Shinto: Introduction and History

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I. Introduction

Shinto (Japanese, “the way of the gods”), Japanese cult and religion, originating in prehistoric times, and occupying an important national position for long periods in the history of Japan, particularly in recent times. During its early period, the body of religious belief and practice called Shinto was without a name and had no fixed dogma, moral precepts, or sacred writings. Worship centered on a vast pantheon of spirits, or kami, mainly divinities personifying aspects of the natural world, such as the sky, the earth, heavenly bodies, and storms. Rites included prayers of thanksgiving; offerings of valuables, such as swords and armor and, especially, cloth; and ablutionary purification from crime and defilement.

II. Early History

In the late 6th century AD the name Shinto was created for the native religion to distinguish it from Buddhism and Confucianism, which had been introduced from China. Shinto was rapidly overshadowed by Buddhism, and the native gods were generally regarded as manifestations of Buddha in a previous state of existence. Buddhist priests became the custodians of Shinto shrines and introduced their own ornaments, images, and ritual. At the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th centuries, the celebrated Japanese teacher Kukai, or (posthumously) Kobo Daishi, established a doctrine uniting Buddhism and Shinto under the name of Ryobu Shinto (Japanese, “the Shinto of two kinds”). In the new religion, Buddhism dominated Shinto, and elements were adopted from Confucianism. The ancient practice of Shinto proper virtually disappeared and was maintained only at a few great shrines and in the imperial palace, although the emperors themselves had become Buddhists. The distinctively Shinto priests became fortune-tellers and magicians.

Beginning in the 18th century, Shinto was revived as an important national religion through the writings and teachings of a succession of notable scholars, including Mabuchi, Motoori Norinaga, and Hirata Atsutane. Motivated by nationalistic sentiments that took the form of reverence for Japanese antiquity and hatred for ideas and practices of foreign origin, these men prepared the way for the disestablishment of Buddhism and the adoption of Shinto as the state religion. In 1867 the shogunate was overthrown, and the emperor was restored to the head of the government. According to revived Shinto doctrine, the sovereignty of the emperor was exercised by divine right through his reputed descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is considered the founder of the Japanese nation. Related beliefs included the doctrines that the Japanese were superior to other peoples because of their descent from the gods, and that the emperor was destined to rule over the entire world. Until the defeat of Japan in World War II, these beliefs were of the utmost importance in assuring popular support for the military expansion of the Japanese Empire.

III. Contemporary Shinto

Before 1946 Shinto took two forms: State, or Shrine, Shinto, a patriotic nationalistic cult, identified with and financially supported by the imperial Government; and Sectarian Shinto, a general term for a number of sects founded by private persons and based on various interpretations of traditional Shinto. State Shinto, as the official government cult, theoretically embodied the religious beliefs of the entire Japanese people, and the number of its adherents was counted as the total population of the empire. The cult centered on a great profusion of shrines in all parts of the country, ranging from small wayside chapels commemorating local spirits and families to great national sanctuaries, such as the Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo, dedicated to the spirits of soldiers who had died in battle for Japan. In 1946, during the American occupation of Japan following World War II, the cult was completely separated from the state by order of General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers. Government financial support of State Shinto was eliminated, the former practice of teaching cult doctrines in the schools was abolished, and the use of Shinto symbols for nationalistic purposes was forbidden. At the same time the emperor issued a statement renouncing all claims to divinity.

Sectarian Shinto, a religion of the same status as Buddhism and Christianity, was unaffected by these changes. At the present time it comprises 13 major and numerous minor sects. The principal sects are divided into 5 main groups: those that continue with little modification the traditions of ancient Shinto; those that emphasize adherence to Confucian ethics; those that are predominantly devoted to faith healing; those that practice the worship of mountains; and those that are primarily devoted to purification rites. In the early 1990s more than 110 million Japanese participated in the various Shinto sects, but those who professed Shinto as their sole or major religion numbered only about 3.4 million. The Shinto sects have approximately 101,000 priests and about 81,000 shrines. One of the most authoritative works on the subject is Shinto: The Way of Japan (1965) by the American educator and clergyman Floyd H. Ross.