Shinto


Shinto is the native religion in Japan with its roots stretching back to 500 B.C., and is a poly-theistic one venerating almost any natural objects ranging from mountains, rivers, water, rocks, trees, to dead notables. In other words, it is based on animism. Natural wonders make the Japanese believe, out of an awe or reverence, that such wonders are created by the mighty, super-natural powers, and the ghost of a deity dwells in such objects. A case in point is Kumano Nachi Great Shrine (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in Wakayama Prefecture. The main object of worship in this shrine is Nachi Falls with a drop of 133 meters. Ancient people believed God resides in this falls. Also great warriors, leaders and scholars are often divinized. Thus anything, even a rotten head of a sardine, can be deified, so goes a cynical saying. To dedicate to those diverse deities, shrines were erected in a sacred spots throughout Japan. Among the natural phenomena, the sun is most appealing to Japanese and the Sun Goddess is regarded as the principal deity of Shinto, particularly by the Imperial Family. We Japanese call our nation "Nippon" in Japanese. It literally denotes "the Origin of the Sun." The Japanese national flag is simple, one red disk in the center, and it symbolizes the sun. (Not the empire that the sun never sets.)

Japanese mythology relates that there was the goddess of the sun and the ruler of the heaven named Amaterasu, who was believed to be the legendary ancestor of the current Imperial Family. It asserts that she was once so offended by the misdeeds of her brother that she came down to the earth and hid in a cave. The universe was plunged into pitch darkness and evil thrived. The gods and goddesses gathered near the cave to talk about how to get her out. They held a party and a goddess began to dance in front of the cave, causing the crowd to roar with delight. As she whirled about, her clothes fell off, drawing cheers from the other gods. Curious about the fuss, Amaterasu peeked out from behind a jumbo rock blocking the cave's entrance. The dancing goddess held up a mirror and said, "We are dancing to celebrate for a new goddess."Amaterasu came out to see the new goddess, but what she saw was her own reflection. A powerful god grabbed her out and told never to hide again. (Picture, left: A mini-shrine installed at a shopping mall near Kawasaki Station, East Japan Railway.)

Today's Emperor Akihito (1933-) is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Emperor Jinmu, Japan's legendary first emperor and a mythical descendent of Amaterasu. Though not often referred to today, the Japanese calendar year starts from 660 B.C., the year of her accession. The reigning emperors were considered to be the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and revered as a living god at one time or another. When the Pacific War was imminent in 1940, the fascist government was boasting it was the year of 2600 to exalt the national prestige, and it even made a song celebrating the 2600th anniversary.

With the introduction of Buddhism from China in the mid-sixth century, however, Shinto began to be overshadowed by Buddhism. Greatly affected by the new religion, Imperial Prince Shotoku (574-622) institutionalized Buddhism as a state religion and built many great temples such as Horyuji in Nara Prefecture and Shiten'noji in Osaka. Many Buddhist temples today have a hall, in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined in homage of his achievements. (As a matter of fact, his portrait had been printed on the 10,000-yen bills until 1984.) Since then, Buddhism had been supported by many emperors for quite some time, including Emperor Shomu (724-749) who founded World-famous Todaiji in Nara in 743.

Entering the medieval ages, emperors and Shinto lost the reigning power, and the nation was gradually controlled by the military rulers. The process of blending Buddhism with Shinto progressed, and in the Heian Period (794-1185) Shinto deities came to be recognized as incarnation of the Lord Buddha. A case in point was emerging of the syncretic school that combined Shinto with the teachings of the Shingon sect Buddhism. The basis of the school's belief was that Shinto deities were manifestation of Buddha divinities. Most important was the identification of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu with Buddha Mahavairocana or Dainichi Nyorai in Japanese (the Great Sun Buddha). The well-known Japanese eclecticism in religion was already extant at this stage.

In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), however, Shinto was emancipated from the Buddhism domination by the military dictators, and Shintoist claimed that Shinto divinities were not incarnation of the Buddha but that Buddha himself was rather manifestation of Shinto deities. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine used to be a typical mixture of Shinto and Buddhism elements and a prime example of syncretism as Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Shrine, was in the lineage of the Imperial Family.

After the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, the Emperor restored the sovereignty, and the new government institutionalized Shinto as the official state religion while implementing restrictive policies against Buddhism and other religions including Christianity. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine had to remove or thrown away all of its structures and objects associated with Buddhism. The Emperor turned living god, and those who dared to gaze directly at the divine Emperor were subject to arrest. Some critics say it was more fascistic than today's North Korea since Kim Jong Il is not divinized yet. Today's emperor is no longer a god, of course, but a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, according to the Constitution. Shinto, however, continues to be the Imperial Family's religion, and traditional Shinto rituals are taking place in the Imperial Palace regularly. Its influences can be seen on the Japanese national holidays, many of which originate in Shinto rituals.

