Jon Cox

Shinto Research Paper



            “The way of the gods,” is the literal definition of the word Shinto. It is an ancient religion that “has been at the heart of Japanese culture for almost as long as there has been a political entity distinguishing itself as Japan” (Nelson 3). It is a combination of different beliefs and practices mostly before Japan became in contact with China. Once China began to introduce Buddhism into Japan around 520 BC, the two religions partially merged some of their practices to form what it is today (Malherbe). Shinto is mostly an expression of the Japanese people, being different from most of the Christian religions of the West. Shinto can hardly be compared to these other religions, which usually have their one “god” who they worship. Shinto instead has something similar in “Kamis,” their “gods” of the religion. These Kamis come from divinities which are taken from forces of nature, animals or famous people (Malherbe). The most important of these though is the sun, which serves as a protection against invasions and can be seen on the Japanese flag itself. Believers of Shinto have very little superstitious belief in the Kamis, and do not even expect any rational reason for Shinto or its beliefs (Malherbe). Despite this though, the Kamis are an expression of belonging to the national community and prove their enthusiasm to maintain harmony in Japan.

            With Shinto being so old and mixed in its creation, there is no exact date when it was founded, and there is not even a founder. The religion is as old as its people, and because of its age does not have any sacred scriptures like the bible in Christian religion. Before anything was written its history was communicated orally to each new generation. There are, however, two main Shinto scriptures that were produced as a result of Buddhism and Confucianism coming into Japan: the Kojiki and the Nihongi or Nihon Shoki (Shinto Religion in Japan). These books of scriptures were produced in response to the introduction of Buddhism, as the native Japanese tried to preserve their primitive religion by “recording old myths and oral traditions.” The scriptures contain complete writings of the history of Japan and the Japanese mythology that is the heart of the religion (Howdyshell). While these scriptures were produced as a response against Buddhism, the two religions soon were able to co-exist harmoniously and even complemented each other, with many Buddhists later arguing that the Kami were simply manifestations of Buddhas (Shinto Religion in Japan). Shinto does not believe in any propaganda or preaching, thus producing no real icon or symbol for the religion as it is mostly based off of traditions. Unlike western religions there is no real dogma, and instead the main focus becomes the worship of the Kami, the divine consciousness that runs through everything. In this way Shinto differs from the standard view of a religion that has a standard for the lives of its members. The concept of Kami is that it “involves all gods, all aspects of nature, supernatural power, and certain people” (Howdyshell). Shinto takes a more optimistic look at faith by believing that humans are basically good and that evil is caused by evil spirits. The Kami are the objects of worship, may it be the sun, mountains, trees, rocks or an ancestor. By worshiping these objects they become much more focused and forms a close bond with their everyday lives (What is Shinto in Brief).

            Through the creation of Shinto, different variations of the religion were created. The ancient form of Shinto existed even before Buddhism was introduced into Japan, with other variations of it created later on. In the Meiji period in 1868 Japan opened up to Western civilization and the government of Japan forced Shinto and Buddhism to separate as they had interwoven themselves during the time of Buddhism’s entry into the country. It was said that bonzes of Buddhism could no longer celebrate in Shinto temples, as well as that Buddhist texts could not be read there. The different forms that began to grow were: Shinto of the Imperial House, Shinto of the Temples, Shinto of the Sects, and Popular Shinto. Shinto of the Imperial House concerns the worship of the Sun goddess, Amerterasu o Mikami in a religious cult that was formally public but now private. Shinto of the Temples is what is known as State Shinto, which was created in the beginning of the Meiji era and lasted until the end of World War II. It was meant “to strengthen the Japanese identity and devotion to the Emperor (Malherbe). State Shinto was later disestablished and replaced after WWII by Jinja Shinto, or Shrine Shinto, which now represent, “the bulk of Shinto shrines at the regional and local levels.” It was after Japan’s defeat in 1945 that Emperor Hiro-Hito felt that the attachment to his people did not depend on the belief, and thus stopped government funding to Shinto temples (Malherbe). Shinto of the Sects was the result of different movements in the religion and expanded enormously as popular cults such as Tenrikyo, Konokyo and Kurozumikyo (What is Shinto in Brief). One of the final forms of Shinto is Popular Shinto, which is an imprecise version that sometimes has magic practices. All of these forms of Shinto though are intermixed and add to the value system of Japan.

