Where is the Shinto Religion From?

The torii of Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Japan.
The torii of Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Japan.

Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion, is still practiced today and has been considered the formal state religion of Japan. Rooted in prehistoric animism, the religion has no founder, official sacred texts or formalized doctrine. Shinto consists of ritual practices in public shrines devoted to many different gods, public rituals such as war memorials and harvest festivals, and ancestor worship. Shinto has been used throughout history in the development of distinctive Japanese attitudes, consciousness, and tradition.

5. History and Overview of Beliefs

Shinto's recorded history dates to a pair of 8th-century texts, but archeological evidence suggests that the tradition extends back much further. Like many prehistoric peoples, the early Japanese were probably animists, giving spiritual characteristics to plants, animals, and other natural phenomena. An oral tradition of rituals and stories developed organically, as these early people began to establish historical roots and struggled to make sense of their place in the world. Shinto became more formally established in response to increased interactions between Japan and mainland Asia: Japanese clans developed a formalized system to differentiate their beliefs from those of the outsiders. Starting in the 6th century CE, Shinto began to take on aspects of other Asian religions: Buddhism, from Korea, and Confucianism, from China.

Shinto is founded on the worship of and belief in kami, which are understood to be sacred and divine beings, as well as spiritual essences. These spiritual beings exist in nature: within mountains, trees, rivers, natural phenomena and geographical regions. Kami are believed to be abstract, natural creative forces, as opposed to the omnipotent deities of Western religion. Followers are expected to live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natural world and with other human beings, allowing the religion to be practiced in tandem with other religious beliefs.

4. Global Presence and Notable Members

Although nearly 80% of the Japanese population practice Shinto, very few people identify as "Shintoist" in religious surveys. This is due to the ubiquitousness and informality of the religion: most Japanese participate in "Folk Shinto", visiting Shinto shrines and participating in rituals, without belonging to an institutional religious group. There are approximately 81,000 shrines and 85,000 Shinto priests in Japan. A few foreign priests have been ordained over the past two decades, but the practice remains predominantly Japanese.

3. Development and Spread of the Faith

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Shinto was established as the state religion of Japan and Shinto religious festivals and ceremonies were irrevocably tied to government affairs. The ruling aristocracy used Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism as a means to maintain order in Japan. Shinto legend maintained that the Japanese imperial family was descended in an unbroken line from the sun goddess Amaterasu.

The Emperor and court performed meticulous religious rituals and ceremonies to ensure that the kami would protect Japan and its people. These ceremonies were enshrined in the government's administrative calendar. During this time, the Japanese government systematically utilized shrine worship to encourage imperial loyalty among its citizens. The government even established the 'Department for the Affairs of the Deities' to promote the idea Japan's survival depended on its citizens maintaining the status quo with unquestioning support of the government and imperial family.

2. Challenges and Controversies

Missionaries arrived in Japan during the 16th century with the intent to convert the Japanese people from Shintoism and Buddhism to Christianity. This was seen as a political threat, and the government took drastic measures to prevent Christianity from spreading. During the 17th century, anti-Christian government policy required all Japanese people to register at a Buddhist temple and commit to practicing Buddhism, albeit with strong Shinto influences. During the nationalistic period, traces of Buddhism were stripped from the Shinto shrines, and Shinto was officially declared "non-religious." This declaration was made to preserve the Japanese constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, even as Shinto was imposed on the people as a nationalistic cultural practice. After World War II, Shinto was disestablished, and the Emperor lost his divine status during the Allied reformation of Japan.

1. Future Prospects

Although it is no longer the official state religion, Shinto still heavily influences spirituality and everyday life in Japan. Shinto priests are frequently called upon to make blessings during the inauguration of new buildings or businesses, and Japanese-made cars are often blessed during the assembly process. Although the Emperor is no longer considered a deity, many Imperial ceremonies are still steeped in religious ritual and mysticism. And despite the non-divine status of the Emperor, considerable religious ritual and mysticism still surround many Imperial ceremonies. Shinto continues to bind the Japanese people together with its powerful mix of spiritual devotion, family loyalty, and national pride.


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