Shinto's relationship with Japanese life

How Japanese religions are centred round three elements: birth, life and death

Shinto has survived throughout the changes in Japanese history and was made the state religion at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1867 when it was formally separated from Buddhism.

At the end of the Second World War Shinto was abolished as the State religion because of its association with Japanese aggression. But it is still the centre of the rituals and community festivals.

Shinto rituals concern life events, such as marriage and birth. For example the ‘seven night’ celebration at which the baby is taken for its first visit to the local Shinto shrine. The shrines are maintained by local communities and Japanese daily life deeply involves them.

It is said that Japanese marry in a Shinto ritual and live life with Confucian ethics, and the deceased is buried and its soul is transformed into ancestors in a Buddhist ritual. These three events are essential factors in a person’s life and the Japanese religions are centred round these three elements, birth, living and death.

Folk religion, a form of Shinto (Minkan shinko) is thought to respond to what people need in daily life through their experience. It is basically the indigenous primitive religion. In addition it has the characteristics of shamanism, divination and magic. It has no doctrines, nor organisation. It is a kind of custom practised among the local communities. Folk religion puts great emphasis not on ideas but rituals, such as local festivals (matsuri). People expect immediate and firm benefits, such as healing from ill-health, and prosperity of family. The emphasis in Shinto and the fundamental goal is on divine favour, ultimate happiness in ‘this life’.

According to Shinto cosmology each person is said to have a soul (tama) in his body. When he dies this soul departs from the body and travels to its ancestors keeping an interest in this world and especially in its family. The ancestors’ functions are to guard and to protect the continuity and prosperity of the household lineage. Their influence does not extend further than this unlike the kami. Ancestor worship is practised in social-religious activities, such as visiting their graves, observing the annual (obon) festival and rituals at the household (kamidana), the Shinto altar.

The daily activity is to offer incense, flowers and food to the family ancestors. As yearly events there are o-bon (hatsumode), the New Year’s visit to shrines, and (Matsuri), village festivals. O-bon is one of major rites and festivals for families. It is the time for hakamairi, visiting the family graves to clean and to make offerings and for praying to ancestors. Every year people return to their homeland, the villages, from which they originally came.

Although the majority of Japanese people say that they have no religion, over 80 per cent of Japanese people take part in New Year’s shrine visiting; and 89 per cent of Japanese visit their ancestors’ graves regularly or occasionally. The high rate of participation in religious activity related to ancestor worship and the use of Buddhist and Shinto rites to deal with them are growing. It seems to be that for the Japanese people religious life is more important than faith.

As long as the traditional religious rites are observed and ancestors are worshipped, in essence, Japanese religious life has changed little this century.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.