A Brief Introduction to Japanese Shinto Religion

While I usually talk about Buddhism a lot, especially Japanese Buddhism, on the blog, I wanted to take some time to talk a little bit about the other religion in Japan: Shintoism. With New Year’s just past, it’s a good time to explore this oft-misunderstood tradition.

Taken by me at the excellent Hie Shrine in downtown Tokyo in 2017.

Shinto is a tricky subject in some ways because it’s deeply tied to Japan, and “Japan-ness” in a way that Buddhism, a foreign religion, is not. My personal interest in Shinto began years ago when I visited a few shrines here and there as a tourist and would pay respects to whatever kami or divinity dwelt within. It’s not something I really believe in, but I felt that it was worth taking the time to delve into the culture and do things the Japanese way.

Back then, I picked up a book on Shinto called The Essence of Shinto by a Shinto priest, or kannushi (神主), named Motohisa Yamakage to learn more. Later, I found a Professor Ian Reader’s excellent and easy to read guide to Shinto. These are the two primary sources for this post.

Basic Shinto Beliefs

Shintō (神道) is basically just the “Way of the Kami”. It has no founder, no doctrines, and no real central authority. Variations exist throughout different parts of Japan, and according to Yamakage, each kannushi (priest) will have slightly different view of it. In the end, they’re all trying to commune with the Kami, to revere nature, and much emphasis is placed upon experiential wisdom.

Shinto “divinites” or Kami (神), usually gets translated into English as “gods”, but they run the gamut. Kami come in all shapes and sizes, and embody many aspects of nature, but also include more celestial Kami as well. One might compare this to ancient Greek religion with its Olympian gods, chthonic earth deities, spirits like nymphs, naiads, etc., plus foreign-imported deities from elsewhere. The variety of Kami is nearly endless. In Japanese, there is a term for this: 八百万の神 (yaoyorozu no kami) which means “eight million kami” literally, but really just means “countless kami”.

Ian Reader’s book lists some of the most well-known:

  • Amaterasu – Goddess of the sun and associated with the Imperial family, who traditionally claims descent from this Kami.
  • Hachiman – God of war, originally thought to have derived from the legendary Emperor Ōjin. Absorbed by Buddhism in medieval times as a bodhisattva (frequent references in the Tales of the Heike, for example).
  • Ebisu – A Kami associated with small business and commerce. Particularly popular in the Osaka area.
  • Inari – Kami of rice and harvest originally, but grew in popularity as a guardian of Buddhism and separately of business. The famous Shiseido cosmetic company has a shrine devoted to Inari on top of its headquarters called Seidō Shrine.
  • Benten or Benzaiten – Kami associated with music and the arts. Originally thought to be imported indirectly from India, as the goddess Saraswati. Imported gods in Shinto is not unusual.
  • Tenjin – Kami of education. Originally a famous Heian Period nobleman named Sugawara no Michizane, who was wrongfully slandered and whose death was thought to have triggered natural disasters at the time. Worshiped as a Kami to placate his restless spirit, as well as for his excellent poetry and writings.
  • Konpira – Kami associated with seafaring, and with sea commerce. A popular patron for sailors, fishermen and other such groups.
  • Susanoo – Amaterasu’s brother, and Kami of wind. While legendary as a trouble-maker, he is also revered for protection against natural forces such as typhoons.
  • Izanami and Izanagi – The original female and male pair of Kami believed to have created Japan according to traditional myth.

Professor Reader also quotes an excellent definition of kami from a famous scholar from the Edo Period named Motoori Norinaga:

…it is not only the divinities of Japanese sacred texts and myths that are considered as kami, for anything — humans, animals, trees, plants, rocks, mountains, seas — which appears impressive, inspires a sense of awe, or exhibits a life-force, may be a kami.

This helps to emphasize the fact that Kami are not so much a set pantheon of gods in a set hierarchy, but rather that they exist in a near-infinite variety that embody many aspects of life. Many Kami are very local to a region, and myths of their origin grow over time as worship around the Kami develops over generations after some miraculous event or discovery.

