Shintoism is the indigenous and national religion of Japan. The word Shinto means the way of the gods. Shintoism is a nature worship based religion. Shintoism is a unique religion with its own concepts on deities, ethics and life.
Shintoism is based on the beginning of the race when the trees and the herbs had speech(Underwood 16). At the beginning of the Earth, Shinto followers believed, that the animals acted and spoke like men. The religion does not directly deal with common religious themes of; problem of evil, man’s consciousness of sin and his need for redemption. Shinto followers believe that spirits exist everywhere whether good or evil. The religion is unorganized worship of these deities. The name given to these spirits and deities are Kami. Kami is a key concept in Shintoism and is difficult to define. All that is wonderful is God, and the divine embraces in its category all that impresses the untrained imagination and excites it to reverence or fear. (18) Objects of worship included: the sky, heavenly bodies, mountains, rivers, seas, trees, beasts, great fishes, reptiles and the process of reproduction in nature and humans.
There are four historical written sources, which provide scholars with information on the beginnings of Shintoism. The first of these books is the Kojiki, which means records of ancient matters. The Kojiki was written in a combination of archaic Japanese and Chinese. The book was compiled in 712 CE by an emperor who feared that many variants may destroy the foundation of the monarchy. The book’s principle aim was to demonstrate the divine origin of the ruling family and the foundation of the state. Some refer to this book as the Bible of the Japanese. This is not true as it is not regarded as inspired or to possess any doctrinal interest, Shinto has no sacred texts. The second book is titled the Nihongi, which means the chronicles of Japan. The Nihongi was written entirely in Chinese. The book was compiled in 720 CE and covers much of the same material as the Kojiki with alternate versions of myths or events. The third book is the Yengi-shiki, meaning the institutes of the Yengi period. The book was compiled between 901-923 CE and describes the rituals practiced during the Yengi era. It contains a few ancient prayers and is an important source for the ceremonies of Shinto. The final book is the Manyo-shiu, meaning the collection of myriad leaves. It was written in the late eighth or early ninth century and contains a collection of four hundred poems. The poems celebrate the splendors of the Japanese landscape.
In the seventh century the Shintoism gained some coherence by being related to the emperor. The Kojiki established the emperor as a direct descendent of the Sun-Goddess. To secure the loyalty of his subjects the old myths were retold and elaborated and the emperor became a divine figure. The Kojiki shows how the emperor can trace his descent from the Sun-Goddess and through to Izanagi and Izanami the two primal deities who gave birth to the gods and the islands of Japan. The elaboration of Shinto in the interest of the monarchy is the really characteristic feature of Shinto and its typically national form. (19)
An issue of debate among Shinto scholars is on the question of whether ancestor-worship had always existed or whether it had been imported from China. There is an important distinction to be made between a cult of the dead and a cult of the ancestors. A cult of the dead is based on a fear that if the dead are neglected, they will haunt or harm the living. A cult of the ancestors, however, is based on spiritual fraternity in which offerings are not made through fear but to promote the family. It is now generally regarded by most scholars that Shintoism included nature-worship and a cult of the dead prior to Chinese contact. After the Chinese arrival true ancestor worship began and these spirits took their place alongside the Kami and received veneration not based on fear.
The key mythology of Shintoism is based on the creation of Japan. The first to appear were three deities who are said to have emerged out of the primeval chaos, which is likened to an ocean of mud veiled in darkness. These three deities disapear without leaving a trace. Two deities followed, when the Earth was just beginning, These two also vanish without leaving a trace. Two more follow and disappear. Five more couples follow the final two being Izanagi, meaning the male-who-invites, and Izanami, the female-who-invites. The gods prior to Izanagi and Izanami are referred to as celestial deities to distinguish them from earthly deities who are said to have walked on the Earth. Some scholars think these heavenly deities may have been deities no longer worshipped in Japan. It is more likely they were inventions to eke out genealogical tree for the greater divinities who came afterwards.(24) Izanagi and Izanami were ordered by the celestial deities to come to Earth to produce the terrestrial world. They were given a spear and, standing on the floating bridge of heaven, they push the spear into the mist and stir the briny silt below. They draw up the spear and the brine on its tip forms the island of Onogoro. They descend to the island where they erect a pillar and palace. After completion of the palace and the pillar the notice their sexual differences and are filled with the desire for sexual union. Izanami speaks first saying, oh, what a beautiful and amiable youth. Izanagi replies, oh, what a beautiful and amiable maiden. They then embraced as man and wife. Their union results in the birth of a child, Hiruko meaning child of the sun. The child is evil and is put on a boat and sent adrift. They have another child who is also seen as evil. The couple return to heaven to find out why their offspring are evil. They are told that it is because Izanami spoke first, and they are told to descend back again and amend your words. They return and give birth to eight great islands and then the smaller ones. After giving birth to all the countries they give birth to more Kami. In all they produce eighty countries eight hundred myriads of Kami, the eight great islands, the sun mountains and rivers. The last Kami they create is the Fire Kami. Izanami is burnt very badly by the Kami and eventually dies and withdraws to the underworld. Izanagi in a fit of wrath draws his sword and cuts the fire Kami to pieces, thus creating further Kami. Izanagi goes to the underworld to visit his wife. Upon his arrival she asks him not to look at her disfigured form. Izanagi sees her and is horrified, he quickly flees with her chasing him. He makes it to the upper world safely, where he must purify himself from the experience.
