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.

Further Reading:

  • 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).

Taken from : 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

Shinto The indigenous and animistic philosophy/ religion of Japan, which provides a bridge between the living and their ancestral spirits, ancient gods and supernatural forces. Shinto is also polytheistic and shamanistic in nature. The divine manifests in all natural phenomena.

“Shinto” means “the way of the kami,” which in turn approximately means “gods” or “spirits.” Kami are not so much beings as they are transcendent, sacred forces or essences that inspire awe and reverence. Every life form possesses its own kami-nature, as do the elements.

Shinto has unknown origins; the earliest extant records are from the 8th century. Originally, it was not a religion, but a way of life, a philosophy of the interwoven nature of the world and the cosmos. It has no central authority, no doctrines and no scriptures. Nonetheless, it has had a powerful influence on the Japanese way of life, fostering an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, and a need for harmony. It has integrated into it elements of Buddhist religion and Confucian philosophy.

The supreme kami is Amaterasu Omigami, the Sun Goddess, who is regarded as the protector of the Japanese nation and people. In myth, Amaterasu was born to Izanagi and Izanami, the kami who created Japan as the most beautiful place in the world. Their myriad offspring were sent to give kami-nature to the earth in its elements, geophysical formations, animals and people. Typically, kami have no names but are identified by general characteristics associated with locales, clans, villages and families. They are worshipped at communal shrines. The kami are believed to intervene in the affairs of humans for either good or evil, as do Demons and angels. Shamanistic mediums communicate with kami and seek their favours or exorcise them if they are causing bad luck or illness.

Besides the kami, Shinto also worships ancestral spirits of clan chieftains and venerated humans who achieved great spiritual awareness during life, or who exhibited great heroism or even great evil. The remains of such persons are enshrined. Their spirits are petitioned for favours and intercession.

Shinto shrines are usually a thatched roof supported by pillars. They are located near fresh water, which is needed for purification. The gateway to the shrine, called the tori, marks the threshold between the ordinary and sacred worlds. Inside the shrine are rocks or Mirrors, which represent the kami. Symbolic offerings are short sticks with paper streamers attached.

In Shinto homes, small altars called kamidama (“godshelf”) are kept in a living-room closet. Family members pay homage to kami with daily offerings of rice, salt, water and food. Household Shinto revolves around domestic affairs and rites of passage.

During the 19th century, Shinto became a state religion in Japan; various sects developed. Alongside Shinto was tennoism, or worship of the emperor, which dates back to third-century Japan. The emperor was regarded as an offspring of the creator kami, an arahito gami or “living god,” and as the intermediary between the Japanese nation and Amaterasu. Following the defeat of Japan in World War II, the emperor was forced to renounce his divinity and State Shinto was abolished. It survived as a sectarian religion. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, he was given a Shinto burial, the first state Shinto ceremony to take place since the end of the war.

Sectarian Shinto includes sects that pursue mystical and ecstatic experiences through pilgrimages to Mount Fuji, ecstatic dancing and firewalking. Other sects devote themselves to spiritual healing. Shinto sects have been exported to the Western world and Latin America.

Household Shinto is on the decline in modern Japan, due in part to a decreasing interest on the part of young people. See Shamanism.

Further Reading:

  • Hori, Ichiro. Folk Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. Mysticism in the World’s Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Picken, Stuart D. B. Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Roots. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1980.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007
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