Communing with Kami

In spite of their variety, Kami are believed to have very human-like qualities and must be appeased and placated, or they may cause trouble. This is reinforced by carefully followed rituals where a Kami is honored, and whose assistance is called for. Or, one expresses gratitude to the Kami for their protection, thereby showing humility and appreciation. In order to avoid offending a Kami, the ritual must be carried out correctly, and by someone who is considered ritually pure, otherwise the Kami may ignore them, or cause problems instead.

For Shinto priests and even lay followers, it’s also important to setup a good dwelling spot so that a Kami can descend and make their presence felt. Originally, there were no Shinto shrines, or jinja (神社), instead the ancient priests would sanctify a suitable spot and call out to the Kami to descend to that spot. Later, formalized structures were built around holy places and these became the major shrines (jinja) seen today, which branched out into sub-shrines and so on. In people’s homes, devout Shinto followers will also create a small sacred space in hopes that a Kami will descend there as well. Kami don’t live in these sacred spaces, according to Yamakage, instead it’s more like an antenna allowing the Kami to descend for a time. The actual term for this “antenna” is yorishiro (依り代), and can be something like a rock, a mirror, a special charm someone got from a Shinto shrine, and so on.

Since Kami will only descend in places that are clean, pure and bright, if this “antenna” or the sacred space around it gets run-down, dusty, and such, then the Kami will not descend, and if they do not descend, they won’t be able to help you, or worse, some evil spirit will take up residence.

So as part of communing with Kami, Shinto a lot revolves around purification.

Ritual Purification

An ōnusa wand used for purification rituals.  Source: Wikipedia.

In Shinto, there is a strong relation between purity and well-being. Through contact with unclean things, or through negative and angry thoughts, one builds up negative energy or impurities that can cause concrete problems. Thus, Shinto has many ceremonies (祓 harai or harae) designed to restore balance, and to remove the impurities. According to Yamakage, the four Shinto ideals are clean, bright, right and straight and these ceremonies, rituals and such help to restore one to a state that reflects all four. Yamakage is quick to emphasize that there is no Original Sin in Shinto (obviously intended toward a Western audience), but things get off-kilter from time to time, and so one should restore the balance through these rituals.

One of the most important rituals, and probably the most familiar, is the misogi (禊ぎ) or purification by bathing in water. This ceremony can be practiced at a waterfall, river or other body of water, but ceremonies can also be as simple as temizu (手水), which is something people often do at Shinto shrines, and even Buddhist temples. Temizu is a “purification-lite” ceremony, where you wash your hands and maybe your mouth. If you’ve visited a major temple or shrine in Japan, you will see a little water area with ladles and people washing their hands. The basic ceremony is the following steps:

  • Wash your left hand with the water from the ladle.
  • Now wash your right hand with the water from the ladle.
  • Now, holding some water in your left hand, pour it into your mouth.

That purifies the person, so they can enter the sacred space of a shrine. Of course, if you forget to do this, it’s not a disaster, it just won’t help you in any way commune with the Kami there.

Relation to Buddhism

The relation to Buddhism here is a tricky one. Medieval Buddhism, that of the Nara and Heian Periods, tended to have a strong blending of native Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. A common theory from that time until the modern era, was that the Shinto Kami were manifestations of Buddhist figures. For example, the major Shinto deity Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, was assumed to be a manifestation of Vairocana Buddha. The Tales of the Heike, among other famous Japanese literature at the time, would frequently mention this.

Buddhist sects in the past attempted to assimilate or eschew¹ this blending in varying degrees, while Shintoists at times tried to reassert themselves as a separate religion.

In the end the two religions have learned to co-exist because they have little overlap with one another.  Buddhism has little to say about spirits and divinities, while Shinto is focused primarily on them.  Shinto focuses on purification and avoiding pollution and taboos so it has little to do with funerals, while funerals have been a part of the Buddhist tradition for a long time.

Shinto as a religion is so deeply tied to Japanese culture and people, it’s hard to separate the two, which also helps to explain why Shinto has almost no presence outside of Japan, but at the same time, it’s a fascinating spiritual tradition and well worth getting familiar with if one intends to come to Japan, or to explore the tradition more.

¹ Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is a primary example a Buddhist sect that eschews Shinto, in that it has essentially no Shinto elements whatsoever.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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