Ōmikami and the highest Shinto priest. The emperor's most important religious duty is to pray to the kami for the prosperity of Japan, the happiness of the Japanese people, and peace in the world.

Shinto has no holy scriptures in the strict sense, but the mythologies collected in Japanese classics such as Kojiki (the Record of Ancient Matters ), compiled in 712, and Nihonshoki (also known as Nihongi, the Chronicles of Japan ), compiled in 720, are regarded as important texts. In many cases, the mythologies have political implications to justify the rule of the emperor, but they also have cosmological implications.

General phenomenology of Shinto

Shinto is one of the most widely practiced religions in Japan; for centuries the Japanese people have been practicing Shinto alongside Buddhism. Although there are some cases of syncretism, mostly a clear distinction is made between Shinto and Buddhism. Generally, Shinto concerns happiness and prosperity in this world, whereas Buddhism, for the Japanese, relates to the peace of deceased souls.

The grounds of a Shinto shrine are usually marked by a grove of tall evergreen trees surrounding a gateway called a torii. In the main building of the shrine, a shintai (divine object), which is supposed to bear the spirit of a particular kami, is enshrined. Typically, a shintai is an ancient-style mirror, which is contained in a special case. No one is allowed to view the shintai directly. With few exception, there are no images or statues of kami.

Most Japanese go to a Shinto shrine on certain occasions, often on New Year's Day, to pray for the kami 's blessings. According to tradition, the prayer first washes his or her hands and mouth at a fountain located near the gateway. Then the prayer proceeds to the front of the main building, casts a few coins into an offertory box, rings the bells, bows twice, claps his or her hands twice, and bows one more time. The whole procedure takes only a few minutes.

A number of rites and one major festival are held annually at each Shinto shrine. In a Shinto festival, priests first solemnly offer prayers and foods such as rice and sake (rice wine) to the kami, thanking the kami and asking for the kami 's blessings. Dances and music are then performed for the kami and the people to enjoy together. The highlight of the festival is when portable shrines or floats are energetically paraded through the parish, usually carried by male parishioners. Many stalls that sell snacks or goods may be set up on or near the shrine grounds on the day of the festival.

A special ritual called jichinsai (Earth-pacifying ritual) is almost always performed by Shinto priests when construction begins on a new building or facility. It is believed that, without such a ritual, accidents may happen because the deities or spirits that dwell on the construction site become angry.

Characteristics of Shinto

Scholars of Shinto often point out that Shinto has no dogma, although some characteristics of Shinto have continued relatively unchanged during its long history. Muraoka Tsunetsugu (18841946) was one of the first scholars to outline the characteristics of Shinto thought. Stimulated and informed by Muraoka's studies, historian Delmer Brown reconsidered and reformulated the Japanese cultural paradigms. The following characteristics of Shinto are largely based on Brown, with a few revisions.

Vitalism. The scholar Motoori Norinaga (17301801) once defined kami as whatever seems strikingly impressive, possesses the quality of excellence, or inspires a feeling of awe. Certainly Shinto includes an animistic view of nature, but Shinto has a more distinctive characteristic. The kami enshrined in a Shinto shrine varies from a deity that appears in the mythologies in Kojiki or Nihonshoki to the spirit of a historical figure such as an outstanding emperor, feudal lord, or scholar. However, the kami is always believed to have mysterious power to create, enrich, prolong, or renew any form of life.

In other words, what the kami symbolizes is vitality, productivity, or fertility in this world. Shinto vitalism has roots in agricultural rites that may date back to the third or fourth centuries b.c.e. Even in modern times, people pray to kami for worldly happiness, prosperity, success, safety, or health.

Ritualism. In Shinto tradition, performing and participating in rituals has been given greater emphasis than believing and confessing a certain creed. Although theological treatises of Shinto were written as early as the thirteenth century, no established creed or orthodox dogma ever developed. It is more likely that the articulation of principles was intentionally eschewed than that Shinto failed to establish creed or dogma. Some rituals, such as the Niinamesai (Feast of New Rice Crops), which is performed by the emperor himself, are considered to be so sacred that the entire procedure and even the name of the kami involved are kept secret.

According to surveys, only a small percentage of Japanese confess that they believe in Shinto, but the majority of them visit a Shinto shrine on New Year's Day. Such data provoke some scholars to maintain that Shinto is a cultural custom rather than a religion.

However, State Shinto is an exceptional case. From 1871 to 1945, Shinto was the Rite of State, also called State Shinto. Toward the end of World War II, the sacredness and invincibility of Japan as the nation of kami, was so strongly believed that State Shinto became fanatical, leading many Japanese soldiers to suicidal attacks. Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo enshrines the spirits of the soldiers who died for Japan and the emperor, not as souls of the dead but as kami (i.e., deities that have power to give vitality).

