What is a Shinto Shrine? - Definition & History

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Shinto shrines are sacred places erected as an invitation to a ''kami'', or elemental spirit, to come and dwell there. Every community in Japan contains a Shinto shrine, embodying a culture of regular worship and devotion to natural forces.

Shinto Religion

Imagine a religion that has over 8 million deities, all different, but interconnected through nature and humanity through over 80,000 shrines scattered across Japan. This is a description of the Shinto religion. It would be very difficult to explain the Shinto shrine or jinja without first understanding Shinto religion, which was established early in Japanese history.

The overarching premise of Shinto is the practice of worshiping or devoting oneself to one or many of the kami. Kami are most closely defined as spirits but are more like essential beings connected to nature or in some cases even a part of nature itself. For example, a kami might be a spirit associated with some type of animal or tree or it might be the wind itself or an ocean wave. The point is that nature is completely interconnected and human beings are connected through nature to each other, the kami, and all of nature itself.

Shinto is also called 'the way of the gods,' denoting its close connection between the way the world works and the way the gods operate. This definition of Shinto is really saying that both of these ways are one in the same.

Jinja come in many shapes, sizes, and locations. This one is most likely connected to an elemental water spirit.
Shinto shrine

A Brief History of Shinto Shrines

Sacred Natural Spaces

The jinja has not always existed as a concept or actual physical structure. In early Japanese Shinto, a plot of land was simply purified and roped off in a square as an area of sacred Shinto space. The area would have most likely been especially beautiful or unusual in some way. For instance, a particularly large or interestingly shaped rock might have drawn Shinto devotees to an area as this would have indicated a kami lived in that area. The same might be done for a tree or an area where a particular type of animal lived. As this practice grew, more areas were established as Shinto sacred spaces, drawing more people who wished to center their lives around the prosperity and peace of the natural landscape and the resources it held.

Construction of Community Shrines

Shinto religious practices were influenced by other religions that migrated into Japan. As Buddhism moved in, they began to establish temples with Buddha statues. Eventually Shinto practitioners realized that having a central building erected in a community not only drew people in, but allowed them to see a tangible, meaningful space around which others could gather in order to have festivals and social activities of all kinds. Shinto shrines arose quickly all over Japan. However, instead of housing a statue of Buddha, these spaces were set up as areas into which kami were invited to live and bless the shrine and the community.

Shrines were of widely varying shapes, sizes, and designs. Some were built on mountain cliffs and fit into the landscape. Some were not house type structures at all and were built in the middle of a body of water or a river. Some were in cities while others were built in the middle of nowhere. However, they all have one thing in common: their connection to nature, the kami, and all humanity.

Kami like the Fox Goddess were revered by many in ancient Shinto.
Fox Goddess

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