Japanese Religion: Shinto

Japanese Religion: Shinto

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Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, a life-affirming animism calling upon the blessings of the numinous forces of nature and of specific spirit deities. Shinto is largely associated with growth and prosperity; encouraging people to be sincere, cheerful, and pure, and to live in relationship with Kami (invisible spiritual forces).

Shinto Worship: Traditions and Practices

Shinto (meaning the way of the gods) is the oldest indigenous system of belief in Japanese history. Its beliefs and rituals are practiced by more than 112 million people.

Key Takeaways: Shinto Worship

  • At the core of Shinto is the belief in and worship of kami—the essence of spirit that can be present in all things.
  • According to Shinto belief, the natural state of human beings is purity. Impurity comes from everyday occurrences but can be cleansed through ritual.
  • Visiting shrines, purification, reciting prayers, and giving offerings are essential Shinto practices.
  • Funerals do not take place in Shinto shrines, as death is considered impure.

Notably, Shinto has no holy deity, no sacred text, no founding figures, and no central doctrine, Instead, the worship of kami is central to Shinto belief. Kami is the essence of spirit that can be present in all things. All life, natural phenomena, objects, and human beings (living or deceased) can be vessels for kami. Reverence toward the kami is kept by regular practice of rites and rituals, purification, prayers, offerings, and dances.

Shinto, Japan’s native animistic tradition

Shinto is the oldest surviving and widely practiced Japanese religion. It’s animistic in nature, meaning that Shinto subscribers believe every object – from humans to trees to rivers – possess a kind of spirit or soul. Shinto practitioners built and dedicated shrines to these kami – rocks, mountains, and other things they believed to be sacred. The Japanese creation myth is Shinto in origin, and many of the most famous deities – Amaterasu, the sun goddess, for instance – also stem from the Shinto tradition.

The Shinto way of life so deeply influenced people’s everyday routines and perspectives, that when Buddhism came over from China in the 6th century, the Japanese rulers who wished to adopt the new religion knew it could be a challenge to convince their subjects to no longer abide solely by the ways of Shinto.

Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto

Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto

Orders from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to the Japanese Government:

MEMORANDUM FOR: Imperial Japanese Government

THROUGH: Central Liaison Office, Tokyo

SUBJECT: Abolition of Governmental Sponsorship, Support, Perpetuation, Control, and Dissemination of State Shinto

1. In order to free the Japanese people from direct or indirect compulsion to believe or profess to believe in a religion or cult officially designated by the state, and

In order to lift from the Japanese people the burden of compulsory financial support of an ideology which has contributed to their war guilt, defeat, suffering, privation, and present deplorable condition, and

In order to prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression, and

In order to assist the Japanese people in a rededication of their national life to building a new Japan based upon ideals of perpetual peace and democracy,

It is hereby directed that:

a. The sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control, and dissemination of Shinto by the Japanese national, prefectual, and local governments, or by public officials, subordinates, and employees acting in their official capacity are prohibited and will cease immediately.

b. All financial support from public funds and all official affiliation with Shinto and Shinto shrines are prohibited and will cease immediately.

c. All propagation and dissemination of militaristic and ultra-nationistic ideology in Shinto doctrines, practices, rites, ceremonies, or observances, as well as in the doctrines, practices, rites, ceremonies and observances of any other religion, faith, sect, creed, or philosophy, are prohibited and will cease immediately.

d. The Religious Functions Order relating to the Grand Shrine of Ise and the Religious Functions Order relating to State and other Shrines will be annulled.

e. The Shrine Board of the Ministry of Home Affairs will be abolished, and its present functions, duties, and administrative obligations will not be assumed by any other governmental or tax-supported agency.

f. All public educational institutions whose primary function is either the investigation and dissemination of Shinto or the training of a Shinto priesthood will be abolished and their physical properties diverted to other uses. Their present functions, duties, and administrative obligations will not be assumed by any other governmental or tax-supported agency.

g. Private educational institutions for the investigation and dissemination of Shinto and for the training of priesthood for Shinto will be permitted and will operate with the same privileges and be subject to the same controls and restrictions as any other private educational institution having no affiliation with the government in no case, however, will they receive support from public funds, and in no case will they propagate and disseminate militaristic and ultra-nationalistic ideology.

h. The dissemination of Shinto doctrines in any form and by any means in any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds is prohibited and will cease immediately.

1) All teachers' manuals and text-books now in use in any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds will be censored, and all Shinto doctrine will be deleted. No teachers' manual or text-book which is published in the future for use in such institutions will contain any Shinto doctrine.

2) No visits to Shinto shrines and no rites, practices, or ceremonies associated with Shinto will be conducted or sponsored by any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds.

i. Circulation by the government of "The Fundamental Principles of the National Structure", "The Way of the Subject", and all similar official volumes, commentaries, interpretations, or instructions on Shinto is prohibited.

j. The use in official writings of the terms "Greater East Asia War", "The Whole World under One Roof", and all other terms whose connotation in Japanese is inextricably connected with State Shinto, militarism, and ultra-nationalism is prohibited and will cease immediately.

k. God-shelves (kamidana) and all other physical symbols of State Shinto in any office, school institution, organization, or structure supported wholly or in part by public funds are prohibited and will be removed immediately.

l. No official, subordinate, employee, student, citizen, or resident of Japan will be discriminated against because of his failure to profess and believe in or participate in any practice, rite, ceremony, or observance of State Shinto or of any other religion.

m. No official of the national, prefectural, or local government, acting in his public capacity, will visit any shrine to report his assumption of office, to report on conditions of government, or to participate as a representative of government in any ceremony or observance.

2. a. The purpose of this directive is to separate religion from the state to prevent misuse of religion for political ends, and to put all religions, faiths, and creeds upon exactly the same legal basis, entitled to precisely the same opportunities and protection. It forbids affiliation with the government and the propagation and dissemination of militaristic and ultra-nationalistic ideology not only to Shinto but to the followers of all religions, faiths, sects, creeds, or philosophies.

b. The provisions of this directive will apply with equal force to all rites, practices, ceremonies, observances, beliefs, teachings, mythology, legends, philosophy, shrines, and physical symbols associated with Shinto.

c. The term State Shinto within the meaning of this directive will refer to that branch of Shinto which by official acts of the Japanese Government has been differentiated from the religion of Shrine Shinto and has been classified as a non-religious national cult commonly known as State Shinto or National Shinto.

d. The term Shrine Shinto will refer to that branch of Shinto which by popular belief, legal commentary, and the official acts of the Japanese Government has been recognized to be a religion.

e. Pursuant to the terms of Article I of the Basic Directive on "Removal of Restrictions on Political, Civil, and Religious Liberties" issued on 4 October 1945 by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in which the Japanese people were assured complete religious freedom,

(1) Shrine Shinto will enjoy the same protection as any other religion.

(2) Shrine Shinto, after having been divorced from the state and divested of its militaristic and ultra-nationalistic elements, will be recognized as a religion if its adherents so desire and will be granted the same protection as any other religion in so far as it may in fact be the philosophy or religion of Japanese individuals.

f. Militaristic and ultra-nationalistic ideology, as used in this directive, embraces those teachings, beliefs, and theories, which advocate or justify a mission on the part of Japan to extend its rule over other nations and peoples by reason of:

(1) The doctrine that the Emperor of Japan is superior to the heads of other states because of ancestry, descent, or special origin. (2) The doctrine that the people of Japan are superior to the people of other lands because of ancestry, descent, or special origin.

(3) The doctrine that the islands of Japan are superior to other lands because of divine or special origin.

(4) Any other doctrine which tends to delude the Japanese people into embarking upon wars of aggression or to glorify the use of force as an instrument for the settlement of disputes with other people.

3. The Imperial Japanese Government will submit a comprehensive report to this Headquarters not later than 15 March 1946 describing in detail all action taken to comply with all provisions of this directive.

4. All officials, subordinates and employees of the Japanese national prefectural, and local governments, all teachers and education officials and all citizens and residents of Japan will be held personally accountable for compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of all provisions of this directive.

