Gary Ebersole. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


The term Shinto refers to the worship of local divinities, called kami, in the Japanese archipelago. “Shinto” literally means “the way of the kami.” It is difficult to pinpoint the historical origins of this Japanese religion. It has no founder, so its beginnings cannot be connected with an individual. Indeed, the location of the origins of Shinto in history depends upon how the term Shinto itself is defined. For centuries nativist scholars in Japan (kokugakusha) and apologists for the imperial family have claimed that Shinto is the expression of the natural and innate spirituality of the Japanese people. They have argued that this spirituality—styled Yamatodamashii, or “the spirit/soul of Yamato,” Yamato being the name for ancient Japan—is unique to the Japanese as a people and has not changed over the centuries. They have projected the origins of Shinto back into the misty past and connected it with a divinely ordained political order. From a modern perspective, claims such as these are ideological and xenophobic in nature; they are not historically grounded. Yet, while it is impossible to accept this picture of Shinto as historically accurate, the very fact that so many Japanese scholars and Shinto apologists have proffered it is itself useful for the historian of religions. It tells us that defining and dating Shinto has always been a political act, one related to the rhetorical construction of a collective identity and to the goal of legitimating imperial rule.

The noun kami, which is both singular and plural in usage, is usually translated as “deities,” “divinities,” or “gods.” In contrast to the mainstream traditions of the three Western monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), which hold that the divine and the human are categorically different forms of being, in Japan the line between the human and the divine is blurred. The emperor and empress, for example, were long held to be living kami in human form. The founders of some socalled new religions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were also considered to be living kami (hitogami or ikigami). More important, kami are not necessarily beings at all. Islands, mountains, rocks, trees, springs, rivers, waterfalls, whirlpools, and any number of other phenomena are referred to as kami. This has led some scholars to suggest that Shinto is a form of animism. Yet not all natural phenomena are sacred; only those that evoke a specific sort of response (for example, wonder, awe, a sense of the uncanny, or fear) in people are said to possess kami nature.


In an important sense the terms Japan, the Japanese, and Shinto are anachronisms when they are used in reference to the JMmon period (c. 8000-200 B.C.E.) or even the early centuries of the Common Era. No nation as such, no racially or ethnically distinct and unified people, and no unified religion were found in the Japanese archipelago during this time.

The earliest written records that may refer to the islands today known as Japan are Chinese texts. The third-century C.E.Wei Chih (History of the Kingdom of Wei), for instance, speaks of the land of the Wa, an island chain with many different principalities. The largest, Yamatai, was ruled by a woman who exercised shamanic powers, going into trances and communicating with the gods. The people practiced divination using tortoise shells and tattooed their bodies. It would be a stretch to call this Shinto, however, since so little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the time. In the period just before writing was introduced, the people organized themselves into many extended clans (uji). Each clan was united by the shared worship of the clan kami. The political leader of each clan (ujigami) also served as the chief ritualist—a pattern that was to be followed by the emperors and empresses later, after the establishment of a centralized kingdom. The people lived in an oral society in which all knowledge (e.g., religious, technological, and genealogical) was preserved and handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Immigrants from the present-day Korean peninsula brought writing to the islands, as well as other new technologies (iron forging, bronze casting, and pottery, for example), in the early centuries of the Common Era. They also introduced various aspects of the Chinese and Korean peninsular cultures, including religious values, concepts, and practices; cosmological constructions; and social and political structures.

Rice paddy culture was introduced to the region in the Yayoi period (c. 200 B.C.E.-250 C.E.). The subsequent agricultural revolution allowed the people to shift from a hunting-and-gathering stage of culture to one of surplus food stores, expanded permanent settlements, differentiated social classes, and occupational specialization. Gradually, some clans gained hegemony over others and began to exercise broader control over more people. Numerous large burial mounds (kofun), often in the shape of a keyhole, date from this time. The largest of these, said to be the burial site of Emperor Nintoku (reigned 313-99 B.C.E.), covers 80 acres. Although it is anachronistic to refer to the rulers at this time as “emperors,” the presence of such impressive kofun indicates that some clans had the power to marshal the labor of thousands of persons for extended periods of time.

The large-scale changes wrought by the introduction of agriculture were not limited to the socioeconomic realm, however. Equally important, agriculture produced a revolution in religious imagery, symbolism, and practice. It is no accident that the architectural form of Shinto shrines resembles that of ancient granaries in Southeast Asia and Polynesia. The ritual calendar of the people came to be punctuated with rites and festivals related to the agricultural cycle, from the rituals for the planting of rice seedlings to the harvest festival in the fall. Moreover, when a centralized sacred kingship developed in the sixth and seventh centuries, the rulers styled themselves as the guarantors of fertility and bountiful harvests throughout the land, just as the Chinese emperor did. This intimate relationship between the ruler and agriculture is clearly in evidence in the myths preserved in the eighth-century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihonshoki (Chronicle of Japan), especially those concerning Amaterasu, the sun goddess.

In an important sense it is the dual presence of agricultural rites and a centralized sacral kingship that permits us to speak of the emergence of Shinto. The term Shinto or the phrase “the way of the kami” does not refer to a timeless indigenous religion. Rather, it was coined in response to the presence of other sacred ways, most especially Taoism and Buddhism, brought from the Asian mainland. In terms of East Asian civilizations, Japan is fairly young—much younger than the Korean or Chinese civilizations, for instance. The earliest narrative texts from Japan date only from the eighth century C.E. The Kojiki (712), Nihonshoki (720; also known as Nihongi), and the Man’yMshū (late eighth century), among the earliest texts from Japan, provide valuable information about the religion of this time (at least among the elite) and preserve many myths. It is difficult to say, though, how far back into the past the religious beliefs, values, and practices found therein can be projected. Only a few contemporary Shinto apologists accept the chronology of the Nihonshoki, which dates the founding of Japan to 660B.C.E., during the reign of the legendary emperor Jimmu. No serious historian does so. This chronology includes legendary figures with Methuselah-like life spans, as well as historical figures who lived closer to the time of the chronicle’s composition.

The so-called Japanese historical chronicles actually present a “mythistory,” not unlike that found in the Hebrew Bible. A “mythistory” blends myths—narratives with divine actors—into historical narratives of human action in order to create an ontological distinction and a pedigree for the ruling elite or for a people. In this case, it also seeks to legitimate a social hierarchy with an uneven distribution of wealth, power, privilege, and prestige. The Kojiki, Nihonshoki, andMan’yMshū all came out of the elite sectors of society. The Kojiki, for instance, was first ordered to be committed to writing by the emperor Temmu (reigned 673-86). The “mythistory” these works recount claims that the imperial family is descended directly from Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Like the pharaohs of Egypt, the rulers of ancient Japan claimed to be suprahuman or, more precisely, kami in human form (arahitogami). It is unknown how many people believed this to be true, but the assertion became the official position and was at the center of the imperial cult.

In 645 and 646 court leaders promulgated the Great Reform (Taika) in an attempt to restructure the political realm, to formalize a social hierarchy with the emperor at the top, and to create a hierarchy of religious institutions. Land grants were made to numerous Shinto shrines (such as Ise, Izumo, and Kashima), which gained prestige by becoming identified with the imperial family. This reform was followed in 701 by the TaihM Code (TaihM Ritsuryo), which established a Bureau of State (DajMkan) and a Bureau of Kami Affairs (Jingikan) at the top of the government hierarchy. The TaihM Code solidified the government’s investment in the state-sponsored kami cults, both in economic terms and in terms of symbolic legitimation. It also sought to strengthen government control over Buddhist institutions. These reforms may be seen as efforts to weaken clan-based religio-political institutions and to replace these with imperially sponsored and controlled ones. While the TaihM Code was never fully implemented, the ideal of a divine emperor as the sacred center of the land and the cosmos was to continue to attract supporters down to the modern period.

