Shinto (literally, the way of the gods) is the native Japanese
religion. It originated in prehistoric times and has long played
an important role in Japanese society. The major jinja (shrines) around
the country have often been power bases, closely tied with Imperial
and shogunal powers. Unlike the world's major religions, Shinto
has no fixed dogma, moral precepts, or sacred scriptures. Perhaps for
this reason, most Japanese quite easily incorporate Shinto into their way of
life alongside Buddhism and even elements of Christianity without feeling
a strong attachment to or having a passionate belief in any of them. Shinto is practiced at
jinja, which are most easily distinguished from
Buddhist o-tera (temples) by the distinctive torii gates that mark the entrance (photo).
Shinto followers worship a huge array of kami (gods or spirits) which personify
all aspects of nature, such as the sky, the earth, heavenly bodies, and natural phenomena.
Sacred objects, such as rocks or trees, can be recognized by the shimenawa ropes and white
paper strips attached to them. Many of the matsuri
(festivals) held all over Japan originated from Shinto rites, including prayers of
thanksgiving, offerings of food and valuables, and purification rituals.
The origins of Shinto are hidden in the mists of time. According to the historical chronicles
of ancient Japan, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, AD712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle
of Japan, AD720), the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami presented the sanshu no jingi or Imperial
Regalia to her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto. He in turn passed them on to his descendants, the
emperors, the first of whom was Emperor Jimmu. The regalia (see below) are symbols of the legitimacy and
authority of the emperor, who was considered to be divine until as late as the end of World War II.
Shinto only received an actual name and became in any way systemized in the
late 6th century AD, in order to distinguish it from Buddhism
and Confucianism, newly introduced from China.
Eager to keep up with their neighbors to the west, the Imperial court adopted Buddhism
and many other aspects of Chinese culture and innovation. The
emperors also became Buddhist, though Shinto continued to be practiced
at court and at a few of the major jinja. The foreign and native
religions continued to assimilate for over a thousand years. In
the late 8th century, under the great teacher Kukai, Shinto and Buddhism
were united as a new doctrine called Ryobu Shinto (the Shinto of two kinds).
During the Edo Period (1600~1868) there was a revival of nationalistic sentiments.
One result was a resurgent interest in the ancient Shinto beliefs,
and the discarding of foreign influences. During the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the
emperor was restored to the head of the government
and Shinto was established as the state religion. The emperor
was considered the divine descendant of the sun goddess. This
direct lineage from the gods was reflected in a feeling of Japanese
superiority, which in turn fed the military expansion of the Japanese
Empire. State Shinto was considered the official belief of the
entire Japanese race and was embodied in the huge number of jinja,
large and small, throughout the country. The great jinja are
Meiji Jingu and Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo, Ise Jingu in Ise, and Izumo Taisha in Matsue. Sectarian Shinto was divided up into many sects, which can be
grouped into five main categories, based on: traditional Shinto,
Confucianism, faith healing, mountain worship, and purification
sanshu no jingi, or Imperial Regalia (right) are holy relics which appear in
Japan's ancient myths. They are the symbols of the legitimacy
and authority of the emperor.
In order of importance, they consist of the sacred mirror (yata
no kagami, stored at Ise Jingu), the sacred sword (kusanagi no
tsurugi, stored at Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya) and
the curved jewels (yasakani no magatama, kept at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo). The
original sacred sword was lost at the famous Battle of Dannoura in 1185.
According to the myth, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami was driven to hide herself in a cave by the boisterous behavior
of her younger brother, Susanoo no Mikoto, god of the oceans. The sacred mirror was used to lure her from
her hiding place. When she emerged, the deities of heaven presented
her with the sacred jewels. The sword was removed from the tail
of a serpent by Susanoo and presented to his sister as a sign
of his submission.
After World War II, the Allied Occupation separated Shinto and the state and this break was written into
the new constitution. So visits by leading politicians to Yasukuni
Jinja, which enshrines the Japanese war-dead, are always protested
as being provocative by Japan's Asian wartime foes. The emperor
issued a statement renouncing all claims to divinity, and the use
of Shinto symbols for nationalistic purposes was forbidden. Even
today, protests against these and other changes are a favorite
rallying call of right-wing extremists.
In addition to the hundreds of festivals, many Shinto ceremonies
play an important part in modern daily life. Many marriages are
carried out in jinja, building plots are purified and sometimes
even new cars are blessed for safety. In a rite called oharai, the white-clad priest waves a stick with white strips of paper
attached to carry out the blessing. Most family homes have a kamidana (god shelf) as well as a Buddist butsudan (Buddha altar). The main teaching centers for Shinto priests
are Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and Kogakukan University in Ise.
(One of the most authoritative works on the subject is Shinto:
The Way of Japan (1965) by the American educator and clergyman
Floyd H. Ross)
An excellent (and much more insightful than mine!) introduction to what exactly Shinto is can be read here.