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26 June 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

Shinto’s relationship with Japanese life

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

By Jeffrey Somers

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’.

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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.