The “Way of the Gods”—Where Did It Lead Japan?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
IT HAS no known founder. It has no creed or official doctrine. It has no churches or church-type services. It has no religious hierarchy, nor does it even have a religious book comparable to the Bible. Yet it is a way of life that has been handed down from generation to generation and is professed today by some 78 million Japanese people. It is called Shintoism.
The origin of Shinto is shrouded in mythology. ‘In the beginning,’ says legend, the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami had sexual relations. This gave birth not only to the trees, mountains, and land but also to some eight million other gods and goddesses! Jimmu Tennō, the first emperor of Japan, is thought to be a direct descendant of one of these goddesses—Amaterasu Ō Mikami, the sun-goddess. Respect for and veneration of these gods is the basis of Shinto, which means “way of the gods.”
But where has the “way of the gods” led Japan? Has it proved adequate to the spiritual needs of the people there?
The Path of Superstition and Fear
Shintoism has no precise definition of what happens at death. (There is no equivalent of Christendom’s “heaven” and “hell.”) Although death is considered “a curse, a tragedy, a mishap,” the prevailing thought is that the dead one becomes a spirit that can bestow blessings on a family. A Shinto book says: “The men of this world continue to live after death, and continue to receive the blessings of the gods, that is, the spirits of heaven and earth. We also, with our incorporeal souls, live together this life of man.”
What effect has belief in departed spirits had upon the Japanese? Rather than filling them with hope, it has given birth to numerous superstitious practices. For example, if there is a misfortune in a family of Shinto believers, they may believe that they are not giving sufficient attention to some deceased ancestors. If a new home or car is purchased, exorcism rituals are often performed to clean out ‘wicked spirits.’ Before construction work is begun, a Shinto priest will come with a portable altar to invoke the protection of ancestral gods.
So rather than enlighten its adherents, Shinto has simply led its believers down the path of superstition and fear, the same path blazed by the religions of ancient Babylon. In his book The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Morris Jastrow showed that to the ancient Babylonians “death was a passage to another kind of life.” Too, Shintoism gives prominence to the relationship between the sun-goddess and her male human offspring. There are rituals in which the emperor goes to Ise where the sun-goddess is enshrined and makes “reports” to her. This is reminiscent of the relationship between Nimrod and his mother, the so-called Semiramis. And whereas Semiramis was supposedly the daughter of the fish goddess, Atargatis, the mother of Emperor Jimmu was the daughter of the “Sea King.”
‘A Spiritual Weapon’
In times past, Shintoism did much to help the Japanese adhere to high moral standards. It strengthened family ties. And by instilling a powerful respect for the emperor as both sovereign and religious leader, it helped maintain national unity. However, it almost led to national ruin.
Says the Encyclopædia Britannica (1966 edition): “Beginning with the Chinese-Japanese War (1894-95), Japan followed an expansionist policy, and from that time until the period of World War II Shintō was manipulated by the militarists and jingoistic nationalists as the spiritual weapon for mobilizing the nation to guard the prosperity of the throne.” Shinto thus became a tool that helped lead Japan into the second world war.
After Japan’s utter defeat in the war, the conquering Allies ordered the disbanding of State Shinto. Deprived of government support or control, Shinto shrines thus became independent. The emperor himself shocked the nation by renouncing claims of divinity, saying: “The ties between Us and Our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated upon the false conception that the emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and are fated to rule the world.”
This, though, was not the end of Shintoism. The disbanded State Shinto reorganized into an organization called Jinja Honcho (The Association of Shinto Shrines). It represents some 80,000 Shinto shrines. Although the president of this association is supposed to be the head of the Shinto religion, in actuality the emperor is still recognized by most as occupying this position.
Shinto, however, has not proved itself effective in coping with modern problems. It has not solved the enormous problem of discrimination against second and third generation Koreans and Chinese who were born and raised in Japan. Shinto does not have any guidelines to offer to deter juvenile delinquency and solve school-violence problems. It does not voice any stand regarding the abortions and permissive sex that are now sweeping Japan. The Jinja Honcho’s “Outline of Shinto Teachings” gives a reason for this, saying: “Shinto is not restricted by definite scriptures or dogmas.”
Shinto also fails to give its adherents a hope for the future. It is concerned only with “today.” No wonder then that thousands of Japanese have made a break with Shinto and have taken an interest in the Bible. Unlike Shinto, the Bible explains why man is on the earth and what the future holds. The Bible gives moral guidance and provides a solid basis for faith—not mythological stories. So while Shinto may be the “way of the gods,” the Bible says that “though there are those who are called ‘gods,’ whether in heaven or on earth, just as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ there is actually to us one God the Father.” (1 Corinthians 8:5, 6) Jehovah’s Witnesses are helping thousands in Japan to know this “one God” by name.
[Picture on page 13]
A Shinto shrine where people come to pray