Shinto is the national religion of Japan and is one of the oldest religions in the world. It has thus proven difficult to trace it to its ancient roots with much certainty. One writer, Clark Offner, claims that Shinto is “lost in the hazy mists enshrouding the ancient period of Japanese history” (1). Another scholar writes that it denotes “the traditional religious practices which originated in Japan and developed mainly among the Japanese people along with the underlying life attitudes and ideology which support such practices” (2). For many adherents (which would account for some 80% of the Japanese population, though many don’t strictly label/identify themselves as “Shintoists” (3)) Shinto connects them to their rich, ancient history (4).
The word “Shinto” itself derives from the Chinese word Shen-tao which means the “way of the higher spirits.” One of its central ideas is that of kami (“superior beings”) which implies the concept of sacred power in both animate and inanimate objects with the sun goddess Amaterasu being the most important. In Shinto mythology, the islands of Japan (and eventually the rest of the world) were formed by drops which fell from the spear of Izanagi and Izanami when they withdrew it after stirring up the primordial brine which lay beneath their celestial dwelling-place. According to Shinto the Japanese people are said to be descended from the celestial kami and their emperors from Amaterasu.
Further, shrine worship is a central practice for the Shintoist – these practices and rituals are conducted in private homes and on communal sites. The nation’s imperial shrine (which is the most sacred spot in all Japan is located south-west of Tokyo). It remains today that most of the Japanese people attend worship at Shinto shrines where they pray to kami.
Shinto has no founder, no written canon, no systematic body of doctrine and no unified code of behaviour though its early practices were first recorded in the historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki sometime within the 8th century. Over time, however, it has been impacted by a vast amount of cultural influences; it is also relatively vague and undefined, as Sokyo Ono writes that Shinto is “an amalgam of attitudes, ideas and ways of doing things that through two millenniums and more have become an integral part of the way of the Japanese people” (3). Shinto is primarily concerned with man’s personal and communal wellbeing and pays little attention to the concept of an afterlife. It, therefore, remains a powerful ingredient contributing to the identity of the Japanese people, as Inoue explains:
“Shinto takes on the meaning of “Japan’s traditional religion”, as opposed to foreign religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and so forth” (6).
1. Offner, C. “Shinto” in The World’s Religions. p. 191
2. Hurai, N. 1969. “The Character of Shinto viewed from a History of Religious Perspective” in Encounter. p. 40.
3. Teeuwen, B. 2010. A New History of Shinto. p. 1
4. Nelson, J. 1996. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine. p. 7-8
5. Engler, P. 2005. Historicizing “Tradition” in the Study of Religion. p. 95
6. Nobutaka, I. 2003. Shinto, a Short History. p. 1