Shintoism: Japan's Nature-Based Religion (with video)

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The oldest known belief system in Japan, this “tradition” is so innately engrained in the Japanese worldview that until Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century CE, it needed no name. Now one of several religions practiced in Japan,

Some world religions, like Confucianism, are distinguishable by their institutions.  Some world religions, like Christianity, are distinguishable by their historical founders.  And still other world religions, like Taoism, are distinguishable by their fundamental beliefsShinto, however, does not fit easily into any these categories.  In fact, because of the general nature of this ancient religion, its tricky to even attach the “ism” designation to this belief system at all.

The term Shinto is derived from two Japanese terms, shin (divine being) and do (way).  Thus, Shin do, is the name used to distinguish the indigenous Japanese way of addressing and interacting with divine beings.  The oldest known belief system in Japan, this “tradition” is so innately engrained in  the Japanese worldview that until Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century CE, it needed no name.  Now one of several religions practiced in Japan, Shinto can best be understood as the label applied to the Japanese ways of honoring the spirits of nature.

Although there is no official system of beliefs in Shinto, there are, however, several themes or perspectives that characterize this nature-based “tradition,” specifically, kinship with nature, harmony with the spirits, and purification rituals.  The heart of Shintoism is centered on the kami, spirits said to animate all nature. These spirits are associated with all elements of nature, including trees, rivers, oceans, mountains, and waterfalls.  Since they govern the cycles of nature and are found in everything, the kami must be treated with respect and reverence.

One way to demonstrate respect for the kami is by being sensitive to the beauty and flow of nature.  An interesting fact about the Japanese culture is that it had no separate word for “nature” until influenced by Western ideas in the nineteenth century.  The innate affinity to “nature” was, in fact, simply assumed. Nature was not separate from humanity but within and without everything in existence.  The breath-taking Mount Fuji, for example, as it is called by outsiders, is referred to as Fuji “san” by Japanese, a term indicating an intimate kinship.  This kinship with nature includes the honoring of spirits existing within it as well.

There are now more than 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan.  Some shrines are very small and intimate, while others are grand and elaborate, covering thousands of acres. A recognized point of demarcation of such shrines is a gate-like arch called a torii (shown below).  Magnificent ceremonies are often performed in these shrines to honor the many forms and dimensions of the kami.  Public shrines, where thousands can gather, are often the sites for seasonal celebrations where Japanese are reminded of the cycles of nature.  November 15, for example, is a very special day in Shintoism, when children who are three, five, or seven years of age are taken to a shrine to ask for the blessing of and protection of the kami.  Additionally, many Japanese have private shrines in their homes where they make daily offerings and perform lifecycle rituals, many commemorating special times and people who turn a certain age.

A variety of purification rituals are performed in honor of the kami deserving special notice.  Although there is no concept of sin in Shintoism, there is the concept of ritual impurity, known as tsumi, that may offend the kami and bring about unfavorable experiences, such as death, disease, or drought. Tsumi require ritual purification. One method, called misogi, is purification performed by standing beneath a waterfall.

In the nineteenth century, steps were taken to promote Shinto as the spiritual foundation of the Japanese government.  Emperor Meiji decreed that the way of the kami should govern the entire nation. State Shintoism, however, became the tool of militaristic nationalists who suppressed the rituals and practices of traditional Shinto priests (shown below) and wanted religious justification for defending the throne of the Emperor and for expanding the Japanese Empire. After the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, State Shinto was discredited and dismantled and has since taken its place among Buddhism and a number of other Eastern religions.

Despite the fact that Japan is highly technologically advanced and greatly influenced by Western ideas, Shinto shrines--both in Japan as well as in the United States--remain places of ritual for honoring traditional Shinto principles.

Shinto Ceremony


Anthropology Department archives, University of Florida

Many Peoples, Many Faiths, R. Ellwood and B. McGraw

All images via


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