An Introduction to Shinto

Dr. Meredith Sprunger

Shinto: The Religion of Nature Worship,
Emperor Worship, and Purity

 

Shinto (the way of the gods), traditionally dating back to 660 B. C., is a loosely organized religion of the Japanese people embracing a wide variety of beliefs and practices. In its most basic sense Shinto is a religious form of Japanese patriotism. The mythology of Shintoism teaches that Japan and the Japanese people were brought into being by special divine creation and that their emperors were literally descendants of the Sun Goddess. In Japan a person may in good conscience be a Buddhist, a Confucian, and a member of a Shinto sect at the same time. Today (1982) Shintoism reports 57,154,200 members.

The two most important sacred books of Shintoism are the Kojiki (Chronicles of Ancient Events) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan). The Kojiki mythology reports that in the beginning were the kami (gods, mana, occult force). Two of these primeval kami or deities were Izanagi (male-who-invites) and Izanami (female who-invites). After giving birth to the land of Japan they produced many other kami.

Izanami died after giving birth to the kami of fire. Izanagi journeyed to Hades to find her. Finding her decayed body crawling with maggots he fled in horror back to the land of the living. To purify himself he entered a body of water and when he washed his left eye there came into existence the Sun Goddess, the Great Kami Amaterasu; and when he washed his right eye Tsukiyom the Moon Kami, emerged. After years of struggle the Japanese people were waring against each other and the Sun Goddess sent her grandson, Ninigi, to become the first emperor of Japan. Shinto is unique among the religions of the world in representing the Supreme Being as feminine in gender.

Although mythological tradition has the first Japanese emperor enthroned in the seventh century B.C., modern scholars think the actual history of Japan did not begin until the third century A. D. After the fourth century A. D. the Japanese came under the influence of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. By the end of the sixth century Mahayana Buddhism had taken a firm foothold on Japan. It was at this time that the term "Shinto" was introduced to distinguish the native Japanese religion from the new foreign religion.

Little by little the boundaries between Buddhism and Shintoism were obliterated. The concerns of day-to-day life became the domain of the Shinto side of religion while the concerns of the afterlife were served by the Buddhists.. The Japanese developed distinctive forms of Buddhism such as Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren.

Shinto almost died out as a viable religion but in the seventeenth century it was revitalized by tough-minded military leaders. A combination of Shinto and Confucianism was used to develop the warrior code of Bushido. The samurai (knights) who followed this code emphasized loyalty, gratitude, courage, justice, truthfulness, politeness, reserve, and honor. In Japan suicide has often been encouraged to avoid dishonor, escape from a bad life situation, or as a means of protest. When dishonored the Bushido warrior was expected to kill himself by hara-kiri (disembowelment).

Shinto teaches the importance of personal cleanliness and the sense of communal guilt. Apart from subservience to the Emperor, Shintoism has no definite set of theological beliefs or code of morality. Morality and theology are naturalistic. Motoori (1730-1801), one of the most important scholars in the history of Shintoism, explains the lack of ethics in Shintoism: "It is because the Japanese were truly moral in their practice that they require no theory of morals."

After Commodore Perry in the mid nineteenth century opened Japan to outside influence sweeping changes have occurred in the country. The Constitution of 1889 established a state supported Shinto but other religions were allowed to exist and propagate. State Shinto supported thousands of shrines and priests. The grand imperial shrine at Ise was dedicated to the mother goddess of Japan, Amaterasu. Every loyal Japanese citizen wishes to visit the Ise Shrine at least once in their life time.

There are many Shinto sects which tend to be oriented in three major categories. First, those whose emphasis is on mountain or nature worship. Second, those who stress shamanism, divination, and faith healing such as the Tenri-kyo (Teachings of Divine Reason) sect. The third type of sectarian Shinto is more in tune with historic Shinto, reviving the myths of the origin of Japan, stressing purification rites, fasting, breath control, and other techniques similar to the Yoga cults of Hinduism. Domestic Shinto is practiced in many homes. The kami-dana (god shelf) is found in residences. Flowers or food may be placed before this altar daily or brief prayers and devotions may take place.

Shinto had become such an inseparable part of Japanese militarism the American occupation forces felt it necessary to direct the abolition of state support of Shinto in December of 1945. New Year's Day 1946 Emperor Hirohito disavowed the belief in his divine nature and complete religious freedom was guaranteed to every citizen.


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