Ethics in Shintoism are fairly vague. Ethics in Shintoism can be described as situational ethics (Ross 108). In each situation an answer must be earnestly sought and then put into practice. There are no definitive answers, it depends on the particular circumstances and the individual. The basic attitude towards life can be expressed by the word makoto. Makoto is common among both humans and Kami. It is usually translated as honesty, conscientiousness or truthfulness. A person who practices makoto is true to the whole situation. This person is in harmony with Kami and is doing their best under the circumstances. When a person is untrue to a situation and does harm to themselves or others it is not due to a source of evil inside of oneself. Evil is seen as arising from external influences.
The concept of soul in Shintoism is also fairly vague. The word Tama is used, which means beautiful jewel or mysterious rock, to describe a spirit or soul. A variation of this is Tamashii, which meant ball wind…this would correlate it with the ancient words for soul in other languages, suggesting wind, air, or breath. (112) Four spirits are mentioned: the spirit to rule with authority, ara-mi-tama, the spirit empowered to lead to harmony or union, nigi-mi-tama, the spirit causing mysterious transformations, kushi-mi-tama, and the spirit imparting blessings, saki-mi-tama. The early Japanese believed a person has several kinds of souls. Shintoism believes that a persons soul can temporarily leave their bodies. Many rituals are dedicated to the pacifying of the soul.
Shinto’s view of human nature is that it is fundamentally good, there is no inherent evil or badness in people. The worlds of the Kami and humans is believed to be the same. They live and participate with another. Humans are believed to be the descendants of Kami and have them in their flesh. There is no final goal of heaven or paradise. The goal of the faith is the flourishing of all people. Having the right inner attitude includes having the right attitude towards nature. Shinto lacks a judgmental approach to life as well as any code of law.
Shinto shrines are typically very simple and always constructed of wood. They have never built a stone cathedral; their holy places were temples of nature wherein a group of huge trees rivaled a Gothic tower.(Underwood 50) Every Shinto shrine has a tori-i standing at its entrance. It is a simple structure, either in wood or stone, made up of two quadrangular beams laid horizontally above the head and supported by two round columns.(51) The shrines are generally made up of two rooms. The first room is one of general worship where all devotees can use. The other room is upon only to the priesthood and contains the emblem of the deity to which it is dedicated. Each temple also has a gohei, which is a small pole of wood or bamboo in which is inserted a piece of paper or cloth, so cut that the two parts hang down on the two sides of the pole and each part looks plaited.(51) The only visible objects of worship are the emblem of the deity. There is also a shintai, god-body, usually a mirror but sometimes a sword, pillow or round stone. A famous example of this is the mirror of Amaterasu in Ise. It is believed to be the a mirror given by Amaterasu to her grandson. The mirror has never been seen by human eyes. It is wrapped in a silk bag, and when the silk is deteriorating another silk bag is placed overtop.
Daily worship at Shinto Shrines is not congregational but individual. A worshipper enters the shrine presents their offering bowing before and after. The priests serving in these ceremonies glide in and out of the sanctuary in silence. These offerings consist of products of the earth and ocean. Often fish, vegetables birds or sake are offered. The offerings are brought one after another and are raised to the forehead. After the ritual is recited the worshipper is lead away by the priest. The offering is believed or hoped to cleanse the devotee from impurity. On some occasions dances with music and dramatic representations are given in front of worshippers. No systematic instruction is ever given to the people by the priests.
There are also ceremonies which are held and are classified by the Yengi-shiki as: the Greater Ritual, the Middle Rituals, and the Lesser rituals. The Oho-nihe, great tasting, is the Greater Ritual. The ceremony was celebrated by the emperor in the eleventh month of his accession. The ceremony consisted of the emperor offering to the gods rice and sake, which the emperor and the court would eat. It included frequent purifications and prayers to the gods. The Middle Rituals were all agricultural ceremonies which were observed annually. An example of the Middle Rituals was the Toshigohi, praying for the harvest. Prayers were offered to numerous amount of gods in hopes for an abundant harvest. The Lesser Rituals included prayers for abundant rice crops and praying for rain.
In the Kojiki and the Nihongi Amaterasu is described as wearing her own divine robe at her palace and herself tasted the first fruits of the year in order to worship the Father Kami of heaven. This representation of Amaterasu depicts her as priestess and Kami. Each priest in Shintoism holds a position of authority due to its close connection with the state. Every Emperor in Japan’s imperial lineage has served as both sovereign and priest. The Emperor was head of the Shinto faith as well as head of the nation. This in turn transferred down the ranks. The heads of the provinces were also head of Shintoism in that province. The head of each clan was the head priest for that particular clan. And the head of each family was the head priest of that family. And even today the priests of Japan’s over 50 000 Shinto shrines are under state control.
Shintoism is a uniquely Japanese religion. It is inseparable from the Japanese state and is critical in defining Japanese culture. Shintoism is a thriving religion as many people in Japan follow both the teachings of Shintoism and Buddhism without any difficulties. The religion stresses the importance for respect of nature and oneself.