As time went on, the imperial court began to grant additional titles, special hereditary rights, and prerogatives to specific families and to members of occupational guilds (be). From the second half of the ninth century until the mid-twelfth century, the Nakatomi family (later known as the Fujiwara) parlayed the hereditary status of its members as priests into real political power for several centuries. Nakatomi men became powerful ministers in the government, while daughters were strategically married into the imperial family in order to assure that Fujiwara grandchildren would accede to the throne. Numerous shrines and temples, controlled by aristocrats, were granted tax-free landholdings and estates and thus became sources of great wealth. As a result the religion of the wealthy elite, like their lifestyle, came to differ in some important ways from that of the peasants and laboring masses. Nevertheless, the religion of the elite and that of the commoners continued to share many beliefs and practices. Historians of Shinto have yet to investigate fully the ways in which the religious worlds of commoner and elite were both alike and different.

In the Nara period (710-94) Buddhism gained significant government support and patronage, most especially from the emperor ShMmu (reigned 701-56), who himself took the tonsure (i.e., shaved his head and donned Buddhist robes). From the start, however, Buddhism was assimilated with the kami cults in various ways. In 742 ShMmu issued an edict in which he declared that people should worship the kami but know that the original forms (honji) of these kami were actually various Buddhas. This is an expression of the Buddhist concept of assimilation, known in Japanese ashonjisuijaku. An important example of the identification of a kami with a Buddha is the god Hachiman. The emperor sought to cast a great bronze Buddha (daibutsu) for TMdai-ji, the Great Eastern Temple, as a protector of the country. Things did not go well, however. The casting failed, the imperial treasury ran short of funds, and many of the people in the countryside began to grumble about being forced to contribute labor and funds. With the success of the project in jeopardy, two developments turned the tide.

First, according to the Shoku Nihongi, the kami Usa Hachiman in Kyushu delivered an oracle that he would “lead thekami of heaven and earth” to support the project. In gratitude the emperor had this kami enshrined in TMdai-ji as its protective deity. There Buddhist priests recited sutras before this kami, who came to be known as a bodhisattva—that is, a fully enlightened being who forgoes entrance into paradise in order to bring all living things to enlightenment and salvation—and as the divinized spirit of the legendary emperor L. In time the syncretic cult of Hachiman would become one of the largest and most widespread in the country. It is important to recognize the extent to which the kami cults and the worship of Buddhist deities were intertwined. In the city of Nara the Buddhist temples TMdai-ji and KMfuku-ji and the Shinto Kasuga Shrine were, to use the term of the scholar Allan Grapard, an integrated “multiplex.”

That is, these institutions were not independent, just as the worship of Shinto and Buddhist deities was not distinct.

Second, Emperor ShMmu turned to GyMgi (670-749), a charismatic Buddhist leader who had won wide-spread acclaim among the commoners. GyMgi was not a fully ordained priest; rather, he practiced a shamanic form of Buddhism that blended mountain asceticism, divination, and faith healing with the boddhisattva ideal. Religious figures like GyMgi were known as ubasoku or hijiri. They represent a type of religious leader, the holy man, who combines social activism with an implicit (if not explicit) critique of the religious and political establishment. As might be expected, some of the ecclesiastical heads of Buddhist institutions did not appreciate such unauthorized figures encroaching on what they considered to be their religious “turf.” Reportedly, GyMgi traveled to the Ise Shrines in order to present a relic of the Buddha to Amaterasu. There he received a favorable communication from the kami authorizing him to solicit funds for the completion of the giant statue. (At a more mundane level, the discovery of new deposits of gold also enabled the court to complete the giant Buddha statue.) As was the case with Usa Hachiman, reports of oracles from kami served to suggest that Buddhist forms of devotion were not antithetical to the worship of the kami. Significantly, the commoners called GyMgi “GyMgi bosatsu”—the bodhisattva GyMgi. In doing so, they extended the concept of hitogami (a kami in human form) to a Buddhist figure, though one out-side the power elite associated with the court. The common people would continue to exercise their own power and prerogatives to acknowledge individuals as holy or divine over the following centuries, right down to the present.

The amalgamation of Buddhism and Shinto accelerated in the Heian period (710-1185), after the capital was moved to Kyoto. The two most influential schools of Japanese Buddhism—Tendai (in Chinese, T’ien-tai) and Shingon—were both esoteric schools. That is, they taught that, besides an exoteric truth and teaching that could be publicly communicated, there was also a deeper esoteric, or secret, religious truth. The concept of honjisuijaku (true essence and trace manifestation), found in the Lotus Sutra, was used to argue that Japanese kami were the temporally and spatially local manifestations of eternal Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The success of such identifications led to the building of Buddhist temples on Shinto shrine grounds, and vice versa, a pattern that was to be the norm through the 1870s. For their part, Shinto priests associated with Tendai and Shingon institutions formulated their own version of the identity of kami and Buddhist divinities. The origins of SannM Itchijitsu Shinto (Mountain King-One Truth) can be traced to SaichM (767-822), the founder of the Tendai school. He worshiped the kami of Mount Hiei, where he established his headquarters and monastery, as the Buddhist avatar SannM Gongen, the Mountain King, who was identified with Yakushi, the healing Buddha. Similarly, he worshiped the kami of Lmiwa as the historical Buddha.

Shinto priests affiliated with the Shingon school of Buddhism promulgated RyMbu Shinto, which identified the kami of the Inner Shrine of Ise with the Great Sun Buddha and the kami of the Outer Shrine with the Buddha of the Diamond Realm. This form of Shinto also incorporated the use of such other elements of Buddhist practice as esoteric mantras (dharani); mudra, or magical hand signs; and mandalas (elaborate paintings used in meditative practice, as objects of worship, and as teaching devices) that represent key Buddhist concepts and beings. In 859 the Yoshida Shrine, a branch of the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, was established on a hill in the northeast sector of Kyoto. The kami enshrined there was Kasuga DaimyMjin, or Ame-no-koyane-no-mikoto, the ancestral deity of the Fujiwara. The Yoshida, or Urabe, family remained close to the imperial family and to the Fujiwara, which after all were also becoming one and the same through marriages of convenience. The Yoshida priests offered lectures on the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, extolling the divine origins of the imperial family and the prestige of their own sacerdotal line.

Two other developments in the Heian period bear mention. First, the belief in goryM, the haunting spirits of persons who had died violently or who had been wronged, spread rapidly. GoryM were attributed with the power to cause illness, madness, death, fires, lightning strikes, and other calamities. One of the most famous goryM was that of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a scholar, poet, and government minister who was falsely accused of treason and sent into exile in Kyushu, where he died. After an oracle announced that a series of “natural” disasters had, in fact, been caused by Michizane’s angry spirit, the emperor pardoned him posthumously and had his spirit enshrined and worshiped. This marked the formal beginning of the practice of deifying such individuals and of the pacification rites known as goryM-e. Tens of thousands of young people throughout contemporary Japan visit Shinto shrines dedicated to Temman Daijizai Tenjin, Michizane’s divinized form. Popularly known as Tenjin-sama, this kami is prayed to for success in school entrance exams. Only the shrines dedicated to Inari, the rice harvest deity, or to Hachiman are more numerous.

The rise of the Kumano cults must also be noted. During the Heian period three shrines and sacred sites in the mountainous Kumano region—Hongu, Shingu, and Nachi—emerged as important pilgrimage sites, which were to become mass pilgrimage sites in the following centuries. The Kumano pilgrimage was popular with aristocrats and even emperors. Kumano is famous for its ShugendM priests, known as shugenja or hijiri, who practiced various forms of severe asceticism in the mountains. The cult was deeply influenced by the Shin-to-Buddhist amalgamation described previously. The Kumano Mandala, which portrays the surrounding areas as a natural mandala, is a famous national treasure. Before the development of modern forms of transportation, simply getting to these pilgrimage sites was an arduous task that tested the faith and commitment of the pilgrims. Kumano remains an important religious area, though today visitors can travel there in comfort by rail, car, or ferry.