Popular Kami

  • Amaterasu-Omikami: Sun goddess and the greatest of all the individual Kami. The Kami of the Ise Shrine, and an Imperial Family ancestor.
  • Ebisu: One of the seven gods of fortune who brings prosperity. Also known as the abandoned child of Izanami and Izanagi.
  • Fujin: The god of the wind.
  • Haichman: The god of war and archery.
  • Izanami and Izanagi: The two infamous gods who gave birth to Japan. Izanami is the first woman and Izanagi is the first man to exist.
  • Susanoo: The all-powerful storm god, the protector, and cause of disasters. He is the brother of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and of Tsukuyomi, the moon god.
  • Tenjin: The Kami of education, he is the late Japanese scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845-903 C.E). Shinto followers pray to him for success in exams.
  • Inari Okami: The kami of rice and agriculture.
  • Tsukuyomi: God of the moon.
  • Raijin: The god of lightning and thunder.
  • Benten/Benzaiten: The female god of music and the arts, of Hindu origins.

Japanese Religion: Shinto - History

Are the Japanese people religious? This is a question that arises for anyone who has visited this vibrant country where educators, government representatives, businessmen, and many educated persons as well, are quite likely to remark to visitors that they personally do not regard religion as playing a central role in their own lives or in Japan&rsquos public life. Certainly these attitudes reflect something important about contemporary Japan, but they may not reflect the whole society or tell the whole story. In many cases, these views reflect a pervasive secularism among elites, their opinions regarding how Japan ought to be, rather than the attitudes of society as a whole. Elites want the world to know that Japan is a modern nation where the people value rational thinking and reject superstition. They often emphasize the view they wish to convey through denying that Japan is religious, but it is not the case that religion can be reduced to superstition and irrationality.

It is important to be clear about what we are asking in the question whether the Japanese are religious. We need to know something about the country&rsquos historic patterns of religious belonging, practice, and belief in order to answer the question. We also need to know something about the different religions represented in Japan and how their patterns differ. Social attitudes towards religion in general are also important, and it is important to recognize that attitudes can be shaped significantly by recent events. Let us examine these several facets of the question before reaching conclusions.

Historical Patterns of Religious Affiliation in Japan
Japan has maintained statistics on religious affiliation in different forms going back to the Edo period (1600-1868). During that time, it was legally required that everyone be a parishioner of a Buddhist temple. This arrangement was part of the shogunate&rsquos prohibition on Christianity. The prohibition itself requires some explanation before we can move on to the way that the people were subsequently made to become parishioners of Buddhist temples.

Francis Xavier had brought Christianity to Japan in 1549, and Christian communities were established in Kyûshû and around Kyoto through the 16th century. Initially Portuguese Jesuits were the majority of the missionaries they were joined later by Franciscan and Domincan friars. 1 Christian missionaries were initially welcomed as part of Portuguese trading missions, and a number of feudal lords (daimyō) converted. During Japan&rsquos &ldquoChristian century,&rdquo converted daimyō typically decreed that people living in their territories would also convert to Christianity, and thus by the end of the sixteenth century it is estimated that there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan. Although the coercive nature of these early conversions might suggest that Christianity was perhaps not widely accepted, in fact it established deeply committed believers in significant numbers. Jesuits established schools, hospitals, seminaries, and printing presses, as well as churches. They baptised believers and provided religious education through the churches, as well as establishing the means for lay brothers to spread Jesuit teachings.

But in spite of Christianity&rsquos early successes, prohibitions on the religion began to be issued from 1587. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a powerful warlord at the end of the sixteenth century, had originally been friendly with the Jesuits, but when after he toured Christian sites in Kyūshū, especially in Nagasaki, he became alarmed at the extent of the religion&rsquos spread. He worried that the people might be more loyal to the pope in Rome than to their Japanese overlords and thus began a persecution of Christianity. The missionaries were forced out of the country, and many were martyred, as were Japanese Christians who refused to recant their beliefs. The Christians&rsquo last stand came during the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638), which resulted in the annihilation of the Christian rebels who had barricaded themselves in the Shimabara castle. Thereafter the remaining Christians either recanted or went underground to become &ldquoHidden Christians.&rdquo

The prohibition on Christianity was continued by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) and the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji period (1868-1912). In effect, the shogunate required that the people as a whole become attached to Buddhist temples as a means to ensure that no one would be a Christian. Buddhist clerics were called upon to certify that there were no Christians among the parishioners of their temples. Every year the parishioners of village temples were required to come before the village headman and attest that they were Buddhists, not Christians. The Buddhist temples compiled written records of their parishioners, and these formed the census records of the period. The people were expected to support the temples and their priests, keeping the buildings in good repair and attending the temples on important anniversary days associated with the founders of the different sects. In addition, it became customary for graveyards to be made adjacent to temples, and for the Buddhist priests to perform funerals and conduct periodic masses for the dead, memorial services for the ancestors of each family. This relation between the Japanese people and the Buddhist temples persisted until the Meiji period, establishing strong attachments and deeply entrenched attitudes.

The beliefs of Japanese Buddhists in the Edo period differed according to the sect to which a person belonged. People were not free to choose their sectarian affiliation instead, once a family had established an affiliation early in the Edo period (if not before), the law required them to maintain that affiliation in perpetuity. A family could have only one sectarian affiliation, and was also expected to stay with the same temple of that sect over generations. When women married men of a different sect, however, the priest of the husband&rsquos family temple would enter her name into that family&rsquos section of the temple register. The fact that an individual&rsquos personal beliefs might differ from the sect to which he or she was required to affiliate was not a legal reason for changing to another sect or temple. In fact, the temples were protected by law from such changes, and it was nearly impossible to be released from a family&rsquos temple. For example, even priests of Shinto shrines were required to be Buddhist temple parishioners and to have Buddhist funeral rites when they died. It was only at the end of the Edo period that a few exceptions were made, even for them. This illustrates the government&rsquos determination to maintain the system of mandatory temple registration.

Buddhist priests were expected to maintain their temples and to carry on an annual calendar of ritual, beginning with daily sutra recitations, ceremonies for the ancestors, the anniversaries of their sect&rsquos founder, and seasonal observances such as a mid-summer festival at which the ancestors were welcomed back to their homes. Temples also held observances for the New Year, as well as gatherings of people to hear Dharma talks (sermons), sing hymns and recite prayers or chants particular to the sect, such as &ldquoHail to Amida Buddha&rdquo in the case of the Pure Land and True Pure Land sects, or &ldquoHail to the Lotus Sutra&rdquo in the case of the Nichiren sect.

What were the consequences of this system for popular belief in Buddhism? First, the connections between Buddhism and the state made the Buddhist parish priests assume the role of government officials in the maintainence of temple registers and submission of guarantees that no one in the parish was a Christian. If a person were accused of being a Christian, he or she faced the prospect of a formal investigation, imprisonment in miserable conditions, and possibly execution. Not only that, if a Christian were discovered, not only that individual, but his or her entire family might face the same punishment. This means that the village Buddhist priest held a kind of power over the people, inasmuch as he was in a position to withhold the certification needed to establish that no one was a Christian. While it is unlikely that many parish priests used their position to intimidate their parishioners, there were public notice boards in every village spelling out precisely what would happen if anyone were found to be a secret Christian. It was widely understood that the Buddhist priest&rsquos position carried legal authority, and that undoubtedly made the people deferential to the priesthood.

Buddhist priests often served as the school teachers of the era, running &ldquotemple schools&rdquo (terakoya) that offered rudimentary training in the &ldquo3 Rs.&rdquo Calligraphy was typically taught by having pupils copy Confucian texts that explained the core values of the age: the virtues of filial piety, modesty, humility, hard work, and loyalty. As teachers, village priests were expected to be learned persons of high personal virtue, trustworthy in their supervision of children. They were expected to adhere to a celibate monastic code and to act as the moral guides of their followers. Japanese Buddhist sects endeavored to support and uphold the social order, and Edo-period Buddhist village temples stood for these core values that were not only religious, but also were regarded as the basis for the good society.

There is every indication that the Japanese people were deeply attached to their temples throughout the Edo period. It was not so often a matter of deep knowledge of the sect&rsquos doctrines and the sutras that each one esteemed, so much as it was a matter of family. Because each family&rsquos graves were connected with a temple, and because the Buddhist priests performed the funerals and subsequent masses for the dead, Buddhism became a &lsquofamily religion&rsquo, and people considered it part of family tradition. This means that they were not likely to question it or focus on the details of the sect&rsquos history or philosophy, except in the case of literate people.

