Understanding Shinto

Shinto is a religion of Japan and its people. It is the largest religion in Japan, with nearly 80% of the population practicing its traditions. With a little over 100 million followers, the vast majority of whom live in Japan, Shintoism ranks as the world’s fifth largest religion. Because Shinto allows for the worship of many gods and goddesses, followers can embrace Shintoism and other religious traditions.

Many define the Shinto religion as a religion of ritual and tradition. The practices are carried out to connect Japan’s present with its rich traditions of the ancient past. It is a religion of shrines devoted to the worship of many different gods. It incorporates the rituals involved in non-religious remembrance, including war memorials and harvest festivals. Some see the religion as a worship of the ancestors, though it is more the desire to honor those who have gone before and to preserve their memory and traditions.

The Origins of Shinto

Shinto tradition has recorded history back to the early 8th century, but archeological references and records date back further. Oral traditions regarding beliefs and rituals appear to go back several centuries before they began to be written down. Some of the traditions and histories view the Japanese imperial family as the cornerstone of Japanese culture. There are myths about creation and a structural system involving gods and goddesses.

Though there is no sacred scripture in Shinto, the books of lore and history provide the stories and characters involved in the formation of many Shinto beliefs. The four histories are the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), Shoku Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), the Rikkokushi (National Histories), and Jinno Shotoki (Shinto Politics).

Beliefs & Sects

Shinto is unique in that a person does not have to make a public profession of faith in order to be a member of the religion. When a child is born in Japan, a local Shinto shrine adds the child’s name to the membership list and declares the child as “family.” If the person eventually moves, their name may be added to an additional shrine.

Kami

One of the core beliefs of the Shinto religion is the idea that everything possesses a spiritual essence or energy called “kami.” Mountains, rivers, places, animals and people are said to have kami inside. People share on many levels and in many ways with kami. Shinto believes that certain objects or places have greater amounts of kami and make it easier for people to connect with them at those locations. Natural locations, like mountains and waterfalls, or man-made shrines are places where the kami dwell.

Shinto Sects

Religious scholars make several categories of Shinto religious traditions and expressions of faith.

  • Shrine Shinto is the largest tradition of the religion. It has always been a part of Japan’s history. It involves worship and remembrance at local shrines. Some estimate that there are over 80,000 shrines throughout the nation of Japan.
  • Imperial Household Shinto involves the rites and traditions that are practiced by the imperial family. There are three shrines that are located on the imperial grounds.
  • Koshinto, or literally “Old Shinto,” is an attempt to restore the practices and traditions of Shintoism that predate the influence of Buddhism on the religion. Today it is often associated with the Ainu and Ryukyuan religious practices.
  • Folk Shinto includes the many groups that focus their beliefs on the deities and spirits. Main practices in the Folk Shinto tradition include divination, spirit possession and shaman healing.
  • Sect Shinto is a designation that was created for political purposes just before the turn of the 20th century in order to make a distinction between national government owned shrines and local community shrines. The most noticeable difference between Shrine Shinto and Sect Shinto is that the sects often identify a founder, a formal set of teachings and a set of sacred scriptures. Dominant sects include pure Shinto sects, Confucian sects, mountain worship sects, purification sects and healing sects.

Some historians identify as many as one hundred additional sects of the Shinto religion. Faction Shinto is a grouping of new religions in Japan that developed after World War II. Many of these religions have departed so extensively from traditional Shinto ways that they are not always considered a part of the Shinto tradition.

Death & Mourning

Shinto beliefs about death and the afterlife are often considered dark and negative. The old traditions describe death as a dark, underground realm with a river separating the living from the dead. The images are very similar to Greek mythology and the concept of hades.

 

The Buddhist influence on the Shinto religion teaches that thinking and meditating about death is important. Any death reminds the follower that life on earth is short. Death should challenge the living to make life meaningful by words and actions.

Mourning is seen as a natural reaction to death. Intense expressions of grief may be displayed on a specified day. At other times, grief should be shown in a controlled, almost stoic way that holds the deceased in highest honor and respect.

After Life

Shinto traditions lean heavily on the concepts of the presence of kami and not reincarnation. The spiritual energy, or kami, in everyone is released and recycled at the time of death. The spirits live in another world, the most sacred of which is called “the other world of heaven.” These other worlds are not seen as a paradise or a punishment. Instead the worlds are simply where the spirits reside. They can connect and visit the present world when people correctly perform rituals and festivals.

Shinto believes that the ancestral spirits will protect their descendants. The prayers and rituals performed by the living honor the dead and memorialize them. In return, the spirits of the dead offer protection and encouragement for the living.

Shintoism also views that some individuals live such an exemplary life that they become deified in a process called apotheosis. Many in the imperial family have experienced this honor, as have successful warriors.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

Because of the negative concept of death in the Shinto religion, most people in Japan have a Buddhist funeral and follow Buddhist funeral procedures. Shinto beliefs about the impurities associated with death would limit family gatherings prior to death. Preparation of the body after death is often left in the hands of professionals.

A Buddhist funeral is simple and quiet. The service seeks to show respect for the deceased, as well as bring honor and comfort to the surviving family and friends. The service attempts to create a positive atmosphere to assist the spirit of the deceased in leaving this world and processing to the next.

Nearly all funerals in Japan were Buddhist until the 19th century when a revival of Shinto traditions spread throughout the country. A distinctively Shinto funeral service was devised with many of the practices being in direct contrast with the Buddhist traditions. For example, Shinto priests will wear white to the funeral, while the Buddhist priests will wear black.

The emphasis upon ritual in the Shinto religion is clearly evident in the funeral services. The main purpose of the ritual is to provide a connection with the kami and to purify things that have become contaminated through death. There are twenty distinct steps in a Shinto funeral, each needing to be carried out completely and with proper reverence. A Shinto priest is needed to perform many of the rituals.

Grief & Mourning

The Shinto religion teaches that it is natural to grieve the loss of family members and friends at the time of death. Buddhist influence would stress that any death is a reminder of the brevity of one’s own life. They would emphasize the need to have personal reflection and rededication to the correct spiritual paths during a time of grief.

Mourning is often seen as a regimented response to death. It has proper rituals and expressions. It should be endured in an almost stoic fashion. Mourning is a time of reflection on personal life, on the loss of companionship and the adjustment to life without the deceased. Mourning is a time to not only reflect on the life of the deceased, but to remember all those ancestors who have contributed to Japanese culture and life.

Periods of mourning vary in Shinto by sect and location. Most customs will have family and friends visiting the mausoleum or crematorium weekly, often bringing flowers and incense. In addition, many families will create home shrines to serve as a memorial for their departed loved one. One or more pictures will be hung above the shrine. Often some of the ashes of the body are kept in the home shrine.