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Shinto at a glance The essence of Shinto is the Japanese devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers called  kami , to  shrines , and to various rituals. Shinto is not a way of explaining  the world . What matters are rituals that enable human beings to communicate with kami. Kami are not God or gods. They are spirits that are concerned with human beings - they appreciate our interest in them and want us to be happy - and if they are treated properly they will intervene in our lives to bring benefits like health, business success, and good exam results. Shinto is a very local  religion , in which devotees are likely to be concerned with their local shrine rather than the religion as a whole. Many Japanese will have a tiny shrine-altar in their homes. However, it is also an unofficial national religion with shrines that draw visitors from across the country. Because  ritual  rather than belief is at the heart of Shinto, Japanese people don't usually think of Shinto specifically as a religion - it's simply an aspect of Japanese life. This has enabled Shinto to  coexist happily with Buddhism  for centuries.

Itsukushima shrine :

Itsukushima shrine


Shrines are an important aspect of Shintoism, considered as the main religion in Japan which is more closely associated to the Japanese way of life and traditions. Shinto belief in “ kami or spirits” is reflected in the numerous shrines they have built to “ honor the spirits” which they believe can be found in nature, and which still guide their everyday lives by giving them good fortune and prosperity . In return, the Japanese people have to perform the necessary rituals to appease the spirits surrounding them . Purification is a key concept in Shintoism, that is why much of their rituals make use of water for cleansing purposes . Ancestor worship is also an important aspect of Shintoism , as well as showing reverence to forces of nature , and because Shintoism is considered more as way of life than a religion, it has co-existed with other religions in Japan , such as Buddhism and Confucianism.


In fact, Shintoism has become so entrenched with the way of life of the Japanese people that most of them would perform Shinto rituals like worshipping at the shrines while not identifying themselves as Shintoists . The shrine shown at the picture is dedicated to the daughters of Susanoo -no Mikoto , the “ god of seas and storms” and brother of the “ sun goddess” , Amaterasu , who is believed to be the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family.




SYMBOL The Torii Gate is the most common symbol for Shintoism. It is a sacred gateway supposed to represent a gate upon which a cock crew on the occasion when Amaterasu emerged from the rock cave and relighted the world. It marks the entrance to a sacred space which is the Shinto shrine. It represents the transition between the world of humans and the world of the gods and goddesses. It is believed to help prepare the visitor for their interaction with the spirits by signifying the sacredness of the location. It is traditionally made of wood or stone, but now most toriis are made of concrete and steel.


BELIEF AND DOCTRINES “Kami Worship Shintoism” is a religion which revolves around the belief in and worship of kami or spirits. Scholars agree that the concept of kami is difficult to explain, and that even the Japanese themselves who are Shinto believers cannot provide a definite definition of kami. To Norinaga , even the successive generations of emperors can be called kami since for the ordinary people, they are far-separated, majestic, and worthy of reverence. However, the kami is not exclusive to the nobility alone; for in every village and even in every family , there are human beings who can be considered as kami. Even things such as thunder and echo can also be considered as kami, as well as animals such as tigers and wolves. Among the deities considered as kami, were Izanagi , the sky father, and Izanami , the earth mother.


In Shintoism, people are regarded as superior beings and everyone is considered a potential kami whose life on earth is destined to be filled with blessings . In that sense, Shintoism can be considered to have an optimistic .


In Shintoism, people are regarded as superior beings and everyone is considered a potential kami whose life on earth is destined to be filled with blessings. In that sense, Shintoism can be considered to have an optimistic view of human nature (“people are basically good and have no concept of original sin”), hence it motivates people to accept life as it is and expect that life will be filled with blessings if only they will practice the necessary rituals and possess the right attitude . As for the nature of kami, they are not all-powerful but believed to possess human traits, hence they may behave badly. Like human beings, they enjoy entertainment such as dance, music, etc. Kami can also refer to beings or to qualities which beings possess, hence kami may possess good or evil charac - teristics .


Kami is roughly translated to English as “spirits,” but they are more than invisible beings, and they are best understood by Shinto followers through faith. Kami are numerous and can appear anywhere, and believed to have existed even before the Japanese islands were created.


