Shinto originated in Japan and is known as Japan’s indigenous religion. It is unknown when the specific religion of Shinto was formed. Beginning in 300 BC during the Yayoi period, kami veneration started to appear amongst Japanese people. Eventually between AD 300 to 538 Buddhism merged with kami veneration and became part of Buddhist cosmology.
Although this became prevalent across Japan, Buddhism was expelled from kami worship between 1868 and 1912 during the Meiji era. Instead, the State Shinto was formed. Under government influence, state shrines were created, and the Japanese people were encouraged to worship the emperor as a kami. After World War II, Shinto was formally separated from the state.
Although Shinto is commonly found in Japan, people also practice it abroad. In Japan, there are 100,000 public shrines and it makes up the largest religion in Japan. Many people in Japan participate in both Shinto and Buddhist activities, especially since both are regarded more as philosophical religions, and many aspects of Shinto have become part of Japanese new religion movements.
Although Shinto is debated about whether it is a religion or a philosophy, it can be classified as polytheistic. It revolves around the kami, which are entities believed to inhabit all things. Shinto people believe that there are an infinite number of kami and that they are present everywhere. They aren’t omnipotent, omniscient, or immortal like many gods or spirits of other religions. Kami isn’t a concrete term. It can refer to the power of phenomena that inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the beholder. They are said to live within the dead, organic, inorganic, and within natural disasters. Some have described Shinto as being “the actual phenomena of the world itself being divine.”
Due to the influence of Buddhism, kami are sometimes depicted as anthropomorphic creatures, but they are normally associated with a particular place or object, such as a tree, waterfall, or mountain. Sometimes kami inhabit objects such as swords, stones, beads, tablets, or mirrors. They can commit both benevolent and destructive actions. Sometimes if they try to give a message to humans that is ignored, they will distribute punishments such as death or illness. Shinto followers offer prayers and offerings to these kami that are particularly destructive to persuade them to not engage in punishment distribution.
To Shinto followers, their goal is to create harmony between themselves and kami, or the natural world. Some Shinto followers believe that it is possible for humans to become kami and serve as protectors. Ancestors can be a form of kami. During the State Shinto system, the emperor of Japan was known as a kami, and some groups view their leaders as kami.
Some kami are only worshipped in one place, while others are worshipped in many shrines across Japan. They are believed to have messengers known as kami no tsukai that take on animal forms. Some examples are a fox and a dove. There are some malevolent spirits known as bakemono and the belief in vengeful that died violently or without appropriate burial. They are known to cause suffering for humans still living until pacified through Buddhist rites.
Shinto rituals include kagura dances, rites of passage, and festivals. At the beginning of each Shinto ritual, there is a purification process using fresh water or salt water. This is sprinkled onto people’s faces and hands at a shrine. Sometimes they will wave a paper streamer or wand. Then offerings are given to the kami by being placed on a table. Offerings traditionally included food, cloths, swords, and horses. Now, people may offer food, drink, money, or sprigs of sakaki tree. Sake (rice wine) is a popular offering. Sometimes a feast is held afterward.
Music is typically played at the shrines. Many use instruments with three reeds and three drums. Kagura dances are performed for the kami using wooden clappers, a hichiriki, flute, and six-stringed zither. Sometimes these dances are portrayed by actors wearing masks to display various mythological figures. These dances are meant to encourage the kami to join people within their dancing and summon them for prayers and blessings.
Festivals are called matsuri. This is the core of Shinto worship due to the community nature of the religion. Many mark different agricultural seasons and offer thanks to the kami. Many festivals are according to the lunar calendar and are held on new, full, and half moon days. Spring festivals use prayers for a good harvest and include planting rice. Summer festivals include rituals to protect crops. Autumn festivals are used to thank the kami for their harvest. On the last day of the year there is a New Year’s celebration where people clean their household shrines in preparation for the coming year. A lot of people visit shrines on this day and purchase amulets for good fortune. Sometimes they will place rope called shimenawa on their homes and businesses. Many of these festivals include parades. The kami travel on portable shrines and are usually taken to the ocean.
Rites of passage are also a significant event in Japanese culture. Some of these include a child’s first visit to a Shinto shrine (the 32nd day of a boy’s life and the 33rd day of a girl’s life), the transition to adulthood at twenty, and wedding ceremonies that are conducted at a Shinto shrine. Shinto funerals are uncommon as death is viewed as an impurity. They are mainly carried out for Shinto priests and members of certain sects.
There is no specific Shinto holy text, but rather two eighth-century texts that describe the origin of kami called the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. They were commissioned by ruling leaders to legitimize their rule and aren’t important to Japanese religious life. It was only in the early 1900s that the government determined that they were factual.
The Kojiki describes that the universe began with the separation of light and pure elements from the heavy elements. It describes the three original kami and the creation of other kami that were meant to create land on earth.
There is no central Shinto authority, but rather communities will create shrines to different kami. Shrines can be held in a household or at public shrines. Public shrines have priests who oversee offerings at that location.