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) was marked by the rise of military rulers and the relative decline of the imperial family and old aristocracy. Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-99) moved the administrative capital north to Kamakura in 1192, leaving the court in Kyoto isolated and its trappings of prestige tattered. To be sure, the series of military dictators made more or less perfunctory nods to the imperial family, but real power had slipped from imperial into military hands. The military rulers at times supported Buddhist cults, but not surprisingly the amalgamated cult of Hachiman, the god of war, grew significantly at this time. Many samurai (members of the warrior caste) also practiced forms of Zen Buddhism, as well as worshiping at Shinto shrines. Again, many portrayals of Japanese history fail to convey the extent to which Buddhism (here Zen) and the kami cults were intertwined in the lives of the people.

The historical vicissitudes of the imperial family, as well as various powerful clans and military figures, all of whom rose to great heights of power and prestige only to fall to a ruinous state, seemed to many persons to be powerful and poignant evidence of the Buddhist teaching that this was the Age of Declining Dharma (mappM). This teaching held that the world and its inhabitants were in decline, with humans no longer able to practice and master earlier forms of religious practice. Millennial expectations of various sorts became widespread. Nichiren (1222-82), for example, was a Tendai Buddhist priest who came to believe that the teachings and practices of all the Buddhist sects, as well as of other religious traditions, were false and dangerous distortions of the Truth. Believing that he lived in the age of mappM, he placed his exclusive faith in the Lotus Sutra. Unlike most Japanese religious leaders, Nichiren attacked any position supporting religious pluralism or suggesting the identity or functional equivalence of different religions. Moreover, he offered a nationalistic, even xenophobic, vision of Japan’s special role in salvational history. On the one hand, Nichiren promoted a message of religious exclusivity, but on the other, he saw Japan, “the land of the kami,” as destined to play a critical role in sacred history. In other words, he viewed human history as a part of a universal plan of salvation. A strong supporter of the imperial cause, he was deeply troubled by the defeat of the imperial forces in 1221. He predicted absolute chaos and catastrophe for the country, including invasions by foreign forces, if the people did not return to an exclusive reliance upon the Lotus Sutra. When an invading Mongol fleet was destroyed in a typhoon, Nichiren credited this miraculous escape to kami-kaze (“divine winds”), a term he coined. He believed that Japan was destined to become a theocratic state ruled under a reformed Buddhism. Tellingly, his own priestly name combined the characters for “sun” and “lotus,” suggesting a critical identification of the land and the Lotus Sutra in his own person. Indeed, he came to believe that he was an incarnation of JMgyM (Viśistacāritra), the bodhisattva to whom the historical Buddha had entrusted the Lotus Sutra centuries earlier.

A Shinto response to a Buddhist claim of preeminence was forthcoming, although not immediately. Urabe (also Yoshida) Kanetomo (1435-1511) sought to revive the Ise Shinto cult and to restore its unique prestige and status. A noted scholar, he proffered his own form of exclusive and nationalistic religion, although in Shinto form. He argued against the concept and practices of honji-suijaku and for the restoration of a pure Shinto, which he called yuitsu genpon sMgen shintM—the unique original essence Shinto. In significant ways this form of Shinto remained influential over the following centuries.

The intertwined relationship of Buddhist and Shin-to institutions and practices was radically altered in the 1870s when the Meiji government authorized the forced separation of Buddhist and Shinto deities in cultic sites, while establishing State Shinto as the national cult. The separate status of Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines in present-day Japan is, thus, a modern development. It does not reflect the situation that had existed in the land for many centuries. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw the development of many so-called new religions. These religions generally have a founder who underwent some form of divine possession or revelatory experience in which akami or Buddha expressed its divine will. Often lay-based, these new religions come in Buddhist forms (for example, Reiyū-kai, SMka Gakkai) and Shinto forms (for example, Tenri-kyM, KonkM-kyM), mixing aspects of faith healing with folk religious practices.

Central Doctrines

Shinto is not a doctrinal religion. There is no formal, standardized, or orthodox system of belief per se. Rather, most shrines or sects are free to develop their own expressions of religious style and practice. Shrines affiliated with specific larger shrines, however, often follow the lead and ritual calendar of the head shrine. Since World War II the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja HonchM) has issued a series of publications through the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics of Kokugakuin University, which serve as a general statement of Shinto beliefs and concepts. While Shinto priests are versed in topics such as morality, sincerity, purity, and so forth, they rarely preach on these subjects.

Moral Code of Conduct

Shinto does not have a moral code distinct from that of Japanese culture more generally, which has been deeply influenced by Confucian, Neo-Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist values and ideals. Western authors have often noted, however, that Shinto does not possess a concept of sin akin to that found in the Western monotheisms, nor does it have a concept of humankind as fallen or inherently sinful. Rather, according to the religious anthropology of Shin-to, human beings have an innate moral sense of right and wrong or—perhaps more precisely—of propriety and impropriety. This is because humankind is descended from the kami and, thus, there is no radical ontological distinction between kami and human beings. Indeed, Shinto authors speak of shinjin goitsu, the essential identity of kami and humans. For bothkami and human beings, improper actions and improper interpersonal relationships can lead to moral blemishes (kegare) or a state of pollution. These blemishes can be washed away, as it were, by performing rites of purification (harae) and by correcting personal attitudes and actions.

The mythic paradigm for understanding kegare and harae is found in the story of the kami Izanagi’s descent into the underworld (told in the creation accounts of the Kojiki and Nihonshoki). There the female creator, Izanami, suffers severe burns in giving birth to the fire kami, passes away, and enters Yomi no kuni, the Land of Darkness. Her spouse, Izanagi, desires to see her again and descends into the realm of the dead. In the course of events, he violates a taboo on viewing her. This provokes her anger, and he is forced to flee the underworld, pursued by its denizens and cursed by Izanami. After his escape from this “most unpleasant land, a horrible, unclean land,” Izanagi performs a rite of purification. In doing so he brings into existence a number of kami, including Amaterasu and her sibling, Susano-o.

In some respects Shinto proffers a form of situational ethics rather than absolute rights and wrongs. Suicide, for instance, may occasion either public censure or acclaim, depending on the circumstances. An individual who kills himself merely to escape personal problems may be judged to have been weak or selfish, while a person who commits suicide in order to take responsibility for a perceived failure that affected a collective unit (family, company, or the nation) is not. The figure of the loyal retainer, who faithfully serves his master or avenges his death but then commits ritual suicide (junshi) to take responsibility for his own failures and transgressions, has held sway in the Japanese popular imagination since the medieval period. From the many retellings of the eighteenth-century story of the 47 rMnin(masterless samurai or swordsmen) to the ritual suicides of General Nogi Maresuke and the writer Mishima Yukio in the twentieth century, each generation has grappled with the issues of what constitutes moral conduct and what to do in the face of conflicting moral duties.

It must be recognized that Shinto codes of moral conduct have changed over time, just as Christian ones have. The famous twentieth-century author Natsume SMseki captured this in his novel Kokoro (1914). The novel’s main protagonist, Sensei (Teacher), tries to explain in a letter to a young friend why he has decided to commit suicide after hearing that General Nogi had taken his own life following the death of Emperor Meiji: “Perhaps you will not understand clearly why I am about to die, no more than I can fully understand why General Nogi killed himself. You and I belong to different eras, and so we think differently. There is nothing we can do to bridge the gap between us.” In other words, a moral imperative of one period may not prevail in another. Nor, for that matter, may the moral duty of one person or class of persons necessarily be the same for others. Thus, the moral code of the samurai class was not the same as that of farmers, merchants, or priests.