Kami are often confused with the Western concept of a supreme being, but this is because explaining the concept of kami is not an easy task, and associating them with divine beings makes the concept of kami easier to understand. Although kami may refer to the gods such as “ Izanagi ” and “ Izanami ”, they may also refer to the spirits that inhabit many living beings, some beings themselves who inspire a feeling of awe (such as emperors and priests), elements of nature such as mountains and rivers, forces of nature such as earthquakes and storms, and certain human beings who become kami when they die. In general, kami may be classified into three types: the ujigami or clan ancestors ; kami who reside in elements and forces of nature ; and the souls of exceptional human beings who died.


Kami Descriptions/Association Amaterasu -o-mi-kami Sun Goddess; greatest of the kami; kaim of the Ise shrine; ancestor of the imperial family Benten music and the arts Ebisu prosperity; abandoned leech-child of Izanami and Izanagi Hachiman Archery and war Izanami Sky god Izanagi Earth goddess Susanoo wind/storm; Amterasu’s brother Tenjin education

Historical Background:

Historical Background The development of Shintoism in Japan has a long history. During the prehistoric period in Japan, animism was evident in the agricultural affairs of the people. Agricultural rites were celebrated seasonally and all communal religious activities were focused on objects or places believed to be inhabited by kami or spirits. Later on, adherents formulated rituals and stories for them to make sense of their universe, such as creation stories regarding Japan and its natural elements, thereby creating their own sense of cultural and spiritual worlds. One such story is the “ Story of Creation ,” which narrates that in the beginning there were two kami, Izanagi -no- Mikoto ( male ) and Izanami -no- Mikoto ( female ).


It was said that after Izanagi’s creative work on earth, he went up to heaven while Izanami was left permanently on earth as the queen of the lower world. According to the myth, Amaterasu -o-mi-kami , the “ goddess of the sun ,” came out of Izanagi’s left eye while “ Tsukiyomi -no- Mikoto ” came out of his right eye, and “ Susa-no- Wo -no- Mikoto ” came from his nostrils.


The Nihongi narrates the following account of the creation of the three great kami of the upper air: “When Izanagi -no- Mikoto had returned (from the Lower World), he was seized with regret, and said, ‘Having gone to Nay! A hideous and filthy place, it is meet that I should cleanse my body from its pollutions.” He accordingly went to the plain of Ahagi at Tachibana in Wodo in Hiuga of Tsukushi , and purified himself...Thereafter a Deity was produced by his washing his left eye, which was called Amaterasu -no-Oho-Kami. Then he washed his right eye, producing thereby a Deity who was called Tsuki - yomi -no- Mikoto .


Amaterasu-Omikami , who is believed to have come from the left eye of the sky god Izanagi , is considered the sun goddess and the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family, with Emperor Jimmu Tenno , Amaterasu’s great grandson , as the first emperor of Japan. Amaterasu exhibited great virtue and ruled over Takama - ga -Hara while Susa-no- Wo -no- Mikoto performed evil deeds and was later driven out and went down to Izumo , where he subdued the rebels and gained possession of the sword, which he presented to Amaterasu , the “ Great Deity” . He had a child named Okuni - Nushi -no- Mikoto , who succeeded him as the ruler of Izumo and, with the help of Sukuna - Hikona -no-Kami , ordered the cultivation of the land, suppressed the rebels and taught the knowledge of medicine, making him popular in the land.


The myth further narrates that just when Amaterasu was about to make her grandson the ruler of Japan, she instructed Okuni to give up the land, to which he obeyed and preferred to retire in the palace of Kidzuki , where he was later enshrined, thus beginning the Great Shrine of Izumo . Afterwards, Amaterasu gave an imperial command to her grandson, Ninigino-Mikoto , saying that her descendants should reign in the land of Japan, and that she has chosen Ninigino to rule over the land. She conferred on him the Yata mirror, the “ Clustering-clouds sword” , and the Yasaka “ curved jewels” , which are called the “ Three Sacred Treasures. ” And so Ninigino descended upon the land which is now called Japan, with his son Hiko - Hoho -Demi-no- Mikomoto , and his grandson, Ugaya - Fuki - Ahezu -no- Mikoto , and for three generations made Hyuga their capital. The first emperor of Japan, Jimmu Tenno , was the son of Ugaya ( Holtom 1965).


