Shinto religion – the traditional religion of Japan – has greatly contributed to shaping the country’s culture and thought. Shinto practices are followed by more than 80% of the population nowadays, and it mostly revolve around visiting Shinto shrines, honoring ancestors and purifying oneself.
Shinto symbols, such as torii gates, and festivals, like the matsuri, are now an essential part of Japanese culture, unique ways of experiencing this fascinating religion.
And, even if many Japanese people don’t consider themselves Shinto, Shintoism cannot be removed from their lives. Check out our article below and learn more about Shinto!
- Shinto deities are called kami, spirits dwelling in all kinds of object, and worshipped by means of ritual and prayer.
- Purification rites are extremely important, as impurity can prevent one from attaining peace and balance.
- Torii, the entrance gates outside shrines, are one of the most recognizable symbols of Japan.
- Matsuri are festivals organized from shrines and temples, and they mark the different stages of the rice-growing process.
- Some of the most stunning shrines are located in Kyoto, Tokyo, and on Itsukushima Island.
Shinto in Japan
What is the primary religion in Japan? Nowadays, Shinto is the religion of public shrines, used to worship kami, the sacred spirits.
80% of the Japanese population performs Shinto practices, but not everyone thinks of himself or herself as a proper “Shintoist”. Many Shinto do not belong to any organized sect.
In Japan, there are more than 80,000 shrines and priests. Shinto practices are deeply rooted in Japanese society, and also influence the practitioners of other religions, such as Buddhists. Scholars think of Shinto as “Japan’s traditional religion”, as opposed to foreign religions followed by a smaller percentage of the population.
The practices of Shinto are simple, and some are part of everyday life, especially the shrine visits. Every rite is either performed to honor kami or ancestors, or to purify oneself.
To attain peace and balance, one must get rid of impurity. Every wrong deed brings impurity, and purification rites (harae) are performed often, even on a daily basis. Nowadays, purification rites are used to bless new cars or new buildings, having been adapted to modern life.
Visiting a shrine is one of the basic practices of Shinto. Non-Shinto people can also do this. When visiting a shrine you should perform some rituals in order to pay your respects to the enshrined kami.
Harae is the purification rite, performed with offerings and prayers. Food like fish, rice, or salt is usually offered.
Misogi is a special kind of purification rite involving water. It can be performed anywhere there is running water and some people do it on a daily basis. The basic misogi happens outside a shrine, when mouth and hands are rinsed before entering.
Japanese amulets and talismans
Shinto used to leave small wooden plaques called ema, with wishes written upon them, on shrine grounds. In contrast, ofuda are a kind of talisman inscribed with names of kami, used to protect one’s house. Other amulets sold by shrines are omamori, used to ward off bad luck.
This is a kind of shamanic dance typical of Shinto. Music is essential to the kagura, as it is a way to encourage the kami to come down and join the dance. Songs are seen as providing magical ways of summoning kami and receiving their blessing. The vocal accompaniment is called kami uta.
The principal deities of Shinto are kami, spirits that reside mostly in inanimate things, like trees, rocks, and rivers. When someone dies, he or she becomes a kami, so every Shinto family worships its own ancestors.
Knowing the kannagara (“way of the kami”) is fundamental for understanding life, and from it stems the ethical dimension of Shinto, focused on sincerity and purity.
The first kami is called Amenominakanushi, and is considered to be the source of the universe. The story goes that Amenominakanushi was a god who came into being alone, manifesting both male and female functions.
According to Shinto mythology, Japan was created along with a group of kami by two gods, Izanagi and Izanami. These two gods were asked to create a new land: they stirred water with a spear, and the water dripping from the spear created the new land. They gave birth to 8 perfect islands and many kami.
Shinto is as old as Japan itself. Jomon, the earliest inhabitants of Japan, developed Shinto with its practices and rites, and believed in the forces of nature. Shinto started to take on a more formalized system around 300 BC, with the introduction of religious and governmental organizations from mainland Asia.
After centuries of development, Shinto was heavily influenced by the state after 1868, during the so-called Shinto State Period.
Shrines were seen as an extension of government and Shinto was seen as a way of unifying an otherwise fragmented Japan. With the Meiji restoration, Shinto was used to boost nationalism.
After WWII, many new religions appeared, but Japan’s religiosity decreased. Shinto shrines were mostly seen as a way to help ordinary people obtain better luck; and many people claimed to not be religious, even though they had altars in their homes and amulets on their persons. Shinto rituals and festivals too were not abandoned and Shinto values were still a huge part of Japanese society.
