Shinto—Japan’s Search for God
“Because my father was a Shinto priest, we were told to offer a glass of water and a bowl of steamed rice on the kamidana [Shinto household shrine] every morning before breakfast. After that act of worship, we took down the bowl of rice and ate from it. By doing so, I was confident that the gods would protect us.
“When we purchased a house, we carefully confirmed the auspicious location of the new house in relation to our old one by consulting a shaman, or a spirit medium. He cautioned us about three demon gates and instructed us to follow the purification procedure that my father prescribed. So we purified those quarters with salt once every month.”—Mayumi T.
1. (Include introduction.) Where primarily is the Shinto religion practiced, and what does it involve for some of its believers?
SHINTO is predominantly a Japanese religion. According to the Nihon Shukyo Jiten (Encyclopedia of Japanese Religions), “The formation of Shintoism is almost identical with the Japanese ethnic culture, and it is a religious culture that was never practiced apart from this ethnic society.” But Japanese business and cultural influences are now so widespread that it should interest us to know what religious factors have shaped Japan’s history and the Japanese personality.
2. To what extent does Shinto influence the lives of the Japanese people?
2 Although Shinto claims a membership of over 91,000,000 in Japan, which amounts to about three quarters of its population, a survey reveals that only 2,000,000 people, or 3 percent of the adult population, really profess to believe in Shinto. However, Sugata Masaaki, a researcher on Shinto, says: “Shinto is so inextricably woven into the fabric of Japanese daily life that people are barely aware of its existence. To the Japanese it is less a religion than an unobtrusive environmental fixture, like the air they breathe.” Even those who claim to be apathetic to religion will buy Shinto traffic safety amulets, have their weddings according to Shinto tradition, and pour their money into annual Shinto festivals.
How Did It Start?
3, 4. How did Japanese religion first become known as Shinto?
3 The designation “Shinto” sprang up in the eighth century C.E. to distinguish the local religion from Buddhism, which was being introduced into Japan. “Of course, ‘the Religion of the Japanese’ . . . existed before the introduction of Buddhism,” explains Sachiya Hiro, a researcher of Japanese religions, “but it was a subconscious religion, consisting of customs and ‘mores.’ With the introduction of Buddhism, however, people became aware of the fact that those mores constituted a Japanese religion, different from Buddhism, which was a foreign religion.” How did this Japanese religion evolve?
4 It is difficult to pinpoint a date when the original Shinto, or “Religion of the Japanese,” emerged. With the advent of the wetland cultivation of rice, “wetland agriculture necessitated well-organized and stable communities,” explains the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, “and agricultural rites—which later played such an important role in Shintō—were developed.” Those early peoples conceived of and revered numerous gods of nature.
5. (a) What is the Shinto view of the dead? (b) How does the Shinto view of the dead compare with that of the Bible?
5 In addition to this reverence, fear of departed souls led to rites for appeasing them. This later developed into a worship of ancestral spirits. According to Shinto belief, a “departed” soul still has its personality and is stained with death pollution immediately after death. When the bereaved perform memorial rites, the soul is purified to the point of removing all malice, and it takes on a peaceful and benevolent character. In time the ancestral spirit rises to the position of an ancestral, or guardian, deity. Thus we find that the immortal soul belief is fundamental to yet another religion and conditions the attitudes and actions of the believers.—Psalm 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10.
6 Gods of nature and ancestral gods were considered to be spirits “floating” in and filling the air. During festivals, people called upon the gods to descend to the specific sites sanctified for the occasion. Gods were said to take temporary residence in shintai, objects of worship such as trees, stones, mirrors, and swords. Shamans, or spirit mediums, presided over rituals to call down the gods.
7 Gradually, the “landing sites” of the gods, which were temporarily purified for festivals, took on a more permanent form. People built shrines for benevolent gods, those who appeared to bless them. At first they did not carve images of the gods but worshiped the shintai, in which spirits of gods were said to reside. Even an entire mountain, such as Fuji, could serve as a shintai. In time there came to be so many gods that the Japanese developed the expression yaoyorozu-no-kami, which literally means “eight million gods” (“kami” means “gods” or “deities”). Now the expression is used to signify “countless gods,” since the number of deities in the Shinto religion is ever increasing.
8. (a) According to Shinto myth, how was Amaterasu Omikami formed and forced to give light? (b) How did Amaterasu Omikami become the national deity, and how were the emperors tied in with her?
8 As Shinto rituals concentrated around shrines, each clan enshrined its own guardian deity. However, when the imperial family unified the nation in the seventh century C.E., they elevated their sun-goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, to be the national deity and central figure of the Shinto gods. (See box, page 191.) In time the myth was propounded that the emperor was a direct descendant of the sun-goddess. To fortify that belief, two major Shinto writings, Kojiki and Nihon shoki, were compiled in the eighth century C.E. Using myths that exalted the imperial family as the descendants of gods, these books helped to establish the supremacy of the emperors.
