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  • Japanese: 神道 (shintou)

Shinto (lit. "Way of the Gods") is an indigenous, syncretic Japanese form of animism. All people, animals, places, and things are believed to be, or to possess or be associated with, kami ("spirits" or "gods"); people, places, and objects of particular significance are believed to have particularly powerful kami. Shinto shrines, of which there are roughly 80,000 in the country,[1] are erected at sites of particular spiritual power, or in honor of people or objects of particular significance, honoring and enshrining them.

Shinto in the modern Japanese nation can be described thusly: "No one believes in Shinto, but everyone reveres it." Shinto is an integral part of Japan's national identity, its cycle of daily life, and its culture.

Shinto puts forth the notion that nature, humanity, and the divine all exist in a state of harmony. Humanity is pure and good, and any evil is the result of impurity and pollution from outside sources-these impurities sever our link with universal harmony.

Central to the practice of Shinto is the concept of the kami. There are generally three types of kami:

  1. Lesser (kunitsu-kami)-the spirits that inhabit natural objects (mountains, rocks, water, trees, etc.) and animals.
  2. Ancestral (senzo-kami)-deceased ancestors , emperors, and other important people.
  3. Greater (amatsu-kami)- named figures such as Amaterasu the Sun Goddess and Hachiman the God Of War.

Kami can be petitioned for favors and enjoy the active worship of humanity. In fact, it is said that a kami who is no longer worshipped becomes a vengeful kojin (storm god) or onryo (demon).

Shinto worship covers a huge variety of practices and ceremonies. The tradition has no holy scripture or other singular written set of laws or beliefs. However, any form of worship will always involve these three steps:

  1. Purification (misogi)-usually by ceremonially cleansing oneself with water from a water basin located on the shrine grounds
  2. Petitioning the Kami - first, one must attract the attention of the kami, usually done by clapping one's hands twice or tugging a rope to ring a bell. Then one makes a silent prayer to the kami that resides within the shrine. Different shrines observe different practices in terms of the number of times one is meant to bow, clap, and bow again.
  3. Offering - to thank the kami, it is customary to place cash in an offering box. In earlier times, almost anything of value to the giver might be left (e.g. rice, water, paper fortunes, or ofuda talismans).

Shinto shrines range in size from a breadbox to entire mountains. Many Japanese homes have small kami-dana (lit. "god shelves") within their homes to pay homage to their families' ancestral kami. Most shrines include one or more torii (sometimes hundreds), symbolic gates marking the approach, or progression, into spiritual space. Smaller shrines sometimes use a ceremonial rope (shimenawa) festooned with folded paper (shide) instead of torii.

Shrines are meant to house the kami; unlike Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines are not primarily residences, e.g. for monks, and do not contain extensive residence complexes. Many shrines, however, do maintain a small home for the attending kannushi (priest). A priest might also be in charge of attending to several smaller shrines. The kannushi are aided by miko (shrine maidens), recognizable by their red and white robes. Miko clean the shrines, collect offerings, put out fresh flowers, and staff the commercial venues of shrines which involve selling omamori (good luck charms) and giving tours of the grounds. At some shrines, on particular occasions, an ensemble of musicians and dancers performs ritual dances known as kagura.

The most popular form of Shinto worship involves the various matsuri (festivals). These often center on large parades where portable shrines (omikoshi) are carried through the streets on the shoulders of community teams. The more vigorously a mikoshi is shaken, the more apt a kami is to take notice of it.

The above is a summary of "Shrine Shinto" (jinja shintô). A variety of other practices and belief structures are sometimes categorized under terms such as kyoha (sectarian Shinto, started during the Meiji period), State Shinto (also begun during Meiji, and connected closely to the ultra-nationalism of the early 20th century), and folk Shinto, which encompasses a myriad of family and regional traditions and practices.


There continues to be debate, both in academia and within the community of Shinto priests, as to whether Shinto should be considered a unitary, cohesive, and distinctive religion, as opposed to seeing the term as a catch-all for a broad diversity of differing folk practices and beliefs, and indeed there is debate as to whether Shinto is a "religion" at all, as it lacks many of the defining features of the Abrahamic religions, such as sacred books, and any system of rules circumscribing lifestyle. A great many Japanese - likely a considerable majority - consider Shinto practices to be simply a part of Japanese cultural customs, and not acts of religious devotion.

Scholars also continue to discuss and debate a number of issues pertaining to the origins and development of Shinto, including the question of at what time a distinctive thing we might call "Shinto" first emerged, and what the best term for that set of beliefs and practices may be.

During the Meiji through early Shôwa periods, State ideology dictated that Shinto was definitively a distinctive and unitary thing, and that it stretched back to the most ancient origins of Japan. Since the late 20th century, however, it has become standard in scholarship to understand that much of the modern state ideology concerning Shinto were inventions of the Meiji period, and that "Shinto" did not function in such a way in the Edo period (nor was it understood in such a fashion by Edo period people). Still, many scholars have argued that "Shinto" did come to have some archipelago-wide (or "national") coherence in the Edo period, with kokugaku ("Nativism") scholars writing treatises on the divine origins of Japan; the Tokugawa shogunate and various daimyô implementing elements of what might be seen as State or official religion (for example, with a network of Tôshôgû shrines dedicated to the worship of the deified spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu); and movements such as Yoshida Shinto building stronger connections between shrines scattered across the archipelago. Thus, many scholars today do see "Shinto" as beginning to emerge as early as the 17th century as a distinctive, cohesive, unitary, and "national" phenomenon. Many scholars argue that kami worship and related beliefs and practices would have been seen as quite diverse and multiple prior to these developments, and that most especially, there would have been no impetus to see these things as belonging under a single umbrella category (i.e. as a single thing called "Shinto") in the most ancient times, until the introduction of Buddhism into the islands, which then provided for the first time something to define "Shinto" (or "the way of the gods") against (i.e. understanding "Shinto" as those things that are not Buddhism).

The first time the term Shintô appears within the Nihon Shoki is in the chapter concerning the reign of Emperor Yômei[2]. Yet, the usage of the term in the Nihon shoki and other similarly ancient documents remains a matter of debate, with some scholars suggesting it ought to be seen as a more descriptive term - "the way of the gods" - and not as a proper noun, the name of a singular belief system; many scholars also, meanwhile, argue that there are reasons to believe the term should be read as Jindô, rather than Shintô.

The set of beliefs and practices later to be called Shintô may have first entered Japan in the Yayoi period; indigenous folk religion in Korea shares many features with Shintô,[3] while differing somewhat from Ainu practices which might descend more directly from Jômon period beliefs. This can be seen in burial practices, for example, with mound tombs (kofun) bearing great similarities between the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula, including in their use of haniwa figures (which may have been for spiritual protection, or another similar function) and in the centrality of magatama beads or jewels in both shamanistic and burial practices. Scholars have also pointed out the significance of sun worship in ancient Korea, and the adoption by the Yamato clan of a sun goddess, Amaterasu, as their clan deity at some point prior to the early 8th century, where their clan deity had previously been a male deity, Takamimusubi.[4]


  • Brian Bocking, A Popular Dictionary Of Shinto, Chicago: NTC Publishing Group, 1997.
  • Evelyn Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives, Cambridge University Press (2015), 115-119.


  1. Stated by Rev. Sonoda Minoru (Chief Priest of Chichibu Shrine and President of the International Shinto Foundation), 2 November 2012, UC Santa Barbara.
  2. Nihongi. Aston. 2.106.
  3. Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 11.
  4. Rawski, 118.