Shinto is a religion synonymous with Japan. But is Shinto even a religion, when it places more importance on ritual than it does on belief? Shinto sits at the heart of Japanese life and touches every aspect of Japanese society, from family, literature and politics; to art, sport and ethics.
Shinto has no god in the way that western religious traditions recognise a god, but it has plenty of kami, a concept that encompasses the spirits of the dead, elements of the landscape, and forces of nature. Because of this, Shinto is regarded as being polytheistic. It also has no recognised founder and no canonical scriptures.
Although there is no central sacred text in Shinto, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), dating from the early 8th century, recounts many of Japan’s myths, elements of which are represented in Shinto ritual.
The name Shinto derives from the Chinese characters for Shen (divine being) and Tao (the way), roughly translating as Way of the Spirits.
Three essential elements
Most Shinto worship contains similar elements of ritual practice. These include an act of purification (harae); an offering; and a prayer.
Japanese mythology states that the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku) were created by Izanagi-no-Mikoto (he who invites) and Izanami-no-Mikoto (she who is invited).
Organising guru Marie Kondo spent five years working at a Shinto shrine, and she attributes aspects of her cleaning and organising philosophy to Shintoism. Muse on that thought when you next contemplate your untidy socks’ drawer.
The first recorded usage of the term Shinto dates to the second half of the 6th century, although animist cults, which contain some elements of Shinto ritual date back to a much earlier period. Shinto is the indigenous faith of Japan and, became the state religion of Japan from the late 19th century until 1945, when it was dismantled as a state religion by The Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto.
Every year, on the 15th January, the village of Nozawa in Nagano Prefecture holds its famous fire festival. Thousands gather to celebrate and pray for the wellbeing of the local community in a colourful ritual of fire, and sake-fuelled exuberance.
The torii shrine gate at Kumano Hongū Taisha is the largest in the world, standing 33.9 metres high. The torii gate is Shinto’s most ubiquitous symbol, and the torii gate itself represents the point of transition from the mundane to the sacred.
It is thought that as much as 80% of the population of Japan regularly take part in some form of Shinto ritual, although many will not identify themselves as Shintoists. Shinto happily co-exists alongside other religions in Japan, such as Buddhism, in a society tolerant of religious pluralism.
There are over 10,000 torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrine of the kami Inari, located in southern Kyoto, with around 1,000 torii gates situated on the main path to the shrine alone.
There are estimated to be more than 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, with devotees as likely to worship at a private home shrine (kami-dana) as they are at larger, communal shrine.
Eight million, or yaoyorozu-no-kamigami, is talked about as the number of kami in existence in Shinto, although it is purely an arbitrary figure to mean “lots and lots”. Kami is an all-embracing term to include spirits of the living and the dead, natural phenomena, and supernatural powers.
Find out more
- Visit the SOAS Department of Religions and Philosophies
- Discover the work of the Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions
- BA Religion, Culture and Society
- MA Religions of Asia and Africa
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