Shinto or Shintoism

Shinto (神道 Shintō or Shintoism or kami-no-michi) 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. Classified as an East Asian religion by scholars of religion, its practitioners often regard it as Japan’s indigenous religion and as a nature religion. Scholars sometimes call its practitioners Shintoists, although adherents rarely use that term themselves. There is no central authority in control of the movement and much diversity exists among practitioners.

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” (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 Naraand Heian periods (8th–12th centuries).

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.”

Various scholars have referred to practitioners of Shinto as Shintoists. The philosopher Stuart D. B. Picken thought this term to be “untranslatable” and “meaningless” in the Japanese language. Some people prefer to view Shinto not as a religion but as a “way”, partly as a pretence for attempting to circumvent the modern Japanese separation of religion and state and restore the historical links between Shinto and the Japanese state.

Scholars have debated at what point in history it is legitimate to start talking about Shinto as a specific phenomenon. The scholar of religion Ninian Smart for instance suggested that one could “speak of the kami religion of Japan, which lived symbiotically with organized Buddhism, and only later was institutionalized as Shinto.” The scholar of religion Brian Bocking stressed that the term should “be approached with caution”, particularly when it was applied to periods before the Meiji era, Inoue Nobutaka stated that “Shinto cannot be considered as a single religious system that existed from the ancient to the modern period”, while the historian Kuroda Toshio noted that “before modern times Shinto did not exist as an independent religion”.

Kasuga-taisha—Middle gate and hall, World Heritage Site and one of the National Treasures of Japan

Kasuga-taisha—Middle gate and hall, World Heritage Site and one of the National Treasures of Japan


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 kanjishin (), 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, places, and even 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.

Among the term’s earliest known appearance in Japan is in the Nihon Shoki, an eighth-century text. Here, it may simply be used in reference to popular belief, and not merely that of Japan. Alternatively, it is possible that in this Japanese context, the early uses of Shinto were also a reference to Taoism, as many Taoist practices had recently been imported to Japan. It is apparent that in these early Japanese uses, the word Shinto did not apply to a distinct religious tradition nor to anything seen as being uniquely Japanese. In the Konjaku monogatarishui, composed in the eleventh-century, references are made to a woman in China practicing Shinto rather than Buddhism, indicating that at this time the term Shinto was not used in reference to purely Japanese traditions. The same text also referred to people in India worshipping kami, reflecting use of that term to describe localised deities outside of Japan.

In medieval Japan, kami-worship was generally seen as being part of Japanese Buddhism, with the kami themselves often being interpreted as Buddhas. At this point, the term Shinto increasingly referred to “the authority, power, or activity of a kami, being a kami, or, in short, the state or attributes of a kami.” It appears in this form in texts such as Nakatomi no harai kunge and Shintōshū tales. In the Japanese Portuguese Dictionary of 1603, Shinto is defined as referring to “kami or matters pertaining to kami.”

In the seventeenth century, under the influence of Edo period thinkers, the practice of kami worship came to be seen as distinct from Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The term Shinto only gained common use from the early twentieth century onward, when it superseded the term taikyō (‘great religion’) as the name for the Japanese state religion. The term Shinto has been used in different ways throughout Japanese history.

A range of other terms have been used as synonyms for Shinto. These include kami no michi (“Way of the Kami”), kannagara no michi (“way of the divine transmitted from time immemorial”), Kodō (“the ancient way”), Daidō (“the great way”), and Teidō (“the imperial way”).


Many scholars refer to Shinto as a religion. However, religion as a concept arose in Europe and many of the connotations that the term has in Western culture “do not readily apply” to Shinto. Unlike religions familiar in Western countries, such as Christianity and Islam, Shinto has no single founder, nor any single canonical text. Western religions have tended to stress exclusivity, but in Japan, it has long been considered acceptable to practice different religious traditions simultaneously. Japanese religion is therefore highly pluralistic. Shinto is often cited alongside Buddhism as one of the two main religions of Japan, and the two often differ in focus, with Buddhism emphasising the idea of transcending the cosmos, which it regards as being replete with suffering, while Shinto focuses on adapting to the pragmatic requirements of life. Shinto incorporates elements borrowed from religious traditions imported into Japan from mainland Asia, such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese divination practices. It bears many similarities with other East Asian religions, in particular through its belief in many different deities.

Some scholars suggest we talk about types of Shintō such as popular Shintō, folk Shintō, domestic Shintō, sectarian Shintō, imperial house Shintō, shrine Shintō, state Shintō, new Shintō religions, etc. rather than regard Shintō as a single entity. This approach can be helpful but begs the question of what is meant by ‘Shintō’ in each case, particularly since each category incorporates or has incorporated Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, folk religious and other elements.
— Scholar of religion Brian Bocking

Scholars of religion have debated how best to classify Shinto. Inoue argued for categorizing Shinto “as a member of the family of East-Asian religions”.Picken suggested that Shinto could be classed as a world religion, while the historian H. Byron Earhart called it a “major religion”.In the early 21st century it became increasingly common for practitioners to call Shinto a nature religion.

Shinto is often referred to as an indigenous religion, although this results in debates over the various different definitions of “indigenous” in the Japanese context. The notion of Shinto as Japan’s “indigenous religion” stemmed from the growth of modern nationalism in the Edo period to the Meiji era. As a result, the idea that Shinto was an ancient tradition was promoted throughout the population. Associated with this idea of Shinto as Japan’s indigenous religion, many priests and practitioners regard it as a prehistoric belief system that has continued uninterrupted throughout Japanese history, regarding it as something like the “underlying will of Japanese culture”. The prominent Shinto theologian Sokyo Ono for instance stated that for the Japanese, kami worship was “an expression of their native racial faith which arose in the mystic days of remote antiquity”, remaining “as indigenous as the people that brought the Japanese nation into existence and ushered in its new civilization”. Many scholars have argued that this classification is inaccurate. Earhart noted that Shinto’s history, which involved incorporating a great deal of Buddhist and Chinese influence, was “too complex to be labelled simply” as an “indigenous religion“.

Shinto is internally diverse; Nelson noted it was “not a unified, monolithic entity that has a single center and system all its own”. There is substantial localised variation in how Shinto is practiced. In representing “a portmanteau term for widely varying types and aspects of religion”, Bocking drew comparisons between the word “Shinto” and the term “Hinduism”, which is also applied to a varied range of beliefs and practices. Various different types of Shinto have been identified. “Shrine Shinto” refers to the practices centred around shrines. Some scholars have used the term “Folk Shinto” to designate localised Shinto practices, or the practices of individuals outside of an institutionalised setting, and “Domestic Shinto” to the ways in which kami are venerated in the home. In various eras of the past, there was also a “State Shinto”, in which Shinto beliefs and practices were closely interwoven with the operations of the Japanese state.


Main article: Shinto sects and schools

Shinto religious expressions have been distinguished by scholars into a series of categories:

  • Shrine Shinto (神社神道 Jinja-Shintō), the main tradition of Shinto, has always been a part of Japan’s history. It consists of taking part in worship practices and events at local shrines. Before the Meiji Restoration, shrines were disorganized institutions usually attached to Buddhist temples; in the Meiji Restoration, they were made independent systematized institutions. The current successor to the imperial organization system, the Association of Shinto Shrines, oversees about 80,000 shrines nationwide.
  • Imperial Household Shinto (皇室神道 Kōshitsu-Shintō) are the religious rites performed exclusively by the imperial family at the three shrines on the imperial grounds, including the Ancestral Spirits Sanctuary (Kōrei-den) and the Sanctuary of the Kami (Shin-den).
  • Folk Shinto (民俗神道 Minzoku-Shintō) includes the numerous folk beliefs in deities and spirits. Practices include divination, spirit possession, and shamanic healing. Some of their practices come from Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism, but most come from ancient local traditions.
  • Sect Shinto (教派神道 Kyōha-Shintō) is a legal designation originally created in the 1890s to separate government-owned shrines from local organised religious communities. These communities originated especially in the Edo period. The basic difference between Shrine Shinto and Sect Shinto is that sects are a later development and grew self-consciously. They can identify a founder, a formal set of teachings and even sacred scriptures. Sect Shinto groups are thirteen, and usually classified under five headings: pure Shinto sects (Shinto Taikyo, Shinrikyo and Izumo Oyashirokyo), Confucian sects (Shinto Shusei-ha and Taiseikyo/体制教 ),mountain worship sects (JikkokyoFusokyo and Mitakekyo or Ontakekyo), purification sects (Shinshukyo and Misogikyo), and faith-healing sects (Kurozumikyo/黒住教, Konkokyo/今故郷 and its branching Omotokyo/お元教師 and Tenrikyo/天理教.
  • Koshintō (古神道 Ko-shintō), literally ‘Old Shinto’, is a reconstructed “Shinto from before the time of Buddhism”, today based on Ainu religion and Ryukyuan practices. It continues the restoration movement begun by Hirata Atsutane.