These attitudes persisted after the Meiji government abrogated the requirement that the people belong to temples, and after it began to allow the practice of Christianity. With a history of over 250 years, Buddhist beliefs and customs had become deeply entrenched. For many people born into Buddhist congregations, it was natural to continue to support the family temple, much as people born into families linked to churches, synagogues, and mosques of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would unquestioningly follow their family&rsquos religious beliefs and customs. This type of traditional religiosity is very widespread in Japanese Buddhism. This kind of customary Buddhist belonging, a kind of unquestioning faith that Buddhism embodies social virtues that everyone can and should accept, would be regarded by many people today as a social rather than a religious thing.

Japanese Buddhists today would typically visit family graves&mdashif possible&mdashat the spring and autumn equinoxes and the mid-summer Obon festival, when the ancestors are believed to return to their homes. It would be natural to visit the family temple also on those occasions. Many families maintain a home altar called a butsudan containing the spirit tablets (ihai) of the ancestors, where they perform daily observances. These may be as brief as making an offering of tea, rice, and incense along with a brief prayer for the ancestors&rsquo protection, or in the case of the more devout those offerings would be accompanied by sutra recitation and formal prayers. It is common for families to ask a Buddhist priest to visit at the time of Obon, and the priest would recite a scripture and prayers, visiting briefly with the family. On the occasion of special anniversaries of the death of a parent, family members would gather at the temple to have priests offer a special mass for the deceased.

Let us next inquire into the character of belief in Shinto. From earliest times, the Japanese people have made shrines to deities called the Kami. The Kami may be the spirits of a particular place or natural forces like wind, rivers, and mountains. Kami such as these would not be regarded anthropomorphically. Other Kami are the characters of myth, such as the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami, the legendary hero Yamatotakeru, or the Kami of war, Hachiman. Ancient myth and poetry also spoke of the emperor as a living Kami. Some Kami originated as the deified spirits of actual human beings, such, the Kami of learning and scholarship, Tenjin, the deified spirit of the Heian period courtier Sugawara no Michizane (845-903). A powerful government official, he was wrongfully accused by his rivals, was exiled, and died far from friends and family. When numerous disasters struck Kyoto subsequently, resulting in his rivals&rsquo deaths and the imperial palace being struck by lightening, it was widely believed that Michizane&rsquos vengeful spirit was responsible. To placate his angry spirit, he was divinized and shrines were built for him. Thereafter, he came to be regarded as a benevolent Kami who helps students acquire knowledge. Students hoping for success in school or university entrance examinations today frequently pray at one of his shrines. In the early modern era, it was not uncommon for political leaders such as the feudal lords of the era to be deified. The deifications of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu provided the model for this practice. Ieyasu was deified in 1617 as Tōshō Daigongen (&lsquoGreat Avatar of the Eastern Light&rdquo), and his mausoleum at Nikkō was made into a great shrine provincial branches of it were also created. Lesser feudal overlords were sometimes deified in domain shrines in imitation of Ieyasu. In the modern period, the idea of the emperor&rsquos divinity was promoted, not only by Shinto but through such influential institutions as the schools and the military. Religious groups regarded as denying the imperial divinity or somehow damaging the dignity of the emperor were proscribed. In addition, some founders of new religious movements have been regarded by their followers as living Kami. Thus the concept of Kami is very broad, and it has changed over time.

The Japanese people have constructed shrines in every community. Whevever a new community was founded, a shrine (often very small in scale) would be erected to the spirits of that place, as a way of honoring them and expressing the hope for their benevolence and protection. The instinct to build a shrine wherever people live stems from the idea that Kami are everywhere, that there is no place that is not under the dominion of Kami. If people plan to disturb their domain by digging in the earth, planting crops, and erecting buildings, it is &lsquoonly proper&rsquo to begin by acknowledging the presence and power of the Kami of the place by doing them the honor of asking for their permission and blessing with prayer, offerings, and a place for them to dwell, ie, a shrine. It is not important to identify such Kami beyond a kind of generic reference, such as Kunitama (&lsquospirits of the land&rsquo) or Ujigami (&lsquolocal protecting Kami&rsquo). Knowing which Kami are there is not so important as acknowledging their prior claim on the territory. Without a shrine, a place is &lsquounfit for human habitation&rsquo in a sense, because the people there would not yet have established the proper relation with the Kami.

The fact that shrines are a common feature of ordinary communities goes hand in hand with the fact that many people do not typically consider it important to know which Kami are the deities of their local shrine. They focus instead on the idea of living under the protection of the local Kami, not necessarily regarding them anthropomorphically. Many think of that protection as a source of spiritual support, and of the Kami as beings to whom they would &lsquonaturally&rsquo pray for good health, well being, and long life.

Shrines have been a distinguishing part of Japanese social life since antiquity, and they remain so today. One important aspect of shrine history is the fact that in many&mdashperhaps even most&mdashcases, shrines were inseparable from Buddhist temples for most of Japanese history. This complicated history is not easily explained, but the following is a rough outline. When the Japanese islands were originally populated in prehistory, waves of immigrants came from a vast swath of China, Korea, and island Southeast Asia, bringing their own gods, myths, and religious customs. Buddhist influence began to be felt early in the Common Era, culminating in an official gift of Buddhist sculpture and scriptures to the Japanese sovereign by a Korean king in the mid-sixth century. Thereafter, the Japanese imperial court incorporated Buddhist rites into its annual calendar of ritual. At first, Buddhist divinities were understood as a type of Kami, only later giving way to the realization that they represented a different philosophy entirely. In Japanese society, Buddhism was first patronized by the aristocracy, who built clan temples for the worship of their ancestors. Sponsored by the imperial court, a network of official temples was built throughout the country. Buddhist missionaries fanned out across the country, building temples and spreading Buddhist teaching. But everywhere they went, they encountered the worship of the Kami, and in order for temples to be established, it was necessary to reach some understanding about the relation between the worship of Buddhas and Kami. A number of theories arose in that context, such as the idea that the Kami are honorable gods who nevertheless are not at such an elevated spiritual level as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas&mdashthey require Buddhist teachings in order to reach perfection. Another formula held that the Kami are the local or phenomenal manifestation of the more cosmic and universal Buddhist divinities. Still another idea held that the Buddhist divinities mercifully &ldquodim their light&rdquo and take the form of the Kami in order to bring salvation to humanity. In all these ways, Buddhism, the more powerfully organized tradition, enveloped Kami worship, (which did not yet have a unified organizational form as &ldquoShinto&rdquo), honoring it, yet making clear that it was a secondary and subordinate tradition. On this basis, temples came to incorporate small shrines within their grounds, where sutras and other Buddhist observances were made before the altars of the Kami. Likewise, shrines came to have small Buddhist chapels in their grounds, and shrine priests worshippped there.

Characteristic religious attitudes were formed through the combination of these philosophical ideas about the links between Kami and Buddhas, embodied in the combinatory framework in which shrines and temples were inseparably linked. Virtually no one saw a conflict between the worship of Kami and the worship of Buddhas. The two types of divinities and the two types of worship were regarded as complementing each other. Yet significant differences remained between the two. A division of labor, one might say, grew up between the two traditions, so that one went to the shrines to celebrate the New Year, a good harvest, or the birth of a first child, while one went to the temple for funerals and ancestral rites. The Kami are thought to abhor the pollution of blood or death, and thus while Shinto funerals do exist, they are rather rare. The Kami are most associated with the celebrations of life, while Buddhism is in charge&mdashfor the most part&mdashof rites of death. With the important exception of the Buddhist True Pure Land sect (Jōdo Shinshū), Japanese Buddhism has affirmed and encouraged the worship of the Kami, identifying it as an important element of Japanese culture that is worthy of respect and reverence.

The social position of shrine priests developed in a different way than the Buddhist priesthood, though similarities are also significant. In ancient times and in many small shrine communities today, there is no full-time priest. Instead, the oldest men or a group of local elders take turns conducting the shrine&rsquos rites and ceremonies. The idea that every shrine should be served by a professional priest is a modern notion, and one that has never been fulfilled in practice. While there is a minority of shrine priests who serve full time at one shrine only, the majority serve ten shrines on average. The number of Shinto priests has historically always been much smaller than the number of Buddhist priests (though in contemporary Japan it is not uncommon for Buddhist priests to serve multiple temples). Another key difference lies in the fact that whereas each Buddhist sect has maintained its own seminaries and in modern times universities, it is only in the Meiji period that we see the creation of a small number of Shinto universities. This means that the Shinto tradition has been slow to unify the traditions of separate shrines, and even today there is no such thing as &ldquoShinto doctrine&rdquo that unites them all. This surprising fact derives from the historically local character of shrines, their local specificity, their rootedness in particular places and communities.

