Shinto (Japanese, “way of the gods”)

A miko (woman consecrated to a Shinto deity) at Inari Shrine.

Japanese indigenous religion of central importance in Japanese culture and history from the earliest times. As intimately bound up with its associated national character as, for example, Hinduism is with Indian identity, Shinto exists only in Japan, where it underlies many of the basic structures of family and social life. It also furnished the founding ideology of Japan’s development as a modern nation-state. Its pervasiveness is partly due to its capacity to coexist happily with other religions, especially Buddhism.

Practices and Beliefs

Shinto is a polytheistic religion, venerating a vast pantheon of kami (gods or spirits) which range from the local deities of mountains or streams to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Natural phenomena and particular places are personified as kami, dead statesmen or other notables could be deified as kami, families or craft traditions revered their forefathers as kami, the reigning emperor was long regarded as a living kami. A kami could loosely be termed the “spirit” of virtually any aspect of existence possessing its own discrete identity and vital force (tama). Japan is traditionally known as “the land of 8 million kami”. The practice of Shinto consists chiefly of worshipping, propitiating, and otherwise dealing with the kami.

Shinto first arose in a preliterate culture as a religion of practice rather than creed, and practice remains fundamental to it. Two types of practice predominate: honouring the kami through prayer and offerings, and averting their wrath by cleansing oneself of impurity.

Food offerings-especially rice, sake, fish, vegetables, and fruit-and symbolic offerings of pine branches with white paper strips attached usually feature in the more important Shinto ceremonies. These are often associated with the seasonal cycles, reflecting Shinto’s roots in an agricultural society. The stages of human life are also marked by Shinto ceremonies: a baby’s first visit to its tutelary kami soon after its birth; the Shichi-go-san (Seven-Five-Three) festival on November 15 in which 5-year-old boys and 3- and 7-year-old girls visit shrines to pray for good health; and the traditional wedding ceremony. Any new enterprise requiring good fortune, such as a supermarket’s sales drive, may call for prayers at a shrine. A shrine’s Annual Festival (Rei-sai) is often marked by a riotous parade in which a portable shrine, the mikoshi, is carried shoulder-high round the parish accompanied by shouting and singing.

Shinto traditionally emphasizes purity, and regards death, disease, blood, and filth as obnoxious to the kami. Elaborate rituals are prescribed to purge these exhaustively specified contaminations, known as kegare. Blood, such as the blood of a hunted beast, had to be kept away from the shrines. Menstruating women and the sick, wounded or recently bereaved were traditionally barred from shrine precincts, and women were once banned from many sacred mountains. The most common method of purification was by ablution (misogi), ranging from the customary rinsing of mouth and hands before worship to standing naked under a waterfall. Many of the kami were supposedly born from the misogi of the ancestral deity Izanagi as he purified himself after visiting hell, a legend which shows purification’s generative significance in Shinto. Purity of heart was almost as important, for crimes were regarded as kegare. High on the list of these crimes were those most damaging in an agricultural society, such as breaking down the dykes between rice paddies. A pure heart, distinguished by its sincerity, was regarded as most favoured by the kami.

Shinto is organized on a parochial basis, with residents of an area being associated with their local shrine. Small family altars, wayside effigies, vast and complex shrines: all are suitable for worshipping the kami. The earliest Shinto holy places were simply beautiful or striking locations, often demarcated by a plaited straw rope or a wooden gate, the torii. Only later were shrine buildings established. Shrines usually contain an object (a sword, mirror, stone, or other item) which serves as the “body” of the kami: for certain mountain deities the entire sacred mountain is regarded as the god’s body. The Association of Shinto Shrines serves as the umbrella organization governing modern Shinto, with some more prestigious shrines, such as the Ise Shrine or the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (honouring Japan’s war dead), enjoying precedence. There is no unitary Shinto hierarchy, and priesthood often passes from father to son.


Shinto is not a revealed religion with a divinely inspired scripture: the books it treats as holy are descriptions of Shinto practice, often histories. The mythical histories Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters, 712) and Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720) describe the deeds and genealogies of the gods from the creation of Japan by the primal pair, Izanagi and Izanami. These books trace the descent of the imperial line from Amaterasu and may have been compiled to validate the imperial family’s claim to divine right. Compendia of ceremonies and ancient prayers (norito) serve as ceremonial liturgies and textbooks on ritual. The Engi Shiki (Procedures of the Engi Era, 905-927), a compilation of government regulations, carries details of shrine rites, kegare, and other important Shinto matters, as well as most of the norito, and is hence regarded as sacred. The so-called Five Books of Shinto (Shinto Gobusho), so hallowed that only senior priests were permitted to read them, were compiled by priests in the 13th century from other sources.