In general, the Shinto-based new religions of Japan place a heavy emphasis on each individual’s responsibility for maintaining proper relationships with others, including one’s ancestral spirits. They also teach that an individual must assume responsibility not only for his or her actions but also for the reactions of others to them. For instance, if a wife is ignored by her husband or finds him irritable, she should not blame him; rather, she is instructed to examine herself in order to discover what she may have done to provoke this reaction and, then, to rectify it. Shinto ethics, then, are informed by Confucian and Taoist elements and cannot be neatly separated from Japanese social ethics more generally. The Neo-Confucian emphasis on loyalty to one’s superiors, the submerging of one’s personal desires to the collective good, and moral obligation all were used in the modern period to mobilize the Japanese people in support of nationalist and expansionist policies.

Sacred Books

No Shinto texts have the status that the Bible has for Christians or that the Koran has for Muslims. That is, there are no divinely revealed works that all persons accept as the full and final word of God. Members of one of the Shinto-informed new religions have their own sacred texts, but the members of other religious communities do not recognize their status as scripture. To take but one example, the sacred texts of Tenri-kyM play no part in the communal life of the followers of Lmoto-kyM; the converse is also true.

Largely because of the influential works of nativist scholars—such as Motoori Norinaga—in the early modern and modern periods, the Kojiki has come to hold a certain privileged status, but this has not affected the cultic status of hundreds ofkami who were not mentioned in the Kojiki. Over the centuries, however, numerous shrines and priestly families have used inclusion in the Kojiki of a kami that they enshrine and ritually serve in order to gain status and prestige within the religious world of Japan. Similarly, the ancient norito, or sacred prayers that are recited at imperial shrines, have gained a wider currency, although again they are hardly universal or required.

Sacred Symbols

Like the members of most religious communities, Shinto participants employ many symbols in their lives. White, for instance, is a ubiquitous symbol of purity. In the Great Purification Rituals at the end of the year and in late June,hitogata (literally “person-form”), or paper cutouts, are rubbed over a person’s body in order to take on the aches and pains and to absorb the tsumi (imi or kegare—spiritual defilements) that have accumulated. Symbolizing long life and vitality, kadomatsu are New Year’s wreaths made of pine boughs enclosing diagonally cut bamboo stalks. Amulets (ofuda) containing the name of a kami—and thus symbolizing the kami’s presence and protection—may be carried in a purse or billfold or hung in a car.

At most shrines there are small wooden tablets tied to large wooden display boards. Visitors purchase these tablets and write simple petitions on the backs of them, such as “I want to find a husband” or “I want to pass the university entrance exam.” These tablets, known as ema (literally “horse pictures”), are offered to the kami. The horse pictures symbolize the actual horses that were once offered to the deities, as well as a wish for the delivery of the petition. Ema may also have zodiac signs, shrine insignia, or natural scenes on them rather than horses.

Early and Modern Leaders

Shinto is a diffuse religion that was without an overarching ecclesiastical structure for most of its history. A number of historical leaders or innovators, however—proponents of Neo-Confucianism and members of the nativist, or National Learning, school (kokugaku)—bear mention.

Yamazaki Ansai (1618-82), a Neo-Confucian scholar, founded a form of Confucian Shinto known as Suika, or Suiga, Shinto—the Shinto of Divine Revelation and Blessings. He maintained that the one true teaching was that of Sarutahiko-no-mikoto, the earthly kami who had guided Amaterasu from the High Heavens to the earth and Japan. Ansai also promoted reverence for the emperor. He held that, as a direct descendent of Amaterasu, the Japanese emperor was united with the heavenly sun.

Yamaga SokM (1622-85) was a member of the kogaku, or Ancient Learning school, which stressed the importance of returning to the original texts of both Confucianism and Shinto and using philological methods in the search for truth. He identified Shinto with the way of the Confucian sages, arguing that they were one and the same, not distinct traditions. He is representative of numerous thinkers and activists who sought to combine Neo-Confucian thought and ethics with Japanese emperor-worship and nationalism.

The nativist, or National Learning (kokugaku), movement maintained that the worship of the kami, especially the sun goddess, was the essence of “pure” Shin-to (that is, Shinto before it became associated with Buddhism and Confucianism). Scholars locate the beginning of this movement in the work of a Shingon Buddhist priest, Keichū (1640-1701). Keichū came to believe that the poems of the Man’yMshū preserved the pure ancient Japanese language. Almost single-handedly he revived widespread interest in this poetry anthology, and he made it accessible to readers once again through his careful annotations. Keichū extended his critical methodology to other works of classical literature, including The Tale of Genji and The Tales of Ise, in an attempt to recover their original meaning and intent. This understanding of the significance of poetic language and its relationship to an earlier, pure spirituality recalls the ideas of the philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and certain Romantic thinkers in Europe. The connection drawn between the Man’yMshū and other works of classical Japanese literature and a pure Japanese or Shinto spirituality by Keichū and other nativist scholars has remained influential in present-day Japan. For example, The ManyMshū, the English translation of 1,000 verses by the Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai, was first published in 1940, the year Japan formed an alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy under Benito Mussolini. The introduction to this anthology remains an important example of the modern ideological use of literary artifacts to construct a pure, unique, and innate Japanese spirituality and a “timeless” divine sociopolitical order.

Kada Azumamaro (1669-1736) and Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769) also contributed to the kokugaku movement. Kada, the son of a Shinto priest, continued Keichū’s study of the Man’yMshū and classical Japanese literature. His immediate goal was to get the government to establish a school of National Learning, which would identify and eliminate Buddhist and Confucian obfuscations of the original meaning of Japanese texts. His proposed curriculum covered the way of thekami, history, law, and literature.

Kamo no Mabuchi became a disciple of Kada shortly before the latter died. Mabuchi continued and extended the work and teachings of his master. His school in Edo became widely influential, and his many works reached a large audience. In addition to studies of the Man’yMshū, he studied and wrote on the Shinto norito (liturgical prayers) of the Engishikiand other works of Japanese literature. He borrowed the Confucian concept of poetry as a guide and corrective to power politics, even as he substituted Japanese for Chinese verse and denigrated the Confucian tradition. Like other nativist scholars, Mabuchi romanticized the Man’yM period as a golden age in which the people spontaneously expressed themselves in poetry. Moreover, he argued that, because of the divine rule of the Japanese emperors, the land was blessed and the relations between the sovereign and the people were harmonious and free of all discord. Like many others before and after him, Mabuchi sought to identify Shinto with the Japanese national body (kokutai) and the imperial system.

Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was perhaps the most influential spokesman for the National Learning movement. Rather than emphasize the central importance of the Man’yMshū, however, he pointed to the Kojiki. For Norinaga theKojiki was the repository of pure Japanese spirituality, or Yamato-damashii. He derided the thought of Yamazaki Ansai for attempting to promote Confucianism under the guise of Shinto. His goal was once again to restore Shinto to its original state of purity—thus, the name Fukko ShintM (Restoration Shinto) is sometimes used to refer to his school. Although Shinto is sometimes criticized for not having a well-developed system of ethics, Motoori Norinaga included national morality among his four subjects to be studied and taught, in addition to national history, national literature, and Shinto and the body politic. His work has also influenced the discourse on Shinto in numerous important ways, not least in his suggestion that human emotional responses to things and events in the world are the essence of a pure religion and spirituality, not reason or a set of beliefs. In his pioneering works on classical Japanese literature, he linked aesthetic responses to religious ones in ways that many Japanese scholars of religion and literature have continued to follow.

Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) also promoted the restoration of imperial rule. His teachings were later to have great influence on samurai leaders of the Meiji Restoration, who overthrew the Tokugawa regime, reinstalled the emperor as the head of state, and sought to establish a national Shinto cult centered on the emperor. Hirata also posited the existence of a hidden or concealed world after death, where the spirits of the deceased continued to exist. This was a significant innovation in Shinto thought and one that introduced a dualism that some scholars have argued was influenced by Christianity.

Other important leaders have included the founders of new religious groups—the so-called new religions—in the Tokugawa, Meiji, and modern periods. Tenri-kyM, KonkM-kyM, Kurozumi-kyM, Lmoto-kyM, SukyM Mahikari, PL KyMdan, Seicho-no-Ie, and Sekai Kyūsei-kyM are a few examples of Shinto-based “new religions.” None of these founders ever became a spokesperson for the Shinto world as a whole; rather, their spheres of influence were more circumscribed. Nevertheless, their careers and religious roles collectively represent an important characteristic of Shinto history: Innovation and new revelations are always possible at the grassroots level through forms of divine possession and divine communication. Moreover, immediate contact with the kami is available not only to the clergy but also to laypersons—to women as well as men and to the uneducated as well as the highly educated.

Nakyama Miki (1798-1887) founded Tenri-kyM after experiencing repeated instances of divine possession by the kamiTenri-o-no-mikoto, or Oyagami (Parent Deity). Many of her visions and revealed teachings were recorded and are now the central sacred teachings and scripture of this populous, wealthy, and influential religion. Miki also performed faith healings and shamanic rites, including ecstatic dancing.

Kawate Bunjiro (1814-83), the founder of KonkM-kyM, was believed to be a kami in human form (ikigami). He taught a form of positive thinking while emphasizing that a person should live according to the will of the kami in this life and not search for an afterlife. If a person lived his or her life properly, according to Bunjiro, then the goodness, happiness, and prosperity that can be enjoyed in this life themselves become sacralized. The focus of KonkM-kyM and other new religions on this life, as well as the prevalence of prayers for practical benefits (genze riyaku), has recently attracted the attention of scholars studying religions in contemporary Japan.

Deguchi Nao (1836-1918) was a peasant woman who had been widowed and reduced to abject poverty. She sought to provide for her children by gathering and reselling rags and discarded clothing. Familiar with KonkM-kyM and Tenri-kyM from her youth, this illiterate woman began to experience attacks of divine possession, which continued for more than twenty years. Nao’s divine messages had millennial overtones, promising a rectification of the world order and the fall of the rich and powerful for having distorted the divine will. A son-in-law who took the name Deguchi Onisaburo (1871-1948) later assumed the leadership of the community that formed around Nao. He himself participated in the tradition of severe asceticism in the mountains, undertaking regimens that produced religious visions that he recorded in hefty volumes. Onisaburo was also a talented organizer and administrator and systematized the teachings and practices of Lmoto-kyM. The rapid growth of the religion apparently threatened some members of the government, which led to his arrest in 1921 and the destruction of the Lmoto-kyM headquarters. By the 1930s, however, Lmoto-kyM had become a strongly nationalistic movement, though the independence of its leaders again led it afoul of the government. Over the years Lmoto-kyM has spawned a large number of other new religious groups.

Major Theologians and Authors

Several major theologians of Shinto were also important leaders in the development of the religion, as discussed above in EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS. One of the most important theologians was Urabe, or Yoshida, Kanetomo (1435-1511), the founder of Urabe Shinto, also known as Yuiitsu or Yoshida Shinto. In the wake of the devastation of the capital, Kyoto, in the Lnin War, he promulgated teachings of the uniqueness of Japan, while rejecting honji suijaku, the Buddhist teaching that assimilated kami to various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the subsumption of the Yoshida Shrine by the Kamo Shrine, he strenuously promoted specific aspects of the Ise Shinto traditions. Among other things, he claimed that the kami Ame-no-koyane-no-mikoto was the original source of the uniqueness of Shinto and of Japan as a country. Buddhism and Confucianism were held to be the flowers and fruit of this root. Not surprisingly, this kami was the ancestral deity of the Nakatomi/Fujiwara family and the deity enshrined in the Urabe-dominated Kasuga Shrine in Nara and the Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto. In the Kojiki creation myth, Ame-no-koyane accompanies Ninigi-no-mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess, in his descent from the High Heavens in order to pacify this world and to establish divine rule. Ame-no-koyane—and by extension the Urabe/Yoshida sacerdotal lineage—is closely associated with the imperial regalia. This is due in part to the claim of officials of the Yoshida Shrine that in 1487 the shintai (objects into which the kami descend after a ritual summons) of the Inner and Outer Shrines of Ise had escaped a destructive fire by miraculously flying to the Yoshida Shrine. The teachings of Kanetomo were only the latest in a long line of theological “innovations” by members of the Urabe/Yoshida line of ritualists. These are more properly seen as permutations within the long-standing strategy of adapting to changing sociopolitical situations while protecting the prestige of the sacerdotal lineage. For example, in 1330 Urabe Jihen left the Yoshida Shrine in order to study the syncretic Tendai sannM cult and teachings at the monastic complex on Mount Hiei. Apparently he found the priority given to Buddhist figures in this cult unacceptable, however. He then traveled on to Ise, where he studied the esoteric tradition of the Watari priestly line of the Outer Shrine. Subsequently Jihen developed a theology in which even the Buddhas and bodhisattvas were declared to have kami nature. This essentially inverted the Buddhist honji suijaku teaching. Yuiitsu Shinto, which incorporated Buddhist and Confucian elements, was highly influential from the fifteenth century to the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century.

Mention also should be made of some of the major scholarly Japanese interpreters of Shinto to the West. Masaharu Anesaki’s historical survey History of Japanese Religion (1930) remained the standard work until Joseph M. Kitagawa published his Religion in Japanese History (1966). In the early twentieth century Genchi Kato published several influential articles on Shinto in the Transactions of the Japan Society of London, as well as a translation of the ninth-century chronicle Kogoshui. Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Way of the Kami (1962) is an insider’s view, as are the publications of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics of Kokugakuin University. Tsunetsugu Muraoka’s Studies in Shinto Thought (1964) and Naofusa Hirai’s Japanese Shinto (1966) also bear mention. Hori IchirM’s Folk Religion in Japan(1968) was an important introduction to the significance of popular religious beliefs and practices for an appreciation of Japanese religions. SMkichi Tsuda (1873-1961) is perhaps the bestknown critical historian of Shinto and early Japanese history to have run afoul of governmental authorities for demonstrating that the historical chronology of the ancient imperial chronicles was unreliable. Kuroda Toshio (1926-93), for his part, argued persuasively that Shinto and Buddhism were institutionally intertwined through most of Japanese history.

Organizational Structure

The organizational structure of Shinto has varied greatly over time and from place to place. The early kami cults were local and independent in nature. Over time some shrines or shrine-temple multiplexes began to establish networks of branch shrines. This led to different “schools” of Shinto (for example, Yoshida Shinto) having their own organizational structures. At various points in history Japan’s central government also sought to organize, and exercise control over, religious institutions. The Heianperiod Engishiki listed 22 shrines in rank order, with Ise at the top. The later establishment of a system relating specific shrines to the imperial shrines of Ise is another example of how these institutions were organized. This section will discuss the general internal organization of Shinto shrines today and the current national organizational structure.

Individual shrines of sufficient size and resources generally have the following hierarchical leadership structure: the gūji,or head priest, who has day-to-day overall authority over the shrine, though he ultimately answers to a board of trustees; the gon-gūji, or assistant head priest; the negi, or senior priest(s); the kannushi, or priest(s); and the miko, or female shrine assistants (single young women who assist in rituals and perform kagura, or Shinto ritual dances).

The Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja honchM), an organization created after World War II, regulates the Shinto shrines affiliated at a national level. This group represents the collective interests of the shrines in the political and legal spheres; it also takes the lead in handling public relations, both domestically and internationally. The association publishes a newspaper or newsletter, distributed to all members and to subscribers, which serves as the main vehicle for representing Shinto as a whole to the shrines themselves and to the world. The association also ranks shrines, as well as priests, in a hierarchy with the imperial shrines at Ise ranked at the top, as might be expected. The Jinja honchM is intimately involved in priestly appointments and licenses priests through examinations. Shrines dedicated to the kamiInari have their own organization and are not members of the Jinja honchM. Locally, priestly ranks are color coded, with the color of a priest’s hakama (silk pantaloons) indicating his status. For example, in some shrines the head priest wears purple hakama with insignia; an assistant head priest wears purple with no insignia; and others wear light blue. Nationally, priests may be awarded one of four ranks, usually based on length of service, which are distinct from an individual’s local rank and status. All shrine priests are ordained after requisite studies at either Kogakkan University in Ise or Kokugakuin University in Tokyo. The latter was originally established as an institution dedicated to kokugaku, or nativist studies.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Most Shinto shrines should be thought of as both buildings and the sacred sites on which these stand. This is because Shinto worship does not require physical structures to house the kami. Indeed, most of the earliest religious sites in the Japanese archipelago were holy sites where contact with the deities was possible. In prehistoric Japan circular arrangements of stones around a vertical pillar sometimes marked such spots. At other times trees or rocks demarcated such holy places. In presentday Japan himorogi (sacred sites) are demarcated by straw-plaited ropes (shimenawa), which are decorated with branches from evergreen sakaki trees and paper strips (shide). Kami are also regularly worshiped in open spaces known as iwasaka. Priests are not in residence at all shrines; rather, there are innumerable small and miniature shrines throughout Japan where a Shinto priest might occasionally be called to perform a ritual but where more often laypersons offer their own prayers. Small, unattended shrines are also sometimes found in the midst of rice paddies, where the farmers offer their own prayers to the ta no kami (rice paddy kami) for a successful harvest. Visitors to the roofs of Japanese department stores, where carnival rides and (in the summer) beer gardens are located, will also often find miniature Shinto shrines, where rites of blessing and purification are occasionally performed by priests engaged for these services. Shrines may also be found in the wedding halls of hotels and department stores. All of these different forms represent places where the kami were (and are) ritually invited to descend in order to receive worship and prayers for practical, this-worldly concerns.

Shinto shrine buildings differ in architectural style. Some styles are named after the most famous shrines where they were used, such as the Gion, Hie, Hachiman, Kasuga, and Sumiyoshi styles. More readily recognizable as a distinctly Shinto architectural feature are the torii, or gate markers, at the entrances to shrine grounds. Torii generally consist of two upright pillars with two cross beams, which may be straight or curved. There is usually at least one torii at each entrance to the shrine grounds, although there can be more. Some shrines have a corridor of torii—sometimes consisting of hundreds of these gates—through which visitors walk. Individuals, families, businesses, or confraternities donate funds to purchase the torii, as well as the stone lanterns that dot the pathways. In addition, they may create endowments for the upkeep of the torii.

Shrine and temple grounds are often islands of green in the concrete jungle of modern industrial and urban centers in contemporary Japan. Visitors to Shinto shrines in urban centers are often struck by the atmosphere created by the mature trees, mosses, and ferns and the play of light and shadow surrounding the shrine buildings. It is important, however, to recognize the extent to which the contemporary religio-aesthetic experience of Shinto shrine grounds is shaped by the contrasting experience of the surrounding space. The sense of sacredness is not necessarily the same over time. Prior to the industrial age, the green space around Shinto shrines would not have been anything of special note or distinction, for most of the countryside was forested. It was only after the processes of industrialization and urbanization had covered over much of the green space in the cities of Japan that Shinto shrines (and Buddhist temples) became places where one could commune with nature.

It is a mistake—indeed, a form of anachronism—to project the modern concept of “nature” and a modern spiritual feeling for nature into the past. To be sure, many modern Japanese and Western scholars have made much of Shinto’s being a nature religion or a “green” religion, with a built-in ecological sensitivity, but this characterization has been overdone. When this view is offered by Shinto priests and Japanese nationalists, it represents, at best, an overly romantic self-image and, at worst, a crass attempt to deflect attention from the extensive environmental destruction that Japanese industrialization and capitalist economic growth policies, which were not opposed by the Shinto establishment, have caused domestically and internationally. When Western scholars offer this representation of Shinto, they are participating either in an unexamined parroting of Japanese claims or in the continuing Western romanticization of an enchanted “traditional Japan” that, it is implied, is somehow still accessible. The assumption that nature is the same over time and in all places may be true in a pedantic sense (the sun and the moon are the same celestial objects everywhere, for example), but it is misleading in more important ways. The religious significance of, say, the rising and setting of the sun or the waxing and waning of the moon varies considerably not only among different cultures but over time within a given culture as well.

What is Sacred?

Shinto kami are associated with phenomena of various sorts. Specific natural sites are considered to be sacred, including mountains, volcanoes, rivers and streams, rocks, waterfalls, caves, natural springs, ponds, and groves or individual trees. Some kami are identified with certain types of locations, such as roads, crossroads, paddy fields (ta no kami), and even toilets. Natural phenomena—including the wind, lightning, the sun, the moon, and the stars—also have kamiassociated with them. It is misleading, however, to suggest that Shinto is a nature religion, for many kami are not natural phenomena, nor is everything in the natural world sacred.

In order to define kami, some Western scholars have had recourse to Rudolf Otto’s famous phenomenological definition of “the numinous” in his book Das Heilige (1917; The Idea of the Holy [1923]), but again the parallel is far from exact. For Otto “the holy,” or the numinous, involves a sense of the wholly other (ganz ander); many kami, however, are immanent in this world or, indeed, a part of it. Mount Miwa, near Nara, for example, is worshiped as a kami. It was not until the early Heian period (794-1185) that, in response to Buddhist art forms, the Japanese began to represent kami in human form in paintings and sculptures. Even today few Shinto shrines house an image of the kami worshiped there. Rather, shrines usually have an object—a sword or a brass mirror, for example—known as the shintai (body of the kami), into which the kami descends after being ritually summoned. The anthropomorphic statues of kami that do exist are also considered to be shintai.

In addition to the kami associated or identified with natural phenomena, there are two types of human kami. First, there are hitogami (living kami in human form). For example, some of the founders of new religions in the modern period are considered to be (or to have been) living kami, as is the emperor. Similarly, individuals may be recognized locally as hitogami because of their deep spiritual nature, their ascetic practices, their experiences of divine possession, and so on. The second type of human kami is the goryM. GoryM are the haunting spirits of deceased persons who suffered some great wrong while alive. They can cause mental illness, widespread disease, lightning strikes, and other troubles. Once a goryM has been identified through divination, the spirit is given a kami name and enshrined, and rites of pacification are performed for it. Prayers and petitions are subsequently offered to goryM.

In addition, in numerous festivals children are taken to embody the kami as they ride in the mikoshi (portable shrines in the form of a festival cart or palanquin) or as they perform kagura (sacred dances)—that is, they “house” the deity in their bodies for the duration of the ritual. Any thing or person that becomes the temporary “seat” of a deity is thereby made sacred for the duration of the deity’s presence. Popular Japanese performance arts, such as kagura, No drama, Kabuki, and some traditional forms of puppetry also involve ritual acts of sacralization. For example, preceding the performance of the okina (Old Man) No plays, the actor performs a rite to call down a kami into the mask he will wear onstage. The actor “becomes” the deity during the performance. After taking off the mask, the actor performs a rite to send off the kami. Such practices are believed to be the traces of shamanic possession rites.

