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27 June 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

What is Shinto?

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

By Jeffrey Somers

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.

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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.