In general, Shinto has no canon of written scriptures like the Bible or the Koran, though ceremonial prayer called norito (a formulary statement addressed to the deity) is chanted by shrine priests. Nor is it an iconolatry. Most of Shinto shrines house sacred objects such as mirrors (the symbol of the Sun Goddess), swords and jewel (those three objects are the imperial regalia) on the altar, where the gods are believed to reside, and the objects serve as spirit substitutes for the gods.

Shinto can also be said the religion of rituals or ceremonies mostly for purifications or exorcism, which can often be observed even at the corporate society. Whenever a new factory manager was appointed, for example, he traditionally has to visit three places first thing he arrived at the assigned factory: A mini-shrine installed at a cozy corner of the factory grounds, where he says a prayer for the safety during his tenure at the factory; leaders of the factory's labor union to say hello and; chief of the local fishermen's association as the factories are usually located near the seacoast and likely to pollute the seawater with effluent. (Picture, right: Shinto priests performing rituals at Samukawa Jinja.)

At the ground-breaking ceremony or at the start-up of new facility, be it a high-tech or a smoke-stack industry, a Shinto priest is always invited to perform the purification and exorcism rituals. Those are common Shinto-related customs practiced at any manufacturing plants in Japan. In case of Toyota Motor, just one example out of many, top executives play out corporate ritual every autumn at the Ise (e-seh) Grand Shrine in Mie (me-eh)Prefecture, the spiritual home of Sun Goddess Amaterasu, with their newest models, making three-hour driving from their headquarters near Nagoya. Shinto is thus firmly embedded in today's corporate society.

The Yomiuri, a leading daily newspaper in Japan (with a circulation of 10 million), once reported that a bogus organization billing itself as an association of Shinto priests has made a lucrative business out of sending retired workers disguised as priests to new building sites in Tokyo to conduct ground-breaking ceremonies. The fake priests have been dispatched on hundreds of occasions over three years, charging 40,000 yen per visit, which lasts only an hour or so. Of a customer's 40,000-yen payment, the 'priest' earns 10,000 yen and the group receives the remainder. To perform rituals officially as a priest, an individual have to be authorized by the association of Shinto Shrines, and yet there is no certification or qualification system.

We sometimes see the raging controversy over the governments' attitude toward Shinto when they donate money to shrines as offerings. A local prefectural government once paid 166,000 yen of taxpayers' money on 22 occasions between 1981 and 1986 to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines Japan's 2.6 million war-dead including World War II Class-A criminals such as the wartime Prime Minister. The payment was made to cover Tamagushi fee. Tamagushi is a sprig of Cleyera orchnacca with white paper-strips called shide {she-deh} attached and used by Shinto priests at ceremonies. A citizen's group filed a lawsuit in 1982 against the governor charging that paying public money to the Shinto shrine is unconstitutional. Article Twenty of the Constitution reads that the state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity. A lawyer for the defendants had said that the small cash offerings to the shrine represented condolences and were humanitarian courtesy to the 2.6 million war-dead. In April 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the donation violated the Constitution. The ruling was supported by 13 judges of the 15-member Grand Bench of the Supreme Court.

Shinto ceremony sometimes marks life stages of Japanese. One month after birth (31st day for boys and 32 days for girls, to be exact), parents and grand-parents bring the baby to a shrine, where they express gratitude to the Shinto deities for being given the baby and have shrine priest pray for his or her good health and happiness. This is called Miyamairi {me-yah-my-re}, or Visit to Shinto Shrine, a Japanese version of infant Baptism. Today, most of Miyamairi is practiced between one month or 100 days after birth. In famous and popular shrines, the ceremony is held every hour in turn. Naturally, weekends are busy. A group of a dozen or so babies and their families are usually brought in the hall, one group after another. There is no price list for the service. We usually pay 10,000 yen per baby. The group is led in by turn and sit in front of and facing the alter. A Shinto priest wearing unique Shinto costume and headgear appear between the group and the altar, and start to recite prayer or norito, swinging Tamagushi right and left. We don't understand what he is saying except that somewhere in the middle of the prayer, the priest cites the name of the baby and his or her birthday. The prayer continue for about ten minutes. And then, parents carrying the baby go forward one by one and bow to the altar. In the end, sake, or rice wine, in a red wooden cup is given to each of them.