Because of the historic connection between shrines and their founding families in ancient times, and later between shrines and communities of unrelated people, there is a strong bond between shrines and family, on the one hand, and community on the other. Everyone living in Japan is&mdashin theory&mdashthe ujiko of a shrine. The term ujiko means the &lsquochildren&rsquo of the local protecting Kami of a shrine, the Ujigami. To be an ujiko is to live under the protection of the Kami presiding over the place where one lives, and to owe respect and gratitude to the Kami of the shrine. It is not necessary to know the identity of the Kami, but in traditional thinking it is important to go to the shrine at specified times such as the New Year, the shrine&rsquos annual festival, and at the end of the year, as well as other major observances hosted by particular shrines for the ujiko to express graditude and respect. Probably most people in Japan today&mdashother than those affiliated with the True Pure Land sect or with Japanese Christianity&mdashwould find it &lsquonatural&rsquo, an expected and easily accepted part of social life, to comply with that traditional expectation. Not only that&mdashthey would probably comply with neighborhood fund raising in support of the shrine or its festival, whatever their personal religious beliefs, and even if they disliked pressure to do so from the local neighborhood association. This means that today Shinto shrine observances have acquired such an air of established custom that many people would not even regard them as religious in nature, but rather would view them as a customary part of life in Japan.

Shinto today is associated with many of the same values we saw taught in the Buddhist temple schools of the Edo period: hard work, loyalty, filial piety, modesty, humility, and so on. In addition to these, however, Shinto today&mdashat least as represented by the Association of Shinto Shrines&mdashweighs Japanese ethnicity very heavily and promotes respect for the Ise Shrines and the imperial house. The Association regularly promotes conservative political causes and acts as a political lobby for such causes as revision of the constitution, the elimination of gender-neutral educational policies, and affirmation of Japan&rsquos prewar political regime. This is not to say, of course, that all followers of Shinto, or even all shrine priests, are as conservative as the Association, but the organization is definitely influential throughout the shrine world.
In Japanese households it is very common to have both the Buddhist altar discussed previously and also an altar for the Kami, called a kamidana (&ldquogod shelf&rdquo). While the Buddhist altar traditionally stands on the floor, the kamidana is located high up near the ceiling. The kamidana is the place where people make small offerings of sake, salt, rice, and sometimes sprigs of the sakaki tree before a paper or wooden talisman from one or more shrines, including the local ujigami shrine and often the Ise Shrines or other shrines that a family has visited. Daily offerings are generally in the morning, accompanied by characteristic shrine etiquette of bowing and clapping twice to call the attention of the Kami.

One measure of traditional religiosity in Japan is seen in changing rates at which the Japanese people maintain kamidana and butsudan. It should be understood that these home altars are usually associated with families, and while it is not unknown for single people to have them, it is not surprising that many young people living in apartments in the cities would not have them, either because they would think that these matters are taken care of by their parents, and/or because the small size of Japanese apartments makes it difficult to find space for them. In response to the spatial considerations, we see the development of small size altars. Statistics on ownership of kamidana and butsudan collected since the 1960s consistently show higher rates in rural areas and lower rates in the cities. Some early surveys limited to small samples and small areas of the country are available, and while it is difficult to compare them minutely because of differences in their samples, they nevertheless show that from the 1950s onward, rates of ownership of home altars had begun to decline. It is only since the 1980s that surveys covering the entire country have been conducted. The following Table summarizes some of the major findings since then.

Table 1: Changing Rates of Ownership of Kamidana and Butsudan, 1981-2009 2

Year % of Respondents Owning Kamidana (National) % of Respondents Owning Kamidana (14 Largest Cities) % of Respondents Owning Butsudan (National) % of Respondents Owning Butsudan (14 Largest Cities)
1981 63 NA 63 NA
1995 54 NA 59 NA
1999 49 29.5 57.1 48.3
2004 44 29.2 56.1 46.9
2009 43.1 28.0 52.1 48.0

These figures show that rates of ownership of home altars has declined in both Shinto and Buddhism, and also that the rate of ownership tends to be lower in the cities. We note also that the rate of decline is steeper in the case of kamidana, and that the difference between city and countryside in owning kamidana is larger than the comparable gap in ownership of butsudan. This suggests that the phenomenon of ancestor worship remains a significant element of social life.

In the cases of Japanese Buddhism and Shinto, we have been discussing traditions in which social and religious values merge, and in which the character of affiliation tends to be customary, based on location, family, and community more than on religious conviction. These two traditions make only minimal demands on ordinary believers for time, money, and allegiance, though of course people who feel a stronger attachment will devote more resources and energy. By contrast, Japanese Christianity places much more emphasis on religious beliefs and conviction, and ministers and priests provide much more religious education. Bible study and discussion are central in most churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, as are charitable activities.

Japanese Christianity spans a wide range of Protestant and Catholic organizations stemming from historical missionary work of churches in Europe and the United States, and there are small communities of Russian Orthodox as well. In addition, there are numerous Christian churches that have been founded in Japan by Japanese Christians, separate from overseas churches. While Christians have never numbered above two percent of the Japanese population, their influence is greatly disproportionate to that statistic. There are prominent Christian intellectuals and writers. Christian schools and universities are regarded as maintaining very high standards. Christians are conspicuous among political activists.

New religious movements form an important sector of Japanese religious life, with hundreds of organizations, large and small, representing Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity, and completely novel faiths. Such movements have been appearing since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and some of those founded at that time, such as Kurozumikyō (f. 1814) and Tenrikyō (f. 1838) are still in existence. Another wave of such movements flourished in the early twentieth century, such as Ōmoto (f. 1892) and Sōka Gakkai (f. 1930). After restrictions on the founding of new movements were removed at the end of the war, a period of dramatic growth in this sector ensued, popularly called &lsquothe rush hour of the gods&rsquo, Many groups that had been supressed before the war became active again, and many new groups were founded. In 1964, Sōka Gakkai, the largest of these groups with as many as twelve million members, founded its own political party, Kōmeitō. This political party subsequently became a significant factor in Japanese politics, founding a coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993.

In the period of their respective foundings, all of the first generation members of the new religious movements were converts, and documents from the time of the founding of each one show that high levels of commitment were required. Converts had to overcome the resistance of their families and communities at that same time that they were building organizations and helping to systematize their teachings and ways of life. In second and succeeding generations, as each movement becomes more established and accepted, the need for such high levels of commitment tends to recede. In some groups, however, such as Sōka Gakkai, the emphasis on religious education and the expectation of vigorous and frequent participation remains strong. New religious movements, especially the newer ones, are likely to hold frequent group meetings for worship, spiritual counselling, community service, and proselytizing. Larger groups are able to create special groups for women and men, youth, for those interested in the arts or music, Especially among the most active members of these groups, life revolves around the religion in a way not commonly seen in temple Buddhism or shrine Shinto.

Thus far, we have examined historical patterns of religious belonging, belief, and practice. In the next section we turn to an event of recent history that has had profound repurcussions on Japan&rsquos religious world and on attitudes towards religion.

The Aum Incident and Its Effects on Attitudes Towards Religion
In 1995 a tragic event occurred in which the religious movement Aum Shinrikyō unleashed deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and bringing the capitol&rsquos transportation system to a halt. The event spread terror and distrust of religion through the country. Police investigations revealed that at its several communal living facilities Aum members had sometimes been forcibly detained, abused, and even murdered people. It emerged that the founder Asahara Shōkō, who has since been sentenced to death for his crimes, ordered the torture and murder of numerous people. He required his followers to lead a celibate existence of great austerity while he himself had free access to the female members and lived lavishly. He especially emphasized recruitment of young scientists, whom he cultivated and ordered to produce sarin gas.

These revelations in the media continued over many months in blanket coverage so sensational that it is hardly surprising that attitudes towards religion as a whole were affected. For a time it seemed that all religions were being tarred with the same brush, and that Japan had become suspicious even of its most deeply established religions like Buddhism and Shinto. Statistics regarding confidence in religious organizations plummeted, and popular attitudes towards religion turned pervasively negative. More than a decade later, these attitudes have modulated somewhat, but the after effects of the Aum incident still color attitudes to religion and probably drive some of the recent statistics on religion.