Particularism. Shinto is a national religion practiced only by the Japanese, including Japanese immigrants in other countries. With few exceptions, Shinto has had no interest in overseas missions or in universal principles or values that are considered valid for all human beings. Scholars of Shinto tend to emphasize the "uniqueness" of Shinto rather than its universality. Each kami enshrined in a local shrine is supposed to concern only the people in the local community. This particularism also originates in Shinto's development from agricultural rites focusing on the sacredness of the particular water source of each local community. Nonetheless, when Japan annexed Korea in the early twentieth century, the Japanese government built Shinto shrines in Korea and forced Korean people to worship Shinto kami.

Shinto and science

From ancient times, arts, sciences, and technologies, including philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, medicine, and alchemy, were continuously imported into Japan from China and Korea, and studied and developed in Japan in various ways. However, neither Shinto nor Japan gave birth to anything similar to modern science. In fact, the characteristics of Shinto discussed above, especially the animistic view of nature and the avoidance of establishing universal principles, may have stood in the way of the development of a modern scientific methodology or view of nature.

On the other hand, the Japanese studied and learned modern science earnestly and quickly once it was introduced. Some Japanese scholars started to study modern science when Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune permitted the importation of nonreligious Western books in 1720. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the study of science was accelerated. Kōgakuryō (College of Science and Technology) was established in Tokyo in 1873 and was merged with Tokyo University in 1886. By the end of the twentieth century, Japan had become a world leader in science and technology. In that process, Shinto did not serve as an obstacle. Once science became associated with success and prosperity in this world, its study and application could be encouraged. Neither Copernican heliocentrism nor the Darwinian theory of evolution raised significant controversy in Japan, probably because the human being has no special status as the crown of creation in Shinto or Buddhism. In Shinto the human being is simply a harmonious part of nature.

The animistic element of Shinto that respects the vitality immanent in nature should certainly have the potential to make a positive contribution to human efforts to preserve the natural environment. Interdisciplinary conferences involving scholars of Shinto are occasionally held, although some feel that the politically conservative tendency of Shinto may work contrary to the efforts of environmentalism.


asquith, pamela j., and kalland, arne, eds. japanese images of nature: cultural perspectives. richmond, va.: curzon, 1997.

aston, william george, tr. nihongi, chronicles of japan from the earliest times to a. d. 697. rutland, vt. and tokyo: c. e. tuttle, 1972.

brown, delmer m., ed. the cambridge history of japan, volume i: ancient japan. cambridge, u.k.: cambridge university press, 1993.

hardacre, helen. shinto and the state, 1868-1988. princeton, n. j.: princeton university press, 1989.

kitagawa, joseph m. religion in japanese history. new york: columbia university press, 1966.

nakayama, shigeru; swain, david l.; yagi, eri, eds. science and society in modern japan: selected historical sources. tokyo: university of tokyo press, 1974.

nelson, john k. a year in the life of a shinto shrine. seattle and london: university of washington press, 1996.

ono, sokyo. shinto: the kami way. rutland, vt. and tokyo: c. e. tuttle, 1962.

philippi, donald l., tr. kojiki. princeton, n. j.: princeton university press, 1969.

philippi, donald l., tr. norito: a translation of the ancient japanese ritual prayers. princeton, n. j.: princeton university press, 1990.

masakazu hara


views updated May 11 2018

Shinto (Jap., ‘the way of the kami’). The indigenous Japanese religious tradition. The term Shinto was coined in the 6th cent. CE, using the Chin. characters shen (‘divine being’) and tao (‘way’); in the native Japanese reading it is kami no michi or kannagara no michi. The origins of Shinto are clouded in the mists of the prehistory of Japan, and it has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, and no fixed system of doctrine. As the imperial (Tennō) clan gained supremacy, its myths also gained ascendancy, providing the dominant motifs into which the myths of the other clans were integrated to some extent. These myths were collected in the two 8th-cent. collections of mythology and early history, the Kojiki of 712 (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihongi/Nihonshoki of 720 (Chronicles of Japan), and they established the basic themes of Shinto, such as the cosmological outlook consisting of a three-level universe, the Plain of High Heaven (takama-no-hara), the Manifested World (utsushi-yo), and the Nether World (yomotsu-kuni); the creation of the world by Izanagi and Izanami; the forces of life and fertility, as also of pollution and purification; the dominance of the sun kami Amaterasu Ōmikami; and the descent of the imperial line from Amaterasu. The mythology also established the basic Shinto worship practices, dances, and chanting of norito.

