What is Shinto? Learn about its History and Importance

  • Many people have heard of Shinto, either by reading about Shinto shrines or through study into religions. But what is Shinto?

    History of Shinto

    Shinto is the native religion of the people of Japan, with over 80% of the population practising this belief system. The history of Shinto goes back for hundreds of years, with the earliest mentions in text being the Kojiki (712) and the Nihon Shoki (720). However these books are not the origin of Shinto beliefs, rather a retelling or simply just stories and traditions passed down orally for many years. Archeological evidence shows a primal version of Shinto being practised long before it was identified in text. Findings show that the Jomon people had ritual structures and even early Torii. The core of Shinto is for the ancestors and for nature, for tama and mono. This early version of Shinto developed over the centuries into a more formal system. In line with many other religions Shinto also has a creationist myth, starting with the kami Amaterasu Omikami. It is said that the Imperial family are directly descended from this god or spirit.

    Shinto is not a monotheistic religion, many kami or spirits are worshipped, reflecting the initial clan structure of primal Shinto. The Kofun period of Japanese history led to the introduction of Shinto as the national religion. It was also at this time that non-native religions were introduced to Japan, such as Buddhism in the 5th and 6th century. The introduction of Buddhism did not eradicate the native beliefs of Japan. During the Nara period a priest called Gyogi assimilated kami and Buddhas, where kami were seen as guardians or pupils of Buddhas. In the Meiji era Shinto was deemed the religion of Japan and the amalgamation of Shinto shrines and Buddhists temples was abolished. This lasted until the end of World War 2 when it was demanded that the state and Shinto be separated and the divine right of the Emperor rescinded. Since then it has been said that Shinto has returned to a more traditional stance of ancestor worship and festivals.


    The Shinto religion is celebrated within Shinto shrines or at shrines in the homes of families. Shrines are where the kami worshipped by that shrine is enshrined. The kami is always enshrined in the worship hall, known as a honden which is only to be entered by the high priest. Shinto shrines also have a public worship hall which can be entered by the public. Since the separation of Shinto and state, shrines are supported by the visitors to the shrine. At many shrines you can make offerings whilst praying. There are around 80,000 shrines in Japan where a variety of kami are enshrined. The Ise Grand Shrine is the head of all the shrines of Japan. These shrines are not fully open to the public, however you can see the roofs of the shrine buildings hidden behind fences. Other notable shrines include Meiji Jingu shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji; Nikko Tosho-gu, dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu; and the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to all the war dead of Japan. Shinto shrines can be identified easily by the torii gates which denote the line between the common world and the sacred space of the shrine. The shrine buildings themselves vary in design and architecture according to what period of Japanese history they were constructed in.


    Kami are the worshipped spirits, gods or essences celebrated in Shinto. Kami can be a number of things, such as rocks, trees, places or people. The creation of Japan is expressed through the actions of kami; Izanagi and Izanami. Through the bearing of offspring, these two kami created the eight perfect islands of Japan. When Izanami died during birth, the kami of fire Izanagi followed her to the afterlife. When he returns after only finding her dead figure, the sun goddess and moon deity were born from his eyes and the storm deity from his nose.


    Unlike other major religions, such as Christianity or Judaism, most people do not define themselves as Shintoists. There is no central text which has been followed in Shinto, like the Bible or Qur’an, rather there are several books of lore which demonstrate Shinto beliefs. Many practices of Shinto revolve around purification to cleanse one’s mind for peace and good fortune. Such ideas are still conducted today, where new buildings are blessed by priests, and so are some cars during the assembly process.

    Ritual purification is conducted usually once a day at shrines where offerings and prayers are given. Typical offerings include food, branches, salt, rice and sake. Purification is done by the ritual use of water while reciting prayers. This echoes the ritual of entering a shrine, with the purification of the hands and mouth at a water basin at the entrance of a shrine.

    When you Visit a Shrine

    To pray at a shrine approach the shrine, bow twice, clap twice then bow with hands still clasped. You can also receive amulets or talisman from shrines. Ema, small wooden plaques, are used for people to write their wishes on to be fulfilled by the kami. Amulets or talismans can be purchased at shrines for protection or good luck. Dance is also utilised in Shinto, called Kagura. Kagura can be used to pacify the spirits of the departed or to strengthen the soul of a dying person. Many varieties of Kagura are still performed today.

    The influence of Shinto is obvious across Japan and many Shinto shrines are popular places for tourists. If you visit a shrine, please remember to be respectful at all times. The practices of Shinto can be enjoyed by visitors from across the world.

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