Another type of human kami is the marebito, a visiting or wandering god or demon. In earlier centuries the Shinto-Buddhist mountain ascetics known as yamabushi were believed to be marebito. These mysterious figures lived on the periphery of towns and villages and were regarded with a mixture of fear and reverence because of the occult powers they reputedly gained in the mountains. When they visited villages, they functioned in certain regards as ritual scapegoats, performing exorcisms and purification rites before carrying evil and accumulated spiritual pollution out of the villages. In contemporary Japan local young men portray marebito or demons (oni) in many Shinto festivals of blessing, exorcism, and purification. The namehage of Akita, ferocious figures in masks and straw costumes, are instances of this type of deity.

Kami may also be animals, either species indigenous to Japan or mythological or fantastic beasts from China or India. Animal kami include deer, bears, monkeys, lions, tigers, dogs, foxes, badgers, serpents, eagles, catfish, and dragons.

Holidays and Festivals

Shinto and Shinto-Buddhist festivals are known as matsuri. All matsuri have a tripartite structure involving calling down the kami, entertaining the kami (kami asobi), and sending off the kami. The primary function of a festival, then, is to ritually invite the temporary presence of a deity, provide entertainment, petition the deity for various reasons, and, finally, to effect a controlled return to the ordinary state of things, though with both the deity and the cosmos (or town) ritually renewed or purified. Renewal and purification are central to Japanese festivals, the purpose of which is to rejuvenate or “recharge” the world or to remove the pollution (kegare) that naturally accumulates.

Some matsuri are seasonal—that is, they are especially designed to renew time or to continue the cosmic and agricultural cycles of time. In the past the harvest festival (niiname-sai), which dates from the early historical period, not only celebrated the harvest but also served as the preferred time to ritually install a new emperor or empress. In this way it explicitly linked the renewal and continuity of the sociopolitical order to the agricultural cycle. The harvest festival is celebrated throughout Japan on 23 and 24 November. The emperor offers rice harvested from special paddy fields and other foods to the sun goddess and to other kami. He himself partakes of these offerings as he communes with the kami.Other seasonal festivals include New Year’s; the Change of Seasons (setsubun) in February, which involves exorcism; the vernal equinox; rice planting time; and the autumnal equinox.

Yet other festivals are related to the stages or cycles of human life. In January there is the Coming of Age festival for those who have reached their majority (age 20 in contemporary Japan). In March the Doll Festival (hina matsuri) is celebrated by families with daughters, as well as at shrines around the country. A boy’s festival is celebrated later in the year, at which time families with male children fly colorful windsocks in the shape of carp (koi-nobori) outside their homes. In November the Shichi-go-san festival is a rite of passage for five-year-old boys and girls aged three and seven. The nationwide festival of Lbon sees many Japanese returning to their native towns for the festivities. The spirits of ancestors are invited back during this festival and led by lanterns or candles to special sites where ritual dances, known as bon odori, are performed to entertain them. Ancestors are considered to be continuing presences in the life of the community. Thus, death and the ritual transformation of the deceased into an ancestor are seen as stages in the natural order of things.

Towns and villages throughout Japan have their own annual festivals. It is impossible to list all of them or even the most famous ones. It will be useful, however, to note some of the different types of matsuri in terms of the character of their performance. In many festivals, the deity is transported through the streets in a mikoshi (a miniature shrine or palanquin). The kami may be present in the form of straw sandals, a seat cushion, pounded rice cakes, a sake barrel, a puppet or paper cutout, drums, or other object. In some matsuri young men, naked except for a loincloth, carry themikoshi. These young men represent the strength and vitality of the community and undergo rites of purification prior to the festival’s start. Numerous matsuri involve competitions, ranging from a tug-of-war or mock battle to searches for an object symbolizing divine power. Some festivals continue to feature sumo wrestling matches between adults or children, with the results believed to be a form of divination. Sumo wrestlers often take place names, recalling that in the past in ritual bouts they became the temporary hosts of the local earth kami. Related to these forms of competition are the various kenka matsuri (fighting matsuri) in which teams violently engage one other. In some rites competing teams attempt to knock the other team’s mikoshi off the shoulders of the carriers or off the road. In some coastal festivals boats carrying mikoshi bump each other in races or ritual combat. The teams usually are sponsored by and represent specific neighborhoods, which are identified on the participant’s happi coats (short, belted coats with wide sleeves) or headbands.

Mode of Dress

Shinto worshipers are not required to wear any special form of dress during shrine visits. Shinto priests and female shrine attendants, however, wear distinctive forms of dress that date from the Heian period (794-1185) but ultimately were borrowed from Chinese ritual usage. When performing important rituals, priests wear hats known as kanmuri,which are distinguished by a taillike feature on the back. For more ordinary occasions they wear eboshi, pointed or thimble-shaped hats. Priests wear silk robes and pantaloons (hakama), with the color reflecting the season or the age and rank of the priest. Contemporary priests wear lacquered wooden shoes and carry a shaku, a flat elongated piece of wood that functions as a scepter.

Female shrine attendants wear vermilion hakama over white robes, and they wear special head ornaments on ritual occasions. These headdresses are usually in the form of flowers and blossoms, which traditionally were used to attract the kami. They recall the traditional role of women as ritual mediums (miko), as well as a number of popular beliefs. For instance, the long black hair of maidens was believed to be especially attractive to kami, including those that caused disease. During times of plague, women were warned to wear their hair up and never to comb their long hair in public for fear of attracting the kami of the plague.

Dietary Practices

Shinto does not have strict dietary laws for participants. Most Japanese are not vegetarians and consume fish, fowl, and meat. On some occasions, however, an individual may abstain from consuming specific foods that are believed to offend a given kami. More commonly, special dietary practices involve the serving of certain foods during festivals. For example, pounded rice cakes (mochi), which symbolize the full moon, are commonly made and consumed during the New Year’s holiday, though they are also frequently used in ritual offerings throughout the year. Rice wine (sake) is an integral part of all offerings made at shrines. After being ritually offered to the kami, it is served to the participants in the ritual and referred to as o-miki. Sake is also consumed at weddings and festivals and on other ritual occasions, while bottles or barrels of sake are often offered at shrines.


Shrine visits usually do not entail any formal worship service presided over by a Shinto priest. Rather, most visitors simply perform a simple purification rite by rinsing their mouth and washing their hands at the ever-present water basin; some may proceed to offer a prayer before the inner shrine. The petitioner will clap his or her hands three times, fold them together in prayer, bow his or her head, and silently offer a prayer or petition. A visitor may have a special rite or prayer offered on his or her behalf by a priest, however. Most shrines make available lists of the most popular rites and their respective prices. Such rituals can also be arranged by telephone or fax beforehand.

All Shinto shrines also have public rites that are performed at specific times. The Great Purification Rites of winter and summer are the most common such rites. These rituals are presided over by priests and shrine assistants, though laypersons may perform specific roles in the full festival performances.

All Shinto shrines seek to promote visits by the faithful, though depending on the shrine, they might attract people locally, regionally, or from throughout Japan. Some shrines have become major pilgrimage sites. Mount Fuji has long been a popular pilgrimage site, as have the Grand Shrines of Ise. Pilgrimage routes frequently include both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, a testimony to the fact that for most of Japanese history the typical religious structures were shrinetemple and temple-shrine complexes rather than discrete religious institutions. In addition, some new religions, such as Tenri-kyM, sponsor pilgrimages to the group’s headquarters. Pilgrims often wear white happi coats and headbands inscribed with the group’s name or with words of encouragement.