In the history of Japan, Shinto has gone through many transformations: the imperial edicts prescribing the national rituals in the 7th cent.; the stratification of the Shinto priesthood; the Institutes of the Engi Era (Engi-shiki) regulating Shinto in the 10th cent.; Buddhist influence which resulted in the Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation (Ryōbu-shintō and Sannōichijitsu); the influence of neo-Confucianism on Shinto; and finally the resurgence of Shinto stimulated by the ‘National Learning’ (kokugaku) movement in the 18th and 19th cents. which returned Shinto to its former position as the guiding principle of Japan and provided a theoretical framework for Shinto thought. There still exist in modern Japan several different types of Shinto. The Shinto of the Imperial Household (kōshitsu shintō) focuses on rites for the spirits of imperial ancestors performed by the emperor. Shrine Shinto (jinja shintō) is presently the form of Shinto which embraces the vast majority of Shinto shrines and adherents in Japan, administered by the Association of Shinto Shrines (jinja honchō), State Shinto (kokka shintō) was created by the Meiji government and continued until the end of the Second World War to control most Shinto shrines and rituals in accordance with the ideological aims of the government. New Shinto movements were designated by the government as Sect Shinto (kyōha shintō). Sect Shinto groups continue today, joined by a group of ‘New Sect Shinto’ (shin kyōha shintō) movements which have developed in the post-war period. Folk Shinto (minkan shintō) is a designation for the extremely wide-ranging group of superstitious, magico-religious rites and practices of the common people. The typical setting for the practice of Shinto is the shrine (jinja) precinct, which is an enclosed sacred area with a gate (torii), ablution area, and sacred buildings including the main sanctuary (honden) which houses the symbol of the kami (shintai) and a worship area (haiden). The natural surroundings are also regarded as permeated with the kami presence; in fact, occasionally a mountain or sacred forest may take the place of the sanctuary. At special times through the year, shrines become the focal point for community festivals (matsuri), held according to the tradition of each shrine at stated times in honour of its own kami, although there are many common festivals. For the devout Shintoist, daily life itself is matsuri or service to the kami, and one worships before the home altar (kamidana). Mortuary rites are usually conducted by Buddhist priests, even though Shinto lays great emphasis on veneration of the ancestral spirits.

Shinto is a ‘this-worldly’ religion, in the sense that it is interested in tangible benefits which will promote life in this human world.


views updated May 11 2018

Shinto Dictionaries, both English and Japanese, commonly present ‘Shintoism’ or ‘Shinto’ (the more common term), as a system of ancestor and nature worship native to Japan. Shinto as a systematic, unified religion is as much a creation of modern Japan's Meiji state (1867–1912) as it is something that has existed throughout Japan's history. The basic meaning of the word ‘Shinto’ until the nineteenth century was local religion in general, and although Shinto usually referred to Japanese religion, it did not necessarily have to (e.g. the 1605 anthropological work Ryūkyū shintō-ki, or Account of Local Religion [Shinto] in Ryukyu, the Kingdom of Ryukyu then being a separate country from Japan). Viewed historically, we may identify three related yet distinct varieties of ‘Shinto’: (i) local religious practices and beliefs that originated before Buddhist influence; (ii) certain of these local practices and beliefs that Buddhism later subsumed, systematized, and modified, from the ninth to the eighteenth centuries; and (iii) Japan's ‘national religion’, with varying degrees of connection to the state, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shinto never articulated an overall theory of the body, but the first variety of Shinto closely linked the sexual body with agriculture and the forces of nature.

Important artifacts from the middle Jōmon period (c.3500–2400 bce) and later, include phallic stones (sekibō), ranging in height from 2 m to 50 cm, and clay female figures with prominent breasts and hips (dogū), sometimes appearing pregnant, most approximately 30 cm in height. Although there is disagreement over the details, most scholars agree that ancient inhabitants of Japan connected these objects with magico-religious rites to promote bountiful harvests. Prehistoric residents of the Japanese islands probably connected the mystery of human reproduction with agricultural productivity, and the female figures symbolized both mother and earth as locus of mysterious power.

The notion of mysterious power gradually developed into the Shinto concept of kami, often translated as ‘deity’. The most basic meaning of the term is: that which is above other things like it — in other words, that which is distinctive. An unusually large tree, an outcropping of rock, a waterfall, certain animals, and even certain people are examples of things that have qualified as kami owing to some distinctive attribute the local people regarded as significant. Though part of a world of spirits, kami were not transcendent. They linked the visible world with the realms beyond direct sensory apprehension.

According to ancient mythology, the Japanese islands themselves were created by the sexual activities of anthropomorphic kami. For example, in Chronicles of Japan, two creation deities, lzanagi and Izanami, stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven and say ‘Is there no country beneath?’ They then thrust down a heavenly jewelled spear, repeatedly, until they found the vast ocean beneath. Brine dripped from the point of the spear, coagulated, and became an island on which the two deities dwelt. They continued the creation process after the female deity explained that her body has a place that is the source of femininity and the male deity explained that his had a place that is the source of masculinity. They united these two places to form numerous other islands. In these myths the deities' sexuality was the creative power of nature.

