Shinto is the indigenous spirituality and religion of the Japanese people. The earliest recorded instances of Shinto being practiced date back to ancient times, but the practice of Shinto as a formalized religion didn’t really begin until the 5th or 6th century. The word “Shinto” is actually Chinese in origin, and it translates to “The Way of the Gods”.
Shinto started out amongst the Japanese as a set of ritualized practices and behaviors. The practice of Shinto – like many other religions – is highly focused on the physical aspects of its traditions. Shinto is also very animistic and includes the worship of nature, ancestors and a focus on personal purity.
“Kami” is the name given to the Japanese concept of supernatural spiritual essences. It is easy to conflate kami with the western ideas of gods and deities, but they are not the same. There is no direct translation into English for what the kami represent, but it is easiest to think them as spiritual being that is inside every living thing. The existence of the kami can perhaps explain the animistic aspects of Shinto.
These ritual aspects become easier to grasp when we look at examples. Take sumo wrestling, arguably the most “Japanese” of all Japan’s sports. Before the beginning of each match, salt is thrown in a wide arc in the ring, which symbolizes several things: salt acts a purifier, and throwing the salt onto the earth acts a gift to both the earth and the ancestors. Another Japanese custom is flower arranging. This hobby was often practiced by samurai as a way to counter-balance the violence required in their daily lives as warriors. The act of arranging flowers suggests a communal bond with nature, but is also highly valued because of its aesthetic qualities.
Like most religions, Shinto did not evolve in a vacuum; that is, Shinto was affected by other religions that came into being on the islands of Japan through cultural diffusion or military conquest. Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were all influential on Shinto. In a process called “syncretism,” Shinto evolved to include some aspects of these other religions. For example, Buddhism – which originated on the Indian continent – is very concerned with the afterlife. Buddhism has much to say on what happens to a person after they die, whereas original Shinto beliefs were relatively simple. When these two religions came into contact with each other, Buddhist ideas about the afterlife became intertwined with Shinto. In fact, Buddhism eventually overtook Shinto as the dominant religion in Japan, but the two religions influenced each other to such a degree that it is in many cases impossible to disentangle them. For example, in modern-day Japan, a birth is usually celebrated in a Shinto temple, while a funeral is most often done in the Buddhist tradition
Aspects of Shinto
As mentioned above, Shinto is very concerned with purity. Unlike the Abrahamic religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – Shinto does not suggest that impurity is wrong, per se. Instead, impurity must be cleansed because it can be harmful or annoying. This is an important distinction, because impurity in Shinto does not always lead to a person feeling ashamed or being outcast. Purity in Shinto is referred to as “kiyome” and impurity referred to as “kegare.”
Purity is achieved through the practice of certain rituals. These rituals can include things like using wands to purify people or hanging shimenawa (a sort of rope, made with rice) as a way to separate pure areas from impure ones.
Shinto practice takes place in shrines. The role of a shrine is two-fold: it acts as a quiet place of contemplation, and it serves as a sort of conduit or collector for the Japanese ancestor spirits. Since Shinto includes the worship of a person’s ancestors, shrines are very important. It is here that pleas or requests are made, and where living family members come to give thanks to their ancestors.
Effect of Shinto on Japanese Culture
Shinto has had a huge effect on Japanese architecture. The Shinto aesthetic has created a very distinct style of Japanese building, which came about originally as a way to “entice” spirits. The Tea Room, for example, was originally designed to bring in a Tea Spirit. The visual aspect of this room can be found in many other Japanese buildings.
The use of wood in Japanese buildings is tied to Shinto as well. Japan is well known for its vast forests and, throughout history, the use of wood as an almost sacred building material has given Japanese buildings a distinctive style.
The Japanese attitude towards food was also influenced by Shinto. Shinto maintains a high regard for life, suggesting that killing animals only be done when necessary. Therefore, food preparation is highly ritualized, with a focus on using lots of vegetables. This focus eventually spread to include other aspects of Japanese cuisine. Additionally, Japan is a country where, at least historically, livestock was difficult to come by. Japan has many areas that are very rocky, and so keeping animals “on the hoof” to eat them later was not practical. This is why so many Japanese dishes contain seafood.
Even though Buddhism is the “official” religion of Japan, remember that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism all melded – in various degrees – to the indigenous religion of Shinto. Shinto represents Japanese spirituality at its most distilled.