Introduction to Shinto religion

Having recently come back from Japan, during New Year’s I wanted to talk a little bit about the other religion in Japan: Shintoism. My interest in Shinto began this last trip when I visited a few shrines here and there to pay respects to whatever kami or spirit was there. It’s not I really believe in it, but I felt that it was worth taking the time to delve into the culture and do things the Japanese way. If a spirit does exist there at the shrine, then there’s no reason not to wish it well in any case.

While at the Narita Airport going home, I picked up a book on Shinto called The Essence of Shinto by a Shinto priest, or kannushi (神主) named Motohisa Yamakage, who claims a very old Shinto lineage. This claim is considered controversial, as are some of Motohisa’s views outside of Shinto, so I took this post down from the old blog for a time.

However, I checked up what he teaches in the book with other sources, and he definitely teaches mainstream Shinto as far as I can tell. So, I decided to put this post back in this (the new blog), with some modifications and additional sources from Rev. Yamamoto, a famous Shinto priest from Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Japan. This comes from his book, available in online form.

Basic Shinto Beliefs

Shintō (神道) is basically just the “Way of the Kami”. Shinto beliefs revolves around the various “spirits” or Kami (神), which usually gets translated into English as “gods”, but is more like spirits. Spirits come in all shapes and sizes, and embody many aspects of nature, plus heavenly kami as well. There’s kami for rocks, trees, rivers, people and so on. In addition, kami also dwell in the divine spirit world, or “the world of the kami”, as well as kami who dwell in lesser “underworld”-like realms. As Rev. Yamamoto puts it, emphasis added:

Shin [神] is the Chinese character for god and kami is the Japanese pronunciation of that character. Shin, or kami, means any divine being or anything in the world or beyond that can inspire in human beings a sense of divinity and mystery.

The variety is nearly endless, but in Shinto one learns to understand and make peace with the Kami, cultivate one’s self and to keep one’s life pure. One can ultimately become a kami themselves if they actively follow the path and live a life that is, in Motohisa’s words, clean, bright, straight and right.

Shinto has no founder, no explicit doctrines, and no real central authority. Variations exist throughout different parts of Japan, and in Motohisa’s words, each kannushi (priest) will have slightly different view of it. In the end, they’re all trying to commune with the Kami, to revere nature, and much emphasis is placed upon experiential wisdom. Shinto draws inspiration from ancient texts like the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and the Manyoshu, all very early texts in Japanese history, as well as research and commentaries by various priests over the years.

Rev. Yamamoto explains:

Shinto at different times in its history found able exponents and scholars among its priests and devotees, but fundamentally none of these could be called “founders”. They were engaged in the creative transmission of the traditions, in interpreting the Japanese classics or in researching the history of a particular kami. They were not, in the Indo-European sense,”founders” or “spiritual leaders,” although Japan has had these in Buddhism in particular.


Shinto has a lot of symbolism not familiar to Western audiences, but of great importance to ritual and practice. Among the most important symbols is the mirror. For some Jinja (shrines), the central object of veneration, which the kami descends to, is often a mirror. I’ve also seen home altars with a mirror and a sword as well. The mirror symbolizes brilliance, clarity and radiance, while the sword has very important meaning in early Japanese myth. Both happen to be two of three of Japan’s sacred treasures, by the way.

Communing with Kami

For Shinto priests and even lay people, it’s important to setup a good dwelling spot so that a Kami can descend and make their presence felt. Otherwise, people cannot commune with them. In early Japanese culture, there were no Shinto shrines, or jinja (神社). Instead the ancient priests would sanctify a suitable spot and call out to the Kami to descend to that spot. That sacred place is called kannabi (神奈備). Later, formalized structures were built around holy places and these became the major shrines (jinja) seen today, which branched out into sub-shrines and so on. In people’s homes, devout Shinto followers will also create a small sacred space in hopes that a Kami will descend there as well. Kami don’t live in these sacred spaces, according to Rev. Motohisa, instead it’s more like an antenna allowing the Kami to descend for a time. The actual term for this “antenna” is yorishiro (依り代), and can be something like a rock, a mirror, a special charm someone got from a Shinto shrine, and so on.

Since Kami will only descend in places that are clean, pure and bright, if this “antenna” or the sacred space around it gets run-down, dusty, and such, then the Kami will not descend, and if they do not descend, they won’t be able to help you, or worse, some evil spirit will take up residence instead.

Another belief, according to Motohisa, is the idea that a being is made up of one spirit, but four souls, which is called ichirei shikon (一霊四魂). While there is a “core spirit”, or naohinomitama (直日霊), the four souls deal with different levels of the body, from the gross and mundane, to the higher aspects of a person.