Shinto typically associated disease and death with pollution and, accordingly, developed purification rites. It celebrated health, prosperity, and life, which it associated with the creative forces of nature. A common metaphor for nature's generative forces was the sexual body. Phallic stones, poles, and etchings along roadsides, for example, functioned to protect against nature's polluting forces. Ancient agricultural deities often existed as a male and female pair, sometimes depicted embracing each other. Wooden or stone representations of male or female genitalia, or a pair of such objects, became the kami-body in shrines throughout many parts of the Japanese islands (the kami-body is an object in which the spirit of a deity was thought to reside). Even today, representations of sexual organs occasionally serve as the kami in Japanese shrines and can be seen in public festivals celebrating the shrine's kami.

During the late nineteenth century, Japan's Meiji state sought to revamp Shinto to enhance the process of nation-building (i.e. of Japanese thinking of themselves as Japanese). As part of a general policy of policing morality, the leaders of modern Japan sought to suppress the overtly sexual symbolism of Shinto. Instead of the sexual body, modern Japan's state Shinto stressed kokutai, the ‘national body’ (often translated ‘national polity’) — a vague but potent concept of Japanese essence embodied in an allegedly unbroken lineage of emperors descending from the solar deity (Amaterasu). What began in ancient Japan as worship of the sexual body, ended in modern Japan (until 1946) as worship of the national body. Neither ‘body’ plays a major role in today's Shinto, but vestiges of each remain.

G. Smits

See also creation myths.


views updated May 18 2018


The term Shinto, which is translated as "the way of the gods," was not coined until the nineteenth century. Because Shinto, unlike Buddhism, has never been an organized religion or tradition and has no official doctrines or creed, its ideas concerning death can vary widely from one individual to the next. This entry makes references to kami, or native Japanese deities, as representative of the Shinto tradition and focuses on these deities as core to Shinto thought.

No moral notion of sin exists in Shinto. Death is not the "wages of sin," that is, the outcome of evil-doing. Rather, because purity is valued above all else, evil is defined as that which is "pollution." The primary pollutions are sickness, blood, and death. When kami are offended because of exposure to pollution, they can create disasters such as plagues and famines. Consequently, Shinto shrines usually do not conduct funerals. This tradition is evidenced in the familiar adage, "Shinto for weddings, Buddhism for funerals."

Nevertheless, historically, Shinto ideas have dealt with death. Practitioners believe that the spirits of the dead go to the mountains, above the sky, below the earth, or beyond the horizon. Kami and other supernatural beings also dwell in these places. Living beings from this world may visit those from the other worlds in border lands, which include cliffs, caves, and coastlines. The Japanese welcome these souls back to their homes in August at the Obon festival. Usually, however, after thirty-three years deceased ancestors are no longer considered. There is no concept of an eternal soul in Shinto.

Two of Japan's oldest texts, the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters, 712) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, 720), tell the story of Izanami and Izanagi, the two kami who created Japan. After Izanami dies giving birth to the kami of fire, she goes to a place called the Land of Darkness (known as Yomi no Kuni ). Her husband misses her so badly that he follows her, only to be shocked by Izanami's advanced state of decay. He flees the Land of Darkness, stopping at a river to cleanse himself on his way back to the land of the living. This early story emphasizes the Shinto understanding of death as pollution.

Occasionally deceased people have become kami, when the deceased were thought to be angry with the living or because of the circumstances surrounding their deaths. The most famous example of such a kami is Sugawara Michizane (845903), who was exiled to Kyushu, a southern island of Japan, in 901 because he was viewed as a political threat by the scheming regent. Shortly after Michizane's death a number of disasters struck Japan, which were thought to be caused by his angry spirit. To pacify him, he was recognized as a kami and enshrined in Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto in the middle of the tenth century.

In Japan's Meiji period (18681912), a time of extreme nationalism, leaders adapted Shinto ideas to fit their political agenda. Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, established in 1869, enshrines the spirits of all the Japanese war dead since that time. Nevertheless, most deceased persons in Japan are not regarded as kami, and most Japanese turn to Buddhism for answers to problems concerning death.

See also: Buddhism; Confucius; Taoism


Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 67. 1924. Reprint, New York: Paragon Press, 1956.

Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: The Kami Way. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1962.



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Shin·to / ˈshinˌtō/ • n. a Japanese religion dating from the early 8th century and incorporating the worship of ancestors and nature spirits and a belief in sacred power (kami) in both animate and inanimate things. It was the state religion of Japan until 1945. See also Amaterasu.DERIVATIVES: Shin·to·ism / -izəm/ n.Shin·to·ist / -ist/ n.