23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Shintoism, the native national religion of the Japanese, is as ancient as Japan itself. 

Shintoism plays a significant part in Japanese life and culture, sharing its spiritual, cultural, and political roles with Buddhism and Confucianism.

The history of shintoism

Unlike many other religions, Shintoism does not have an acknowledged founder. Historically, the peoples of ancient Japan held on to animistic beliefs, worshipped their holy ancestors and communicated with the world of spirits via shamans. Some elements of these beliefs were included in the first acknowledged religion in Japan – Shintoism.

The origin of shintoism

Though the time of the appearance of Shintoism is debated, most scientists think that this religion started to be formed during the Yayoi period (3rd century B.C. – 3rd century A.D.) The first ritual objects and holy places for worshipping gods appeared during this period. Archaeological data testify to the fact that in order to raise spirits and communicate with them, dōtaku bronze bells, bronze arms and metal mirrors were used. Shintoism developed during the country’s unification under the power of rulers from the central Yamato region during the 7-8th centuries.

Shintoism essence

Unlike many monotheistic religions, there are no absolutes in Shintoism. There is nothing right or wrong and no one way is ideal. Shintoism is an optimistic belief, as people are considered mainly kind, while evil is considered to be aroused by evil spirits. Consequently, the goal of most Shintoistic rituals is to scare evil spirits away by purification, prayers and offerings to kami.

Both men and women can be priests in Shintoism. Purity is important for its followers. This is why they rinse their mouths, wash their hands, and put up wooden tablets with prayers at the entrance to prayer rooms. While inside, priests summon spirits using a bell and offer them rice or money. After that, they bow twice and clap their hands twice to greet kami, and then they bow once again.

Shinto gods

Shinto gods are called kami. They are holy spirits that obtain the form of things and concepts that are important for life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. People become kami after death and are honored in their families as ancestorial kami. It is considered that kami of special people are kept in specific shrines. Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, is considered the most important kami in Shintoism.

Along with good kami, there are evil spirits or demons. These are mainly invisible, but some of them are depicted as giants with horns and three eyes. Ghosts can inflict serious harm. To banish them one has to perform special rituals.


Shinto temples

The Shinto places of worship are called shrines and are usually located in places with beautiful natural surroundings. There is an internal room in the sanctuary (for offerings) where only priests can enter as it is considered that there are kami there. Every shrine has a special archway called a torii. This archway is believed to separate the holy world of the shrine from the external world. 

Shinto temples

In most sanctuaries, regular festivals (matsuri) are held where people honor kami and celebrate the holiday with food and drinks. They also worship at home and work with simple offerings (rice, tea) and prayers. Using prayers, they talk to family ancestors to ask for wellbeing, good health, etc.

Temple architecture and the preservation of ancient art forms such as theatre are essential characteristics of Shintoism. Calligraphy, Gagaku (ancient music) and ritual dances maintain their importance. The most significant Shintoist sanctuary is the Ise Grand Shrine devoted to Amaterasu. The second major temple is the Okuninushi Shrine in Izumo Taisha.

Shinto symbols

The most recognizable Shinto symbol is probably the magnificent Torii gates which designates the portal between our world and the world of the gods.

Shimenawa are ropes which are often decorated with zigzag-shaped ornaments. These are used to show the borders of the sacred space and as a means of warding off evil spirits.

Decorations in the shape of lightning are called shide. These are used in various purification ceremonies.

Sakaki trees are believed to be holy in Shintoism. They are evergreens and consequently, symbolise immortality.

The rotating tomoe symbol represents the interaction of three spheres of existence – the sky, the earth, and the underworld. This symbol is used to decorate various things – from taiko drums and protective charms to lanterns and roofs in the Japanese style.

A Shinke or a Shinto god mirror is considered shintai or a physical substitute where kami are able to live in the human world.

Shinto symbols

Buddhism and shintoism as complimentary religions

Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century B.C. and had a significant impact on Shintoism. These two different systems of beliefs were not in opposition and conversely found enough common space to thrive side by side for many centuries.

By the end of the Heian period, some Shinto kami spirits and Buddhist bodhisattvas were formally united to create a single god and a single school – Ryobu Shinto or Dual Shintoism. Consequently, pictures of Buddhist figures were often included in Shinto holy temples, and Buddhist monks were in charge of some Shinto holy places. Of the two religions, Shintoism was more interested in life and birth, exhibited a more open attitude to women and was much closer to the Emperor’s philosophy. The two religions were not officially divided till the 19th century A.D. and preserved their common traits after the separation.

Shintoism today

Shintoism is practiced exclusively among the Japanese, having not spread elsewhere. Shinto believers search for support from spirits and pray at a home altar or when visiting holy places. In sanctuaries, one can buy various charms for traffic safety, good health, successful business deals, safe childbirth, successful examinations, and many other consequences.

Often wedding ceremonies are held in the Shinto style. While death is considered a source of impurity and is regulated by Buddhism, there are almost no Shinto cemeteries in Japan; most funerals are held in the Buddhist style.