Shinto arose during the prehistoric Yayoi period, subsuming native shamanism, animism, and folk belief. Too simple, disorganized, and ubiquitous to develop a structure or dogma, it acquired a name only in the late 6th century to differentiate itself from the new Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian beliefs being imported from China and Korea. As Shinto faced the challenge of these sophisticated creeds, it also became involved with the consolidation of government under the imperial family in which the tutelary kami of important clans, the ujigami, became national deities, organized in a pantheon which reflected existing political relationships. A system was set up in around 645 whereby the state made official offerings at certain important shrines (around 3,000 by the 10th century). Concepts and forms of worship were borrowed from Buddhism, and a historical rationale was gleaned from the Kojiki and Nihon shoki.

Buddhism soon became the most important foreign creed in Japan, following its introduction in 538, and from the 8th century onwards the Japanese learned to reconcile both beliefs by regarding the kami as incarnations of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, a process helped by a revelation at the Ise Shrine in 743 in which Amaterasu revealed herself to be an aspect of the cosmic Buddha Vairocana. Buddhist temples were built within Shinto shrine precincts and Buddhist priests were entrusted with Shinto shrines. Pure, unadulterated Shinto survived only at the religion’s most venerable centres, such as the Ise Shrine. But the foreign imports had given Shinto the ideas and even the written language it needed to give itself form and identity, and the synthesis prospered. Intellectually it was rationalized in often arbitrary theoretical schemes like Ryobu Shinto (“Dual Aspect Shinto”), the dualistic Amaterasu/Vairocana cult. On a popular level, it was typified by the wandering yamabushi (mountain priests), who ministered to the people with a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto rites.

In the 13th century important priestly families at Ise and Kyoto developed doctrines that explicitly dissociated Shinto from Buddhism. Watarai Shinto, named after one of these families, emphasized the importance of prayer and of a universal kami-nature, a creator spirit underlying all things, including the Buddhas. Yoshida Kanemoto, descendant of another such family, systematized Shinto doctrine and declared that Shinto underlay all other cults, including Buddhism. His school, Yoshida Shinto, became predominant after the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. These movements had little impact on the prevailing syncretism, but the Kokugaku (National Learning) schools that arose in the late 17th century were inspired by Yoshida Shinto to renew the national tradition. They combined a patriotic determination to improve government and purify it of foreign accretions with scrupulous philological research to recover the meaning of ancient texts such as the Kojiki; Motoori Norinaga was their greatest representative. They fostered Fukko (Revived) Shinto, which grew militantly nationalistic in response to Western encroachments into the western Pacific. Its credo was that the Japanese, as sole descendants of the sun, were uniquely gifted to rule the world.

The radicals who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 took Fukko Shinto as their ideology, and this became the new government’s state creed. Shinto and Buddhism were separated by decree in 1868: Buddhist effigies were ordered to be removed from Shinto shrines and all traces of Buddhism were purged from the imperial household. Priests were made state employees, and the Ministry of Religion laid down detailed instructions on doctrine and ritual in a new system termed State Shinto.This concentrated on the more important shrines; folk Shinto practices were mostly left unmolested and various fringe Shinto movements dating from the Edo period were allowed to continue under the rubric Sect Shinto.

The politicization of Shinto was typified by a Ministry of Education ruling of 1932 which acknowledged that Shinto shrines were non-religious establishments for fostering patriotism. State Shinto became a mouthpiece for the militarist regime of the 1930s. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 the American Occupation authorities decreed Shinto’s disestablishment, ending State Shinto. Most Shinto shrines reorganized themselves in 1946 into an autonomous organization, the Association of Shinto Shrines, with member shrines supported by private donations. The emperor’s state rites were recategorized as the private rites of the imperial family. Sect Shinto flourished in the post-war period, with over 80 sects emerging to date and some spreading overseas, and Shinto as a whole continues to be an evolving part of Japanese life and culture.