Next chance he or she may visit a shrine to mark the specific life stage is Shichigosan (seven-five-three) festival of November 15, when three-year-old boys and girls, five-year-old boys and seven-year-old girls (nominal age based on the calendar. In an extreme case, a baby born on December 31 will be two years old the next day) call on shrine to pray for good health and have blessing by the priest. In November 15, particularly on weekends near the day, you may see lots of children and their parents wearing colorful clothes or kimono in the precinct of famous shrines. They are visiting the shrines for the Shichigosan ceremony.

The third time they are taken care of by Shinto priests will probably be wedding. Ceremony usually takes place at hotels or gorgeous ceremony halls specifically designed for wedding with makeshift shrine altars. Here again, a Shinto priest with whom the hotel or hall has contract presides the wedding rituals reciting prayer or norito. Unique in wedding ceremony under Shinto is the practice called san-san-kudo (three-three and nine times) or three-time exchange of nuptial cups. Three flat cups, almost like dishes with small, medium and large size, in which sake is powered and the gloom first sips it three times. Then, the bride follows suit. The moment the ritual is finished, the couple officially become wedded under Shinto.

There are as many as 80,000 Shinto shrines in this country consecrating to one of the Shinto pantheon, but four are predominant: Hachiman, Tenjin (also called Tenmangu), Inari {e-nah-re} and Jingu.


Hachimangu enshrines 15th Emperor Ojin, the de facto first emperor since all emperors before him are legendary. It is worshipped as the god of archery or war and later became a tutelary deity of the Minamoto Clan. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu ranks among the most prestigious ones, and offers a wide array of Shinto rituals and ceremonies.

Tenjin literally means the heaven's god, but is dedicated to the memory of Michizane Sugawara (845-903), the patron deity of scholarship or learning. Egara Tenjin in Kamakura is one of the three greatest Tenjin in Japan.


Inari is the shrine for the god of harvest and is popularly called fox deity since the fox is believed to be messengers of this god. Characteristic of this shrine is it multiple, vermilion torii gates and a pair of fox statues are placed in front of the shrine.


Added to those are shrines called Jingu, which are associated with the Imperial Family. Most notable are: Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Ise Jingu, Heian Jingu in Kyoto, Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya.

More about Shinto

* Shrine architecture
A full-fledged Shinto shrine is made of two-part structure as represented by the famous Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture: one is the oratory called Haiden, before which worshipers say a prayer, and the other is the inner sanctum called Honden, the main dwelling of the deity built behind the Haiden. In contrast to Buddhist temples, Honden contains no statues but houses symbolical and sacred objects of worship such as mirrors and swords, in which the spirit of the deity is believed to reside. As its nature of sanctuary shows, the laity can never get access to the sacred Honden. Haiden is more spacious than Honden as it is used for rituals and ceremonies.

* Torii gate
Shrines always have symbolic gates called torii Worshipers will pass under this sacred gate, which demarcates the sacred area of the shrine. Because of its sacredness, it is difficult to deal with it. In the Haneda Airport in Tokyo, there once was a 7.2-meter-high torii gate on a planned new runway. It was erected at the entrance of Anamori Inari Shrine before World War II. After the war, American Forces requisitioned the area and the shrine was moved. Fortunately, the torii was allowed to remain there in light of the local people's fear of punishment by Shinto deities. To construct a new runway later, it had to be dismantled. Again, locals protested in fear that it might incur divine wrath. Government authority compromised, and decided, instead of dismantling, to relocate it to a bank of the Tama River about 800 meters away from the former site. However, it is unconstitutional for the government to cover the total cost for removing religious structures of a specific religion. After a long discussion, it was agreed that part of the total cost would be paid by private sectors, and the torii was finally relocated in February 1999. (Picture, left: Torii gate at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.)

* Purification
For a Shinto worshiper, purification is essential before offering a prayer and it is performed through exorcism called Harai, cleaning one's body with water. It is called Misogi {me-soh-ghe}, and abstention from defilement or Imi {e-me}. In a large shrine, there is a stone wash-basin and visitors are required to rinse their mouth and hands for Misogi before approaching the deity.

* Komainu, or guard dogs
In front of shrines, there are a pair of dog-statues facing each other. They are guardian dogs and identical to Deva of Buddhist temples, one on the right always has its mouth open and as if to say "ah" while the other has its mouth closed and looks like saying "um".

* Method of prayer
The method of prayer before the alter at shrines is quite distinct from that of Buddhist temples. As part of prayer ritual, worshipers bow twice, clap their hands twice (to make sure the god is listening?), bow once more and then (or before the prayer) throw coins into a offertory box.

