Definition and History of Shinto

Shinto Defined

Shinto , meaning ‘ way of the gods ,’ is the oldest religion in Japan. The faith has neither a founder nor prophets and there is no major text, which outlines its principal beliefs. The resulting flexibility in definition may well be one of the reasons for Shinto’s longevity, and it has, consequently, become so interwoven with Japanese culture in general that it is almost inseparable as an independent body of thinking. Thus, Shinto’s key concepts of purity, harmony, family respect , andsubordination of the individual before the group have become parts of the Japanese character whether the individual claims a religious affiliation or not. (27)



Unlike many other religions, Shinto has no recognized founder. The peoples of ancient Japan had long held animistic beliefs, worshipped divine ancestors and communicated with the spirit world via shamans; some elements of these beliefs were incorporated into the first recognized religion practiced in Japan, Shinto, which began during the period of the Yayoi culture (c. 300 BCE – 300 CE). For example, certain natural phenomena and geographical features were given an attribution of divinity. Most obvious amongst these are the sun goddess Amaterasu and the wind god Susanoo . Rivers and mountains were especially important, none more so than Mt. Fuji , whose name derives from the Ainu name ‘ Fuchi ,’ the god of the volcano.

In Shinto, gods, spirits, supernatural forces and essences are known as kami , and governing nature in all its forms, they are thought to inhabit places of particular natural beauty. In contrast, evil spirits or demons ( oni ) are mostly invisible with some envisioned as giants with horns and three eyes. Their power is usually only temporary, and they do not represent an inherent evil force. Ghosts are known as obake and require certain rituals to send away before they cause harm. Some spirits of dead animals can even possess humans, the worst being the fox, and these individuals must be exorcised by a priest. (27)

Pre-State Shinto

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century BCE as part of the Sinification process of Japanese culture. Other elements not to be ignored here are the principles of Taoism and Confucianism that travelled across the waters just as Buddhist ideas did, especially the Confucian importance given to purity and harmony. These different belief systems were not necessarily in opposition, and both Buddhism and Shinto found enough mutual space to flourish side by side for many centuries in ancient Japan.

By the end of the Heian period (794-1185 CE), some Shinto kami spirits and Buddhist bodhisattvas were formally combined to create a single deity, thus creating Ryobu Shinto or ‘ Double Shinto .’ As a result, sometimes images of Buddhist figures were incorporated into Shinto shrines and some Shinto shrines were managed by Buddhist monks. Of the two religions, Shinto was more concerned with life and birth, showed a more open attitude to women, and was much closer to the imperial house. The two religions would not be officially separated until the 19th century CE. (27)

By the mid-17th century, Neo-Confucianism was Japan’s dominant legal philosophy and contributed directly to the development of the kokugaku , a school of Japanese philology and philosophy that originated during the Tokugawa period. Kokugaku scholars worked to refocus Japanese scholarship away from the then-dominant study of Chinese, Confucian, and Buddhist texts in favor of research into the early Japanese classics. The Kokugaku School held that the Japanese national character was naturally pure and would reveal its splendor once the foreign (Chinese) influences were removed. The “ Chinese heart ” was different from the “ true heart ” or “ Japanese heart .” This true Japanese spirit needed to be revealed by removing a thousand years of Chinese learning. Kokugaku contributed to the emperor-centered nationalism of modern Japan and the revival of Shinto as a national creed in the 18th and 19th centuries. (28)

State Shinto

Prior to 1868, most Japanese more readily identified with their feudal domain rather than the idea of “Japan” as a whole. But with the introduction of mass education, conscription, industrialization, centralization, and successful foreign wars,Japanese nationalism became a powerful force in society. Mass education and conscription served as a means to indoctrinate the coming generation with “ the idea of Japan ” as a nation instead of a series of Daimyo (domains), supplanting loyalty to feudal domains with loyalty to the state. Industrialization and centralization gave the Japanese a strong sense that their country could rival Western powers technologically and socially. Moreover, successful foreign wars gave the populace a sense of martial pride in their nation.