So, when one dies, the souls separate. The base souls stay on this earth for a time at least and later leave, while the higher souls ascend to do more spiritual training in the world of Kami, work off past burdens and so on. So, Shinto followers, after a funeral, try to help the higher souls reach the world of Kami, while avoiding contamination of death itself from the lower souls that linger.

So in addition to communing with Kami, in Shinto a lot revolves around purification.

Ritual Purification

In Shinto, there is a strong relation between one’s physical and mental cleanliness and one’s well-being. Through contact with unclean things, or through negative and angry thoughts, one builds up negative energy or impurities that can cause concrete problems. Either it will attract negative spirits who will harm or harass a person, or Kami will avoid that person. Or one will just manifest physical ailments or one’s emotional well-being will be unbalanced.

So, in Shinto, there are lots of purification ceremonies designed to restore balance, and to purify the impurities. As stated above, the four Shinto ideals are clean, bright, right and straight and these ceremonies, rituals and such help to restore one to a state that reflects all four. Motohisa is quick to emphasize that there is no Original Sin in Shinto (obviously intended toward a Western audience), but things get off-kilter from time to time, and so one should restore the balance through these rituals.

The most important ritual, and probably the most familiar, is the misogi (禊ぎ) or purification by bathing in water. This ceremony can be practiced at a waterfall, river or even the bathroom; it’s treated as the same. To learn this and other rituals though, Motohisa recommended learning it from a qualified teacher, especially for beginners.

Yamamoto explains the significance of the misogi ritual this way:

In Shinto, misogi is the primary act that can produce purification and enhance the spirituality of those who practice it. As human beings, we are the children of the kami and as such we try to work for the progress of human culture. The shrine is a place where human beings and the kami may meet and be united. Misogi is one of the ways in which that meeting can be effected. In Shinto belief, human beings can come close to the kami through training and discipline. The human soul inclines naturally toward the kami and can be cultivated to become more deeply-related through the right kind of activities. This is a matter for attention every day. People seeking to be close to the kami should work at showing cleanness, brightness and diligence in all they do and should seek to cultivate harmony in personal relations. Misogi regularly practiced can help in this.

In Yamamoto’s Tsubaki tradition, one form of misogi is the gyo ceremony where one performs misogi under a waterfall. Other variations exist all over Japan. In any case, water and salt are both used in purification ceremonies. Sumo wrestling has a lot of Shinto elements as well, including the scattering of salt before the match begins.

I’ve also mentioned in the past the basic ritual of temizu (手水), which is something people often do at Shinto shrines, and even Buddhist temples. This is a kind of “purification-lite” ceremony, involving washing your hands. If you’ve visited a major temple or shrine in Japan, you will see a little water area with ladles and people washing their hands. Of course, if you forget to do this, it’s not a disaster. It just helps if you do. ;)

Another method of purification is through the practice of chinkon (鎮魂) meditation. It’s not clear if this originated with Buddhism, or developed in parallel, but after doing misogi purification, one might quiet the mind through doing chinkon and other auxillary practices. The idea, according to Motohisa, is to quiet the mind in such a way that one can clearly communicate with the inner kami.

Relation to Buddhism

The relation to Buddhism here is a tricky one. Medieval Buddhism, that of the Nara and Heian Periods, tended to have a strong blending of native Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. According to Onmark Productions, the dominant sect at the time, Tendai, promoted a theory that Shinto Kami were manifestations of Buddhist figures. This is a theory called honji suijaku (本地垂迹), where honji means “original form”, and the kami were suijaku or “manifestations”. Shingon Buddhism, the other major sect, did not dispute this either. Elsewhere I’ve read that the primary goddess in Shinto, Amaterasu, being a goddess of the sun, was assumed to be a manifestation of Vairocana Buddha.

In the Tales of the Heike, which took place near the end of this period, you see lots of references to this as well. It was a very dominant idea at that time in Japanese Buddhism. For example, the Shinto god of war, Hachiman, is mentioned as a Buddhist Bodhisattva in the Tales frequently as in this excerpt:

When the dreamer asked about the speakers, he was told, “It was the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman who said the sword was to go to Yoritomo…”

However, later Buddhist sects did not mesh with Shinto and instead attempted to eschew some of this blending, while Shintoists wanted to reassert themselves as a separate religion. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is a primary example of this, in that it has no Shinto elements whatsoever. Shinto and Buddhism were forced later to permanently separate after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This allowed, the government to exert more control over Shinto, which lead to the brief but regrettable State Shinto movement in the early 20th century.*

In any case, some Shinto ideas strongly differ from Buddhist ones such as the concept of souls, and no belief in rebirth. Also, Buddhism does not emphasize the notion of contamination and ritual purification the way Shinto does, especially revolving around death. So, Shinto shrines never hold funerals, but Buddhist temples routinely do. Their differences in focus however have allowed both to co-exist in Japanese culture for quite a long time without clashing very much. Where Shinto is concerned with nature and the spirits, Buddhism is concerned with mental training. Both advocate a life well-lived, and both respect life in all forms.

