With almost 88 million followers, Shinto is the oldest belief system in Japan, coexisting alongside Buddhism.
It has been deeply embedded in Japan’s heart and culture for thousands of years and highlights the importance of values, harmony with nature, and attaining makoto no kokoro, or a heart of truth.
This article will give you an insightful tour of Shinto’s colorful culture, origins, beliefs, and its Kami (gods).
Shinto (The Way of The Gods)
According to Elizabeth Hammer from Asia Society, Shinto is Japan’s oldest native belief system dating back to the Yayoi period (200 BCE-250 CE). Its many practices, institutions, and attitudes revolve around the land of Japan, its seasons, and its linkages to the population.
Shinto came from the Chinese Kanji, Shen, and Tao. Shen means divine spirit, while Tao refers to way. From these characters, Shinto, the way of the Kami or the Gods came.
In her article at Milwaukee Independent, Kaitlyn Ugoretz expound that at its heart, Shinto revolves around the veneration of Kami. They believe these innumerable deities take different forms and sometimes interact with them.
She also added that many kami are connected to the natural world, like the sun, moon, lightning, sea, rocks, etc. At the same time, others are responsible for human concerns like marriage, harvest, education, and luck.
And unlike the gods of other world religions, the kami are not all-powerful. They are similar to humans who possess goodness and evil.
Is Shintoism a religion?
According to Mark Cartwright from the World History Encyclopedia, some people consider Shinto a religion, while others do not consider it one, as there is no official sacred scripture, doctrine, or founder.
And since it emphasizes general concepts on the ways of life, some consider it a ritual rather than a belief.
The Origins of Shinto
However, unlike other world religions, Shinto has no clear origin story and seems to have stemmed from different cultural beliefs in Japan, with limited historical records.
The earliest written record about Shinto dates around 712 CE, in the Kojiki or the Records of Ancient Matters.
It came to rise during the Yayoi period (200 BCE- 250 CE) in the latter part of the Stone Age when the first Japanese inhabited the Japanese islands.
The writer added that the ancient Japanese Clan of Yamato was the first believer in Shinto. It was first a tribal belief system until the clan used it to build and solidify their reign as they grew in number.
When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, the name Shinto was created to distinguish the native belief system from Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which came from China.
Buddhism surpassed Shinto, and the native kami were generally considered as Buddha’s manifestations in different states of existence.
On the other hand, Courtney Thompson added that as time passed, many people practiced a mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism beliefs. This is because Shintoism is profoundly implanted in Japanese traditions and values, while Buddhism has more structures and rituals.
Then, in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Shinto became Japan’s state of religion. There were endeavors to separate Shintoism from Buddhism, and Shintoism was used to emphasize the emperor’s divinity.
However, Shinto became separated from Buddhism after the second world war and became more widely accepted again. The emperor lost some of his sovereign powers and was forced to renounce his divinity.
Today, Shintoism remains an integral part of Japan’s culture and way of living.
The Core Beliefs of Shinto
According to Twinkl, Shinto has many facets. Its beliefs and practices promote purity and harmony in all aspects of life.
Humans are considered inherently good, and evil spirits bring evil. Therefore, one of the main purposes of Shinto is to pray and offer to their kami to guard and keep them away from malignant spirits.
Mark Cartwright explained that in Shinto, Kami is an umbrella term for the gods, spirits, deified humans, ancestors, supernatural powers, and natural phenomena.
There are said to be eight million Kami who significantly influence people’s lives; that’s why they are worshiped, given offerings, and asked for their guidance and divination.
They are present in nature, attracted to purity, and repelled by impurity and disharmony.
Cartwright added that there are prominent kami known nationally, while there are also many of them who are revered in rural areas and considered ancestral kami.
People can accept new kami on their own. For instance, somebody who has done extremely well for the public is accepted as the kami and revered after death by the people in their area.
Similarly, an important person in a clan is treated as ancestral kami by the remaining clan members after their death.
On the other hand, someone who dies a tragic death due to an accident or illness is also accepted by the family as kami. This is done to please the dead person’s spirit and dissuade it from bringing misfortune to the family.
Moreover, it is believed that a kami ceases to exist if there is no believer, but it is resurrected when a believer appears and begins worshiping it.
The concept of maintaining purity in Shinto is derived from the idea of Kegare. Lauren Levine described Kegare as spiritual pollution, uncleanness, and contamination, similar to the Western idea of pollution and evil.
This uncleanness doesn’t just happen physically; it also affects a person’s energy, which can be addressed through purification rituals.
As explained by Kaitlyn Ugoretz, Shinto followers believe impurities emerge from living in this world and from our contact with unclean sources (death, disease, inappropriate acts.)
And since spiritual impurities can denigrate the kami, harm a person’s well-being, and result in social chaos, a Shinto priest is called upon to perform regular purification rituals.
Magokoro is all about the sincerity of one’s heart. Shinto emphasizes the importance of putting one’s heart into every action and word because if not, everything is pointless.
Connection with nature
Edward McDougall expounded in his article that Shinto followers believe that nature has power and presence beyond our perception and capabilities; that’s why we won’t truly understand it.
And in nature lies the presence of the Kami. The kami are found everywhere, especially in nature. They are nature itself; that’s why keeping everything clean and being mindful of one’s environment is important, as this will affect the well-being of the kami.
Living in the present
One of the most important values taught in Shintoism is to focus on the now. In today’s world, staying still to appreciate one’s life for a moment seems hard because of our busy schedules.
