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Religions of the world

Shinto symbol

Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion

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Brief history of Shinto:

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Starting about 500 BCE (or earlier) it was originally "an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism." 1 Its name was derived from the Chinese words "shin tao" ("The Way of the Kami") in the 8th Century CE. At that time:

bulletThe Yamato dynasty consolidated its rule over most of Japan.

bulletDivine origins were ascribed to the imperial family.

bulletShinto established itself as an official religion of Japan, along with Buddhism.

The complete separation of Japanese religion from politics did not occur until just after World War II. The Emperor was forced by the American army to renounce his divinity at that time.

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

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Shinto beliefs:

bulletShinto creation stories tell of the history and lives of the "Kami" (deities). Among them was a divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, who gave birth to the Japanese islands. Their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans. Amaterasu Omikami (Sun Goddess) was one of their daughters. She is the ancestress of the Imperial Family and is regarded as the chief deity. Her shrine is at Ise. Her descendants unified the country. Her brother, Susano came down from heaven and roamed throughout the earth. He is famous for killing a great evil serpent.

bullet The Kami are the Shinto deities. The word "Kami" is generally translated into English as "god" or "gods." However, the Kami bear little resemblance to the gods of monotheistic religions.  There are no concepts which compare to the Christian beliefs in the wrath of God, his omnipotence, his omni-presence, or the separation of God from humanity due to sin. There are numerous other deities who are conceptualized in many forms:

bulletThose related to natural objects and creatures, from "food to rivers to rocks." 2

bullet Guardian Kami of particular areas and clans.

bulletExceptional people, including all but the last of the emperors.

bullet Abstract creative forces,

They are seen as generally benign; they sustain and protect the people. 3


bullet

About 84% of the population of Japan follow two religions: an amalgam of both Shinto and Buddhism. As in much of Asia, Christianity is very much a minority religion; 4 fewer than 1% of Japanese adults are Christians.

Buddhism first arrived in Japan from Korea and China during the 6th to 8th centuries CE. Shinto and Buddhism share a basic optimism about human nature, and for the world. Within Shinto, the Buddha was viewed as another "Kami". Meanwhile, Buddhism in Japan regarded the Kami as being manifestations of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Most weddings are performed by Shinto priests; most funerals are performed by Buddhist priests.


bulletShinto does not have as fully developed a theology as do most other religions. It does not have its own moral code. Shintoists generally follow the code of Confucianism.

bulletTheir religious texts discuss the "High Plain of Heaven" and the "Dark Land" which is an unclean land of the dead, but give few details of the afterlife.

bulletAncestors are deeply revered and worshipped.

bulletAll of humanity is regarded as "Kami's child." Thus all human life and human nature is sacred.

bulletBelievers revere "musuhi", the Kamis' creative and harmonizing powers. They aspire to have "makoto", sincerity or true heart. This is regarded as the way or will of Kami.

bulletMorality is based upon that which is of benefit to the group. "Shinto emphasizes right practice, sensibility, and attitude." 2

bulletThere are "Four Affirmations"in Shinto:
  1. Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.

  2. Love of nature: Nature is sacred; to be in contact with nature is to be close to the Gods. Natural objects are worshipped as sacred spirits.

  3. Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouth often.

  4. "Matsuri": The worship and honor given to the Kami and ancestral spirits.

bulletThe desire for peace, which was suppressed during World War II, has been restored.
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Shinto practices:

bulletShinto recognizes many sacred places: mountains, springs, etc.

bulletEach shrine is dedicated to a specific Kami who has a divine personality and responds to sincere prayers of the faithful. When entering a shrine, one passes through a Tori a special gateway for the Gods. It marks the demarcation between the finite world and the infinite world of the Gods.

bulletIn the past, believers practiced "misogi,", the washing of their bodies in a river near the shrine. In recent years they only wash their hands and wash out their mouths in a wash basin provided within the shrine grounds.

bulletBelievers respect animals as messengers of the Gods. A pair of statues of "Koma-inu" (guard dogs) face each other within the temple grounds.

bulletShrine ceremonies, which include cleansing, offerings, prayers, and dances are directed to the Kami.

bulletKagura are ritual dances accompanied by ancient musical instruments. The dances are performed by skilled and trained dancers. They consist of young virgin girls, a group of men, or a single man.

bulletMamori are charms worn as an aid in healing and protection. They come in many different forms for various purposes.

bulletAn altar, the "Kami-dana" (Shelf of Gods), is given a central place in many homes.

