Shinto: ‘‘The Way of the Kami’’

The bundle of spiritual rites and practices that we know today as Shinto began in Japanese antiquity and shares many characteristics of ancient early preliterate forms of Western and non-Western religions that were rooted in the earth, nature, and fertility. Like many other earth religions, Shinto has no historical founders such as Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed, no sacred scriptures and moral injunctions, no martyrs, and no saints. The early daily and seasonal practices that came to be known as Shinto, although an integral part of life as was the case in other preliterate societies, were not rigidly compartmentalized as ‘‘religion.’’ In fact, the term ‘‘Shinto’’ did not appear in written records until well after Buddhism reached Japan. In the early eighth century, the term is mentioned in the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki, two of the earliest official chronicles of Japan, as part of a more general governmentsponsored effort to both contrast and reconcile Japanese beliefs with such newly imported foreign spiritual traditions as Buddhism and Confucianism.

The definition of what Shinto precisely means is still controversial. Although Shinto is often translated as ‘‘the Way of the Gods,’’ Shinto deities are dissimilar from Western conceptualizations of ‘‘God’’ in enough ways that thinking of the two terms as largely synonymous is to quite likely promote misunderstanding. Kami are any animate, mythological, or inanimate entities that promote awe, fear, and reverence. Kami may be mountains, rocks, trees, streams, and even people. In many ways, ‘‘spirits’’ serve as a better equivalent Western term for kami than gods, although a precise translation is impossible.

Shinto has been described as a religion of shrines, festivals, and rituals. Large, medium, and small Shinto shrines with their torii gates are pervasive throughout Japan. Shrines, considered to be the homes of kami, are often located in such beautiful natural surroundings as the mouths of rivers or at the foot of a mountain. Many of the sites of the older shrines were considered to be sacred spaces long before the erection of any structure. Japanese consider Shinto, in contrast to the more somber Buddhism, to be an optimistic and happy religion. Children are christened at shrines and taken there during special festivals during their third, fifth, and seventh years. As noted, many couples have Shinto weddings. Shinto-related festivities take place during rice planting and harvesting cycles. Millions of Japanese observe the custom of visiting Shinto shrines on New Year’s Day. Some shrines do a brisk business throughout the year selling good-luck charms for marriage, fertility, examination success, and even auto safety. A number of Shinto shrines hold annual matsuri, or festivals, where revelers carry large portable shrines that figuratively transport the local kami all around the immediate area of the home shrine. It is not uncommon for large companies to have small shrines honoring particular kami.

Individuals or groups who visit shrines to worship complete, often in a short period of time, three processes: purification, making an offering, and praying or making a request of the local kami. Before entering the shrine, the purification act involves the use of water to wash one’s hands or wash out one’s mouth. Then a monetary offering is presented to the kami, followed by the prayer or request. Values common to most Japanese today that originated in part through early religious practices include a love of bathing and deep reverence for nature.

Shinto also bequeathed a rich mythology to the Japanese people, with stories of gods and goddesses who possessed various magical powers. The first political leaders of a Japanese state, the Yamato clan, were originally priest-chiefs. They later became the first Japanese emperors and claimed descent from Amaterasu, the sun goddess and a leading Shinto deity. The sun has gone on to play a central role in Japanese culture. The Japanese name for their country, Nippon, means ‘‘source of the sun.’’ A number of Japanese consider many of the practices and objects associated with this indigenous set of spiritual traditions, including New Year’s and agricultural rites, rice, sumo, and sake, as the traditional cultural essences of what it means to be Japanese rather than as symbols of formal religion.

During the Meiji period in the last half of the 19th century, Japan’s new leaders looked for a centrifugal force that could be instrumental in promoting the high level of nationalism that was absent in the archipelago but constituted an integral feature of Western political systems. The Meiji oligarchs chose Shinto. Meiji leaders created formal hierarchical structures for Shinto shrines throughout Japan, promoted a state Shinto characterized by the inculcation in school students of the belief that the emperor was divine, and promulgated the notion that the highest calling of a citizen was to die for the emperor. With Japan’s defeat in World War II and the creation of the 1947 constitution, Shinto was disestablished as the state religion, and the emperor issued a statement that he was secular and not divine. Although the Japanese government now provides official support for no religion, memories of Shinto’s association with 20th-century Japanese militarism, imperialism, and the Pacific War are still present among some Japanese today. Also, since the 1970s, unofficial visits by some of Japan’s prime ministers to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the spirits of Japan’s war dead, have resulted in domestic, Chinese, and Korean protests. Some extreme right-wing groups incorporate Shinto in general, and the Yasukuni Shrine in particular, into their ideological messages that focus on the Japanese as a special people and that exonerate Japan’s role in World War II.

The syncretic nature of religious observance and, for the most part, the lack of the clergy-directed weekly services common to Western religions cause contemporary religion statistics on Japanese practitioners to be imprecise. However, Shinto shrines claim more than 106 million ujiko, or parishioners, making Shinto Japan’s most common spiritual tradition. Shinto, with approximately 86,000 shrines, has long coexisted with Japan’s various Buddhist sects that include 78,000 temples and claim more than 96 million members. Even though Japan was the last of the three major East Asian countries to adopt Buddhism, in some respects the religion is more culturally pervasive in contemporary Japan than in China or the Korean Peninsula.