In contemporary Japan few Shinto shrines perform funeral rituals in part because death is considered to be polluting and dangerous. The ancient myth of Izanagi and Izanami tells how death came into the world and how humans became mortal. It also clearly implies that the pollution associated with death can be purified through ritual actions. With the introduction of the practice of cremation in the early eighth century, Buddhist priests assumed primary responsibility for funerary rites. Much later, in the wake of the government sponsored separation of Shinto and Buddhism in the late nineteenth century, this division of labor became even more marked, as Buddhist temples were physically separated from Shinto shrines.

Whereas Buddhist priests perform funerary rituals, Shinto priests perform most weddings in Japan. In the twentieth century, however, many weddings moved from shrines proper to freestanding commercial wedding parlors or wedding halls in hotels or department stores. Weddings have become a big business in modern Japan, and Shinto priests have adapted to the shifts in consumer taste. They officiate in their traditional robes, hat, and so on, though the groom will wear a tuxedo and the bride a traditional kimono, to be quickly exchanged afterward for a Western-style bridal gown for a photo session. The newlyweds share a cup of sake to seal their vows.

Rites of Passage

In addition to weddings, several other rites of passage are celebrated in Japan. Families often celebrate a newborn’s first visit to a shrine. The annual Shichi-go-san festival held on 15 November honors girls who have reached the ages of three and seven and boys who have turned five. The saiten-sai, usually celebrated on 15 January, is a fairly recent innovation that marks the coming of age of twenty-year-olds. While these are the formal rites of passage, the liturgical calendar of every Shinto shrine includes “natural” rites of passage—that is, ceremonial markings of the passage of the solar year, the lunar cycle, and agricultural cycles of planting, growth, harvest, and dormancy. One of the central themes informing the Shinto worldview is the interrelatedness of human and natural cycles.


Almost all Japanese participate in Shin-to rites and activities, though there is no formal rite of initiation into the religious community akin to, say, baptism in Christianity. Shinto is not in general an evangelistic religion, so historically there has been little effort to convert other persons, especially non-Japanese, to Shinto. This being said, two important exceptions must be noted. First, during the modern period of Japanese imperialism in the twentieth century, the government established Shinto shrines in Korea, Manchuria, and other areas under Japanese control as part of its effort to legitimate its occupation under the ideological aegis of State Shinto. Members of the local population in these areas were sometimes required to participate in shrine activities. Second, some Shinto new religions, such as Tenri-kyM and Kurozumi-kyM, have sought to convert individuals both within Japan and abroad, though with mixed success.

Religious Tolerance

Throughout much of Japanese history, Shinto shrines were conjoined with Buddhist temples. Thus, religious intolerance has not characterized Shinto. The most notable exceptions to this are the violent repression of Christianity by the shoguns (military governors) Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) and the Meiji government’s forcible separation of Shinto and Buddhist establishments in the late nineteenth century. The shogun’s violent repression of Christian communities, known as kirishitan, seems to have been based on political considerations, including fear of the power of some kirishitan daimyM (provincial military rulers who had converted to Christianity) and the influence of foreign missionaries. While Shinto leaders did not instigate the persecution of Christians, neither did they oppose the government’s policies. Their conduct was quite different in the nineteenth century, when some nationalists actively sought to restore Shinto as the state religion and to purify Shinto by excising all Buddhist elements from shrine grounds.

Social Justice

For much of its history Shinto has been a locally based religion. Most shrines served local villagers or the inhabitants of urban neighborhoods. Without an umbrella ecclesiastical organization, no explicit orthodoxy developed within Shinto, including any clear-cut statements on social justice. In some ways most Shinto leaders, like their Buddhist counterparts, were products of their ages and thus shared many of the widespread social and cultural prejudices. For instance, until the twentieth century few persons spoke out against the broad-based discrimination against burakumin (outcaste) communities in Japan or against persons of Korean descent. Those Shinto leaders who have spoken out against social injustice in Japan and around the world have done so as individuals rather than as spokespersons for Shinto as a whole. Since World War II many Shinto nationalists have resisted pressure from Asian nations to apologize for atrocities committed by Japanese forces. Similarly, they have been slow or unwilling to take responsibility for any complicity the Shinto establishment had in Japanese imperialism. More recently, a number of Shinto leaders have embraced ecological causes as an area in which Shinto has much to offer the world. Some have suggested that Japan’s rice paddy culture is an ideal form of living responsibly in the natural world.

Social Aspects

Shinto leaders support the values of the traditional East Asian patriarchal family. Based on Neo-Confucian ideals, the ideal Japanese family includes the husband as breadwinner, the wife as home-maker, their child or children, and perhaps the grandparents—all living under one roof. Caring for one’s elderly parents is viewed as an act of filial piety. It is expected that the eldest son (or daughter, in the event there is no son) will bear this responsibility. In contemporary Japan, however, shifting social values and economic realities have led to a decline in the number of extended families living together, a fact that is lamented by more conservative religious leaders. Socioeconomic factors have also led to a negative birthrate in Japan precisely at the time when the elderly population is growing rapidly. The resultant situation has placed tremendous pressure on the social welfare system and revealed fissures in the family support system. The Shinto establishment, however, has not presented any clear-cut policy solutions to these problems. Shinto leaders often stress that a person’s extended family also includes his or her ancestors. In important ways, the ancestral cult remains a central part of Shinto practice and the Shinto worldview in the twenty-first century. The Shintooriented “new religions,” especially, have placed renewed emphasis on the moral importance of ancestral rites.

Controversial Issues

Contemporary Shinto leaders are enmeshed in controversial issues facing the Japanese people as a whole. Frequently, these are political issues rather than social issues, such as abortion or divorce. The more conservative and nationalist faction has strenuously resisted pressure from former colonized nations for Japan to acknowledge its moral and legal responsibility for its imperialistic policies. Similarly, in the so-called textbook wars, Shinto nationalists have lobbied for history texts that downplay Japanese imperialism, mass killings of foreigners, the government’s support of forced prostitution or the use of “comfort women” for the troops, and so on during the Pacific wars.

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, too, remains at the center of a long-standing dispute over the propriety of enshrining and memorializing the war dead, including convicted war criminals. Created in the early twentieth century as a part of the State Shinto apparatus, the Yasukuni Shrine and affiliated sub-shrines throughout the country have continued to provoke controversy concerning the proper relationship between religion and the state. Visits to Yasukuni by the prime minister and cabinet members regularly cause storms of protest domestically and elsewhere in East Asia, as does continued state support for the shrine. While no direct financial support is provided, more subtle forms of symbolic support for this cultic complex contribute to the blurring of the constitutional separation of church and state. Finally, in the wake of the Aum ShinrikyM affair—in which a controversial New Age religious group manufactured sarin nerve gas, released it in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and was involved in kidnapping and murder and in the “brainwashing” of members—official surveillance and regulation of religious groups has reemerged as a national issue. In general, Shinto organizations have not opposed the strengthening of government controls or the expansion of police powers in monitoring religious groups.

Cultural Impact

The deep and lasting impact of Shinto throughout Japanese cultural history is undeniable. Conversely, the impact of history on Shinto has been equally great. Shinto shrine architecture has provided the inspiration for the clean and sparse lines of many other Japanese buildings, including houses. The modern architectural concept of negative space is indebted in part to the nonintrusive nature of Shinto architecture. Negative space focuses attention on the space between pillars and other physical structures rather than on the structures themselves.

Shinto ritual performances have influenced Japanese aesthetics and art forms, from dance and drama to puppetry. The concepts of purity and pollution have also impacted Japanese understandings of propriety and beauty. For many centuries Shinto and Buddhism were closely interrelated, as has been discussed; thus, it is difficult to clearly separate the cultural impact of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.