Many other sects and schools can be distinguished. Faction Shinto (宗派神道 Shūha-Shintō) is a grouping of Japanese new religions developed since the second half of the 20th century that have significantly departed from traditional Shinto and are not always regarded as part of it.

Theology and cosmology


Main article: Kami
See also: List of Japanese Deities

Kamishin, or, archaically, jin (神) is defined in English as “god”, “spirit”, or “spiritual essence”, all these terms meaning “the energy generating a thing”. Since the Japanese language does not 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. Kami and people exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.

Early anthropologists called Shinto “animistic” in which animate and inanimate things have spirits or souls that are worshipped. The concept of animism in Shinto is no longer current, however. 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 the Ainu language, kamui. An analogous word is mi-koto.

Kami refers particularly to the power of phenomena that inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the beholder (the sacred), testifying to the divinity of such a phenomenon. It is comparable to what Rudolf Otto described as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which translates as “fearful and fascinating mystery”.

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.

Kannagara, morality, and ethics

In Shinto, kannagara (“way of the kami”) describes the law of the natural order. Shinto incorporates morality tales and myths but no overarching, codified ethical doctrine; Offner noted that Shinto specified no “unified, systematized code of behaviour”. Its views of kannagara influence certain ethical views, focused on sincerity (makoto) and honesty (tadashii). Shintō sometimes includes reference to four virtues known as the akaki kiyoki kokoro or sei-mei-shin. Makoto is regarded as a cardinal virtue in Japanese religion more broadly. Offner believed that in Shinto, ideas about goodness linked to “that which possesses, or relates to, beauty, brightness, excellence, good fortune, nobility, purity, suitability, harmony, conformity, [and] productivity.” Shinto’s flexibility regarding morality and ethics has been a source of frequent criticism, especially from those arguing that Shinto can readily become a pawn for those wishing to use it to legitimise their authority and power.

Throughout Japanese history, the notion of saisei-itchi, or the union of religious authority and political authority, has long been prominent. Cali and Dougill noted that Shinto had long been associated with “an insular and protective view” of Japanese society. They added that in the modern world, Shinto tends toward conservatism and nationalism. In the late 1990s, Bocking noted that “an apparently regressive nationalism still seems the natural ally of some central elements” of Shinto. As a result of these associations, Shinto is still viewed suspiciously by various civil liberties groups in Japan and by many of Japan’s neighbours.

The priests of Shinto shrines may face various ethical conundrums. In the 1980s, for instance, the priests at the Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki debated whether to invite the crew of a U.S. Navy vessel docked at the port city to their festival celebrations given the sensitivities surrounding the 1945 U.S. use of the atomic bomb on the city. In other cases, priests have opposed construction projects on shrine-owned land, sometimes putting them at odds with other interest groups. At Kaminoseki in the early 2000s, a priest opposed the sale of shrine lands to build a nuclear power plant; he was eventually pressured to resign over the issue. Another issue of considerable debate has been the activities of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine is devoted to Japan’s war dead, and in 1979 it enshrined 14 men, including Hideki Tojo, who were declared Class-A defendants at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. This generated both domestic and international condemnation, particularly from China and Korea.

In the 21st century, Shinto has increasingly been portrayed as a nature-centred spirituality with environmentalist credentials. Shinto shrines have increasingly emphasised the preservation of the forests surrounding many of them, and several shrines have collaborated with local environmentalist campaigns. In 2014, an international interreligious conference on environmental sustainability was held at the Ise shrine, attended by United Nations representatives and around 700 Shinto priests. Critical commentators have characterised the presentation of Shinto as an environmentalist movement as a rhetorical ploy rather than a concerted effort by Shinto institutions to become environmentally sustainable. The scholar Aike P. Rots suggested that the repositioning of Shinto as a “nature religion” may have grown in popularity as a means of disassociating the religion from controversial issues “related to war memory and imperial patronage.”


Main article: Amenominakanushi

According to the KojikiAmenominakanushi (天御中主 “All-Father of the Originating Hub”, or 天之御中主神 “Heavenly Ancestral God of the Originating Heart of the Universe”) is the first kami, and the concept of the source of the universe = according to theologies. In mythology he is described as a “god who came into being alone” (hitorigami), the first of the zōka sanshin(“three kami of creation”), and one of the five kotoamatsukami (“distinguished heavenly gods”).

Amenominakanushi had been considered a concept developed under the influence of Chinese thought, but now most scholars believe otherwise. With the flourishing of kokugaku the concept was studied by scholars. The theologian Hirata Atsutane identified Amenominakanushi as the spirit of the North Star, master of the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The god was emphasised by the Daikyōin in the Meiji period, and worshiped by some Shinto sects.

The god manifests in a duality, a male and a female function, respectively Takamimusubi (高御産巣日神) and Kamimusubi (神産巣日神). In other mythical accounts the originating kami is called Umashiashikabihikoji (宇摩志阿斯訶備比古遅神 “God of the Ashi [Reed]”) or Kuninotokotachi (国之常立神 in Kojiki, 国常立尊 in Nihonshoki; Kunitokotachi-no-Kami or Kuninotokotachi-no-Kami; the “God Founder of the Nation”), the latter used in the Nihon Shoki.

Creation of Japan

Main article: Japanese creation myth

The generation of the Japanese archipelago is expressed mythologically as the action of two gods: Izanagi (“He-who-invites”) and Izanami (“She-who-is-invited”). The interaction of these two principles begets the islands of Japan and a further group of kami.

The events are described in the Kojiki as follows:

  • Izanagi-no-Mikoto (male) and Izanami-no-Mikoto (female) were called by all the myriad gods and asked to help each other to create a new land which was to become Japan.
  • They were given a spear with which they stirred the water, and when removed water dripped from the end, an island was created in the great nothingness.
  • They lived on this island, and created a palace. Within the palace was a large pole.
  • When they wished to bear offspring, they performed a ritual each rounding a pole, male to the left and female to the right, the female greeting the male first.
  • They had two children (islands) which turned out badly and they cast them out. They decided that the ritual had been done incorrectly the first time.
  • They repeated the ritual but according to the correct laws of nature, the male spoke first.
  • They then gave birth to the eight perfect islands of the Japanese archipelago.
  • After the islands, they gave birth to the other Kami. Izanami-no-Mikoto died in childbirth, however, and Izanagi-no-Mikoto tried to revive her.
  • His attempts to deny the laws of life and death have bad consequences.

In the myth, the birth of the god of fire (Kagu-Tsuchi) causes the death of Izanami, who descends into Yomi-no-kuni, the netherworld. Izanagi chases her there, but runs away when he finds the dead figure of his spouse. As he returns to the land of the living, Amaterasu (the sun goddess) is born from his left eye, Tsukiyomi (the moon deity) from his right eye, and Susanoo (the storm deity) is born from Izanagi’s nose.