So that’s a brief look at Shinto religion. I hope this helped.

P.S. I liked both Motohisa’s book and Yamamoto’s book (now online), but I have to admit I liked Yamamoto’s book more. It explains less about Shinto, but also has a more gentle, less antagonistic feel. I have to give Motohisa credit though, his book is clearly laid out as a helpful reference.

* – Rev. Yamamoto touches on the subject of State Shinto quite a bit in his book. His father apparently had been an anti-war advocate, and Yamamoto himself has worked to distance Shinto teachings away from State Shinto. In his words:

During the era of State Shinto, many ceremonies and rituals were suppressed by government order because they represented natural religion rather than the government manufactured ideology that Shinto has been distorted into becoming to further the ends of national unity at the expense of either genuine spirituality or truth.


About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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4 Responses to Introduction to Shinto religion

  1. Tornadoes28 says:

    Shinto is the main reason that the Imperial house of Japan has existed for so long and was never eliminated. For 700 years until 1868, Japan was ruled by the warrior class, the samurai. The emperor was relegated to figurehead. But the warriors did not eliminate the emperor. Actually, they needed the emperor for the warlords legitimacy. The great shoguns were the real rulers but they could not eliminate the emperor. This was due to the emperors shinto divinity.

  2. Doug says:

    I am not sure I totally agree with that. The “divine status” thing seems to be more related to artificial state Shinto that arose later. This is the only Shinto though that most Westerners are familiar with, hence the common misconception. The reverence for the emperor though is more of a product of Confucian thought, where an Emperor reigns with moral uprightness and delegates actual responsibility to ministers, and the Shogun is all too happy to take over those responsibilities.

    It’s true that early myths in texts the Nihon Shoki and others claim Imperial descent form Amaterasu, but scholars think this was more done as as ploy to set the Japanese emperor on part with the Chinese Emperor. That divine status did not necessarily mean much in day to day affairs, though the Emperor’s kept up a number of heavenly ceremonies even after they lost power, simply because that was the role that Confucian thought felt was proper (same was done under Chinese emperors).

    In short, the role of the Emperor in Japan, or elsewhere is more complex and not because people really thought he was a god. Only in State Shinto, did they re-write the myths to claim actual divinity of the Imperial family.

  3. Tornadoes28 says:

    I have read several academic type Japanese history books that have said that the imperial families divine status is one of the reasons why the shoguns and wariors still worked with or justified the emperor. The historic imperial family, the Yamato clan, from my various readings, created a belief in their divinity in order to legitimize their claim as the imperial family. Some references to this were from the book `The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society`. According to this book, the emperors definitely did not delagate to the Minimoto Shoguns. Shortly after the Minamoto took control, those loyal to the emperors attempted to regain control from the Minamoto shoguns but were defeated. This was in 1221. It was the first time the the emperors forces were defeated in Japanese history.

    In 1333, the Emperor Go-Daigo once again attempted to regain control and did so for three years. But he too was also defeated by the new Ashikaga shoguns in 1336.

    Up through the 1860, according to several books at least, the emperor had many followers who considered him divine. Now, I am not saying that the other leaders in Japan such as the shogun, actually believed in the emperors divinity. But I beleive that many did and this prevented the shoguns from eliminating the emperor. Otherwise, I think the last Tokugawa shoguns would have done just that.

  4. Doug says:

    Hm, well, you just might have a point. :) My impression of the relation between the Emperor and Shinto is mostly the post-war stuff, which does make a point to distance itself from the Imperial and the State Shinto stuff. I do recall in college courses on Japanese history that State Shinto really did play up the role of the Emperor as divine for propaganda purposes, and proof of racial superiority, but as to what happened before the Meiji period, I don’t know a whole lot.

    Of the two books I read, Rev. Motohisa seems to have some pro-Japanese, controversial views toward certain other Western religions, while Rev. Yamamoto seems to take the opposite approach and tries to promote Shinto’s nature-oriented, peaceful side. I guess, within Shinto, there’s various sects and views, and different ones gain prominence at different times in history.

    Anyways, the point of this whole post wasn’t to delve into politics, but to give a neutral overview of basic Shinto beliefs. Notice that in the post itself I never mentioned the Emperor, knowing the controversy of the late 19th and early 20th century.

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