bullet Seasonal celebrations are held at spring planting, fall harvest, and special anniversaries unique to the history of a shrine or of a local patron spirit. A secular, country-wide National Founding Day is held on FEB-11 to commemorate the founding of Japan; this is the traditional date on which the first (mythical) emperor Jinmu ascended the throne in 660 BCE. Some shrines are believed to hold festivities on that day. Other festivals include: JAN 1-3 Shogatsu (New Year); MAR-3 Hinamatsuri (Girls' festival); MAY-5 Tango no Sekku (Boys' festival); and JUL-7 Hoshi Matsuri (Star festival).

bulletFollowers are expected to visit Shinto shrines at the times of various life passages. For example, the Shichigosan Matsuri involves a blessing by the shrine Priest of girls aged three and seven and boys aged five. It is held on NOV-15.

bulletMany followers are involved in the "offer a meal movement," in which each individual bypasses a breakfast (or another meal) once per month and donates the money saved to their religious organization for international relief and similar activity.

bulletOrigami ("Paper of the spirits"): This is a Japanese folk art in which paper is folded into beautiful shapes. They are often seen around Shinto shrines. Out of respect for the tree spirit that gave its life to make the paper, origami paper is never cut.

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Forms of Shinto:

Shinto exists in four main forms or traditions:

bulletKoshitsu Shinto (The Shinto of the Imperial House): This involves rituals performed by the emperor, who the Japanese Constitution defines to be the "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people." The most important ritual is Niinamesai, which makes an offering to the deities of the first fruits of each year's grain harvest. Male and female clergy (Shoten and Nai-Shoten) assist the emperor in the performance of these rites.

bullet Jinja (Shrine) Shinto: This is the largest Shinto group. It was the original form of the religion; its roots date back into pre-history. Until the end of World War II, it was closely aligned with State Shinto. The Emperor of Japan was worshipped as a living God. Almost all shrines in Japan are members of Jinja Honcho, the Association of Shinto Shrines. It currently includes about 80,000 shrines as members. The association urges followers of Shinto:
  1. "To be grateful for the blessings of Kami and the benefits of the ancestors, and to be diligent in the observance of the Shinto rites, applying oneself to them with sincerity. brightness, and purity of heart."

  2. "To be helpful to others and in the world at large through deeds of service without thought of rewards, and to seek the advancement of the world as one whose life mediates the will of Kami."

  3. "To bind oneself with others in harmonious acknowledgment of the will of the emperor, praying that the country may flourish and that other peoples too may live in peace and prosperity." 5

bulletKyoha (Sectarian) Shinto (aka Shuha Shinto):  This consists of 13 sects which were founded by individuals since the start of the 19th century. Each sect has its own beliefs and doctrines. Most emphasize worship of their own central deity; some follow a near-monotheistic religion.

bulletMinzoku (Folk) Shinto This is not a separate Shinto group; it has no formal central organization or creed. It is seen in local rural practices and rituals, e.g. small images by the side of the road, agriculture rituals practiced by individual families, etc. A rural community will often select a layman annually, who will be responsible for worshiping the local deity.

These four forms or traditions are closely linked. Shinto is a tolerant religion which accepts the validity of other religions. It is common for a believer to pay respects to other religions, their practices, and objects of worship.

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Shinto texts:

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

bulletThe Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters)

bulletThe Rokkokushi (Six National Histories)

bulletThe Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan)

bulletThe Jinno Shotoki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history)  written in the 14th century

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Number of adherents:

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

One source estimates that there are 1000 followers of Shinto in North America. The Canadian Census (1991) recorded only 445 in Canada. There is no record of Shinto in the Canadian 2011 census. In many surveys, followers of Shinto are grouped together under "other religions."

Essentially all followers of Shinto are Japanese. It is difficult for a foreigner to embrace Shintoism. Unlike most other religions, there is no holy book to help a person learn about the religion. It is transmitted from generation to generation by experiencing the rituals together as a group.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Fountainhead of Miracles," is at: http://www.shinreikyo.or.jp
  2. "Shinto, the Way of the Gods" is at: http://www.trincoll.edu/
  3. "Paul Watt," "Shinto & Buddhism: Wellsprings of Japanese spirituality," at: http://www.askasia.org/
  4. "Potpourri," at: http://poza.net/
  5. "The Jinja Shinto (The Shrine Shinto)," is at: http://www.jinja.or.jp/

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Additional resources:

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You can safely buy the following books on Shinto from Amazon.com's online bookstore:

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Copyright © 1995 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Initially published on 1995-NOV-24
Latest update on 2013-JUL-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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