Shinto purification rite after a ceremonial children's sumo tournament at the Kamigamo Jinja in Kyoto

Shinto purification rite after a ceremonial children’s sumo tournament at the Kamigamo Jinja in Kyoto

Shinto teaches that certain deeds create a kind of ritual impurity that one should want cleansed for one’s own peace of mind and good fortune rather than because impurity is wrong. Wrong deeds are called “impurity” (穢れ kegare), which is opposed to “purity” (清め kiyome). Normal days are called “day” (ke), and festive days are called “sunny” or, simply, “good” (hare).

Those who are killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold a grudge (怨み urami) (grudge) and become powerful and evil kami who seek revenge (aragami) Additionally, if anyone is injured on the grounds of a shrine, the area must be ritually purified.


Purification rites called Harae are a vital part of Shinto. They are done on a daily, weekly, seasonal, lunar, and annual basis. These rituals are the lifeblood of the practice of Shinto. Such ceremonies have also been adapted to modern life. New buildings made in Japan are frequently blessed by a Shinto priest called kannushi (神主) during the groundbreaking ceremony (Jichinsai 地鎮祭), and many cars made in Japan have been blessed as part of the assembly process. Moreover, many Japanese businesses built outside Japan have a Shinto priest perform ceremonies. On occasion priests visit annually to re-purify.


Kobayashi Eitaku painting showing the god Izanagi (right) and Izanami, a goddess of creation and death in Japanese mythology.

Kobayashi Eitaku painting showing the god Izanagi (right) and Izanami, a goddess of creation and death in Japanese mythology.

It is common for families to participate in ceremonies for children at a shrine, yet have a Buddhist funeral at the time of death. In old Japanese legends, it is often claimed that the dead go to a place called yomi (黄泉), a gloomy underground realm with a river separating the living from the dead mentioned in the legend of Izanami and Izanagi. This yomi very closely resembles the Greek Hades; however, later myths include notions of resurrection and even Elysium-like descriptions such as in the legend of Okuninushi and Susanoo. Shinto tends to hold negative views on death and corpses as a source of pollution called kegare. However, death is also viewed as a path towards apotheosis in Shinto as can be evidenced by how legendary individuals become enshrined after death. Perhaps the most famous would be Emperor Ojin who was enshrined as Hachiman the God of War after his death.

Unlike many religions, one does not need to publicly profess belief in Shinto to be a believer. Whenever a child is born in Japan, a local Shinto shrine adds the child’s name to a list kept at the shrine and declares him or her a “family child” (氏子 ujiko). After death an ujiko becomes a “family spirit”, or “family kami” (氏神 ujigami). One may choose to have one’s name added to another list when moving and then be listed at both places. Names can be added to the list without consent and regardless of the beliefs of the person added to the list. This is not considered an imposition of belief, but a sign of being welcomed by the local kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death.

Shinto funeral

Shinto funerals were established during the Tokugawa period and focused on two themes: concern for the fate of the corpse and maintenance of the relationship between the living and the dead. There are at least twenty steps involved in burying the dead. Mourners wear solid black in a day of mourning called Kichu-fuda and a Shinto priest will perform various rituals. People will give monetary gifts to the deceased’s family called Koden, and Kotsuge is the gathering of the deceased’s ashes. Some of the ashes are taken by family members to put in their home shrines at the step known as Bunkotsu.


Shinto tends to focus on ritual behavior rather than doctrine. The philosophers James W. Boyd and Ron G. Williams stated that Shinto is “first and foremost a ritual tradition”, while Picken observed that “Shinto is interested not in credenda but in agenda, not in things that should be believed but in things that should be done.” The scholar of religion Clark B. Offner stated that Shinto’s focus was on “maintaining communal, ceremonial traditions for the purpose of human (communal) well-being”. It is often difficult to distinguish Shinto practices from Japanese customs more broadly, with Picken observing that the “worldview of Shinto” provided the “principal source of self-understanding within the Japanese way of life”. Nelson stated that “Shinto-based orientations and values[…] lie at the core of Japanese culture, society, and character”.


Main article: Shinto shrine

The principal worship of kami is done at public shrines or worship at small home shrines called kamidana (神棚, lit. “god-shelf”). The public shrine is a building or place that functions as a conduit for kami. A fewer number of shrines are also natural places called mori. The most common of the mori are sacred groves of trees, or mountains, or waterfalls. All shrines are open to the public at some times or throughout the year.

While many of the public shrines are elaborate structures, all are characteristic Japanese architectural styles of different periods depending on their age. Shrines are fronted by a distinctive Japanese gate (鳥居, torii) made of two uprights and two crossbars denoting the separation between common space and sacred space. The torii have 20 styles and matching buildings based on the enshrined kami and lineage.

There are a number of symbolic and real barriers that exist between the normal world and the shrine grounds including: statues of protection, gates, fences, ropes, and other delineations of ordinary to sacred space. Usually there will be only one or sometimes two approaches to the Shrine for the public and all will have the torii over the way. In shrine compounds, there are a haiden (拝殿) or public hall of worship, heiden (幣殿) or hall of offerings and the honden (本殿) or the main hall. The innermost precinct of the grounds is the honden or worship hall, which is entered only by the high priest, or worshippers on certain occasions. The honden houses the symbol of the enshrined kami.

The heart of the shrine is periodic rituals, spiritual events in parishioners’ lives, and festivals. All of this is organized by priests who are both spiritual conduits and administrators. Shrines are private institutions, and are supported financially by the congregation and visitors. Some shrines may have festivals that attract hundreds of thousands, especially in the New Year season.

Notable shrines

Of the 80,000 Shinto shrines:

  • Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, shrine to the Imperial sword Kusanagi
  • Chichibu Shrine, Saitama Prefecture, dedicated to Omoikane and Amenominakanushi Okami
  • Dazaifu Tenman-gū, dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane
  • Heian Jingū, Kyoto, dedicated to Emperor Kanmu and Emperor Kōmei
  • Hikawa Shrine, Ōmiya-ku, Saitama
  • Hokkaido Shrine, Sapporo, Hokkaido
  • Ise Jingū, Ise, Mie, dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, also called Jingū
  • Gassan Shrine, Yamagata, dedicated to Tsukuyomi Okami
  • Isonokami Shrine, Tenri, Nara
  • Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture, a World Heritage Site and one of the National Treasures of Japan
  • Iwashimizu Shrine, Yawata, Kyoto
  • Izumo Taisha, Izumo
  • Kasuga Shrine, Nara
  • Katori Shrine, Chiba Prefecture, dedicated to Futsunushi
  • Kumano Shrines, Wakayama Prefecture
  • Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, the shrine of Emperor Meiji
  • Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture
  • Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Ōmiwa Shrine, Sakurai, Nara
  • Sendai Tōshō-gū, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Three Palace Sanctuaries, Kōkyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo
  • Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa
  • Usa Hachiman Shrine, Ōita Prefecture, dedicated to Hachimanno-Mikoto
  • Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo), a shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead.

Priesthood and miko

Yutateshinji ceremony performed by Shinto priests at the Miwa Shrine in Sakurai, Nara

Yutateshinji ceremony performed at the Miwa Shrine

Shrines may be cared for by priests, by local communities, or by families on whose property the shrine is found. Shinto priests are known in Japanese as Kannushi, meaning “proprietor of kami”. Many kannushi take on the role in a line of hereditary succession traced down specific families. In contemporary Japan, there are two main training universities for those wishing to become Shinto priests, at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and at Kogakkan University in Mie Prefecture. Priests can rise through the ranks over the course of their careers. The number of priests at a particular shrine can vary; some shrines can have over 12 priests, and others have none, instead being administered by local lay volunteers. Some priests earn a living administering to multiple small shrines, sometimes over ten or more.

Priestly dress includes a tall, rounded hat known as an eboshi, and black lacquered wooden clogs known as asagutsu. Also part of standard priestly attire is a hiōgi fan. The outer garment worn by a priest, usually colored black, red, or light blue, is the , or the ikan. A white silk version of the ikan, used for formal occasions, is known as the saifuku. Another priestly robe is the kariginu, which is modeled on heian-style hunting garments.