According to Shinto beliefs, living in the present allows one to be mindful of their existence, relish life, and enjoy what the world can offer.
An Infinity of Kamis
As mentioned earlier, there are an estimated eight million kami in Shinto. For the Japanese, the number eight represents infinity, natural phenomena such as waterfalls and rocks, and immediate elements such as the sun, moon, and sky.
The kami may be invisible but sometimes interact with humans to help and guide them. So here are some known kamis in Shinto, and here are their roles:
Izanagi and Izanami
According to Mark Cartwright, Izanami (she who invites) and Izanagi (he who invites) are the primordial gods of Shinto who, according to Shinto mythology, are the ones who created the islands of Japan.
Standing in the Ama no hashidate (stairway of heaven), the two gods created the islands by stirring the ocean with a jewel-encrusted spear. From the tip of the spear, crystallized salt formed and fell back into the ocean as islands.
The first island they created was the Onogoro-Shima, where they decided to live and host their wedding ceremony.
During this time, Izanami had a miscarriage and gave birth to their first child, Hiruko (later known as Ebisu). He will become one of the seven gods of luck and the patron god of fishermen.
Contrary to their expectations, Hiruko was ugly and born without bones because of the impiety of his mother during the wedding ritual.
The couple does not want Hiruko, so they abandon the child by putting him in a basket and letting the sea take him to his fate.
When their second child arrived on the island of Awa, they were still not satisfied; that’s why they asked the seven invisible gods (their parents) the reason for their misfortune.
According to their parents, they continue to meet misfortune because Izanami spoke first during the ritual. And with this, the couple decided to perform the wedding rituals again, with Izanagi speaking first.
The couple successfully created more offspring, but their happiness came to an end when their child Kagutsuchi arrived.
When the fire god was born, Izanami was severely burnt by her child’s power, and many new offspring emerged through her tears.
Izanami died in pain, and because of anger, Izanagi killed his son and decided to go after Izanami to the underworld. He wanted to retrieve his wife but was unsuccessful and chased by a flock of demons.
When he escaped, Izanagi sealed the entrance to hell and decided to purify himself in the Isuzu-gawa river. His purification ritual gave rise to the other primordial deities of Shinto.
Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess and most important kami in Japan, was born when her father, Izanagi, washed his left eye.
Her role in the Shinto pantheon of gods is important, as described in mythologies. There was a time when she hid in a cave because of anger caused by Susanoo’s (her younger brother) mischief.
Her exile in the cave made the world so dark that the other primordial gods became worried and decided to do everything to make her come out.
Amaterasu is greatly revered in Shinto as she was considered the predecessor of Japan’s imperial family.
It is said that the goddess sent her grandson Ninigi to rule Japan. Ninigi brought the three sacred relics ( mirror, sword, and bejeweled necklace) given by his grandmother on his descent.
These three relics are the most sacred treasures of Japan and are greatly preserved at the Ise Grand Shrine, Atsuta Jingu shrine in Nagoya, and the Tokyo Imperial Place.
Tsukuyomi is the Shinto moon god who is said to have emerged when his father washed his right eye.
According to Timeless Myths, Tsukoyomi is a proud and violent god who is also miserable because he has become estranged from his wife, Amaterasu. Similar to day and night, Tsukuyomi has to chase after Amaterasu to be with her.
The Shinto god Susanoo was born when Izanagi washed his nose. He has a destructive nature and is easily angered, which is suitable for his role as the god of storms.
Susanoo is said to first rule the world with Amaterasu but was exiled to earth when he greatly angered his sister. As a reconciliation gift, he gave Amaterasu the sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi.
Okuninushi is Susanoo’s son-in-law and the revered god of agriculture and medicine. At first, he was a deity of the Izumo area but was added to the pantheon of Shinto Gods and became known nationally.
Inari is worshiped as the god of good harvest and successful business. It is also believed that the fox is his messenger; that’s why if you go to Japan, you’ll see plenty of statues of the Kitsune fox, especially at the entrance of rice granaries.
Hachiman is revered as the god of war, especially during the Japanese feudal era. According to Mark Cartwright, Hachiman was greatly credited for sending the divine wind, or the Kamikaze, which disbanded the invading fleets of Kublai Khan.
Aside from the important kamis mentioned above, Shinto still has plenty of gods revered as important by its followers. Many major gods are worshiped and referred to during big events like entrance examinations and business openings. At the same time, some minor gods are believed to protect specific areas.
Tenman Tenjin is the patron god of scholarship and education. Historically, he was known as Sugawara No Michizane, a scholar, poet, and administrator at the palace court during the Heian period.
Sugawara faced injustice during his life, resulting in his exile and death. It is believed that when he died, a series of supernatural phenomena was experienced by his enemies.
Today, Tenman Tenjin is referred to by students during important academic events such as college entrance exams and national tests.
Wrapping It Up!
Shinto is the oldest belief system in Japan, coexisting alongside Buddhism. It has no clear history, founder, or sacred scriptures, so some people don’t see it as a religion.
However, despite its vague origins, Shinto remains integral to Japan’s culture and way of living. The beliefs and teachings of Shintoism shaped almost all aspects of Japanese life and history.
At its heart, Shinto reveres the importance of kami, purity, connection with nature, the truth of the heart, and the present. It promotes harmony and the appreciation of life in its natural form.
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