A Religion of Festivals and Rituals
9. (a) Why is Shinto called a religion of “withouts” by one scholar? (b) How strict is Shinto regarding teachings? (Compare John 4:22-24.)
9 These two books of Shinto mythology, however, were not considered to be inspired scriptures. Interestingly, Shinto does not have a known founder or a Bible. “Shinto is a religion of a series of ‘withouts,’” explains Shouichi Saeki, a Shinto scholar. “It is without definite doctrines and without detailed theology. It is as good as without any precepts to be observed. . . . Although I was brought up in a family that has traditionally adhered to Shinto, I have no recollection of being given serious religious education.” (Italics ours.) For Shintoists, doctrines, precepts, and, at times, even what they worship are not important. “Even at the same shrine,” says a Shinto researcher, “the enshrined god was often exchanged for another, and at times people who worshiped those gods and offered prayers to them were not aware of the change.”
10. What is of vital importance to Shintoists?
10 What, then, is of vital importance to Shintoists? “Originally,” says a book on Japanese culture, “Shinto considered acts that promoted the harmony and livelihood of a small community as ‘good’ and those that hindered such as ‘bad.’” Harmony with gods, nature, and the community was considered to be of superlative value. Anything that disrupted the peaceful harmony of the community was bad regardless of its moral value.
11. What role do festivals play in Shinto worship and daily life?
11 Since Shinto has no formal doctrine or teaching, its way of promoting the harmony of the community is through rituals and festivals. “What is most important in Shintoism,” explains the encyclopedia Nihon Shukyo Jiten, “is whether we celebrate festivals or not.” (See box, page 193.) Feasting together at festivals around ancestral gods contributed to a cooperative spirit among people in the rice-growing community. Major festivals were and still are related to rice cultivation. In the spring, village people call upon the “god of the paddies” to come down to their village, and they pray for a good crop. In the fall, they thank their gods for the harvest. During festivals, they carry their gods around on a mikoshi, or portable shrine, and have communion of rice wine (sake) and food with the gods.
12. What kind of purification rites are performed in Shinto, and for what purpose?
12 To be in union with the gods, however, Shintoists believe that they must be cleansed and purified from all their moral impurity and sin. This is where rituals come in. There are two ways to purify a person or an object. One is oharai and the other is misogi. In oharai, a Shinto priest swings a branch of the evergreen sakaki tree with paper or flax tied to its tip to purify an item or a person, whereas in misogi, water is used. These purification rituals are so vital to the Shinto religion that one Japanese authority states: “It may safely be said that without these rituals, Shinto cannot stand [as a religion].”
13, 14. How has Shinto adapted to other religions?
13 Festivals and rituals have lingered with Shinto despite the transformation that the Shinto religion has gone through over the years. What transformation? One Shinto researcher likens the changes in Shinto to those of a dress-up doll. When Buddhism was introduced, Shinto clothed itself with the Buddhist teaching. When people needed moral standards, it put on Confucianism. Shinto has been extremely adaptable.
14 Syncretism, or the fusing of the elements of one religion into another, took place very early in the history of Shinto. Although Confucianism and Taoism, known in Japan as the “Way of yin and yang,” had infiltrated the Shinto religion, Buddhism was the major ingredient that blended with Shinto.
15, 16. (a) How did Shintoists react to Buddhism? (b) How did the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism come about?
15 When Buddhism entered by way of China and Korea, the Japanese labeled their traditional religious practices as Shinto, or the “way of the gods.” However, with the advent of a new religion, Japan was divided on whether to accept Buddhism or not. The pro-Buddhist camp insisted, ‘All neighboring countries worship that way. Why should Japan be different?’ The anti-Buddhist faction disputed, ‘If we worship the neighboring gods, we will be provoking the anger of our own gods.’ After decades of discord, the pro-Buddhists won out. By the end of the sixth century C.E., when Prince Shōtoku embraced Buddhism, the new religion had taken root.
16 As Buddhism spread to rural communities, it encountered the local Shinto deities whose existence was strongly entrenched in the daily lives of the people. The two religions had to compromise to coexist. Buddhist monks practicing self-discipline in the mountains helped to fuse the two religions. As mountains were considered the dwellings of Shinto divinities, the monks’ ascetic practices in the mountains gave rise to the idea of mixing Buddhism and Shinto, which also led to the building of jinguji, or “shrine-temples.”* Gradually a fusion of the two religions took place as Buddhism took the initiative in forming religious theories.
17. (a) What is the meaning of kamikaze? (b) How was kamikaze related to the belief that Japan is a divine nation?
17 Meanwhile, the belief that Japan was a divine nation was taking root. When the Mongols attacked Japan in the 13th century, there arose belief in kamikaze, literally “divine wind.” Twice the Mongols raided the island of Kyushu with overwhelming fleets, and twice they were thwarted by storms. The Japanese credited these storms, or winds (kaze), to their Shinto gods (kami), and this greatly enhanced the reputation of their gods.
