Shintô was the earliest Japanese religion, its obscure beginnings dating back at least to a period known as the Jômon (8000-300 B.C.E.). Until approximately the sixth century CE, when the Japanese began a period of rapid adoption of Chinese civilization, it existed as an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, it had no founder and it did not develop sacred scriptures, an explicit religious philosophy, or a specific moral code. Indeed, so unselfconscious were the early Japanese about their religious life that they had no single term by which they could refer to it. The word Shintô, or "the Way of the kami (gods or spirits)," came into use only after the sixth century, when the Japanese sought to distinguish their own tradition from the foreign religions of Buddhism and Confucianism that they were then encountering. Thus, in its origins, Shintô was the religion of a pristine people who, above all, were sensitive to the spiritual forces that pervaded the world of nature in which they lived. As one ancient chronicle reports: in their world myriad spirits shone like fireflies and every tree and bush could speak.

Remarkably, neither Shintô's relatively primitive original character nor the introduction of more sophisticated religions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, caused the religion to wane in importance. In part its continued existence can be explained by pointing to changes that took place within Shintô, for after the sixth century, it was gradually transformed into a religion of shrines, both grand and small, with set festivals and rituals that were overseen by a distinct priestly class. However, such developments have had little effect on basic Shintô attitudes and values. More crucial to Shintô's survival, therefore, have been its deep roots in the daily and national life of the Japanese people and a strong conservative strain in Japanese culture that has resulted in the preservation not only of their earliest religion, but also of early forms of music, dance, theater, architecture and literature. The main Shintô deity is a sun goddess; as this fact may suggest, the Shintô world view is fundamentally bright and optimistic. While it is not unaware of the darker aspects of human existence, Shintô's chief purpose is the celebration and enrichment of life.

Much can be learned about Shintô's world view from Japanese mythology. Two eighth-century works, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), include the story of the creation of the Japanese islands by the divine couple, Izanagi and his mate, Izanami; the subsequent birth of numerous gods and goddesses — the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, chief among them; and the descent of representatives of the Sun Goddess' line to rule the islands. Two aspects of the mythology are particularly noteworthy. The first is its this-worldly orientation. Other worlds are mentioned in the mythology — the High Plain of Heaven, for example, and the Dark Land, an unclean land of the dead — yet we receive only the haziest impressions of them. Blessed with a mild climate, fertile seas, and impressive mountain landscapes, the early Japanese seem to have felt little need to look far beyond their present existence.

A second important feature of the mythology is the close link among the gods, the world they created, and human beings. The tensions present in Western religion between the Creator and the created, and the human and natural realms, are conspicuously absent. In the Shintô view, the natural state of the cosmos is one of harmony in which divine, natural, and human elements are all intimately related. Moreover, human nature is assumed to be good, and evil is thought to stem from the individual's contact with external forces or agents that pollute our pure nature and cause us to act in ways disruptive of the primordial harmony.

Shintô deities are referred to as kami. The term is frequently translated "god" or "gods," but it expresses a concept of divinity significantly different from that found in Western religion. In particular, Shintô deities do not share the characteristics of final transcendence and omnipotence often associated with the concept of god in the West. In the broadest sense, a kami may be anything that is extraordinary and that inspires awe or reverence. Consequently, a wide variety of kami exist in Shintô: there are kami related to natural objects and creatures — the spirits of mountains, seas, rivers, rocks, trees, animals, and the like; there are guardian kami of particular locales and clans; also considered kami are exceptional human beings, including all but the last in Japan's long line of emperors. Finally, the abstract, creative forces of nature are recognized as kami. Evil spirits are also known in Shintô, but few seem beyond reform. While a god may first call attention to its presence through a display of rowdy or even destructive behavior, generally speaking, the kami sustain and protect.

Worship in Shintô is carried out to express gratitude to the gods and to secure their continued favor. Worship may take the form of one of the many large communal festivals that occur at fixed times during the year, celebrating such events as spring planting, the fall harvest, or some special occasion in the history of a shrine. However, it may also be carried out privately in a much abbreviated fashion in the home or at the neighborhood shrine. Although a festival may continue for several days, shifting at times in mood from the solemn to the lighthearted or even raucous, individual worship may require only a few moments to complete. In spite of such contrasts, both types of Shintô worship have three essential elements in common. Worship begins with the all-important act of purification, which ordinarily involves the use of water; an offering is presented to the kami, today most often money or food; and a prayer or petition is made.

Outside of the home, Shintô worship is usually performed at a shrine. These structures, which are made only of natural materials and located on sites selected for their natural beauty, serve as residences for the kami rather than as shelters for the worshipers. The torii represent the gateway of a Shintô shrine. They are often used to symbolize a shrine, or Shintô itself.

Since Shintô is without scriptures, dogmas, and creeds, worship has always had a central place in the religion. Rather than through sermons or study, it has been through its festivals and rituals, as well as the physical features of the shrine itself, that Shintô has transmitted its characteristic attitudes and values. Most prominent among these are a sense of gratitude and respect for life, a deep appreciation of the beauty and power of nature, a love of purity and — by extension — cleanliness, and a preference for the simple and unadorned in the area of aesthetics.

Acknowledgment: The author of this article is Paul Watt. The article is adapted from FOCUS, issue on Asian Religions, fall 1982, published by The Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021. Reprinted by permission.

Discussion Questions

  1. What caused the word 'Shintô' to come into use?
  2. What characteristics of Shintô have caused it to be described as "this-worldly"?
  3. If you were to go to Japan and wanted to "experience" Shintô, what kinds of activities would you most likely see or do?
  4. What characteristics of Shintô could explain why it has not spread to other countries?
  5. List the ways in which Shintô is similar to or different from the religious traditions with which you are most familiar. Consider these aspects:
    • place(s) of worship
    • purpose of going to place of worship
    • concept of divinity
    • concept of evil/sin/impurity
    • founder and/or history of the religion
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