Torii — the most recognizable icon of Shinto
A torii is a gate at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, and it marks the transition onto sacred ground. The first torii were built during the Heian period (in the 10th century). The oldest remaining stone torii was built during the 12th century and today is to be found in Yamagata prefecture.
Torii used to be made of wood or stone, but nowadays they are also made of concrete, copper, and steel. Some shrines have many torii, because successful businessmen usually donate a torii, especially to the god Inari, the kami of fertility.
Kannushi — the Shinto priesthood
Kannushi are responsible for the conservation of shrines and for leading worship of kami. In the past, they were intermediaries between kami and humans, but later they became mainly shrine-keepers. They can be married and have children, who usually inherit their position. Their clothes do not have any symbolic meaning, but are just official garments.
The only way to become a kannushi is to study at a university approved by the Association of Shinto Shrines. Women can become kannushi as well, and widows can succeed their husbands in their jobs.
Ema boards and lucky charms
Shinto worshippers used to write their wishes and prayers on small wooden tablets called ema boards. You can see these ema hanging at the shrines, so that the kami can read them.
Usually, the ema also have pictures of animals on them, because in the past people used to donate horses to the shrines: over time, practices have been simplified, and animal pictures are purely symbolic.
Lucky charms (omamori) are extremely popular in Japan, and you will find hundreds of omamori stalls. Priests try to put the power of the gods into small blessings that people can carry around all the time. These are meant to bring good luck and keep away evil spirits. Nowadays, you can find a huge variety of hand-made omamori.
Matsuri — the Shinto origins of Japanese festivals
The word matsuri means “festival” and it is common for Japanese festivals to be organized by people at the local shrines. Dates differ in each area, but almost every prefecture has a festival during summer to celebrate the rice harvest.
Matsuri, which mostly mark the stages of rice-growing, are celebrated with processions, sumo matches, and food, etc.
Kanda Matsuri, Tokyo
One of the most important festivals in Tokyo, the Kanda Matsuri, takes place in May of odd-numbered years. It lasts a week, and the festival highlights are during the weekend: the procession on Saturday and the parade of shrines on Sunday.
The festival is dedicated to the Kanda Myojin Shrine, enshrining three deities: Daikokuten, Ebisu, and Taira Masakado.
The Gion Matsuri, Kyoto
The festival of the Yasaka Shrine is the most popular Japanese festival, and lasts the whole month of July. The most remarkable event is the procession of floats on July 17th: some of the floats are up to 25 meters tall, and each is decorated in a unique way.
A young boy is appointed as a divine messenger, to appeal to the gods, and he cannot touch the ground for almost five days.
Takayama Matsuri, Takayama
Regarded as one of Japan’s most beautiful festivals, Takayama Matsuri is convened both in spring and autumn. The spring festival (April 14-15) is the festival of the Hie Shrine; the autumn one (October 9-10) is the festival of the Hachiman Shrine. These two festivals are characterized by floats decorated with flowers.
Shinto shrines — the most notable in Japan
What are Shinto shrines used for? Shrines are where kami dwell, so that’s where Shinto people go to honor the kami. A shrine’s main building is used to store sacred objects, while the kami are enshrined inside the sanctuary (honden). To access the shrine, pilgrims have to purify themselves and go through a torii gate.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the main shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of fertility. It is located in Kyoto at the base of a mountain with the same name. It was built around the 8th century, and its principal feature is thousands of red torii gates in a row. Most were donated by private citizens in order to have a wish come true.
In Tokyo, you will find the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who after his death became a god. Construction began in 1915, and consists of a naien (an inner precinct) with a treasure museum, and a gaien (outer precinct) with a collection of 80 murals depicting the Emperor’s life.
The Itsukushima Shrine is on the island of Itsukushima, and is characterized by many floating gates. After being reconstructed many times, the shrine is nowadays surrounded by water, and it is only accessible at low tide. It is dedicated to the daughters of the sea god, Susano-o No Mikoto.
Etiquette for visiting Shinto shrines
What do you do at a Shinto shrine? When visiting a Shinto shrine, behave in the same way you would at any other sacred site. Being respectful and quiet is the most important thing. Bow and say a little prayer in front of sacred objects to show your respect.
Many shrines have a fountain outside: use water from the fountain to rinse your mouth and your hands. Usually, you should take your shoes off when visiting a shrine, and remember that it is forbidden to take pictures inside.
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