What is Shinto?

A religion with no founder, no scriptures and only a loosely organised priesthood

Shinto is one of the oldest religions in the world. Related to some of the religions of Korea, Manchuria and Siberia, it is basically a form of nature worship, where natural objects, such as mountains, rivers and heavenly bodies, etc. are worshipped and personified (for example Amatera su-o-mikami, the Sun Spirit). Even Sumo Grand Champions (yokozuna) are considered objects of veneration. Shinto has no founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a loosely organised priesthood who constitute a controlling body called the Jinja Honsho.

Shinto literally means the way, conduct, power or deeds or path of the gods (kami). Kami is a difficult word to translate but is usually rendered in the singular as 'God' or plural as 'gods'; but it suggests something spiritual or 'higher'. Kami may be animate (person, animal), spiritual or even inanimate. Shinto celebrates the rites of life, birth, and marriage which are all considered especially important. Traditions, a moral and ethical code of conduct, must be passed down from generation to generation, therefore the family is extremely important, since it is the family that transmits traditions.

Japan is a physically beautiful country, and the Japanese have always revelled in that; that is why so much of its poetry deals with nature. People must be close to nature that is why activities such as cherry-blossom and maple-leaf viewing are so important. Since natural objects are worshipped as sacred spirits, nature itself is sacred, and being in contact with nature means that you are in touch with the gods.

Cleanliness is godliness in Japan, hence their concern with taking baths, washing their hands often, and rinsing out their mouths. One must be clean in the presence of the spirits. Something that is not clean is considered ugly.

It is usual in Japan to refer to Buddhist places of worship as temples and Shinto places of worship as shrines (jinja). The entrance to a shrine is marked by a 'Torii'. Shrines are always constructed out of wood, are usually surrounded by sacred trees, and have flowing water near them. Every village and town or district in Japan will have its own Shinto shrine, dedicated to the local kami. The Japanese see shrines as restful places filled with a sense of the sacred.

All Shinto involves some shrine worship. Originally the shrines were pieces of land considered unpolluted, virgin land surrounded by trees or by stones. A shrine is usually a room, raised from the ground, with an object or objects inside. One worships the kami inside the shrine. Outside the shrine is placed a wash-basin where you clean your hands and mouth and maybe your face before entering the shrine. This procedure of washing, called 'misogi' is one of the important rituals of Shinto. One worships at a Shinto shrine by ‘attending’ it, that is devoting oneself to the object worshipped, and by giving offerings to it: anything from vegetables to great riches. Shinto prayer, (norito), is based on (koto-dama), the belief that spoken words have a spiritual power, if spoken correctly.

Unfortunately we know almost nothing about early Shinto since it was before writing. There are two important texts of Shinto belief and mythology, the Kojiki (The Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), both written down around 700CE.

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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.