After the prehistoric period, the kami living in some places were gradually associated with local ruling clans, also known as “ uji ” , thus taking the name ujigami . A clan from the Yamato region claimed that they have descended from Amaterasu , and that family was then recognized as the imperial house- hold of Japan and cornerstone of Japanese nationhood. From then on, indig - enous festivals and ceremonies became inseparable from government affairs especially with the emergence of the unified nation-state. These festivities became known as “ matsurigoto ” (affairs of religious festivals) but retained its meaning to refer to “ government ” today.


The term “ Shinto ” came from “ Shentao / Shendao ”, shen means “ divine beings or kami” and dao means “ the way ,” hence Shintoism means “ the way of the kami .” The term first appeared in the Nihongi and Kojiki (or probably much earlier). It was used in order to help distinguish kami-no- michi (the Japanese Way of the Gods), from Butsudo (Buddha-Tao). This took place during the 6th century, with the introduction of Buddhism. It was a period when there was a coexistence of the interests in foreign bodhisattva with the indigenous family of kami. In fact, kami was seen as transformations of Buddha manifested in Japan to save all sentient beings (this signifies the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto). Shinto persisted even when Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced, spread, and became a major religion/philosophy in Japan. During the reign of Prince Shotoku (574-622), Buddhism was promoted in Japan, but it never saw a total conversion of the Japanese people from Shintoism to Buddhism, instead Buddhism was gradually absorbed and mixed with local folk religions, mainly Shintoism.


The fusion can be seen, for example, in certain Shinto gods being regarded as protectors of Buddha. Another manifestation was the formation of temples next to shrines, called “ temple shrines or jingoji ” . During the Meiji Restoration , Shintoism was organized and became completely separated with Buddhism, which was banned and reorganized. It was then when Shintoism became the official state religion . It was during this period when the Japanese people were compelled to participate in Shinto ceremonies as a manifestation of patriotism. It was only abolished as a state religion after the defeat of Japan in 1945, but followers of this religion continued to increase, with the total number of its adherents amounting to 80 million (Brown 1994).


SACRED SCRIPTURES The Kojiki and Nihongi are considered as sacred scriptures on Shinto, although they are not exclusively about Shinto; they also contain extensive information on Buddhism and Confucianism. These books, which are compilations of ancient myths and traditional teachings, are considered to have a dual purpose: a political as well as a moral purpose. Its political purpose is to establish the supremacy of Japan over all countries in the world by legitimizing the divine authority of the ruling families and to establish the political supremacy of the Yamato. Its moral purpose is to explain the relationship between the kami and human beings by establishing that the Japanese are a special people chosen by the kami, who have many human- like characteristics. It also emphasizes purification as both a creative and cleansing act. Death is considered as the “ ultimate impurity” .


Kojiki As one of the most important texts on Shintoism, Kojiki is composed of three books: the first is the “ age of kami” , which narrates the mythology, while the second and third books discuss the “ imperial lineage” , narrating the events concerning the imperial family up to the death of the thirty-third ruler, Empress Suiko . The third book is concerned mainly with revolts and love stories of successive rulers intertwined in a song-story format. After providing rich information about what transpired up to the reign of Emperor Kenzo , genealogy of each imperial family was discussed. The establishment of the three orders are reflected in the three books: the establishment of the order of the universe , the establishment of the order of humanity , and the estab - lishment of the order of history . Even though it was written at the onset of the spread of Buddhism in Japan and despite the fact that Emperor Genmei , to whom the Kojiki was presented, was a Buddhist, there was no mention of Buddhism in the Kojiki . It just goes to show that Kojiki is based on the eternal and cyclical world of mythology


Nihon shoki / Nihongi Meanwhile , the Nihon shoki or Nihongi records the descent of the Yamato rulers of Japan from the gods. It represents a combination of a political purpose with folklores and myths. It is believed to have been completed around 720 C.E. and have become significant in the restructuring of Japan by the Yamato rulers, even in the naming of the country as Nippon. It was presented to the court during the reign of Emperor Gensho and is consid - ered as Japan’s first official history which was completed after 39 years and compiled by Jimmu Tenno’s third son, Prince Toneri , along with numerous bureaucrats and historians. It is composed of 30 books, the first two of which discuss the “ age of the kami ” while the remaining books chronicle the events pertaining to the rulers up to the “ 41st emperor” .


