Shinto – A General Summary of the Religion
Author: William Bailey
Shinto is an adopted word from the Chinese meaning “Way of the Gods”. It is the indigenous spirituality of the Japanese. Shinto’s spirituality was initially recorded in written form of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. The Kojiki is the oldest chronicle and a collection of numerous myths of Japan. The myths concern the origin of the four islands of Japan. These myths are responsible for the inspiration that sparked the religion of Shinto. The written documents showed that Shinto was an unorganized folklore and mythology, and not a unified religion. Shinto currently has between 200 – 300 million followers mainly in Japan consisting of approximately 3% to 5% of the world’s religious population.
Kami is a concept that the Shinto people utilize within their religion. Kami are defined in English as “spirits”, “deities”, “souls”, or “principles”. These terms are at times linked to natural forces such as wind, trees, rocks, ponds, lakes, rivers, seas, land, mountains, and many other abstract items of the world. Kami is also linked in some situations being human-like and in both material and immaterial cases (animistic).
The people of Japan abide by both Shintoism’s and Buddhism’s doctrines when using various rituals and practices. For example the vast majority of Japanese utilize Shinto’s rules for life’s rituals and practices and for the afterlife rituals and practices Buddhism’s rules are generally used.
Due to the various different practices of the Shinto faith, many Japanese believe it is imperative to separate Shinto into 5 various categories. These categories are as follows:
Shrine Shinto: This category happens to be the most popular type of Shinto that has ties dating back into Japan’s history. Shrine Shinto is associated with making wishes, good luck charms, and a variety of gatherings celebrating various events.
Folk Shinto: This Shinto deals with folk spirits and deities and various practices including possession, and healing (Shaman) that originate from Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and other various older traditions.
Sect Shinto: This particular type of Shinto is a legal division originating in the late 19th century in an effort to separate God and country.
Imperial Household Shinto: The Imperial Family performs religious rites at three shrines located on the Imperial grounds.
Koshinto Shinto (old Shinto): This Shinto is a restoration of a dated Shinto prior to the origination of Buddhism.
The kami (spirits) date back to at least 100 BCE and are separated from our physical world by a Torii or gate. It is a red symbol that marks an entrance to shrines.
The three beliefs that stand out from the various others are the impurity belief, purification and the afterlife beliefs.
Impurity: There are various deeds that create ritual purity for a good, positive personal and family future. Logically, good deeds create good days or good weeks and so on. Inversely, bad or poor deeds create negative or bad days. One should choose to follow or select goods deeds because it is the right thing to do, not because of the reward.
Purification: Purification rites are performed regularly (daily, weekly, monthly, annually, etc…). Shinto considers the performance of these rites essential and the “lifeblood” of one’s life. Shinto Priests bless Japanese buildings often to ensure the purification process of the Japanese environment. Misogi is a purification ritual concerning activities, such as going long periods without sleep (sleep deprivation), breath training, and standing under a waterfall.
Afterlife: Yomi is the land of the dead. It is a desecrating, horrific, putrid location where the deceased end up. It is the underworld for the dead where horrible creatures guard the exits to keep the dead within Yomi to rot indefinitely. The myth states that once the deceased has eaten at the hearth of Yomi, they cannot go back to the land of the living. Yomi is frequently compared to Hates or Hell.
The Shinto shrine is used to house one or multiple kami (Shinto spirits). It is the most important dwelling for the security and safekeeping of important and sacred items. The kami is enshrined by a honden. The honden enshrines the kami and is marked by a mirror or statue at the back of the shrine. The Inari Shrines is the largest shrine network in Japan with 32,000 shrines. The following are the general rules when visiting a shrine:
Anyone can visit a shrine (one doesn’t need to be Shinto to visit).
One must bow prior to entering.
Perform the following procedure: Temizu – Wash your left then your right hand, then rinse your mouth without spitting the water back into the supply and don’t drink the water. Wash your feet if need be, then wash the handle last.
There is a bell located at the shrine. You may ring the bell as you enter before you begin your prayers. Leave a modest donation in the donation box, and then begin your prayers.
There may be staff at the shrine to enforce certain rules and to assist the visitors as well. Be polite and respectful to them at all times.
Music plays a very essential and important role in Shinto’s tradition. The Kagura is a traditional dance of Shamanic origin. The word is said to be derived from the word kami or Kura meaning “seat of kami” or “site where the kami is received”. A mythical story exists explaining how the dance, the Kagura came about. The story begins with the sun goddess, Amaterasu getting angry at her brother, so she ran from him and hid in a place where he couldn’t find him, a cave. Due to the sun goddess hiding in a cave, the world became very dark and cold. All of the other gods and goddesses became very concerned about Amaterasu’s well-being. They derived a plan to try and draw Amaterasu out of the cave by playing music, dancing, and being loud (sounding like they were all having a good time). This made Amaterasu peek her head out a bit, but not come out all of the way, so the kami gods tricked her by telling her that there was a sun goddess outside of the cave that was better then her. This drew Amaterasu completely out of the cave to see what was going on and then the planet was again bright and warm.
There isn’t one core sacred source of text for Shinto. There are various books that hold the history and have stories within them that explain the Shinto beliefs, practices, and rituals. The books that hold this information are as follows:
The Kojiki – The Record of Ancient Matters – This book holds the history of Shinto.
The Shoku Nihongi and Nihon Shoki – Japan’s chronicles.
The Rikkokushi – 6 National Histories – Shoku Nihongi and Nihon Shoki.
The Jinno Shotoki – Japanese history and politics of Shinto.