Statistics on Religious Adherence in Japan
Table 2 introduces 2009 data from the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the most recent statistics available at the time of this writing. 3

Table 2: Japanese Religious Organizations and Adherents

Religious Organizations
Shinto shrines 81,317
Buddhist temples 77,496
Christian churches 7,171
Other 17,253

Number of Adherents
Shinto 106,498,381
Buddhist 89,647,535
Christian 2,121,956
Other 9,010,048

In MEXT&rsquos calculations, the Shinto-, Buddhist-, and Christian-derived new religious movements would be folded into each religion&rsquos total numbers for organizations and adherents, while the &ldquoOther&rdquo category includes other new religious organizations and their adherents, as well as minority traditions such as Judaism and Islam, in which the membership is composed largely of foreigners (and Japanese spouses and children). As these figures suggest, Japan hosts a vibrant religious scene with temples, shrines, churches, and other religious organizations throughout the country.

Japan&rsquos population today is around 126 million. We can see that the total number of adherents of religious organizations is, however, almost twice as many. In fact, this statistical paradox has been found since the country began collecting statistics on religion in 1945. It reflects the pattern of multiple religious affiliations examined earlier, but it should also be noted that these statistics are compiled on the basis of numbers supplied by the various religious organizations themselves. They are not compiled on the basis of a survey of the people as a whole, but from numbers that religious organizations submit to the national bureaucracy in charge of religious affairs. This means that there is a strong tendency for numerical inflation.

Japanese Religiosity in International Perspective
Placing Japanese religiosity in a comparative framework helps us see where the country fits among other developed nations. Please refer to Table 3. Examining the question how many people are affiliated with a religious organization, we note that Japan ranks lowest, at 44.4 percent. The nearest country to it is France, at 57.5 percent. It is likely that Japanese asked to respond to the question, &ldquoDo you belong to a religious organization?&rdquo may say &ldquoNo,&rdquo even though they may be members of a Buddhist temple parish or be on the list of ujiko of their local shrine. As discussed above, these affiliations have acquired such a customary and traditional nature that many people would not immediately think of them as religious.

We notice a big difference between the results seen in Tables 2 and 3 regarding membership in religious organizations. How can it be true that the total number of people affiliated with religious ogranizations is almost double the national population (Table 2), while in Table 3 we find the figure of 44.4 percent? This gap can be attributed to the tendency noted above for religious organizations to inflate their membership numbers. By contrast, the figures from Table 3 are based on surveys of individuals&mdashnot organizations&mdashand hence represent a closer approximation of the actual situation.

Another way to guage religiosity is to ask how many people identify as atheist or agnostic. Here we find that Japan, at 13.1 percent, has around the same proportion as the U.K. (14.4), Canada (15.3), or the U.S. (12.6). Notable, France, Germany, and Sweden have significantly higher percentages of atheists and agnostics.

France, Sweden, and Japan stand at the low end of countries where people are attending religious services every month. In the case of Japan, neither temple Buddhism nor shrine Shinto have typically held monthly religious services, and thus it is not surprising to find that only a minority of 9.8 percent attend services monthly. Even so, at 9.8 percent, Japan&rsquos rate exceeds Sweden&rsquos, at 7.9 percent. Those attending monthly services in Japan are probably composed largely of Christians and members of new religious movements. In terms of the proportion of people who say that they are active in religious organizations, Japan, France, and Sweden are similar, with rates under ten percent.

When we examine typical religious practices and widespread beliefs, we find again that Japan is broadly similar to Western European countries, though showing lower rates on some items. This includes prayer and meditation, belief in the soul and the afterlife, thinking about life&rsquos meaning and purpose, and finding strength and comfort in religion. Among other Asian countries, apart from the last of these items, Japan and Korea are broadly similar, while Singapore shows higher rates. By contrast, Canada and the U.S. show higher rates on most of these items than the other countries surveyed here. Japan occupies the middle of the spectrum, at 75.3 percent believing that religious leaders should not try to influence people&rsquos vote, showing a higher rate than Korea, Germany, and the U.K., and the U.S., but lower than France, Sweden, and Canada.

One area in which Japan is exceptional concerns the questions of how many people consider religion important and how many regard religious organizations with confidence. Japan&rsquos lower rates may result in part from lingering distrust of religion stemming from the Aum incident.

The examination above allows us to answer the question with which we started: Are the Japanese people religious? We saw that the historical patterns of religious affiliation with Buddhism and Shinto, especially, have resulted in a merging of social and religious values, probably leading many stalwart members of Buddhist and Shinto congregations to deny that they belong to a religious organization. They may not see temple and shrine affiliations as religious so much as a part of community life. We saw also that religious education has not been a central element of Buddhist and Shinto affiliation in most cases, and that the Japanese people are less focused on doctrine in their religious lives and more focused on practice and customary observance. Japanese Christianity and new religious movements stand out as requiring rather higher levels of commitment than temple Buddhism and shrine Shinto. Thus, while significant proportions of the Japanese people engage in a variety of religious activities, participate in such daily religious observances as tending household altars, and visit temples and shrines for traditional observances throughout the year, they may not see this as &ldquoreligious.&rdquo The prevailing idea of &ldquoreligion&rdquo tends to emphasize systematic beliefs approached analytically, and that is not the approach most Japanese people take to the traditonal observances we have examined. Thus if we were to characterize the way in which people are religious in Japan, it would be closely linked to the family and to tradition, emphasizing the things that people do, rather than their strict adherence to a set of doctrines.

We can see that while since 1945 there is a definite decline in tradtional religious observances, nevertheless strong attachments to a variety of religious beliefs like the existence of the soul and the afterlife are about as strong in Japan as in Western Europe. It may be that the place of religion in Japan is shifting in ways comparable to Western Europe, and that the Japanese express some of the same beliefs, regardless of the different religious histories of the countries. In the cross-cultural comparison seen here, we note that on most indicators Japan is more like Western Europe than the United States. Though this final point is not a focus for this essay, it is noteworthy that the United States generally shows higher levels of belief and participation in religion than the other developed countries. Since the United States is rather distinctive and different among the developed countries, it would be a mistake to use it as a yardstick when approaching the religiosity of other developed countries, including Japan.


Japan’s two major religions are Shintoism and Buddhism. Although, religion is not a part of everyday life for Japanese people. Customs and rituals are usually turned to during special occasions such as birth, weddings, funerals, visiting shrines and temples on religious holidays, and festivals.

The two religions, Shinto and Buddhism, harmoniously coexist and even complement each other to a certain degree. Many Japanese people consider themselves Shintoist, Buddhist, or both.

Shintoism is as old as Japanese culture itself. The exact origins of Shinto is unclear, but it has been suggested that it’s been practiced by the Yayoi people. Shintoism is the belief of kami (gods) representing objects in nature (flowers, trees, rocks, rivers). It is Japan’s indigenous spirituality. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century by the mainlands, establishing itself in Nara. Over time it divided into other sectors, Zen Buddhism being the most popular.

To point out, Buddhism is concerned with the soul and the afterlife. While Shintoism is the spirituality of this world and this life. This explains why the two religions go hand in hand with each other for many Japanese. The Japanese typically turn to Shintoism for the celebration of birth or marriage. However, funerals are usually buddhist ceremonies.

This relationship may seem confusing to some foreigners. To put it another way, a common saying in Japan is, “We live as Shintoists, but die as Buddhists.”

To clarify, shrines are Shinto and temples are Buddhist. Shrines are usually identified with torii (large entrance gate) which are generally painted red. However, it can be difficult to identify and separate between shrine and temple buildings because they are often in the same complex.

Do as the Japanese do when appreciating a shrine. There will be a water fountain or trough just inside the torii. You must use a ladle to cleanse your hands and mouth to purify your spirit before entering. Additionally, look for a long rope hanging from a bell in front of an altar. You may pray here: first ring the bell, then throw a coin before the altar as an offering, clap three times to summon the kami, and clasp your hands together to pray.

Before entering a temple, you must take off your shoes. You will have to kneel on the tatami-mat before an altar or icon to pray. Fate, luck, and superstition are of importance to the Japanese. Many people buy charms from temples or shrines and attach them to key chains, phones, or hang it in their cars. These small charms may bring protection or good luck, or different grants depending on which charm is obtained.

