Shintō is often translated as the "way of the kami." Though it
is called Japan’s “indigenous” religion, one can trace its origins to ancient
folk religions that mixed with Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, for instance. In
the eighth century, two important texts were completed, the Nihon Shoki and the
Kojiki. The myths
in these texts established the divinity of the imperial line, linking its
ancestry with the kami. Arguably, it is with the writing of these texts
that a unified Shinto tradition began to emerge.
Until the late 1800s, Shinto and Buddhism
were sometimes difficult to distinguish. The term shinbutsu shūgō
reveals this connection, and kami and buddhas were often
equated as the same supernatural beings in different guises. Shinto eventually
found itself in a subservient role to Buddhism, especially in the Tokugawa era
(1603-1867), when all Japanese had to register at a Buddhist temple. During the
Meiji era (1868-1912),
the emperor regained power from the shogun and turned to Shinto to bolster
feelings of nationalism and reverence for the emperor. The state also enforced shinbutsu bunri, a
policy separating kami and buddhas. This government-promoted brand of
Shinto came to be retroactively referred to as State Shinto. After the end of
World War II and the adopting of a new constitution, official ties between the
government and Shinto were formally broken (though, some connections remain).
Foremost in Shinto are kami. But kami are tough to define.
The word kami is frequently translated as god/gods or deity/deities.
While this is true and does encompass famous mythological kami such as
Amaterasu, Susano, and many other
popular gods and goddesses, there are still a variety of other kami.
For example, kami can be found in mountains, seas, rocks, trees, and
fields. Deceased ancestors may become kami. Any extraordinary force,
creature, or person has the potential to be a kami. (Thomas Edison was
even deified as a kami.) Kami are not necessarily benevolent
by nature. They have the capacity for both good and evil acts.
Today, few Japanese identify themselves as "Shinto", because like so
many other Japanese religions it is not an exclusive tradition; it coexists and
even thrives through side-by-side, syncretic practice with other traditions.
Shinto tends to focus on genze
riyaku, or this-worldly benefits. This is further characterized by the
popular phrase “kurushii toki no kamidanomi,”or “turn to the gods in
times of trouble”. But what does genze riyaku encompass? What are
things that the Japanese pray for? Kami might be prayed to for help
passing exams by worried students or family members of students, easy child
births by expecting mothers, good harvests by farmers, and to avoid disasters
or plagues. Looking at some of these reasons one can see that often people are
praying not for positive outcomes but to avoid negative ones, and this
illustrates Shinto's precautionary nature. One might make offerings to kami
not just to ask for a favor but to please it and avoid its ire.
Perhaps the best example of the precautionary nature of Shinto is its emphasis
on purity through rituals, doctrines, and traditions. Kegare are
pollutions that one accumulates in daily life and through contact with blood,
death, or birth. To allow kegare to linger can prove disastrous not
just to an individual but to those in one’s community. And since another
important aspect of Shinto is its instilling a sense of identity and unity in a
community, community members are unlikely to want to imperil their neighbors;
therefore, kegare must be cleansed. Water is one of the most common
cleansing sources in Shinto, and salt and sacred sake (omiki) can also be used.
Aside from rites during shrine visits, one can also interact with kami
in other ways. One can also make home offerings at a kamidana or attend or
participate in festivals.
During Kyoto's Gion Festival,
for instance, the kami are temporarily enshrined in a mikoshi and paraded
around the shrine precincts.
Shinto is a complex set of religious and secular traditions, practices, and
beliefs. The above explanation only scratches the surface, and we encourage you
to do your own research and browse this website to learn and experience much
Written by: Eric Alcorn Edited by: Tayln Cox, Maxwell Bloodworth, and Dr. Roemer Photo by: Katie Parish
Bibliography: Havens, Norman. 2006. "Shinto." In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 14-37. Holtom, Daniel. 1993. “The meaning of kami.” In Japanese Religions: Past and Present. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 77-79. Nelson, John K. 1996. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine. Washington: University of Washington Press. Reader, Ian. 1991. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Reader, Ian. 1993. “Extracts from the Kojiki: Selections from the translation of the Kojiki by Donald Philippi, with appended commentary on the text by Ian Reader.” In Japanese Religions: Past and Present. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Reader, Ian. 1998. Shinto. London: Global Books.
Other suggested references: Breen, J. and M. Teeuwen. 2010. A New History of Shinto. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell. Breen, J. and M. Teeuwen. 2000. Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Ono, Sokyo. 1993. Shinto: The Kami Way. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.