The rise of Japanese nationalism paralleled the growth of nationalism within the West. Certain conservatives such as Gondō Seikei and Asahi Heigo saw the rapid industrialization of Japan as something that had to be tempered. It seemed, for a time, that Japan was becoming too “Westernized” and that if left unimpeded, something intrinsically Japanese would be lost. During the Meiji period , such nationalists railed against the unequal treaties, but in the years following the First World War, Western criticism of Japanese imperial ambitions and restrictions on Japanese immigration changed the focus of the nationalist movement in Japan. (28)

The Rise of Fascism

In the 1920s and 1930s, the supporters of Japanese statism used the slogan Showa Restoration , which implied that a new resolution was needed to replace the existing political order dominated by corrupt politicians and capitalists, with one which (in their eyes), would fulfill the original goals of the Meiji Restoration of direct Imperial rule via military proxies. Japan had no strong allies and its actions had been internationally condemned, while internally popular nationalism was booming. Local leaders, such as mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests were recruited to indoctrinate the populace. The Japanese government, in fact, nationalized the various Shinto Shrines for the sake of promoting the emperor as a divine being, and a descendent of Amaterasu.

Japan’s expansionist vision grew increasingly bold. Many of Japan’s political elite aspired to have Japan acquire new territory for resource extraction and settlement of surplus population. These ambitions led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 . After their victory in the Chinese capital, the Japanese military committed the infamousNanking Massacre (29)

Japan also attempted to exterminate Korea as a nation. The continuance of Korean culture itself became illegal. Worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory. The school curriculum was radically modified to eliminate teaching of the Korean language and history. (30)

The United States opposed Japan’s aggression towards its Asian neighbors responded with increasingly stringent economic sanctions intended to deprive Japan of the resources. Japan reacted by forging an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940, known as the Tripartite Pact , which worsened its relations with the U.S. In July 1941, the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands froze all Japanese assets when Japan completed its invasion of French Indochina by occupying the southern half of the country, further increasing tension in the Pacific. War between Japan and the U.S. became an inevitability following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (29)

Shrine Shinto

The loss of World War II placed Japan in the precarious position of a country occupied by the Allied but primarily American forces, which shaped its post-war reforms. The Emperor was permitted to remain on the throne, but was ordered to renounce his claims to divinity, which had been a pillar of the State Shinto system. Today, the shrines in Japan operate independently from the state, to ensure the separation of religion and state. (31)


In the Shinto religion kami is an all-embracing term, which signifies gods, spirits, deified mortals, ancestors, natural phenomena, and supernatural powers. All of these kami can influence people’s everyday lives and so they are worshipped, given offerings, solicited for aid and, in some cases, appealed to for their skills in divination. Kami are attracted by purity – both physical and spiritual – and repelled by the lack of it, including disharmony. Kami are particularly associated with nature and may be present at sites, such as mountains, waterfalls, trees, and unusually shaped rocks. For this reason, there are said to be 8 million kami, a number referred to as yaoyorozu-no-kamigami . Many kami are known nationally, but a great many more belong only to small rural communities, and each family has its own ancestral kami.

The reverence for spirits thought to reside in places of great natural beauty, meteorological phenomena, and certain animals goes back to at least the 1st millennium BCE in ancient Japan.

Add to these the group of Shinto gods, heroes, and family ancestors, as well as bodhisattvas assimilated from Buddhism, and one has an almost limitless number of kami.

Common to all kami are their four mitama spirits or natures ) one of which may predominate depending on circumstances:

  • Aramitama (wild or rough)
  • Nigimitama (gentle, life-supporting)
  • Kushimatama (wondrous)
  • Sakimitama (nurturing)

This division emphasizes that kami can be capable of both good and bad. Despite their great number, kami can be classified into various categories. There are different approaches to categorization, some scholars use the function of the kami, others their nature (water, fire, field, etc.). (32)

Bronze masks of the seven gods of fortune as portrayed by Japanese Folklore.
Figure 5-1 The Seven Gods of Fortune or Shichifukujin of Japanese Folklore by Doctor Boogaloo resides in the Public Domain .

Kami are appealed to, nourished, and appeased in order to ensure their influence is, and remains, positive. Offerings of rice wine, food, flowers and prayers can all help achieve this goal. Festivals, rituals, dancing and music do likewise. Shrines from simple affairs to huge sacred complexes are built in their honor. Annually, the image or object ( goshintai ) thought to be the physical manifestation of the kami on earth is transported around the local community to purify it and ensure its future well-being. Finally, those kami thought to be embodied by a great natural feature, Mt. Fuji being the prime example, are visited by worshippers in an act of pilgrimage. (32)