On the Japanese calendar, there is a holiday of importance called the New Year, which is celebrated from the 1st to 3rd of January. People usually visit ancestral graves to pray for late relatives. Notably, the first shrine visit of the New Year is also important to secure good luck for the year ahead.

O-Bon, usually held around mid August, is an event to mark the annual visitation of ancestors to visit the living. Many people at this time also make trips to visit local temples to pray and give offerings.

If you have an interest for Shintoism or Buddhism, Japan has many fascinating places to visit. Kyoto has many beautiful temples and shrines, and Nara is home to the huge statue of Buddha. In fact, you can see the country’s religious heritage just about everywhere in Japan.

The Troublemaker and His Long-Suffering Brother

Names: Raijin and Fūjin
Decorating style: Divided down the middle with tape
Pets: None they have their hands full enough with each other as it is

Raijin and Fūjin are weather gods — Rajin of thunder, lightning, and storms Fūjin of wind. They take the forms of onis, huge demon-like monsters with horns and tusks.

Raijin is typically depicted as being red, and only has three fingers on each hand (one for the past, present, and future). Fūjin is usually green and only has four (representing the cardinal directions).

They each have a signature item that they carry around. Raijin wields hammers that he uses to play his drums, which produce the thundering sound of lightning. Fūjin carries a bag of winds that he releases to stir up storms and typhoons.

The two are almost always fighting, and it’s mostly because one of Raijin’s main pastimes — besides his other hobby of playing or fixing his drums and making as much noise as possible — is pulling pranks on his brother.

But Fūjin and Raijin are also known to be protectors. Many times, they’ve stirred up vicious storms to repel enemies of Japan, and their statues stand guard outside many temples.



Unlike many other religions, Shinto has no recognized founder. The peoples of ancient Japan had long held animistic beliefs, worshipped divine ancestors and communicated with the spirit world via shamans some elements of these beliefs were incorporated into the first recognized religion practiced in Japan, Shinto, which began during the period of the Yayoi culture (c. 300 BCE – 300 CE). For example, certain natural phenomena and geographical features were given an attribution of divinity. Most obvious amongst these are the sun goddess Amaterasu and the wind god Susanoo . Rivers and mountains were especially important, none more so than Mt. Fuji , whose name derives from the Ainu name ‘ Fuchi ,’ the god of the volcano.

In Shinto, gods, spirits, supernatural forces and essences are known as kami , and governing nature in all its forms, they are thought to inhabit places of particular natural beauty. In contrast, evil spirits or demons ( oni ) are mostly invisible with some envisioned as giants with horns and three eyes. Their power is usually only temporary, and they do not represent an inherent evil force. Ghosts are known as obake and require certain rituals to send away before they cause harm. Some spirits of dead animals can even possess humans, the worst being the fox, and these individuals must be exorcised by a priest. (27)

Pre-State Shinto

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century BCE as part of the Sinification process of Japanese culture. Other elements not to be ignored here are the principles of Taoism and Confucianism that travelled across the waters just as Buddhist ideas did, especially the Confucian importance given to purity and harmony. These different belief systems were not necessarily in opposition, and both Buddhism and Shinto found enough mutual space to flourish side by side for many centuries in ancient Japan.

By the end of the Heian period (794-1185 CE), some Shinto kami spirits and Buddhist bodhisattvas were formally combined to create a single deity, thus creating Ryobu Shinto or ‘ Double Shinto .’ As a result, sometimes images of Buddhist figures were incorporated into Shinto shrines and some Shinto shrines were managed by Buddhist monks. Of the two religions, Shinto was more concerned with life and birth, showed a more open attitude to women, and was much closer to the imperial house. The two religions would not be officially separated until the 19th century CE. (27)

By the mid-17th century, Neo-Confucianism was Japan’s dominant legal philosophy and contributed directly to the development of the kokugaku , a school of Japanese philology and philosophy that originated during the Tokugawa period. Kokugaku scholars worked to refocus Japanese scholarship away from the then-dominant study of Chinese, Confucian, and Buddhist texts in favor of research into the early Japanese classics. The Kokugaku School held that the Japanese national character was naturally pure and would reveal its splendor once the foreign (Chinese) influences were removed. The “ Chinese heart ” was different from the “ true heart ” or “ Japanese heart .” This true Japanese spirit needed to be revealed by removing a thousand years of Chinese learning. Kokugaku contributed to the emperor-centered nationalism of modern Japan and the revival of Shinto as a national creed in the 18th and 19th centuries. (28)

State Shinto

Prior to 1868, most Japanese more readily identified with their feudal domain rather than the idea of “Japan” as a whole. But with the introduction of mass education, conscription, industrialization, centralization, and successful foreign wars,Japanese nationalism became a powerful force in society. Mass education and conscription served as a means to indoctrinate the coming generation with “ the idea of Japan ” as a nation instead of a series of Daimyo (domains), supplanting loyalty to feudal domains with loyalty to the state. Industrialization and centralization gave the Japanese a strong sense that their country could rival Western powers technologically and socially. Moreover, successful foreign wars gave the populace a sense of martial pride in their nation.

The rise of Japanese nationalism paralleled the growth of nationalism within the West. Certain conservatives such as Gondō Seikei and Asahi Heigo saw the rapid industrialization of Japan as something that had to be tempered. It seemed, for a time, that Japan was becoming too “Westernized” and that if left unimpeded, something intrinsically Japanese would be lost. During the Meiji period , such nationalists railed against the unequal treaties, but in the years following the First World War, Western criticism of Japanese imperial ambitions and restrictions on Japanese immigration changed the focus of the nationalist movement in Japan. (28)

The Rise of Fascism

In the 1920s and 1930s, the supporters of Japanese statism used the slogan Showa Restoration , which implied that a new resolution was needed to replace the existing political order dominated by corrupt politicians and capitalists, with one which (in their eyes), would fulfill the original goals of the Meiji Restoration of direct Imperial rule via military proxies. Japan had no strong allies and its actions had been internationally condemned, while internally popular nationalism was booming. Local leaders, such as mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests were recruited to indoctrinate the populace. The Japanese government, in fact, nationalized the various Shinto Shrines for the sake of promoting the emperor as a divine being, and a descendent of Amaterasu.

Japan’s expansionist vision grew increasingly bold. Many of Japan’s political elite aspired to have Japan acquire new territory for resource extraction and settlement of surplus population. These ambitions led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 . After their victory in the Chinese capital, the Japanese military committed the infamousNanking Massacre . (29)

Japan also attempted to exterminate Korea as a nation. The continuance of Korean culture itself became illegal. Worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory. The school curriculum was radically modified to eliminate teaching of the Korean language and history. (30)

The United States opposed Japan’s aggression towards its Asian neighbors responded with increasingly stringent economic sanctions intended to deprive Japan of the resources. Japan reacted by forging an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940, known as the Tripartite Pact , which worsened its relations with the U.S. In July 1941, the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands froze all Japanese assets when Japan completed its invasion of French Indochina by occupying the southern half of the country, further increasing tension in the Pacific. War between Japan and the U.S. became an inevitability following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (29)

Shrine Shinto

The loss of World War II placed Japan in the precarious position of a country occupied by the Allied but primarily American forces, which shaped its post-war reforms. The Emperor was permitted to remain on the throne, but was ordered to renounce his claims to divinity, which had been a pillar of the State Shinto system. Today, the shrines in Japan operate independently from the state, to ensure the separation of religion and state. (31)

In the Shinto religion kami is an all-embracing term, which signifies gods, spirits, deified mortals, ancestors, natural phenomena, and supernatural powers. All of these kami can influence people’s everyday lives and so they are worshipped, given offerings, solicited for aid and, in some cases, appealed to for their skills in divination. Kami are attracted by purity – both physical and spiritual – and repelled by the lack of it, including disharmony. Kami are particularly associated with nature and may be present at sites, such as mountains, waterfalls, trees, and unusually shaped rocks. For this reason, there are said to be 8 million kami, a number referred to as yaoyorozu-no-kamigami . Many kami are known nationally, but a great many more belong only to small rural communities, and each family has its own ancestral kami.

The reverence for spirits thought to reside in places of great natural beauty, meteorological phenomena, and certain animals goes back to at least the 1st millennium BCE in ancient Japan.