            Since the Kami are such a large part of the religion, their worship in the many shrines shows that the human relationship to the gods is very deep. People go to shrines to avoid evil spirits and especially do so before events such as the opening of a business or a school entrance exam (Shinto Religion in Japan). People always need some sort of help, and with the worshiping of these Kami in home shrines as well it creates a strong bond between Shintoists and the Kami. Shinto is in many ways much more of an open religion than others, even going as far as saying it tolerates other religions and accepts that people might perform both Shinto and Buddhism in their homes in Japan. With Shinto being more open in many ways, it also has more ways to express it. Shintoists are able to express their respect to the Kami through individual shrine worship, rituals, customs, and festivals. Rituals and ceremonies even receive more emphasis than a system of ethics or morals. Life and death are simply viewed as a natural process and “a general concept of good and evil does not exist” (Buko). There is no hope for a future life in Shinto, with death being seen as a great tragedy. It is during these times of sorrow that many Shintoist resort to a Buddhist ideal to take care of their problem. With no real written code of ethics peace and harmony with the world and nature is essentially the main goal of the religion (Shinto Religion in Japan). This simple moral code consists generally of merely avoiding serious sins such as lies, murder, and adultery (Malherbe). There are Four Affirmations in the Shinto religion nevertheless, those being “tradition and the family, love of nature, physical cleanliness and Matsuri, meaning festivals and celebrations held in the honor of the sprits. One of the most important parts of the Shinto religion is the demonstration of loyalty to superiors, those being ancestors, emperors, family, the country of Japan and Shinto itself (Buko).

            Purification plays a large part in the Shinto religion as a ritual that is fulfilled in order to show respect for the Kami (Nomura 9). Purification is completed every time a Shrine is entered, and is part of one of the main practices that is observed in Shinto. The majority of the time spent practicing Shinto is spent in these shrines, thus making purification a large part of it. The purification process for these shrines at home in a Kami-dana or elsewhere consists of the following steps. Clean your mouth with water, make an offering with either coins at a shrine or food at a home shrine, then bow twice deeply, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray. (Shinto Religion in Japan). Festivals and rituals are very import to Shintoism, these being called Matsuri, which are the celebrations for simply rejoicing in being alive. During these celebrations Shintoists try to be pure in heart, show their thanks for everything in the world that is pleasing and hope for continual happiness in their times ahead. Celebrations mark the special events in individual’s lives, the community as well as the nation of Japan as a whole. This process makes up part of the rituals of Shinto, being some of the most important aspects of the religion. Shintoism has a very strong base in Japan, and emphasizes loyalty to the country of Japan through its early beliefs that emperors were thought to be Kami, and thus had to be “obeyed unquestioningly by all Japanese” (Howdyshell).

            Despite the strong nationality that Shinto conveys of Japan, it still only makes up about 3.2 percent of Japan according to a 1996 Jiji Press Service poll, with Buddhism making up 44.3 percent and 46.6 percent citing no religion. Shinto is a difficult religion to count however, and in another 1998 poll by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, 44.7 percent of citizens adhered to Shintoism, with only 44.7 following Buddhism. Shintoism and Buddhism are not “mutually exclusive religions though,” and most members claim to observe both, with Shintoism being at the root of many traditions in Japan (Buko). There is no real figure telling how many Shintoists there are now in Japan or elsewhere around the world, but many people still practice Shinto rituals and traditions even without actually committing to the Shinto religion. Shinto does not normally appear outside of Japan considering its deep roots in the country, however, a poll taken in mid-1998 of Shintoists by Six Continental Areas showed Asia accounted for 2,727,000 Shintoists; 7,000 in Latin America; 55,000 in North America, and none reported in Africa, Europe and Oceania. These figures make up a total world population of 2,789,000 Shintoists worldwide (Buko). Shinto above all though is the “deep expression of the ancient culture of the Japanese people” (Malherbe).



















Buko, Stacy. Shintoism. 200. University of Virginia. 7 May 2002 <>.

Howdyshell, Roy. Shintoism. Non-Christian World Religions. 7 May 2002 <>.

Malherbe, Michel . SHINTO – JAPAN : What is Shintoism? 2002. 7 May 2002 <>.

Nelson, John K. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine. Seattle: University of Washington P, 1996. 3.

Nomura, Noriko S. I Am Shinto. New York: Rosen Group, 1996. 9.

Shinto Religion in Japan. 11 Feb. 2002. 7 May 2002 <>.

What is Shinto in Brief. 2 May 2002. International Shinto Foundation. 7 May 2002 <>.