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What is Shinto?

Takachiho-gawara. Here is the sacred ground of the descent to earth of Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu

Shinto (神道, Shintō) or kami-no-michi (as well as other names) is the traditional religion of Japan that focuses on ritual practices to be carried out diligently to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past.

Shinto practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. Still, these earliest Japanese writings do not refer to a unified religion, but rather to a collection of native beliefs and mythology. Shinto today is the religion of public shrines devoted to the worship of a multitude of "spirits", "essences" or "gods" (kami), suited to various purposes such as war memorials and harvest festivals, and applies as well to various sectarian organizations. Practitioners express their diverse beliefs through a standard language and practice, adopting a similar style in dress and ritual, dating from around the time of the Nara and Heian periods (8th–12th centuries).

The word Shinto (Way of the Gods) was adopted, originally as Jindō or Shindō, from the written Chinese Shendao (神道, pinyin: shéndào), combining two kanji: shin (), meaning "spirit" or kami; and michi (), "path", meaning a philosophical path or study (from the Chinese word dào). The oldest recorded usage of the word Shindo is from the second half of the 6th century. Kami is rendered in English as "spirits", "essences", or "gods", and refers to the energy generating the phenomena. Since the Japanese language does not distinguish between singular and plural, kami also refers to the singular divinity, or sacred essence, that manifests in multiple forms: rocks, trees, rivers, animals, objects, places, and people can be said to possess the nature of kami. Kami and people are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.

As much as nearly 80% of the population in Japan participates in Shinto practices or rituals, but only a small percentage of these identify themselves as "Shintoists" in surveys. This is because Shinto has different meanings in Japan. Most of the Japanese attend Shinto shrines and beseech kami without belonging to an institutional Shinto religion. There are no formal rituals to become a practitioner of "folk Shinto". Thus, "Shinto membership" is often estimated counting only those who do join organised Shinto sects. Shinto has about 81,000 shrines and about 85,000 priests in the country. According to surveys carried out in 2006 and 2008, less than 40% of the population of Japan identifies with an organised religion: around 35% are Buddhists, 3% to 4% are members of Shinto sects and derived religions. In 2008, 26% of the participants reported often visiting Shinto shrines, while only 16.2% expressed belief in the existence of a god or gods (神) in general.

According to Inoue (2003): "In modern scholarship, the term is often used with reference to kami worship and related theologies, rituals and practices. In these contexts, 'Shinto' takes on the meaning of 'Japan's traditional religion', as opposed to foreign religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and so forth."

Featured picture

South Wind, Clear Sky
Credit: Hokusai

Mount Fuji, along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku, is one of Japan's "Three Holy Mountains". The kami of Mount Fuji is worshipped in the thousands Asama shrines in Japan, which head-shrine is the Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha. The physical Fuji is the shintai of the god Fuji. The mountain also represents the axis mundi.

Featured article

Kami or shin (神) is defined in English as "god", "spirit", "spiritual essence", all these terms meaning the energy generating a thing.[1] Since Japanese language doesn't distinguish between singular and plural, kami refers to the divinity, or sacred essence, that manifests in multiple forms: rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places, and even people can be said to possess the nature of kami.[2] Kami and people exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.

Shinto gods are collectively called yaoyorozu no kami (八百万の神), an expression literally meaning "eight million kami", but interpreted as meaning "myriad", although it can be translated as "many Kami". There is a phonetic variation, kamu, and a similar word in Ainu language, kamui. An analogous word is mi-koto.[3]

Kami refers particularly to the power of phenomena that inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the beholder (the sacred), testifying the divinity of such a phenomenon.[4] It is comparable to what Rudolf Otto described as the mysterium tremendum and fascinans.[5]

The kami reside in all things, but certain objects and places are designated for the interface of people and kami: yorishiro, shintai, shrines, and kamidana. There are natural places considered to have an unusually sacred spirit about them, and are objects of worship. They are frequently mountains, trees, unusual rocks, rivers, waterfalls, and other natural things. In most cases they are on or near a shrine grounds. The shrine is a building in which the kami is enshrined (housed). It is a sacred space, creating a separation from the "ordinary" world. The kamidana is a household shrine that acts as a substitute for a large shrine on a daily basis. In each case the object of worship is considered a sacred space inside which the kami spirit actually dwells, being treated with the utmost respect.


Priest and priestess, kannushi of the Yasaka Shrine.

A kannushi (神主, god master, originally pronounced kamunushi), also called shinshoku (神職), is the person responsible for the maintenance of a Shinto shrine (jinja) as well as for leading worship of a given kami.[6] The characters for kannushi are sometimes also read jinshu with the same meaning.

Originally the kannushi were intermediaries between kami and could transmit their will to common humans.[7] A kannushi was a man capable of miracles or a holy man who, because of his practice of purificatory rites, was capable to work as a medium for a kami, but later the term evolved to being synonymous with shinshoku, that is, a man who works at a shrine and holds religious ceremonies there.[6][8]

Kannushi can marry and their children usually inherit their position.[9] Kannushi are assisted in their religious or clerical work by women called miko.

To become a kannushi, a novice must study at a university approved by the Jinja Honchō (Association of Shintō Shrines), typically Tokyo’s Kokugakuin University, or pass an exam that will certify his qualification.[10] Women can also become kannushi and widows can succeed their husbands in their job.[10]

Did you know?

Heishi rock.
  • ...that in Shinto, yorishiro, such as sacred trees, attract spirits, give them a physical space to occupy and make them accessible to people for religious ceremonies?
  • ...that according to a legend, the Heishi rock (pictured) represents the God of the Sea of Japan?