Add to these the group of Shinto gods, heroes, and family ancestors, as well as bodhisattvas assimilated from Buddhism, and one has an almost limitless number of kami.

Common to all kami are their four mitama ( spirits or natures ) one of which may predominate depending on circumstances:

  • Aramitama (wild or rough)
  • Nigimitama (gentle, life-supporting)
  • Kushimatama (wondrous)
  • Sakimitama (nurturing)

This division emphasizes that kami can be capable of both good and bad. Despite their great number, kami can be classified into various categories. There are different approaches to categorization, some scholars use the function of the kami, others their nature (water, fire, field, etc.). (32)

Figure 5-1 : The Seven Gods of Fortune or Shichifukujin of Japanese Folklore by Doctor Boogaloo resides in the Public Domain .

Kami are appealed to, nourished, and appeased in order to ensure their influence is, and remains, positive. Offerings of rice wine, food, flowers and prayers can all help achieve this goal. Festivals, rituals, dancing and music do likewise. Shrines from simple affairs to huge sacred complexes are built in their honor. Annually, the image or object ( goshintai ) thought to be the physical manifestation of the kami on earth is transported around the local community to purify it and ensure its future well-being. Finally, those kami thought to be embodied by a great natural feature, Mt. Fuji being the prime example, are visited by worshippers in an act of pilgrimage. (32)

History of Japan and Shinto

In this section, let us examine more closely how Shinto was shaped throughout Japanese history.

Early Form of Shinto

Where did the first people of Japan originate? It is believed that during the Ice Age1 Japan was connected to the Asian continent by land, enabling various people to migrate across the Asian continent to the far eastern end of it after spreading out from Babel. This area later became the islands of Japan as the sea level rose. But even after the islands were disjoined from the continent, people were able to make the trek by sea, as recorded in ancient texts. Nothing definite can be said as to exactly which ethnic tribes reached Japan. In all likelihood, it was not a single tribe but multiple tribes bringing different cultures.2

With distinct seasons and with abundant natural resources such as the ocean, rivers, and forests, the Japanese islands provided a perfect environment for fostering in its residents a sense of awe toward nature. Climate and topography were both instrumental in nurturing animistic beliefs and provided a background for developing folklore, especially the mythological stories of spirit gods living with and interacting with men.

When rice cropping was brought to Japan in the third century B.C., people started to settle down into villages, forming units in an agricultural society. It is most likely that at that time the prototype of Shinto was formed. People tried to placate perceived spirits by worshiping them as gods and making sacrificial offerings to them—even going so far as to offer up the lives of women and children (according to lore). This was done in order to secure the villagers’ lives and crops from natural disasters. Festivals were held according to the farming calendar, and shamans exercised paramount roles in practicing divinations and instructing people in the will of the gods. This early form of Shinto, therefore, consisted of animism and shamanism.

Rise of Yamato Dynasty (the Imperial Family)

Several ancient Chinese records (Records of Three Kingdoms and Book of the Later Han) explain that there was a countrywide war in Japan in the second century A.D., a conflict lasting over 70 years. The war finally ended when they placed Himiko as their common ruler. Himiko was a female shaman and the queen of Yamataikoku she lived from late second century to mid-third century A.D.

Himiko was also mentioned in another record as having sent her delegates to China, where she was recognized as ruler of Wa, the name given to Japan at that time. Himiko was given a special golden seal by the Chinese emperor around 238 A.D., confirming that she had great power in Japan in her day. It is not exactly known where Himiko’s kingdom Yamataikoku was, but it is said that Yamataikoku (“Yamatai kingdom”) could be related to the Yamato dynasty—the only dynasty that ever existed in Japan, becoming the imperial family that includes the present emperor of the nation.

By the fourth century, Yamato kings reigned as the rulers of Japan. Both governing and performing rituals were important duties of the ruler. They made sure to perform ceremonies for Amatsukami, gods who live in the heavens and created the land of Japan, and Kunitsukami, gods who reside on the earth and protect the land of Japan. The Yamato dynasty also enshrined Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun who is viewed as their ancestor, in Ise Jingu Shrine, the most prestigious Shinto shrine in Japan.

Emperor Tenmu ordered the compilation of national chronicles in the late seventh century. The writing of Kojiki was completed in 712 and Nihon Shoki in 720. These two texts are the foundational sources upon which Shinto beliefs are based. Both of these texts cover stories of the creation of Japan as well as the genealogies of Yamato kings. Folklores about stories of the gods are much like Greek mythologies, since gods of Japan are very much like humans, emotional and imperfect, getting married, and having children. The genealogies inform us that Yamato kings were descendants of Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu. It is important to note that one of the reasons these two texts were written was to authenticate the Yamato kings as the authorized rulers of Japan by tracing back their bloodline to the gods of Japan, especially to Amaterasu.

By the beginning of the eighth century the Yamato dynasty achieved centralized power and established a new governmental structure called the Ritsuryo system, similar to the one in China. In this new structure, a specific religious bureau was installed wherein the government could carry out Shinto rituals. The rituals, Matsuri, defined under Ritsuryo system, are listed in Table 1. The religious bureau became superintendent of all the shrines in the country. The shrines were ranked, and 22 shrines related to the imperial family or to the dominant clans were chosen to be operated at public expense. An interesting fact is that this system evaluated and put rankings on gods, just as it did on human officers. In Shinto, gods became ranked according to their abilities and titles.

Pray for the Year Matsuri

Partaking God ’s Meal Matsuri

Ritsuryo system was in operation for about three centuries. By the end of the tenth century, it became difficult for the government to keep centralization of power, and a new system was installed. For religious matters, the spread of Buddhism changed the position of Shinto in the culture.

Introduction of Buddhism

The introduction of Buddhism had an enormous impact on Shinto. In the mid-sixth century, Buddhism was officially brought into Japan from Baekje (one of three kingdoms of Korea at that time). Seong, the king of Baekje, presented Buddha statues and scriptures to Kinmei, the emporer of Japan. Unsure of what to do, Kinmei consulted his court advisers. Some said to accept Buddhism, as it was already accepted in countries such as China and Korea, while others said to refuse it, for Japan had its own gods, and accepting a new god like Buddha might upset the nation’s original gods. Therefore, from the onset, Buddhism was not accepted well in Japan. To make a definitive contrast with Buddhism, Japan’s indigenous religion began to be called Shinto.

But it was not long before Buddhism began to be accepted in Japan. The famous Prince Shotoku, who was regent to Queen Suiko in late sixth century, adopted and promoted Buddhism. Buddhist temples and statues began to be crafted at public expense. But Prince Shotoku was wise enough not to deny Shinto worship, issuing a law ordering people to continue worshiping Amatsukami and Kunitsukami. He was politically savvy enough to respect both the new and the old to avoid religious conflicts.

The Buddhism brought into Japan was Mahayana Buddhism with influences from other religions such as Confucianism, Taoism, and even Christianity.3 Compared to this Buddhist admixture, Shinto is a simple ritualistic religion with few doctrines. Shinto deals with present happiness and not with personal salvation or afterlife. Folklore and traditions, on which Shinto is established, do not offer ethics or discipline to improve one’s character. On the other hand, Buddhism has doctrines of enlightenment and commandments to follow. Sacred texts of Buddha can be studied by erudite scholars, and mysterious disciplines can be performed by practitioners. Buddhism offered what Shinto could not. Consequently, Buddhism attained the higher position in Japanese religious circles.

Syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism

As Buddhism became widely accepted in Japan, there followed a phenomenon called Shin Butsu Shugo, which means syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism.

This syncretization can be seen in the following phenomena:

  • Shinto gods were accepted as the guardian gods of Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines were built on the grounds of Buddhist temples.
  • Temples were also built on the grounds of Shinto shrines to help Shinto gods to become Buddha, since Shinto gods were acknowledged as lower than Buddha and therefore needed to attain nirvana in the manner of humans.
  • Certain Shinto priests became Buddhist monks hoping to attain their own personal “salvation” or enlightenment.

Further advancing the amalgamation of Shinto and Buddhism, the concept of Honji Suijyaku was developed. Shinto gods who supposedly created Japan and had been protecting the nation came to be viewed as the Buddha’s personification. In this, worshiping Shinto gods was understood to be worshiping Buddha. In some cases, Buddhist monks even performed Shinto rituals. This strange mixture of Shinto and Buddhism was present in Japan for a long time, from the 10th century until the end of the Edo period in the mid-19th century when a new government ordered the separation of Shinto and Buddhism.