The chief priest at a shrine is known as a gūji. Larger shrines may also have an assistant head priest, the gon-gūji. As with teachers, instructors, and Buddhist clergy, Shinto priests are often referred to as sensei by lay practitioners. Historically, there were various female priests although they were largely pushed out of their positions in 1868. During the Second World War, women were again allowed to become priests to fill the void caused by large numbers of men being enlisted in the military. In the early twenty-first century, male priests have still dominated Shinto institutions. Male priests are free to marry and have children. At smaller shrines, priests often have other full-time jobs, and serve only as priests during special occasions. Before certain major festivals, priests may undergo a period of abstinence from sexual relations.Some of those involved in festivals also abstain from a range of other things, such as consuming tea, coffee, or alcohol, immediately prior to the events.

The priests are assisted by jinja miko, sometimes referred to as “shrine-maidens” in English. These miko are typically unmarried, although not necessarily virgins. In many cases they are the daughters of a priest or a practitioner. They are subordinate to the priests in the shrine hierarchy. Their most important role is in the kagura dance, known as otome-maiMiko receive only a small salary but gain respect from members of the local community and learn skills such as cooking, calligraphy, painting, and etiquette which can benefit them when later searching for employment or a marriage partner. They generally do not live at the shrines. Sometimes they fill other roles, such as being secretaries in the shrine offices or clerks at the information desks, or as waitresses at the naorai feasts. They also assist Kannushi in ceremonial rites.

Visits to shrines

Individual worship conducted at a shrine is known as hairei. A visit to a shrine, which is known as jinja mairi in Japanese, typically takes only a few minutes. Some individuals visit the shrines every day, often on their route to work each morning. These rituals usually take place not inside the honden itself but in an oratory in front of it. The general procedure entails an individual approaching the honden, where the practitioners places a monetary offering in a box before ringing a bell to call the attention of the kami. Then, they bow, clap, and stand while silently offering a prayer. The clapping is known as kashiwade or hakushu; the prayers or supplications as kigan. When at the shrine, individuals offering prayers are not necessarily praying to a specific kami. A worshipper may not know the name of a kami residing at the shrine nor how many kami are believed to dwell there.Unlike in certain other religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam, Shinto shrines do not have weekly services that practitioners are expected to attend.

Some Shinto practitioners do not offer their prayers to the kami directly, but rather request that a priest offer them on their behalf; these prayers are known as kitō. Many individuals approach the kami asking for pragmatic requests. Requests for rain, known as amagoi (‘rain-soliciting’) have been found across Japan, with Inari a popular choice for such requests. Other prayers reflect more contemporary concerns. For instance, people may ask that the priest approaches the kami so as to purify their car in the hope that this will prevent it from being involved in an accident. Similarly, transport companies often request purification rites for new buses or airplanes which are about to go into service. Before a building is constructed, it is common for either private individuals or the construction company to employ a Shinto priest to come to the land being developed and perform the jichinsai, or earth sanctification ritual. This purifies the site and asks the kami to bless it.

People often ask the kami to help offset inauspicious events that may affect them. For instance, in Japanese culture, the age 33 is seen as being unlucky for women and the age 42 for men, and thus people can ask the kami to offset any ill-fortune associated with being this age. Certain directions can also be seen as being inauspicious for certain people at certain times and thus people can approach the kami asking them to offset this problem if they have to travel in one of these unlucky directions.

Pilgrimage has long been an important facet of Japanese religion, and Shinto features pilgrimages to shrines, which are known as junrei. A round of pilgrimages, whereby individuals visit a series of shrines and other sacred sites that are part of an established circuit, is known as a junpai. For many centuries, people have also visited the shrines for primarily cultural and recreational reasons, as opposed to spiritual ones. Many of the shrines are recognised as sites of historical importance and some are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Shrines such as Shimogamo Jinja and Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Meiji Jingū in Tokyo, and Atsuta Jingū in Nagoya are among Japan’s most popular tourist sites.

Home Shrines

Many Shinto practitioners also have a kamidana or family shrine in their home. These usually consist of shelves placed at an elevated position in the living room. The popularity of kamidana increased greatly during the Meiji era. Kamidana can also be found in workplaces, restaurants, shops, and ocean-going ships. Some public shrines sell entire kamidana. Along with the kamidana, many Japanese households also have butsudan, Buddhist altars enshrining the ancestors of the family; ancestral reverence remains an important aspect of Japanese religious tradition.

Kamidana often enshrine the kami of a nearby public shrine as well as a tutelary kami associated with the house’s occupants or their profession. They can be decorated with miniature torii and shimenawa and include amulets obtained from public shrines. They often contain a stand on which to place offerings; daily offerings of rice, salt, and water are placed there, with sake and other items also offered on special days. Prior to giving these offerings, practitioners often bathe, rinse their mouth, or wash their hands as a form of purification.

Household Shinto can focus attention on the dōzoku-shinkami who are perceived to be ancestral to the dōzoku or extended kinship group. Small village shrines containing the tutelary kami of an extended family are known as iwai-den.

In addition to the temple shrines and the household shrines, Shinto also features small wayside shrines known as hokora. Other open spaces used for the worship of kami are iwasaka, an area surrounded by sacred rocks.


Any person may visit a shrine and one need not be Shinto to do this. Doing so is called Omairi. Typically there are a few basic steps to visiting a shrine.

  • At any entrance gate, bow respectfully before passing through.
  • If there is a hand washing basin provided, perform Temizu: take the dipper in your right hand and scoop up water. Pour some onto your left hand, then transfer the dipper to your left hand and pour some onto your right hand. Transfer the dipper to your right hand again, cup your left palm, and pour water into it, from which you will take the water into your mouth (never drink directly from the dipper), silently swish it around in your mouth (do not drink), then quietly spit it out into your cupped left hand (not into the reservoir). Then, holding the handle of the dipper in both hands, turn it vertically so that the remaining water washes over the handle. Then replace it where you found it.
  • Approach the shrine; if there is a bell, you may ring the bell first (or after depositing a donation); if there is a box for donations, leave a modest one in relation to your means; then bow twice, clap twice, and hold the second clap with your hands held together in front of your heart for a closing bow after your prayers.
  • There is variation in how this basic visitation may go, and depending on the time of year and holidays there may also be other rituals attached to visitations.
  • Be sincere and respectful to the staff and other visitors, and if at all possible, be quiet. Do be aware that there are places one should not go on the shrine grounds. Do not wear shoes inside any buildings.

Harae and hōbei

Main article: Harae

Shinto rituals begin with a process of purification, or harae. This entails an individual sprinkling water on the face and hands, a procedure known as temizu, using a font known as a temizuya. Another form of purification at the start of a Shinto rite entails waving a white paper streamer or wand known as the haraigushi. When not in use, the haraigushi is usually kept in a stand. The priest waves the haraigushi horizontally over a person or object being purified in a movement known as sa-yu-sa (“left-right-left”). Sometimes, instead of a haraigushi, the purification is carried out with an o-nusa, a branch of evergreen to which strips of paper have been attached.

The acts of purification accomplished, petitions known as norito are spoken to the kami. This is followed by an appearance by the miko, who commence in a slow circular motion before the main altar.

Following the purification procedure, offerings are presented to the kami by being placed on a table. This act is known as hōbei. Historically, the offerings given the kami included food, cloth, swords, and horses. In the contemporary period, lay worshippers usually give gifts of money to the kami while priests generally offer them food, drink, and sprigs of the sacred sakaki tree. A common offering in the present are sprigs of the sakaki tree. Animal sacrifices are not considered appropriate offerings, as the shedding of blood is seen as a vile act that necessitates purification. The offerings presented are sometimes simple and sometimes more elaborate; at the Grand Shrine of Ise, for instance, 100 styles of food are laid out as offerings.

After the offerings have been given, people often sip rice wine known as o-miki. Drinking the o-miki wine is seen as a form of communion with the kami. On important occasions, a feast is then held, known as naorai, inside a banquet hall attached to the shrine complex.