Featured person

Portrait of Hirata Atsutane.

Hirata Atsutane (平田 篤胤, 6 October 1776 – 2 November 1843) was a Japanese scholar, conventionally ranked as one of the four great men of kokugaku, and one of the most significant theologians of the Shinto religion. He was a follower of Motoori Norinaga. His literary name was Ibukinoya.

Hirata was born to a low-ranking samurai family of Akita domain (in present-day Akita Prefecture) in the Tōhoku region of northern Japan. Hirata was a prolific writer. Representative works in the study of ancient Japanese traditions include Tama no mihashira ("The True Pillar of Spirit"), Koshi seibun ("Treatise on Ancient History"), Kodō taii ("True Meaning of the Ancient Way") and Zoku Shintō taii ("True Meaning of Common Shintō"), and the commentaries Koshi-chō and Koshi-den. He is also noted for his studies of ancient Indian and Chinese traditions (Indo zōshi and Morokoshi taikoden), and texts dealing with the spirit world, including Senkyō ibun ("Strange Tales of the Land of Immortals") and Katsugorō saisei kibun ("Chronicle of the Rebirth of Katsugorō"). His early work Honkyō gaihen indicates an acquaintance with Christian literature that had been authored by Jesuits in China.

Hirata frequently expressed hostility to the Confucian and Buddhist scholars of the day, advocating instead a revival of the "ancient ways" in which the emperor was to be revered. His nationalist writings had considerable impact on the samurai who supported the Sonnō jōi movement and who fought in the Boshin War to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Meiji Restoration.

Featured scripture

Kojiki (古事記, "Record of Ancient Matters") is the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, dating from the early 8th century (711–712) and composed by Ō no Yasumaro at the request of Empress Genmei.

The Kojiki is a collection of myths concerning the origin of the four home islands of Japan, and the kami. Along with the Nihon Shoki, the myths contained in the Kojiki are part of the inspiration behind Shinto practices and myths, including the misogi purification ritual.

The Kojiki contains various songs/poems. While the historical records and myths are written in a form of Chinese with a heavy mixture of Japanese elements, the songs are written with Chinese characters that are only used to convey sounds. This special use of Chinese characters is called Man'yōgana, a knowledge of which is critical to understanding these songs, which are written in Old Japanese.

Shrine style

The honden at Uda Mikumari Shrine Kami-gū is made of 3 joined Kasuga-zukuri units.

Kasuga-zukuri (春日造) is a traditional Shinto shrine architectural style which takes its name from Kasuga Taisha's honden. It is characterized by the use of a building just 1x1 ken in size with the entrance on the gabled end covered by a veranda.[11] In Kasuga Taisha's case, the honden is just 1.9 m x 2.6 m.[12]

Supporting structures are painted vermilion, while the plank walls are white.[12] It has a tsumairi (also called tsumairi-zukuri) (妻入・妻入造) structure, that is, the building has its main entrance on the gabled side.[12]

The roof is gabled (kirizuma yane (切妻屋根, gabled roof)), decorated with purely ornamental poles called chigi (vertical) or katsuogi (horizontal), and covered with cypress bark.[12]

After the nagare-zukuri style, this is the most common Shinto shrine style. While the first is common all over Japan, however, shrines with a kasuga-zukuri honden are found mostly in the Kansai region around Nara.[13] If a diagonal rafter (a sumigi (隅木)) is added to support the portico, the style is called sumigi-iri kasugazukuri (隅木入春日造).[13]


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Learning resources



  1. ^ Stuart D. B. Picken, 1994. p. xxii
  2. ^ Stuart D. B. Picken, 1994. p. xxii
  3. ^ Hoffman, Michael, "In the land of the kami, Japan Times, March 14, 2010.
  4. ^ Stuart D. B. Picken, 1994. p. xxii
  5. ^ Stuart D. B. Picken, 1994. p. xxii
  6. ^ a b Kannushi (in Japanese), Iwanami Kōjien (広辞苑) Japanese dictionary, 6th Edition (2008), DVD version
  7. ^ Nishimuta, Takao (2007-03-28). "Kannushi". Encyclopedia of Shinto. Kokugakuin. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  8. ^ Moriyasu, Jin. "Kannushi". Nihon Hyakka Zensho (in Japanese). Shogakukan. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  9. ^ Nishimura, Hajime (1998). A Comparative History of Ideas. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-1004-4.
  10. ^ a b "Shinshoku". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  11. ^ A ken is the distance between one supporting pillar and another, a quantity which can vary from shrine to shrine and even within the same building, as in this case.
  12. ^ a b c d JAANUS, Kasuga-zukuri, accessed on December 1, 2009
  13. ^ a b History and Typology of Shrine Architecture, Encyclopedia of Shinto accessed on November 2009

Sources used

  • George Williams, Ann Marie B. Bhar, Martin E. Marty. Shinto. Religions of the World. Chelsea House, 2004. ISBN 0791080978
  • John Breen, Mark Teeuwen. A New History of Shinto. Blackwell, 2010. ISBN 1405155167
  • Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa. On Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton University Press, 1987. ISBN 0691102295
  • Steven Engler, Gregory P. Grieve. Historicizing "Tradition" in the Study of Religion. Walter de Gruyter, Inc., 2005. ISBN 3110188759. pp. 92–108
  • Stuart D. B. Picken. Essentials of Shinto: An Analytical Guide to Principal Teachings. Greenwood, 1994. ISBN 0313264317