* Kagura, or Shinto music and dancing
Kagura is a ritual dances accompanied by music called Gagaku {gah-gah-koo}. Gagaku is the traditional music of the Japanese Imperial Court, and standard instruments include sho (a reed-free mouth organ made of 17 bamboo), biwa {be-wah} (a short-necked lute), hichiriki (a double-reed pipe like a small oboe) and taiko (drums). The Imperial Household Agency has the Imperial Ensemble and its musicians are hereditary dating from the ninth century. One of them is the Togi family and they are now employees of the Imperial Household Agency. Kagura and Gagaku are thought to help provide communications between the god and worshipers. For further details on Gagaku, refer to the Agency's site.


* What can religion and religious organizations do in a natural catastrophe?
At 5:46 a.m. on Tuesday, January 17, 1995, a devastating earthquake hit Kobe and its neighboring areas. More than 6,400 people were killed. Many of them were crushed to death while sleeping in wooden houses. Ruptured gas lines ignited, fueled by the wooden construction material, and broken water mains kept firefighters from combating. The elevated expressway spanning Osaka and Kobe, which was supposed to be quake-proof under seismic technology collapsed for one kilo-meter long. Almost all of main roads were unusable blocked by collapsed buildings. With nowhere to live in, no water and no electricity, survivors had to get by anyhow.

Yasuo Tanaka (1956-), Akutagawa-Prize winning novelist, TV personality and politician, watched the news on TV, and thought what he could do for the victims as an individual. He flew to Osaka immediately and bought a mini motorcycle, following suggestions of Nishinomiya Catholic church (his parents were baptized Christians). The motorcycle was a best vehicle not only to commute between Osaka and Kobe, but also to run around wrecked areas in Kobe. What he carried in the beginning were bottled water, tissue paper etc., and gave them out in person to those who barely survived in the area where no cars or truck were able to reach. He shuttled between Tokyo and Osaka by air two or three times a week and commuted to Kobe by motorcycle like a newspaper delivery boy from early in the morning till late at night, dealing with many tasks he had with TV and radio stations and magazine publishers in Tokyo. He called for whomever he had connections with to help afflicted people in Kobe. Within two weeks, Volkswagen donated a Vanagon, Beneton offered thousands of underwear, Cathay Pacific promised to provide 2,000 overnight kits for passengers. Foreign companies were more supportive than domestic ones. Tanaka carried those products driving Vanagon himself and delivered them to the sufferers. His work as an individual volunteer continued for more than half a year. Through charities, he witnessed what human behaviors were like when a catastrophe attacked urban cities.

Temples and shrines usually have halls, which are usable as shelters, and grounds where temporary tent villages can be built. According to Tanaka, not only did few offered such services, but they declined Tanaka's request to do so, saying they were also victims and busy taking care of themselves.

Tanaka first contacted Catholic churches in Nishinomiya and Kobe, and joined their relief operation, but later he began his activities in his own way. Before long, he found a Buddhist temple priest was engaged in rescuing people. As the priest alone couldn't do much, he asked the sect's headquarters, which hosts hundreds of young trainees in the mountain, to come down to Kobe and help the victims as a practical training. The headquarters rejected the request, saying they are orientated to spiritual training, not for secular affairs.

Tanaka also sharply rebuked the mass media. A host of reporters, journalists, TV personalities, anchor-person or whatever you may call them, rushed to Kobe for coverage. Many chauffeured limousine for them and their crews were parked on main streets of central Kobe, making traffic jam even worse. They gave no hand whatsoever to the victims. Tanaka wrote in his Kobe Quake Diary a case covered by a widely known journalist, who dubbed himself as "Japanese Walter Cronkite". He and his crew flew to Kobe shortly after the quake and videotaped without getting a permission a young man desperately looking for his parents trapped under the wreckage. As they continued taping, the young man said to them crying "Stop it!", but they didn't. Instead, the Japanese Cronkite ended the coverage on TV saying "The victim's anger seems to have turned to the mass media". At least, he had to get the young man's permission before coverage. All he had in mind at the time was how to improve TV ratings. Tanaka pointed out the mass media didn't have even a sense of ethics. While biking around devastated area, Tanaka often witnessed groups of the biggest yakuza, of which headquarters are located in Kobe, offering people with hot drinks and foods at street corners. They were far more helpful than religious organizations.

Tanaka also criticized officials of the local government including Governor of Hyogo Prefecture, who must have witnessed how badly Kobe was damaged through the windows of his official residence the moment the tremor hit, but went to the office at 9 o'clock with a chauffeured car as usual as if nothing has happened. They had, says Tanaka, no sense of crisis management at all.

In conclusion, religion and religious organizations can do little in a natural catastrophe.


(Updated August 2012)

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