What is Shinto, ‘the way of the spirits’ ? A short introduction to Japan’s oldest religion.

To the rest of the world, Japan is often perceived as Buddhist country. The truth is Buddhism arrived in japan around the 6th Century. Before that, Japan had its original indigenous faith: the Shinto religion. Shinto is well alive today and is rooted in Japanese people’s everyday lives. Here is a short introduction to this typical Japanese beliefs system.

2018-05-30   Culture, Life & Language, Shinto,


【CONTENTS】
The difference between temples and shrines
The reason why they don’t have a Shinto bible
What are the rocks and trees with tied ropes?
The Japanese lifestyle and the way people perceive nature
Shintoism harmonizes with foreign gods.

Torii
Torii

The difference between temples and shrines

Do you know the difference between temples and shrines? Temples are of the Buddhist religion, and shrines of the Shinto religion. It’s easy to spot them:  shrines have large Torii gates at the entrance, while temples do not. In Buddhist temples, you will find Buddhist monks or priests and can sometimes hear them chanting sutra. In Shinto shrines, you will find Shinto priests in their typical attire, and also Miko, who are like female assistants of the priests. When you buy O-Mamori (lucky charms) or Ema, often Miko will be the ones selling them to you.  Priests at shrines pray at festivals and events at their shrine, but they normally don’t chant sacred texts, because there is no written sacred book in Shintoism.

A priest in a shrine
A Shinto priest in a shrine
miko-san
Miko

The reason why there is no sacred text

Shintoism is polytheism based on animism. It worships a multitude of kami, which is sometimes translated as ‘gods’ but it might be closer to call them ‘spirits’ or ‘essences’.  In the Shinto religion, there is no omnipotent being  ruling the world. However, the highest kami is called Amaterasu Ohmikami, who is said to have created the landscapes of Japan. She has been enshrined in the Ise Grand Shrine for more than 2000 years.  In Shinto, it is believed that a kami dwells in everything, but only things that have big impacts on our lives are worshipped as super powers.  The idea is to borrow different powers from different kami, to improve your quality of life on a daily basis. Visiting shrines is meant to be a way of cleansing your spirit. That is why even if most of them do not identify to a specific religion when you ask them, almost all Japanese people will go to the shrine for the New Year festivities, buy oracles or lucky charms, or even take part in purification ceremonies.

What are the rocks and trees with tied ropes?

Have you ever seen large rocks and trees that are tied up with rope? Tying ropes for ritual purification and ward against evil spirits is called shimenawa in Japanese.

A rock
A rock
A Sacred tree
A Sacred tree

In animism, it’s believed that spirits that come from the sun, forests, and sea dwell in rocks and trees. The place where a spirit dwells is called a yorishiro. It is said that shrines are built in and around these yorishiro. Shimenawa around the trunks will also prevent trees inhabited by spirits from being cut.

Some of the older shrines don’t actually have a building: they use the mountains and large rocks themselves as sacred places.

The Japanese lifestyle and the way people perceive nature

For ancient Japanese people, nature is to be worshipped. Ancient Japanese people did not try to conquer nature, but to live in harmony with it.  They built their houses with paper and wood and learnt to live with natural phenomenons such as earthquakes and typhoons.

Japanese garden
Japanese garden

This love for nature is reflected in the gardening style called shakkei, which literally means, “borrowing scenery”.  The mountains and wooded areas are considered a part of the design, creating a dynamic scenery.

Shinto harmonizes with foreign faiths.

The Shinto religion does not say not to believe in other religions or to fight them. As a result, when Buddhism (which also has a tendency to adapt itself to the local settings) arrived in Japan during the 6th century, they mixed up pretty well. It’s not rare to see a shrine near to a temple. When they arrived to Japan, Christians were welcome too. It’s only during sakoku (the period from 1633 to 1853 when Japan was closed to foreigners) that the shogunate, wary of colonialism that could be brought by the missionaries,  decided to forbid Christianity and persecuted the hidden Christians. Nowadays the Japanese are rather open-minded regarding the other faiths, as Shinto’s polytheism allows it to harmonize with other religions.

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AUTHOR

Amelie

Amelie

Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.