The Kami are believed to enjoy music. One style of music performed at shrines is gagaku. Instruments used include three reeds (fue, sho, and hichiriki), the yamato-koto, and the “three drums” (taiko, kakko, and shōko). Other musical styles performed at shrines can have a more limited focus. At shrines such as Ōharano Shrine in Kyoto, azuma-asobi (‘eastern entertainment’) music is performed on April 8th. Also in Kyoto, various festivals make use of the dengaku style of music and dance, which originated from rice-planting songs. During rituals, people visiting the shrine are expected to sit in the seiza style, with their legs tucked beneath their bottom. To avoid cramps, individuals who hold this position for a lengthy period of time may periodically move their legs and flex their heels.


Main article: Misogi

Misogi means purification. Misogi harai or Misogi Shūhō (禊修法) is the term for water purification.

The practice of purification by ritual use of water while reciting prayers is typically done daily by regular practitioners, and when possible by lay practitioners. There is a defined set of prayers and physical activities that precede and occur during the ritual. This will usually be performed at a shrine, in a natural setting, but can be done anywhere there is clean running water.

The basic performance of this is the hand and mouth washing (Temizu 手水) done at the entrance to a shrine. The more dedicated believer may perform misogi by standing beneath a waterfall or performing the ritual ablutions in a river. This practice comes from Shinto history, when the kami Izanagi-no-Mikoto first performed misogi after returning from the land of Yomi, where he was made impure by Izanami-no-Mikoto after her death.


Another form of ritual cleanliness is avoidance, which means that a taboo is placed upon certain persons or acts. To illustrate, one would not visit a shrine if a close relative in the household had died recently. Killing is generally unclean and is to be avoided. When one is performing acts that harm the land or other living things, prayers and rituals are performed to placate the Kami of the area. This type of cleanliness is usually performed to prevent ill outcomes.

Amulets and talismans

Main article: Ema (Shinto)

Ema are small wooden plaques that wishes or desires are written upon and left at a place in the shrine grounds so that one may get a wish or desire fulfilled. They have a picture on them and are frequently associated with the larger Shrines.

Ofuda are talismans—made of paper, wood, or metal—that are issued at shrines. They are inscribed with the names of kami and are used for protection in the home. They are typically placed in the home at a kamidana. Ofuda may be kept anywhere, as long as they are in their protective pouches, but there are several rules about the proper placement of kamidana. They are also renewed annually.

Omamori are personal-protection amulets that are sold by shrines. They are frequently used to ward off bad luck and to gain better health. More recently, there are also amulets to promote good driving, good business, and success at school. Their history lies with Buddhist practice of selling amulets. They are generally replaced once a year, and old omamori are brought to a shrine so they can be properly disposed of through burning by a priest.

Omikuji are paper lots upon which personal fortunes are written. The fortunes can range from daikichi (大吉), meaning “great good luck,” to daikyou (大凶), meaning “great bad luck.”

daruma is a round, paper doll of the Indian monk, Bodhidharma. The recipient makes a wish and paints one eye; when the goal is accomplished, the recipient paints the other eye. While this is a Buddhist practice, darumas can be found at shrines, as well. These dolls are very common.

Other protective items include dorei, which are earthenware bells that are used to pray for good fortune. These bells are usually in the shapes of the zodiacal animals: hamaya, which are symbolic arrows for the fight against evil and bad luck; and Inuhariko, which are paper dogs that are used to induce and to bless good births.


Main article: Kagura (神楽)
See also:Shinto Music

Kagura is the ancient Shinto ritual dance of shamanic origin. The word “kagura” is thought to be a contracted form of kami no kura or “seat of the kami” or the “site where the kami is received.” There is a mythological tale of how kagura dance came into existence. The sun goddess Amaterasu became very upset at her brother so she hid in a cave. All of the other gods and goddesses were concerned and wanted her to come outside. Ame-no-uzeme began to dance and create a noisy commotion in order to entice Amaterasu to come out. The kami (gods) tricked Amaterasu by telling her there was a better sun goddess in the heavens. Amaterasu came out and light returned to the universe.

Music plays a very important role in the kagura performance. Everything from the setup of the instruments to the most subtle sounds and the arrangement of the music is crucial to encouraging the kami to come down and dance. The songs are used as magical devices to summon the gods and as prayers for blessings. Rhythm patterns of five and seven are common, possibly relating to the Shinto belief of the twelve generations of heavenly and earthly deities. There is also vocal accompaniment called kami uta in which the drummer sings sacred songs to the gods. Often the vocal accompaniment is overshadowed by the drumming and instruments, reinforcing that the vocal aspect of the music is more for incantation rather than aesthetics.

In both ancient Japanese collections, the Nihongi and Kojiki, Ame-no-uzeme’s dance is described as asobi, which in old Japanese language means a ceremony that is designed to appease the spirits of the departed, and which was conducted at funeral ceremonies. Therefore, kagura is a rite of tama shizume, of pacifying the spirits of the departed. In the Heian period (8th–12th centuries) this was one of the important rites at the Imperial Court and had found its fixed place in the tama shizume festival in the eleventh month. At this festival people sing as accompaniment to the dance: “Depart! Depart! Be cleansed and go! Be purified and leave!” This rite of purification is also known as chinkon. It was used for securing and strengthening the soul of a dying person. It was closely related to the ritual of tama furi (shaking the spirit), to call back the departed soul of the dead or to energize a weakened spirit. Spirit pacification and rejuvenation were usually achieved by songs and dances, also called asobi. The ritual of chinkon continued to be performed on the emperors of Japan, thought to be descendents of Amaterasu. It is possible that this ritual is connected with the ritual to revive the sun goddess during the low point of the winter solstice.

There is a division between the kagura that is performed at the Imperial palace and the shrines related to it, and the kagura that is performed in the countryside. Folk kagura, or kagura from the countryside is divided according to region. The following descriptions relate to sato kagurakagura that is from the countryside. The main types are: miko kaguraIse kaguraIzumo kagura, and shishi kagura.

Miko kagura is the oldest type of kagura and is danced by women in Shinto shrines and during folk festivals. The ancient miko were shamanesses, but are now considered priestesses in the service of the Shinto Shrines. Miko kagura originally was a shamanic trance dance, but later, it became an art and was interpreted as a prayer dance. It is performed in many of the larger Shinto shrines and is characterized by slow, elegant, circular movements, by emphasis on the four directions and by the central use of torimono (objects dancers carry in their hands), especially the fan and bells.

Ise kagura is a collective name for rituals that are based upon the yudate (boiling water rites of Shugendō origin) ritual. It includes miko dances as well as dancing of the torimono type. The kami are believed to be present in the pot of boiling water, so the dancers dip their torimono in the water and sprinkle it in the four directions and on the observers for purification and blessing.

Izumo kagura is centered in the Sada shrine of Izumo, Shimane prefecture. It has two types: torimono ma, unmasked dances that include held objects, and shinno (sacred No), dramatic masked dances based on myths. Izumo kagura appears to be the most popular type of kagura.

Shishi kagura also known as the Shugen-No tradition, uses the dance of a shishi (lion or mountain animal) mask as the image and presence of the deity. It includes the Ise daikagura group and the yamabushi kagura and bangaku groups of the Tohoku area (Northeastern Japan). Ise daikagura employs a large red Chinese type of lion head which can move its ears. The lion head of the yamabushi kagura schools is black and can click its teeth. Unlike other kagura types in which the kami appear only temporarily, during the shishi kagura the kami is constantly present in the shishi head mask. During the Edo period, the lion dances became showy and acrobatic losing its touch with spirituality. However, the yamabushi kagura tradition has retained its ritualistic and religious nature.

Originally, the practice of kagura involved authentic possession by the kami invoked. In modern-day Japan it appears to be difficult to find authentic ritual possession, called kamigakari, in kagura dance. However, it is common to see choreographed possession in the dances. Actual possession is not taking place but elements of possession such as losing control and high jumps are applied in the dance.


