Shinto Religion: Definition & Gods

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are a few major religions that define life in East Asia. In this lesson, we're going to explore the indigenous Japanese religion of Shinto and examine its tenets and role in Japanese life.

What Is Shinto?

Japan is a country often defined by both its traditions and its innovations. Of the many Japanese traditions that influence daily life on the islands, few are as important as religion.

As in many societies, religion plays a major role in Japan, especially in the many ceremonies and rituals that make up the basis of Japanese traditions. So, what do the Japanese believe in?

The nation mostly focuses on two religions. First is Buddhism, introduced to Japan between the 6th and 8th centuries. The other is Shinto, an indigenous religion with ancient roots in Japanese history.

At its most basic, Shinto is built upon an combination of ancestor and nature spirit worship, however, its also fascinating in that it is not as formally delineated as many religions. Even the Shinto holy books, the 8th-century Kojiki and Nihon-gi aren't exclusively focused on Shintoism, but are compilations of a range of traditions.

Shinto is a complex and fluid religion, one that perfectly reflects the balance of tradition and innovation that defines Japan.

Shinto and the Kami

Shinto literally translates as the ''way of the gods'', so the best way to understand this religion is to focus on what is worshiped. The gods within Shinto are called kami, but they aren't really gods in the Western sense. Kami are more like spirits - entities defined by a special essence or aura of divinity.

While Shintoism recognizes thousands of kami, they can be loosely organized into three non-exclusive categories.

  1. Nature spirits, which exist within the sacred essence of both animate and inanimate objects. A kami may be found in the energy of weather, the sturdiness of a rock, the peace of a stream, or the life of a forest.
  2. Family ancestors, those whose souls live on as an honored presence in the home.
  3. Souls of the venerated dead, notably warriors who distinguished themselves for their bravery.

Shrines to all of these kinds of kami can be found across Japan.

Major Kami

Again, Shintoism recognizes thousands of kami, but there are three specific ones you definitely need to know. First are Izanagi and Izanami, the original two kami. Male/female counterparts, Izanagi and Izanami represent the duality of nature. Their union is what created the cosmos. They are also responsible for creating the islands of Japan as well as all the other original kami who represented elemental forces like fire.

One of Izanagi and Izanami's daughters was the kami Amaterasu Okimaki. In the loosest sense, Amaterasu is a sun goddess, embodied within this natural force, and her main shrine can be found at Ise.

While Shinto does not have a true supreme deity like a Zeus or Jupiter figure, Amaterasu is the closest. She is seen as the representation of Japan itself, and the purification rituals associated with her are among the most important religious ceremonies in Japanese history.

Additionally, Amaterasu is seen as the direct ancestor of the Japanese imperial family, a dynasty with an unbroken lineage dating back to 660 BCE. Thus, Amaterasu is both a nature spirit (representing the sun), and a venerated family ancestor.

Amaterasu Omikami is one of the most revered deities in Shintoism

The Practice of Shintoism

So, how exactly does one go about worshiping the kami? Kami are worshiped at shrines unique to them around the nation. Since Shinto is essentially built around nature-worship, these shrines are often built in undeveloped areas deemed to have strong spiritual power.

As opposed to the religious structures of China or Europe, Shinto shrines are often asymmetrical, mirroring the natural patterns of the landscape. Despite the fact that this is a very old religion, many Shinto shrines are relatively young, due to a focus on purification ceremonies that involve dismantling and rebuilding shrines on a routine basis.

Most Shinto shrines are found in nature, and are guarded by a gate to inform visitors that they are entering a sacred space

In daily life, the Shinto religion emphasizes four principle values:

  1. maintenance of family traditions
  2. love of nature
  3. physical cleanliness
  4. worship of the kami

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