The stories in the Kojiki and Nihongi provide the Japanese people with a sense of pride, for these scriptures narrate how their rulers were descended from the gods, and how their race was descended from the gods as well. Some would even interpret that the whole of humanity descended from the two deities ( Izanagi and Izanami ), thereby creating a sense of superiority among the Japanese people. We can also see in the creation story the concept of dualism in Shinto, as shown by Izanagi as the sky god , and Izanami as the earth mother , as well as with Amaterasu as the benevolent child and her brother Susa-no- Wo -no- Mikoto as performing evil acts . The political legitimacy this myth provides the ruling families of Japan as well as the sense of pride it provides the Japanese people have made the Japanese people develop a strong sense of nationalism.


WORSHIP AND OBSERVANCES Unlike other religions, Shintoism has no weekly service; instead, people visit shrines at their own convenience. Proper performances of rites and ceremonies are an important aspect of Shintoism. They hold most of their rituals at the shrines, which they believe are the abode of the kami or spirits. At first, shrines were normal things that can be found in nature such as mountains , rivers , trees , rocks , etc., but later on they built shrines dedicated to their deities. Such shrines are often woden structures that feature the natural beauty of the surroundings , which basically expresses Shintoism’s profound veneration of the environment (for example, woods used in shrines are often left unpainted). For Shintoists , the performance of rituals will give them the blessings they expect from the kami. Below are some of the rituals performed by the Shintoists .


Shinto Rites of Passage Below are the rites of passage observed by the Shintoists from birth to death: 1. Hatsumiyamairi (First Shrine Visit). Newborn children are taken to the shrine to seek protection from the kami; traditionally, the newborn is taken by the grandmother because the mother is deemed impure from childbirth ; the ritual takes place on the second day after birth for a boy , and the third day for a girl. 2. Shichi -go-san (Seven-Five-Three). Festival observed every 15th of November by boys of five years and girls of three and seven years of age, who visit the shrine to give thanks for the protection provided by the kami and to ask for their healthy growth; 3. Adult’s Day ( Seijin Shiki). Observed every 15th of January by the Japanese who had their 20th birthday the previous year by visiting the shrine to express gratitude to the kami (20 being the legal age of adulthood in Japan ) 4. Wedding Rites. Patterned after the wedding of Crown Prince Yoshihito and Princess Sado in 1900; 5. Funeral rites. Since death is considered impure, most Japanese funerals are Buddhist in nature; Shintoism’s funeral practices are called sosai . Ritual Purification (Meditative Practices )


SELECTED ISSUES Shintoism is a religion in Japan that was able to co-exist with other religions such as Confucianism and Buddhism. Shintoism got from Confucianism its system of ethics and the value of ancestor worship, while treating Buddhism as dealing with afterlife matters. It served as a vehicle for patriotism , as taking care of the Japanese people’s needs in this present world, and it promotes high veneration and conservation of nature. Shrine visits of the Prime Ministers of Japan is also another aspect of Shintoism, which was declared the state religion of Japan in 1868, with the accession of Emperor Meiji to the throne as a descendant of Amaterasu , although after the defeat of Japan in World War II it was abolished by the Allied Powers as the state religion of Japan.


Vehicle for Patriotism Aside from Shintoism providing the Japanese people with the pride of believing that they came from the deities and that their rulers have descended from the heavens, there are some aspects of Japanese history that they interpret as having divine intervention and therefore have also become a source of fervent patriotism.


Shrine Visits of Prime Ministers Shrine visits refer to visits being made by important Japanese such as Prime Ministers to Shinto shrines. This is being done to show respect to people who died in the service of the Emperor. One example of such a shrine is the Yasukuni Shrine, in the Chiyoda ward in Tokyo, which houses the remains of soldiers as well as civilians who produced war materials, who all died in the service of the Emperor Meiji. The spirits of these people were considered as kami from the Meiji Restoration, including those who died in the Satsuma Rebellion, the First Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo- Japanese War, World War I and II, as well as the Second Sino-Japanese War.

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