Public festivals are known as matsuri. Picken suggested that the festival was “the central act of Shinto worship” because Shinto was a “community- and family-based” religion. According to a traditional view of the lunar calendar, Shinto shrines should hold their festival celebrations on hare-no-hi or “clear” days”, the days of the new, full, and half moons. Other days, known as ke-no-hi, were generally avoided for festivities. However, since the late 20th century, many shines have held their festival celebrations on the Saturday or Sunday closest to the date so that fewer individuals will be working and will be able to attend the festivities.

Spring festivals are called haru-matsuri and often incorporate prayers for a good harvest. They sometimes incorporate ta-asobi ceremonies, in which rice is ritually planted. Autumn festivals are known as aki-matsuri and primarily focus on thanking the kami for the rice or other harvest. The Niiname-sai, or festival of new rice, is held across many Shinto shrines on 23 November. The Emperor also conducts a ceremony to mark this festival, at which he presents the first fruits of the harvest to the kami at midnight. Winter festivals, called fuyu no matsuri often feature on welcoming in the spring, expelling evil, and calling in good influences for the future. There is little difference between winter festivals and specific new year festivals.

Many people visit shrines to celebrate new year; this “first visit” of the year is known as hatsumōde or hatsumairi. There, they buy amulets and talismans to bring them good fortune over the coming year. To celebrate this festival, many Japanese put up rope known as shimenawa on their hopes and places of business. Some also put up kadomatsu (“gateway pine”), an arrangement of pine branches, plum tree, and bamboo sticks. Also displayed are kazari, which are smaller and more colourful; their purpose is to keep away misfortune and attract good fortune. In many places, new year celebrations incorporate hadaka matsuri (“naked festivals”) in which men dressed only in a fundoshi loincloth, engage in a particular activity, such as fighting over a specific object or immersing themselves in a river.

Many festivals are specific to particular shrines or regions. The Aoi Matsuri festival, held on May 15th to pray for an abundant grain harvest, takes place at shrines in Kyoto.

Processions or parades during Shinto festivals are known as gyōretsu. During public processions, the kami travel in portable shrines known as mikoshi. The processions for matsuri can be raucous, with many of the participants being drunk. They are often understood as having a regenerative effect on both the participants and the community. In various cases the mikoshi undergo hamaori (“going down to the beach”), a process by which they are carried to the sea shore and sometimes into the sea, either by bearers or a boat. In the Okunchi festival held in the southwestern city of Nagasaki, the kami of the Suwa Shrine are paraded down to Ohato, where they are placed in a shrine there for several days before being paraded back to Suwa.

Rites of passage

The formal recognition of events is given great importance in Japanese culture. A common ritual, the hatsumiyamairi, entails a child’s first visit to a Shinto shrine. A tradition holds that, if a boy he should be brought to the shrine on the thirty-second day after birth, and if a girl she should be brought on the thirty-third day. Historically, the child was commonly brought to the shrine not by the mother, who was considered impure after birth, but by another female relative; since the late 20th century it has been more common for the mother to do so. Another, the saiten-sai, is a coming of age ritual marking the transition to adulthood and occurs when an individual is around twenty.

Wedding ceremonies are often carried out at Shinto shrines. In Japan, funerals tend to take place at Buddhist temples; with Shintō funerals being rare. Bocking noted that most Japanese people are “still ‘born Shinto’ yet ‘die Buddhist’.” In Shinto thought, contact with death is seen as imparting impurity (kegare); the period following this contact is known as kibuku and is associated with various taboos. In cases when dead humans are enshrined as kami, the physical remains of the dead are not stored at the shrine. Although not common, there have been examples of funerals conducted through Shinto rites. The earliest examples are known from the mid-seventeenth century; these occurred in certain areas of Japan and had the support of the local authorities. Following the Meiji Restoration, in 1868 the government recognised specifically Shinto funerals for Shinto priests. Five years later, this was extended to cover the entire Japanese population. Despite this Meiji promotion of Shinto funerals, the majority of the population continued to have Buddhist funeral rites.

Ancestral reverence remains an important part of Japanese religious custom.

Divination and spirit mediumship

Divination is the focus of many Shinto rituals. Among the ancient forms of divination found in Japan are rokuboku and kiboku. Several forms of divination entailing archery are also practiced in Shintō, known as yabusame and omato-shinji.

Kitagawa stated that there could be “no doubt” that various types of “shamanic diviners” played a role in early Japanese religion.

Shinto practitioners believe that the kami can possess a human being and then speak through them, a process known as kami-gakari. Several new religious movements drawing upon Shinto, such as Tenrikyo and Oomoto, were founded by individuals claiming to be guided by a possessing kami. The itako and ichiko are blind women who train to become spiritual mediums in the northern Tohoku region of Japan. In the late twentieth century, they were present in Japanese urban centers. Itako train in the role under other itako from childhood, memorialising sacred texts and prayers, fasting, and undertaking acts of severe asceticism, through which they are believed to cultivate supernatural powers. In an initiation ceremony, a kami is believed to possess the young woman, and the two are then ritually “married”. After this, the kami becomes her tutelary spirit and she will henceforth be able to call upon it, and a range of other spirits, in future. Through contacting these spirits, she is able to convey their messages to the living. Itako usually carry out their rituals independent of the shrine system.

Today, itako are most commonly associated with Mount Osore in Aomori Prefecture. There, an annual festival is held beside the Entsuji Buddhist temple, which hangs signs disavowing any connection to the itako. Itako gather there to channel the dead for thousands of tourists. In contemporary Japan, itako are on the decline. In 2009, less than 20 remained, all over the age of 40. Contemporary education standards have all but eradicated the need for specialized training for the blind.


Historical records

There is no core sacred text in Shinto, as the Bible is in Christianity or Quran is in Islam. Instead there are books of lore and history which provide stories and background to many Shinto beliefs.

  • The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) The oldest book of Japanese history, it describes the origin myths of Japan and the Imperial Family beginning from 628.
  • The Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan) describes events up to 697. Some of the stories in the Nihongi are more detailed, but contradictory, to the stories of the Kojiki.
  • The Rikkokushi (Six National Histories) includes the Shoku Nihongi and Nihon Shoki.
  • The Engishiki contains a section describing Shinto rituals in thorough detail
  • The Jinnō Shōtōki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history) written in the 14th century


Further information: Koshinto (Ko-Shintō)

Shinto has very ancient roots in the Japanese islands. The recorded history dates to the Kojiki (712) and Nihon Shoki (720), but archeological records date back significantly further. Both are compilations of prior oral traditions. The Kojiki establishes the Japanese imperial family as the foundation of Japanese culture, being the descendants of Amaterasu Omikami. There is also a creation myth and a genealogy of the gods. The Nihonshoki was more interested in creating a structural system of government, foreign policy, religious hierarchy, and domestic social order.

There is an internal system of historical Shinto development that configures the relationships between Shinto and other religious practices over its long history; the inside and outside Kami (spirits). The inside or ujigami (uji meaning clan) Kami roles that supports cohesion and continuation of established roles and patterns; and the hitogami or outside Kami, bringing innovation, new beliefs, new messages, and some instability.

Jōmon peoples of Japan used natural housing, predated rice farming, and frequently were hunter-gatherers; the physical evidence for ritual practices are difficult to document. There are many locations of stone ritual structures, refined burial practices and early Torii that lend to the continuity of primal Shinto. The Jōmon had a clan-based tribal system developed similar to much of the world’s indigenous people. In the context of this clan based system, local beliefs developed naturally and when assimilation between clans occurred, they also took on some beliefs of the neighboring tribes. At some point there was a recognition that the ancestors created the current generations and the reverence of ancestors (tama) took shape. There was some trade amongst the indigenous peoples within Japanese islands and the mainland, as well as some varying migrations. The trade and interchange of people helped the growth and complexity of the peoples spirituality by exposure to new beliefs. The natural spirituality of the people appeared to be based on the worship of nature forces or mono, and the natural elements to which they all depended.