Uji-gami Beliefs at Local Shrines

Buddhism also affected Shinto’s Uji-gami beliefs that were seen among common people at local shrines.

In Shinto the places of worship were at Yorishiro, the sacred dwelling places of gods such as woods, rocks, mountains, and other monumental natural objects. In the early days there were simple altars at Yorishiro, but later, larger buildings were constructed on premises as shrines.

In these local shrines each clan (Uji) or village enshrined its own guardian gods of their ancestor (Uji-gami) or of their village (Ubusuna-gami). Seasonal festivals were held at shrines to please these gods, and participation in various events at the local shrine was mandated in order to be part of the village community. This simple, traditional Shinto belief among common people was called Uji-gami belief, and it dealt with the interest of the entire village, not with personal interests or wishes.

When Buddhism, which deals with personal faith and “salvation,” came along and began to spread among the common people, it profoundly affected and modified Shinto practices. It became acceptable to pray about personal matters at shrines.

Also, the efficacy of each god was defined so that people would visit shrines whose gods seemed to answer their specific prayers. Shrines began to recruit gods with certain efficacies from other shrines. By a process called bunshi, a god ’s spirit could be split to live in a new shrine as well as in the original shrine. In this way, popular gods were invited into many shrines and shared by more people. By way of example, the Inari god , originally living in Fushimi Inari Shrine, had the purported power to bring agricultural harvest and business success. This was a popular god , and his spirit was split into as many as 32,000 bunshi shrines that still exist today. This is an example of the arbitrary way Shinto gods are viewed.

Corruption of Buddhism and Re-evaluation of Shinto

During the 16th century Samurai wars, Catholic missionaries such as Francisco Xavier arrived and evangelized Japan. Amazingly, many Japanese received the good news of salvation through Christ, and as many as 1,000,000 people, including samurai lords and common people, converted to Christianity. But by the end of the century, Christianity was banned by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the top Samurai who had become the ruler of the country. Severe persecution against Christians started. Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa overturned Toyotomi and ended the long age of Samurai wars by establishing the Tokugawa Administration as the unified governing power in the Edo period (1603–1868). But the Tokugawa Administration also enforced anti-Christian policy.

As part of its thrust against Christianity, the Tokugawa Administration utilized the Buddhist temples as monitoring offices to ensure that people did not practice Christianity. They initiated a system called “Temple Binding” (Tera-uke), which mandated that every person had to belong to a Buddhist temple. Without a registration document from the temple, a person could not do any business, could not travel to other towns, and could not get married or conduct funeral services. This system led to corruption and secularization of many Buddhist temples and monks because they all too easily procured for themselves much capital and labor from the indigenous populace bound for the temple. The oppressed people were unhappy, but they had no choice.

Over the span of 250 years in the Edo period, peace was maintained within Japan enabling art and literature to flourish. Scholars again studied Kojiki and Nihon Shoki and were reawakened to the significance of these Japanese classics. They established a new field of study called Kokugaku, meaning “national studies.” Kojiki and Nihon Shoki provided not merely information on the early history of the nation but also the reminder that the original Shinto was the vital religion and true identity of Japan. The inevitable conclusion was that the Japanese people should go back to original Shinto. This brought about the rejection of Buddhism-influenced Shinto as secular and the removal of Buddhist influences to restore the nation’s original religion.

This movement to restore Shinto by the Kokugaku scholars provided the philosophical base for the revolutionists who overturned the Tokugawa Administration, ending the Edo period. The new Meiji government elevated the emperor, believed to be the true descendant of Japan’s gods, as the ruler of the country, established a policy of “Separation of Shinto and Buddhism,” and tried to restart the Shinto rituals at the national level as in the Ritsuryo system of the eighth century. Thus began the National Shinto system, under which all Japanese citizens were viewed as servants or children of the emperor, a living god .

Emperor Meiji ordered construction of the predecessor of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to enshrine the war dead from the civil battles that occurred during the transition from Edo to Meiji. Since then, Yasukuni enshrines all Japanese who die in any war for the country.

View of Divine Nation and “Kamikaze” in War Times

In Shinto, there is always the concept of Japan being the gods’ country or “divine nation,” protected by its guardian gods. This concept emerges whenever Japan engages in battle with foreign countries.

The mention of a “divine nation” first appears in Nihon Shoki with respect to an incident as early as the third century. When Empress Jingu sent troops to rule over three kingdoms of Korea, one of the kings surrendered without a fight, saying, “They are divine troops from a divine nation, sent by a holy king of the East therefore we are better off not to resist.” This quote of a Korean king may not be authentic, as it was probably written to glorify the emperors of Japan, yet it verifies that there was already the concept of Japan as a divine nation from the early days.

Another incident worth mentioning is that of a Mongolian invasion in the late 13th century. The Mongol Empire, which extended its power over China and Korea, tried to approach Japan twice. However, with the help of strong Kamikaze, which translated means “divine wind,” Japan was able to chase off the outnumbering Mongolian troops from the coastline both times. At this point in history, the myth developed that Japan could not be invaded because the guardian gods of Shinto protected its islands.

When the samurai age ended and the modern nation started in the mid- 19th century, the National Shinto provided the image of the new Japan as being the divine nation since antiquity. Eager to catch up with technologies and military powers of Western countries, the Meiji government utilized Shinto to unite Japanese citizens by ordering them to pay respects to the guardian gods of Japan and their descendants, namely the emperor and the imperial family.

After winning the wars with China in 1895 and with Russia in 1905, Japan was recognized internationally and became confident enough to enlarge its territories over Asian countries to create “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The Shinto view enabled Japanese military officers to rationalize it as Japan, the divine nation, being given the authority to free and protect Asian countries from control by Western nations.

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. In 1932, Japan assisted in establishing the independent Manchukuo nation from China. Believing that America was trying to stunt Japan’s advancement, Japan eventually entered the war with America by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. When the war situation worsened, the Japanese government put enormous emphasis upon the idea of the divine nation under the emperor, the living god , to prevent any resistance from its citizens. This emphasis also served to motivate soldiers that it was an honor to die for the living god . Thus were born the famous Kamikaze (divine wind) pilots, who gave their lives in suicide attacks on American war ships. Even ordinary citizens were commanded not to surrender but to die for the nation and the emperor. Tragic suicidal death took its greatest toll in victims among the citizens of the Okinawa Islands, with many women and children included.

Post WWII Shinto

When World War II drew to a close, the Allied Powers sent General Douglas MacArthur and his team to occupy and restructure Japan. They spared the lives of the emperor and the imperial family since they were merely used by the government and the military, but they made the emperor declare himself to be an ordinary man and not a god . Today the emperor of Japan is a figurehead and cannot be engaged in political issues. However, he still performs the Shinto rituals as the head of the country, according to traditions of the imperial courts. Even the head of the Cabinet (i.e., the prime minister), the head of the Congress, and the head of the Supreme Court attend some of the major rituals performed by the emperor. It is not discussed openly in public, but there still exists the problem of separation of religion (Shinto) and government in Japan.

The National Shinto was disassembled right after the war, and all Shinto shrines became private religious corporations according to the new constitutional policy of the separation of religion and government. Yasukuni Shrine also became a private corporation, though it still embodies the notion of a national reposing monument. As mentioned in the story at the beginning of this article, the problem of politicians visiting Yasukuni exists because now it is a private Shinto shrine.

For most Japanese people, the long history of religious syncretization deeply affects their religious positions. Shinto and Buddhism—both cultivated in Japan for many centuries—are regarded as a tradition and culture. Affiliations with Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples are just the remains of the Uji-gami community or Temple Binding system from the previous eras. A person can be counted in both Shinto and Buddhist populations, but it does not mean that the person has an active personal faith in these religions. Therefore, when asked about his or her faith, many Japanese would find that question difficult to answer.

Watch the video: Japan Religion 1 AD to 2021


  1. Chadwik

    Lovely thought

  2. Jooseppi

    I do not believe you

  3. Gringolet

    I'm sorry, of course, but I need a little more information.

  4. Li

    well, as they say, time erases error and polishes the truth

  5. Raymund

    What amusing question

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