Shinto (Japanese: 神 Hepburn: shintō, Nippon-shiki/Kunrei: Sintô, JSL: Sintoo) is the native religion of Japan. It involves the worship of kami, or nature spirits. Some kami are very local and can be regarded as the spirit or genius of a particular place, but others represent major natural objects and processes, for example, Amaterasu, the Sun goddess.

Shinto is one of those religions that defy classification. As a highly sophisticated form of animism, deeply embedded in Japanese society, it could be regarded as a primal religion. Shinto has no holy texts, no holiest place for worshippers, no person or kami deemed holiest, and no defined set of prayers. One could discuss its use as a legitimising ideology in the militaristic phase of recent Japanese history. To the extent that most of the Japanese "New religions" since the end of the second world war have shown Shinto influence, it is a contemporary phenomenon. And one could even make a case for discussing it under the heading of Japanese Buddhism, for these two have exercised a profound influence on each other in Japanese religiosity. Bacause Shinto does not alienate, attempt to convert, criticize, or conflict other religions, it is possible to discuss it under teachings of Christian, Hindu, or even Islam which of course, will certainly be a discomfort or even outrage of those religions' believers.

The most immediately striking theme in the Shinto religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphic forms, with a formidable corpus of myth attached to them. The kami, though, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word - although divine, they are close to us; they inhabit the same world as we do, make same mistake as we do, and feel and think same way as we do. Those who died, would be automatically be added to the rank of Kami regardless of their human doings. Shinto also does not care what the one believe and those believing other religions may be added if there are Shinto believers who wish them to be included in Kami. Thus, Shinto, from a combination of two Chinese words (神道, shen tao) meaning "the way of the spirits" came into being.

Practice and Teaching of Shinto

One does not become a believer of Shinto through an acceptance ritual popular in other religions. Upon being born in Japan, a local Shinto shrine adds the name to the list kept at the shrine and declare him or her "Ujiko", lit. name child. "Ujiko" may be called "Kami child" as upon death, "Ujiko" becomes "Ujigami", lit. name kami. One may choose to have their name added to the list when moving and then one will have their name at both place. When one is added, one will be considered a Shinto believer. One may be a Shinto believer without his or her consent and regardless of one's belief. This should not be considered an imposition of belief. It is, instead kami welcoming one to the living world and promising them addition to kami at one's death. Those dying before the addition are called "Mizuko", lit. water child, and believed to cause troubles and plagues. "Mizuko" are often worshipped in a Shinto shrine dedicated to them to still their anger and sadness.

There is no practice or teaching that should be observed beyond living "a simple and harmonius life with nature and people". Because Shinto have co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it is very difficult to say where Shinto ends and Buddhism begins. A Japanese generally does not care whether which teachings are Buddhism or Shinto. To a lesser extent, Japanese does not care about religions at all while feeling no religious troubles to observe other teachings and practices when asked for or felt it was simply "better" and "harmonious". Evil and wrong deeds are called "Kegare", lit. "dirtiness" and the opposite notion is "Kiyome", lit. "purity". Normal days are called "Ke" lit.(?) and festive days are called "Hare", lit. "sunny" or simply "good". Killing anything for living should be done with a gratitude and with a worship for taking their life to continue one's life and be kept minimum. "Itadakimasu", lit. "I will have", words said before eating is as much as thanks to chefs as those who lost their lives. No living things' lives are considered above or below anyone else as all are kami. The most grave sin is taking others life for personal advances and enjoyments. Those killed without a gratitude and a worship will hold "urami", and become "aragami" a powerful and evil kami that seeks revenge.

Purification rites are a vital part of Shinto. These may serve to placate any restive kami, for instance when their shrine had to be relocated. Such ceremonies have been adapted to modern life: a ceremony was held in 1969 to hallow the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. A more personal purification rite is the purification by water. This may involve standing beneath a waterfall or performing ritual ablutions in a river-mouth or in the sea. A third form of purification is avoidance, that is, the taboo placed on certain persons or acts. For example, women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji until 1868. Although this aspect has decreased in recent years, religious Japanese will not use an inauspicious word like "cut" at a wedding, nor will they attend a wedding if they have recently been bereaved.

The principal worship of kami is at a public shrine, although home worship at small private shrines (sometimes only a high shelf with a few ritual objects) is also common. It is also possible to worship objects or people as they exist. While a few of the public shrines are elaborate structures, most are small buildings in the characteristic Japanese architectural style. Shrines are commonly fronted by a distinctive Japanese gate (torii) made of two uprights and two crossbars. These gates are there as a part of the barrier to separate our living world and the world kami live. There are often two guardian animals placed at each side of the gate and they serve to protect the entrance. There are well over 100 000 of these shrines in operation today, each with its retinue of Shinto priests. Kami are invoked at such important ceremonies as the construction of a new building, weddings and entry into university. The kami are commonly petitioned for quite earthly benefits; a child, a promotion, a happier life. While one may wish for ill bidding on others, this is believed to be possible only if the target has committed wrongs first, or if the one is willing to offer one's life. Funerals, on the other hand, tend to be monopolised by the Buddhist side of Japanese spirituality (the same is true in China). Almost all of festivals in Japan are hosted by local Shinto shrines and these festivals are open to all those that wish to attend. While these could be said to be religious events, Japanese do not regard these events as religious since everyone can attend.

The most widely worshipped of all kami is the sun-goddess Amaterasu. However, Japanese does not specifically worship to her or call her name to ask for help. Her main shrine is at Ise, but many lesser shrines are dedicated to her. Within the shrine, she is often symbolised by a mirror. Alternatively, the inner sanctum may be empty. This emptiness does not mean non-existance, rather, everything that one sees through the mirror is the embodiment of Amaterasu and every other kami. Until the end of World War II, the Tenno was believed to have been descended from Amaterasu and father of all Japanese, and was therefore a kami on earth (an ikigami or "living kami"); this divine status was popularized during the Meiji restoration. This did not prevent military governors (Shogun) from usurping power, but the emperor was always seen as the true ruler of Japan, even when his rule was only nominal. Although emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status in 1946 under American pressure (Ningen-sengen), the imperial family remains deeply involved in the Shinto ritual that unifies the Japanese nation symbolically. Because Shinto doesn't require a declaration or an enforcement to be worshipped, which is actually "unharmonious" and is something to be avoided, this declaration while serving political reasons, is religiously meaningless and merely means that the state enforcement have ended.

Cultural Effect of Shinto

The influence of Shinto on Japanese culture can hardly be overestimated. Although it is now near-impossible to disentangle its influence from that of Buddhism, it is clear that the spirit of being one with nature that gave rise to this religion underlie such typically Japanese arts as flower-arranging (ikebana) and traditional Japanese architecture and garden design. A more explicit link to Shinto is seen in sumo wrestling: the purification of the wrestling arena by the sprinkling of salt and the many other ceremonies that must be performed before a bout can begin are definitely Shinto in origin.

Important Shrines

Ise Shrine (Ise), dedicated to Amaterasu

Izumo Shrine (Izumo)

Meiji Shrine (Tokyo), the shrine of Emperor Meiji

Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo), controversial shrine to Japan's war dead

Heian Jingu (Kyoto), dedicated to the kami of the city ? 2004