The gradual introduction of methodical religious and government organizations from mainland Asia starting around 300 BCE seeded the reactive changes in primal Shinto over the next 700 years to a more formalized system. These changes were directed internally by the various clans frequently as a syncratic cultural event to outside influences. Eventually as the Yamato gained power a formalization process began. The genesis of the Imperial household and subsequent creation of the Kojiki helped facilitate the continuity needed for this long term development through modern history. There is today a balance between outside influences of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Abrahamic, Hindu and secular beliefs. In more modern times Shinto has developed new branches and forms on a regular basis, including leaving Japan.

Jōmon Period

By the end of the Jōmon period, a dramatic shift had taken place according to archaeological studies. New arrivals from the continent seem to have invaded Japan from the West, bringing with them new technologies such as rice farming and metallurgy. The settlements of the new arrivals seem to have coexisted with those of the Jōmon for some time. Under these influences, the incipient cultivation of the Jōmon evolved into sophisticated rice-paddy farming and government control. Many other elements of Japanese culture also may date from this period and reflect a mingled migration from the northern Asian continent and the southern Pacific areas. Among these elements are Shinto mythology, marriage customs, architectural styles, and technological developments such as lacquerware, textiles, laminated bows, metalworking, and glass making. The Jōmon is succeeded by the Yayoi period.

Yayoi Period

Japanese culture begins to develop in no small part due to influences from mainland trade and immigration from China. During this time in the pre-writing historical period, objects from the mainland start appearing in large amounts, specifically mirrors, swords, and jewels. All three of these have a direct connection to the imperial divine status as they are the symbols of imperial divinity and are Shinto honorary objects. Also the rice culture begins to blossom throughout Japan and this leads to the settlement of society, and seasonal reliance of crops. Both of these changes are highly influential on the Japanese people’s relationship to the natural world, and likely development of a more complex system of religion. This is also the period that is referenced as the beginning of the divine imperial family. The Yayoi culture was a clan based culture that lived in compounds with a defined leader who was the chief and head priest. They were responsible for the relationship with their “gods” Kami and if one clan conquered another, their “god” would be assimilated. The earliest records of Japanese culture were written by Chinese traders who described this land as “Wa”. This time period led to the creation of the Yamato culture and development of formal Shinto practices.

The development of niiname or the (now) Shinto harvest festival is attributed to this period as offerings for good harvests of similar format (typically rice) become common.

Kofun Period

The great bells and drums, Kofun burial mounds, and the founding of the imperial family are important to this period. This is the period of the development of the feudal state, and the Yamato and Izumo cultures. Both of these dominant cultures have a large and central shrine which still exists today, Ise Shrine in the North East and Izumo Taisha in the South West. This time period is defined by the increase of central power in Naniwa, now Osaka, of the feudal lord system. Also there was an increasing influence of Chinese culture which profoundly changed the practices of government structure, social structure, burial practices, and warfare. The Japanese also held close alliance and trade with the Gaya confederacy which was in the south of the peninsula. The Paekche in the Three Kingdoms of Koreahad political alliances with Yamato, and in the 5th century imported the Chinese writing system to record Japanese names and events for trade and political records. In 513 they sent a Confucian scholar to the court to assist in the teachings of Confucian thought. In 552 or 538 a Buddha image was given to the Yamato leader which profoundly changed the course of Japanese religious history, especially in relation to the undeveloped native religious conglomeration that was Shinto. In the latter 6th century, there was a breakdown of the alliances between Japan and Paekche but the influence led to the codification of Shinto as the native religion in opposition to the extreme outside influences of the mainland. Up to this time Shinto had been largely a clan (‘uji’) based religious practice, exclusive to each clan.

Asuka Period

The Theory of Five Elements in Yin and Yang philosophy of Taoism and the esoteric Buddhism had a profound impact on the development of a unified system of Shinto beliefs. In the early Nara period, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki were written by compiling existing myths and legends into a unified account of Japanese mythology. These accounts were written with two purposes in mind: the introduction of TaoistConfucian, and Buddhist themes into Japanese religion; and garnering support for the legitimacy of the Imperial house, based on its lineage from the sun kami, Amaterasu. Much of modern Japan was under only fragmentary control by the Imperial family, and rival ethnic groups. The mythological anthologies, along with other poetry anthologies like the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū) and others, were intended to impress others with the worthiness of the Imperial family and their divine mandate to rule.

In particular the Asuka rulers of 552–645 saw disputes between the more major families of the clan Shinto families. There were disputes about who would ascend to power and support the imperial family between the Soga and Mononobe/Nakatomi Shinto families. The Soga family eventually prevailed and supported Empress Suiko and Prince Shōtoku, who helped impress Buddhist faith into Japan. However, it was not until the Hakuho ruling period of 645–710 that Shinto was installed as the imperial faith along with the Fujiwara Clan and reforms that followed.

Hakuho Period

Beginning with Emperor Tenmu (672–686), continuing through Empress Jitō (686–697) and Emperor Monmu (697–707) Court Shinto rites are strengthened and made parallel to Buddhist beliefs in court life. Prior to this time clan Shinto had dominated and a codification of “Imperial Shinto” did not exist as such. The Nakatomi family are made the chief court Shinto chaplains and chief priests at Ise Daijingū which held until 1892. Also the practice of sending imperial princesses to the Ise shrine begins. This marks the rise of Ise Daijingū as the main imperial shrine historically. Due to increasing influence from Buddhism and mainland Asian thought, codification of the “Japanese” way of religion and laws begins in earnest. This culminates in three major outcomes: Taihō Code (701 but started earlier), the Kojiki (712), and the Nihon Shoki (720).

The Taiho Code also called Ritsuryō (律令) was an attempt to create a bulwark to dynamic external influences and stabilize the society through imperial power. It was a liturgy of rules and codifications, primarily focused on regulation of religion, government structure, land codes, criminal and civil law. All priests, monks, and nuns were required to be registered, as were temples. The Shinto rites of the imperial line were codified, especially seasonal cycles, lunar calendar rituals, harvest festivals, and purification rites. The creation of the imperial Jingi-kan or Shinto Shrine office was completed.

Nara Period

This period hosted many changes to the country, government, and religion. The capital is moved again to Heijō-kyō, or Nara, in AD 710 by Empress Genmei due to the death of the Emperor. This practice was necessary due to the Shinto belief in the impurity of death and the need to avoid this pollution. However, this practice of moving the capital due to “death impurity” is then abolished by the Taihō Code and rise in Buddhist influence. The establishment of the imperial city in partnership with Taihō Code is important to Shinto as the office of the Shinto rites becomes more powerful in assimilating local clan shrines into the imperial fold. New shrines are built and assimilated each time the city is moved. All of the grand shrines are regulated under Taihō and are required to account for incomes, priests, and practices due to their national contributions.

During this time, Buddhism becomes structurally established within Japan by Emperor Shōmu (r. 724–749), and several large building projects are undertaken. The Emperor lays out plans for the Buddha Dainichi (Great Sun Buddha), at Tōdai-ji assisted by the Priest Gyogi (or Gyoki) Bosatsu. The priest Gyogi went to Ise Daijingu Shrine for blessings to build the Buddha Dainichi. They identified the statue of Viarocana with Amaterasu (the sun goddess) as the manifestation of the supreme expression of universality.

The priest Gyogi is known for his belief in assimilation of Shinto Kami and Buddhas. Shinto kami are commonly being seen by Buddhist clergy as guardians of manifestation, guardians, or pupils of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The priest Gyogi conferred boddhisattva precepts on the Emperor in 749 effectively making the Imperial line the head of state and divine to Shinto while beholden to Buddhism.

Syncretism with Buddhism

Main article: Shinbutsu-shūgō

See also: Syncretism

With the introduction of Buddhism and its rapid adoption by the court in the 6th century, it was necessary to explain the apparent differences between native Japanese beliefs and Buddhist teachings. One Buddhist explanation saw the kami as supernatural beings still caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth (reincarnation). The kami are born, live, die, and are reborn like all other beings in the karmic cycle. However, the kami played a special role in protecting Buddhism and allowing its teachings of compassion to flourish.

