The Beliefs and Practices of Japanese Shintoism Explained

by Christian Monson
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You’ve probably seen images of Shinto symbols even if you weren’t aware of it. For example, the torii archways are one of the most famous symbols of Japan, proof of how fundamental this ancient religion is to the country.

Shinto is a unique religion based heavily on nature, rituals and purity. For Westerners, some of the concepts can be difficult to understand. They’re certainly very different from the concepts typical in Western religions. Consequently, Shinto can provide a fresh new perspective anyone can benefit from.

If you’ve wondered about the meaning of those arches or wanted to know what goes on inside a Shinto shrine, keep reading. The beliefs and practices of Shinto are an eye-opening adventure.

Beliefs

Shinto literally means “the way of the Kami” in Chinese. The Kami are often referred to in English as “gods” or “spirits,” but that’s not really accurate. Instead, practitioners see the kami all around them, especially in the natural phenomena that affect humanity.

In fact, Shinto is often called a “nature religion.” Kami can be associated with a part of the landscape like a rock or tree, or they can be specific events like earthquakes or plagues. Despite their manifestation as parts of the natural world, the Kami are essentially beings. They can be benevolent or malevolent, and humans can become Kami after death.

Purity, or harae, is a major part of Shinto. There isn’t the dichotomy of good and evil that Westerners are used to. Instead, humans are considered fundamentally good and pure, but they can experience pollution or kegare, often by malevolent Kami. As a result, a lot of Shinto is focused on purification.

Since good and evil aren’t central points of the religion, the morality of Shinto can seem a bit more flexible than other religions that have specific lists of absolute dos and don’ts. Rather, Shinto simply encourages anything that causes purity, harmony, and beauty. Of course, this is considered the natural state of the world, so this means a large part of Shinto is about removing impurities and negative influences.

Unlike Western religions, Shinto isn’t based on specific doctrine. There are some important texts, but there’s nothing considered a holy book with all the answers. Really, Shinto isn’t focused much on doctrine at all. Behavior and practice are much more important. That’s one of the reasons Shinto is called a “ritual-based religion.”

Practices And Rituals

Shinto is rich in tradition. It’s much more focused on behavior than belief. Since Shinto is the native religion of Japan, it can be seen in many aspects of Japanese society and culture.  Sometimes, it can even be hard to tell the difference. The main goal of all these rituals is maintaining social harmony and purity.

Shrines

Shinto shrines or temples are called jinja, which literally means “kami place.” These are recognizable symbols of the religion and of Japan in general. There are somewhere around 80,000 official shrines around Japan. 

Jinja have a sanctuary inside called a honden where the Kami live. This is also where people participate in worship ceremonies. 

Perhaps the most notable part of the shrines are the torii archways at the entrance. Some shrines have many of these arches and entire pathways adorned with them. These arches denote residences of the Kami, and they also serve to purify those entering the shrine. 

You might also find Komainu statues outside a Shinto shrine. These are usually intimidating animals like dogs or lions meant to scare off malevolent Kami. 

As Shinto is a religion founded in nature, the shrines, even urban ones, are normally surrounded by gardens or trees. It’s very important to practitioners of Shinto to keep the shrines and their surrounding woodlands clean and pure. Upkeep is essential, and if a shrine ever becomes too rundown or polluted, it’s often destroyed and rebuilt.

Pilgrimage and Prayer

Whereas most Western religions have scheduled meeting times, practitioners of Shinto usually travel to a shrine to worship individually, known as hairei. Prayer only takes a few minutes, and many people do it every morning on their way to work.

The first part of prayer involves putting a monetary donation in a box. This pays for the upkeep of the shrine and its priests. Then the person praying rings a bell to call the Kami living in the shrine. Finally, they bow, clap and stand back up while praying silently. These prayers aren’t for any specific Kami, and the worshiper may not even know which Kami lives in the shrine.

Purification

In Shinto, purity is considered the default state of the world, so most rituals are all about purification, also known as harae.

Water plays a central role in harae. A lot of purification rituals involve immersion in water or bathing. In a shrine, people sprinkle water from a special basin known as a temizuya on their hands and face. 

Shinto Today

Shinto is heavily integrated into Japanese culture. For example, the Shinto emphasis on purification and the Japanese emphasis on bathing are closely related. 

Even explicitly Shinto traditions are very popular among the Japanese. Although only about 4% of Japanese people consider themselves members of a Shinto sect, about 80% of the population participates in Shinto rituals. These include the hatsumiyamairi, a child’s first visit to a shrine after birth, and Shinto weddings.

Home Shrines

Shinto practitioners often have shrines in their homes or businesses called kamidana. These are normally just elevated shelves with a miniature setup of a jinja. They may contain small torii and stands for placing offerings. Just like in public shrines, people perform purification rituals with water before making offerings.

Festivals

Shinto has many festivals based on the traditional lunar calendar. These occur around Japan and are popular even with those who otherwise might not identify with the religion.

A lot of festivals include parades and dances and are specific to a region, city or even shrine. These traditions promote community and social harmony.

One of the most famous Shinto traditions is that of the new year. Practitioners begin the new year by attending the shrines to pray for good fortune. This leads to a massive festival where vendors sell food and drink to pilgrims. Large shrines in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto are usually packed with people, including tourists and Westerners along for the party.  

Shinto Around The World

Shinto has even spread outside of Japan. Japanese immigrants have set up overseas shrines called kaigai jinja all over the world. Many Westerners have been drawn to the religion due to personal experiences or the emphasis on ritual over doctrine.

Shinto is strongly tied to the Japanese national identity, so it can be difficult for foreigners to become fully integrated into the religion, though not impossible. The main problems facing Shinto converts are location and language.

For someone living outside of Japan, the nearest kaigai jinja might be thousands of miles away. In fact, they may not even have a shrine in their own country, and pilgrimage could mean a significant amount of travel and international customs. 

Some might prefer to just move to Japan to practice their religion, but Japan is not known for its open borders. Moving there can be easier said than done, and if a person does manage to immigrate, they may still be seen as an outsider.

Language is another barrier. Many concepts in Shinto are difficult to translate because they’re unique to Japan. A fluent level of Japanese is necessary to fully grasp the beliefs, practices and their purposes. The few religious texts there are in Japanese with few decent translations. Therefore, most non-Japanese followers of Shinto make a concentrated effort to learn the language.

Regardless of the barriers, the value of Shinto is seen by people around the globe. Even if you don’t plan on converting to the religion and moving to Japan, the beauty of the philosophy and its perspectives on nature can enrich your life. It’s certainly worth further study and maybe adding a shrine to your travel plan to visit on your next trip to Japan.

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