What is Shinto?

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Shinto is considered the indigenous religion of Japan that has continued from prehistoric times when animistic beliefs prevailed into the contemporary period (1). However, this definition is debated among scholars of Shinto and Japanese religion (2). Complexity arises when one realizes that many Japanese people do not consider Shinto to be a religion, but rather a set of ancient, traditional customs without a doctrine. Some scholars claim that Shinto refers specifically to Japan’s ancient customs, rituals, and beliefs, regardless of whether they were Japanese in origin, and can also mean popular religious beliefs in general (3).

Shinto First Defined in Response to Religious Incursion

Shinto only needed to define itself as a belief system when the rival religion of Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th-century CE (4). Prior to this time, traditional Japanese beliefs lacked doctrine, which allowed Buddhism and Confucianism to become influential within Japan’s theology and philosophy. In response, the Japanese imperial court gave Japan’s native beliefs a name, “Shinto” (which means “Way of the Divine Beings”), and in the early 8th-century CE, at the instruction of Empress Gemmei, the major Shinto texts, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were compiled. These books recorded the oral traditions of Japanese history and myth, alongside the lineage of the Japanese emperors believed to have descended from the gods. These texts also proposed rituals that have been integral to Shinto ever since.

The Kami and Spirit Beings

Shinto incorporates belief in nature spirits, the veneration of clan ancestors, local and national cults surrounding heroes or warriors, as well as mythological beliefs in the foundation of the nation and the imperial lineage (5). Japanese life is permeated with rituals related to these beliefs such as those of purification. During these rituals, sacred spirits known as kami are prayed to and honoured (6). The kami, which are believed to permeate the created world, can include gods, goddesses, the souls or spirits of family ancestors, and superhuman beings. They are believed to inhabit the material world and can respond to prayer,

“By infusing spirits into nature, the Japanese also obtain the means of coming to terms with nature by establishing a working relationship with the spirits. This is done by performing rituals in which purification and offerings are a central part. In return, the spirits offer their protection… By establishing a relationship of mutual dependency with the spirit world through rituals, the Japanese metaphorically come to terms with nature” (7).

The term kami also denotes spiritual energy or essence that is found in everything. For example, kami are believed to be the essences of natural phenomena (such as storms and earthquakes) and the environment (trees, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, etc.). Mount Fuji is particularly regarded as sacred. The kami are not perceived as being omnipotent (all-powerful) for they are limited and fallible. Some of them are evil or demonic although many of them are good. Because for many Japanese people the likes of trees and mountains are ideal abodes for spirits, they are often, explains Kalland, “venerated in Japan, as are mountains. Most shrines are situated in a grove of trees, and sacred Shinto paraphernalia — such as the sprig offered to the deities (tamagushi) and the sacred staff gohei which both symbolize the presence of deities — symbolize trees” (8). Kalland explains that most Japanese do not actually like to hike through forests and mountains, and if they do they take great precautions, which means that the trip turns into a ritual itself. This includes dressing in white, wearing a straw hat, and carrying a staff symbolizing the bonze Kobo Daishi. By chanting and shaking rattles, pilgrims try to ward off dangerous spirits.

Shinto Creation Myth

The Kojiki teaches that at the creation of the universe the first three kami emerged, which included the Kamimusubi who is known as the divine/high generative force kami (9). After several generations of formless kami, the major Shinto gods appear: Izanami and Izanagi. These gods created the world, and many myths are devoted to them, their offspring, and to the gods Susanoo (the storm god), Tsukuyomi (the moon god), and Amaterasu (the sun goddess). The kami are presented as the creators of the land of Japan and the Japanese ancestors. For Shintoists, the worship of these sacred beings consolidates a powerful connection to Japanese tradition and history.

Shinto Temples, Shrines, and Festivals

Shrines and temples serve the function as a space to pray and make offerings to the kami with the goal of ensuring a harmonious relationship between them and human beings. These spaces are home to rituals. For example, when entering a shrine, a ritual of purification is performed, a necessary performance given that Shintoists believe humans, despite being born pure, become tainted with impurity. These impurities (tsumi) need to be purified through a ritual, which sometimes includes hand-washing and mouth-washing.

There are different types and sizes of shrines. Small shrines (kamidana) are located in may Japanese homes and shops. They consist of a small shelf on which objects used to honour the ancestors and kami are displaying. Larger shrines and public temples, although these can be small too, have walls on which devotees can place wooden votive tablets with messages to the kami. Visiting shrines and temples requires a four-step process: first money is put into a box, next the devotee makes two deep bows before the shrine, then claps his hands twice, and finally, after concluding prayers, makes one final deep bow. Of all Shinto temples, the most revered is Amaterasu’s (the sun goddess) located on the island of Honshu. The wooden temple has been rebuilt every 20 years for the last 1300 years as this is thought to please the kami. The emperors of Japan were traditionally regarded as the direct descendants of Amaterasu. For example, the first emperor, Jimmu, who begun rule in 660 BCE, was said to be Amaterasu’s great-great-great-grandson.

Shinto also has festivals known as matsuri, at which the kami are honored and important periods of the agricultural year, such as rice planting in April. Festival activities are held at shrines to mark the seasons and/or to venerate specific kami.


The exact number and constitutive of Shinto is difficult to ascertain. According to Pew Center, 89.5 million (70.4%) of Japan’s population follow the religion although most Japanese people do not identify with any specific religion (10). However, Shinto remains deeply embedded within the religious life of Japan as it has for many centuries, and its rituals are still widely practiced today.


1. Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 82; Kisala, Robert. 2001. “Japanese Religions.” In Religions in the Modern World Traditions and Transformations, edited by Linda Woodhead, Christopher Partridge, and Hiroko Kawanami, 108-127. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 116.

2. Toshio, Kuroda., Dobbins, James., and Gay, Suzanne. 1981. “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 7(1):1-21. p. 4.

3. Toshio, Kuroda., Dobbins, James., and Gay, Suzanne. 1981. Ibid. p. 5

4. Kisala, Robert. 2001. Ibid. p. 116-117.

5. Kisala, Robert. 2001. Ibid. p. 116.

6. Kalland, Arne. 1995. “Culture in Japanese Nature.” In Asian Perceptions of Nature: A Critical Approach, edited by Arne Kalland and Ole Bruun, 243-257. Richmond: Curzon. p. 246.

7. Kalland, Arne. 1995. Ibid. p. 249.

8. Kalland, Arne. 1995. Ibid. p. 248.

9. Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. Ibid. p. 327.

10. Iwai, Noriko. 2017. Measuring religion in Japan: ISM, NHK and JGSS: Survey Research and the Study of Religion in East Asia; Pew Research Center. 2015. Other Religions. Available.



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