This explanation was later challenged by Kūkai (空海, 774–835), who saw the kami as different embodiments of the Buddhas themselves (honji suijaku theory). For example, he linked Amaterasu (the sun goddess and ancestor of the Imperial family) with Dainichi Nyorai, a central manifestation of the Buddhists, whose name means literally “Great Sun Buddha”. In his view, the kami were just Buddhas by another name.


Buddhism and Shinto coexisted and were amalgamated in the shinbutsu shūgō and Kūkai’s syncretic view held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period. There was no theological study that could be called “Shinto” during medieval and early modern Japanese history, and a mixture of Buddhist and popular beliefs proliferated. At that time, there was a renewed interest in “Japanese studies” (kokugaku), perhaps as a result of the closed country policy.

In the 18th century, various Japanese scholars, in particular Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長, 1730–1801), tried to tear apart the “real” Shinto from various foreign influences. The attempt was largely unsuccessful, since as early as the Nihon Shoki parts of the mythology were explicitly borrowed from Taoism doctrines. For example, the co-creator deities Izanami and Izanagi are explicitly compared to yin and yang. However, the attempt did set the stage for the arrival of state Shinto, following the Meiji Restoration (c. 1868), when Shinto and Buddhism were separated (shinbutsu bunri).

State Shinto

Main article: State Shinto

Chōsen Jingū in Seoul

Chōsen Jingū in Seoul

Fridell argues that scholars call the period 1868–1945 the “State Shinto period” because, “during these decades, Shinto elements came under a great deal of overt state influence and control as the Japanese government systematically utilized shrine worship as a major force for mobilizing imperial loyalties on behalf of modern nation-building.” However, the government had already been treating shrines as an extension of government before Meiji; see for example the Tenpō Reforms. Moreover, according to the scholar Jason Ānanda Josephson, It is inaccurate to describe shrines as constituting a “state religion” or a “theocracy” during this period since they had neither organization, nor doctrine, and were uninterested in conversion.

The Meiji Restoration reasserted the importance of the emperor and the ancient chronicles to establish the Empire of Japan, and in 1868 the government attempted to recreate the ancient imperial Shinto by separating shrines from the temples that housed them. During this period, numerous scholars of kokugaku believed that this national Shinto could be the unifying agent of the country around the Emperor while the process of modernization was undertaken with all possible speed. The psychological shock of the Western “Black Ships” and the subsequent collapse of the shogunate convinced many that the nation needed to unify in order to resist being colonized by outside forces.

In 1871, a Ministry of Rites (jingi-kan) was formed and Shinto shrines were divided into twelve levels with the Ise Shrine (dedicated to Amaterasu, and thus symbolic of the legitimacy of the Imperial family) at the peak and small sanctuaries of humble towns at the base. The following year, the ministry was replaced with a new Ministry of Religion, charged with leading instruction in “shushin” (moral courses). Priests were officially nominated and organized by the state, and they instructed the youth in a form of Shinto theology based on the official dogma of the divinity of Japan’s national origins and its Emperor. However, this propaganda did not take, and the unpopular Ministry of Rites was dissolved in the mid-1870s.

Although the government sponsorship of shrines declined, Japanese nationalism remained closely linked to the legends of foundation and emperors, as developed by the kokugaku scholars. In 1890, the Imperial Rescript on Education was issued, and students were required to ritually recite its oath to “offer yourselves courageously to the State” as well as to protect the Imperial family. Such processes continued to deepen throughout the early Shōwa period, coming to an abrupt end in August 1945 when Japan lost the war in the Pacific. On 1 January 1946, Emperor Shōwa issued the Ningen-sengen, in which he quoted the Five Charter Oath of Emperor Meiji and declared that he was not an akitsumikami (a deity in human form).


The imperial era came to an abrupt close with the end of World War II, when Americans declared that Japanese nationalism had been informed by something called “State Shinto”, which they attempted to define with the Shinto Directive. The meaning of “State Shinto” has been a matter of debate ever since.

In the post-war period, numerous “New Religions” cropped up, many of them ostensibly based on Shinto, but on the whole, Japanese religiosity may have decreased. However, the concept of religion in Japan is a complex one. A survey conducted in the mid-1970s indicated that of those participants who claimed not to believe in religion, one-third had a Buddhist or Shinto altar in their home, and about one quarter carried an omamori (an amulet to gain protection by kami) on their person. Following the war, Shinto shrines tended to focus on helping ordinary people gain better fortunes for themselves through maintaining good relations with their ancestors and other kami. The number of Japanese citizens identifying their religious beliefs as Shinto has declined a great deal, yet the general practice of Shinto rituals has not decreased in proportion, and many practices have persisted as general cultural beliefs (such as ancestor worship), and community festivals (matsuri)—focusing more on religious practices. The explanation generally given for this anomaly is that, following the demise of State Shinto, modern Shinto has reverted to its more traditional position as a traditional religion which is culturally ingrained, rather than enforced. In any case, Shinto and its values continue to be a fundamental component of the Japanese cultural mindset.

Shinto has also spread abroad to a limited extent, and a few non-Japanese Shinto priests have been ordained. A relatively small number of people practice Shinto in America. There are several Shinto shrines in America. Shrines were also established in Taiwan and Korea during the period of Japanese imperial rule, but following the war, they were either destroyed or converted into some other use.


Shinto is primarily found in Japan, although the period of the empire it was introduced to various Japanese colonies and in the present is also practiced by members of the Japanese diaspora.

Most Japanese people participate in several religious traditions. The main exceptions to this are members of smaller, minority religious groups, including Christianity and several new religions, which promote exclusivist world views. Determining the proportions of the country’s population who engage in Shinto activity is hindered by the fact that, if asked, Japanese people will often say “I have no religion”. Many Japanese people avoid the term “religion”, in part because they dislike the connotations of the word which most closely matches it in the Japanese language, shūkyō. The latter term derives from shū (‘sect’) and kyō (‘doctrine’).

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 kami in general.

Outside Japan

Jinja established outside of Japan itself are known as kaigai jinja (“overseas shrines”), a term coined by Ogasawara Shōzō. These were established both in territories throughout Asia conquered by the Japanese and in areas across the world where Japanese migrants settled. At the time that the Japanese Empire collapsed in the 1940s, there were over 600 public shrines, and over 1,000 smaller shrines, within Japan’s conquered territories. Following the collapse of the empire, many of these shrines were disbanded.

Japanese migrants established several shrines in Brazil. Shinto has attracted interest outside of Japan, in part because it lacks the doctrinal focus of major religions found in other parts of the world. Shinto was introduced to the United States largely by interested European Americans rather than by Japanese migrants.

Study of Shinto

In the early twentieth century, and to a lesser extent in the second half, Shinto was depicted as monolithic and intensely indigenous by the Japanese State institution and there were various state induced taboos influencing academic research into Shinto in Japan. Japanese secular academics who questioned the historical claims made by the Imperial institution for various Shinto historical facts and ceremonies, or who personally refused to take part in certain Shinto rituals, could lose their jobs and livelihood. Following the Second World War, many scholars writing on Shinto were also priests; they wrote from the perspective of active proponents. The result of this practice was to depict the actual history of a dynamic and diverse set of beliefs interacting with knowledge and religion from mainland China as static and unchanging formed by the imperial family centuries ago. Some secular scholars accused these individuals of blurring theology with historical analysis. In the late 1970s and 1980s the work of a secular historian Kuroda Toshio attempted to frame the prior held historical views of Shinto not as a timeless “indigenous” entity, but rather an amalgam of various local beliefs infused over time with outside influences through waves of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Part of his analysis is that this obfuscation was a cloak for Japanese ethnic nationalism used by state institutions especially in the Meiji and post war era to underpin the Japanese national identity.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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