Shinto Japanese religion of the indigenous gods of the country. The word Shinto means “the way of the gods.” This is to distinguish it from the way of the BUDDHA, or BUDDHISM, the other great religious tradition of Japan (see JAPANESE RELIGION). Shinto is the WORSHIP of the KAMI, or ancient Japanese gods. Many of those worshipped now were there long before Buddhism arrived in Japan in the sixth century C.E. and are still honored in the Shinto shrines of Japan today.


In the Middle Ages kami and buddhas were often worshipped together. The kami were considered guardians of the buddhas, or sometimes special Japanese forms of the same spiritual power seen in Buddhism as a Buddha. But in modern times Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have been kept separate. This is largely because the nationalistic governments that ruled Japan from 1868 up until the end of World War II in 1945 wanted to make Shinto a separate patriotic cult, untouched by anything of foreign origin like Buddhism (see NATIONALISM, RELIGIOUS). The extreme nationalists emphasized that the emperor of Japan was himself a kami and descended from Amaterasu, kami or goddess of the sun. He was therefore worthy of all honor and sacrifi ce (see KINGSHIP AND RELIGION). However, Shinto as a religion is much more than an example of religious nationalism. The kami of most shrines are peaceful deities, protectors of families and local communities, honored in festivals that have their roots in the agricultural year. They were there long before the extreme nationalists, and have outlasted them. Though the emperor of Japan is still installed with very ancient Shinto rites, his religious and political role is now almost always seen as purely symbolic.


The visitor to present-day Japan will see evidence of Shinto on every hand. In most places one is not too far from a Shinto shrine or jinja large or small. Large city shrines are on parklike grounds, with grass and one or two old trees. In the countryside, shrines are often in places of striking natural beauty: on a mountainside, by a waterfall, beside the ocean or a lake or a rushing stream. Wherever situated, the entry to a Shinto shrine is marked by the distinctive gateway called a torii, which has become a symbol of Shinto as recognizable as the Christian cross or the Jewish Star of DAVID. Passing under the torii, the visitor will approach the shrine itself, a small wooden building. In the front will be a sort of porch, perhaps containing such characteristic Shinto symbols as a drum beaten during sacred dance, gohei or zigzag strips of paper fastened to an upright pole, and in the center a mirror indicating the presence of divinity. In a section behind the porch an eight-legged offering table may be seen. Behind it, steep steps lead up to massive closed doors. These doors, usually closed, open into the honden or inner sanctuary of the shrine, where a special token of the kami presence is kept. Persons passing a shrine often pause to pray. They will come to the front of the shrine, clap their hands twice or pull a bell-rope, bow, and whisper a PRAYER. Priests present offerings at shrines periodically. The great occasions of a shrine, however, are its annual matsuri or festivals. Then the shrine really comes to life. Festivals are planned and prepared for weeks, and usually draw large crowds. They have a happy, holiday atmosphere, but begin with solemn worship and prayer. First the priests enter the shrine in their white or pastel robes and black eboshi or high rounded hats. The chief priest next purifi es the shrine and the assembled crowd through a gesture like waving an evergreen branch. Then the offerings are slowly and carefully advanced and placed on the offering table. Offerings are usually beautifully arranged dishes of rice, seafood, fruit, vegetables, salt, water, and sake or rice wine. When they are all in order, the chief priest stands behind the table and chants a norito or prayer. Then the offerings are slowly removed. After that, the matsuri changes to its festive mood, kept a little differently in each shrine according to local tradition. A carnival may open on the shrine grounds. Maidens may perform sacred dance. The kami may be carried vigorously through the streets in a palanquin called a mikoshi, borne on the shoulders of young men. Many shrine traditions are famous and draw spectators to the pageantry of their matsuri from afar. Celebrated attractions include grand parades, bonfires, horse or boat races, dances, and much else, all usually in colorful traditional costumes.


For many Japanese, Shinto is important because it provides links to the rich traditions of their nation’s
past. Spiritually, it emphasizes the importance of purity, for the kami and their shrines are thought to be very pure places, and one can purify one’s own mind and heart by closeness to them. As a polytheistic religion, one affirming many gods and goddesses, Shinto suggests that the divine can be found in many different local forms, and by this means is close to the lives of communities and people.


  • Thomas P. Kasulis, Shinto: The Way Home (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004);
  • C. Scott Littleton, Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002);
  • John K. Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996);
  • Inoue Nobutaka, ed., Shinto, A Short History (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).


The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC

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