18. How did Shinto compete with other religions?
18 As confidence in Shinto deities swelled, they were viewed as being the original gods, whereas Buddhas (“enlightened ones”) and bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be who help others achieve enlightenment; see pages 136-8, 145-6) were seen only as temporary local manifestations of the divinity. As a result of this Shinto-versus-Buddhist conflict, various schools of Shinto developed. Some emphasized Buddhism, others elevated the Shinto pantheon, and still others used a later form of Confucianism to adorn their teachings.
Emperor Worship and State Shinto
19. (a) What was the aim of the Restoration Shintoists? (b) To what thinking did the teachings of Norinaga Motoori lead? (c) What does God invite us to do?
19 After many years of compromising, Shinto theologians decided that their religion had been defiled by Chinese religious thinking. So they insisted on a return to the ancient Japanese way. A new school of Shinto, known as Restoration Shinto, emerged, with Norinaga Motoori (pronounced Motoʹori), an 18th-century scholar, as one of its foremost theologians. In search of the origin of the Japanese culture, Motoori studied the classics, especially the Shinto writings called Kojiki. He taught the superiority of the sun-goddess Amaterasu Omikami but left the reason for natural phenomena vaguely up to the gods. In addition, according to his teaching, divine providence is unpredictable, and it is disrespectful for men to try to understand it. Ask no questions and be submissive to divine providence was his idea.—Isaiah 1:18.
20, 21. (a) How did one Shinto theologian try to rid Shinto of “Chinese” influence? (b) Hirata’s philosophy led to the establishment of what movement?
20 One of his followers, Atsutane Hirata, enlarged on Norinaga’s idea and tried to purify Shinto, rid it of all “Chinese” influences. What did Hirata do? He fused Shinto with apostatized “Christian” theology! He likened Amenominakanushi-no-kami, a god mentioned in the Kojiki, to the God of “Christianity” and described this presiding god of the universe as having two subordinate gods, “the High-Producing (Takami-musubi) and the Divine-Producing (Kami-musubi), who appear to represent the male and female principles.” (Religions in Japan) Yes, he adopted the teaching of a triune god from Roman Catholicism, although it never became the mainline Shinto teaching. Hirata’s blending of so-called Christianity into Shinto, however, finally grafted Christendom’s form of monotheism into the Shinto mind.—Isaiah 40:25, 26.
21 Hirata’s theology became the basis for the ‘Revere the Emperor’ movement, which led to the overthrowing of the feudal military dictators, the shoguns, and to the restoration of imperial rule in 1868. With the establishment of the imperial government, Hirata’s disciples were appointed to be the governmental commissioners of the Shinto worship, and they promoted a movement toward making Shinto the State religion. Under the then new constitution, the emperor, viewed as a direct descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu Omikami, was considered “sacred and inviolable.” He thus became the supreme god of State Shinto.—Psalm 146:3-5.
Shinto “Holy Writ”
22, 23. (a) What two edicts were issued by the emperor? (b) Why were these edicts considered sacred?
22 While Shinto had its ancient records, rituals, and prayers in the Kojiki, the Nihongi, and the Yengishiki writings, State Shinto needed a sacred book. In 1882 Emperor Meiji issued the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors. Since it came down from the emperor, it was viewed by the Japanese as holy writ, and it became the basis for daily meditation for men in the armed forces. It emphasized that an individual’s duty to pay his debts and obligations to the god-emperor was above any that he might have to anyone else.
23 A further addition to Shinto holy writ took place when the emperor issued the Imperial Rescript on Education on October 30, 1890. It “not only laid down fundamentals for school education but virtually became the holy scriptures of State Shinto,” explains Shigeyoshi Murakami, a researcher of State Shinto. The rescript made clear that the “historical” relationship between the mythical imperial ancestors and their subjects was the basis of education. How did the Japanese view these edicts?
24. (a) Give an example of how the imperial rescripts were viewed by the people. (b) How did State Shinto lead to emperor worship?
24 “When I was a girl the vice principal [of the school] would hold a wooden box at eye level and reverentially bring it up to the stage,” recalls Asano Koshino. “The principal would receive the box and pull out the scroll on which the Imperial Rescript on Education was written. While the rescript was being read, we were to bow our heads low until we heard the concluding words, ‘The Name of His Majesty and His seal.’ We heard it so many times that we memorized the words.” Until 1945, and by means of an educational system based on mythology, the whole nation was conditioned to dedicate itself to the emperor. State Shinto was viewed as the superreligion, and the other 13 Shinto sects teaching different doctrines were relegated to being referred to as Sect Shinto.
Japan’s Religious Mission—World Conquest
25. How was the Japanese emperor viewed by the people?
25 State Shinto was equipped with its idol as well. “Every morning, I clapped my hands toward the sun, the symbol of the goddess Amaterasu Omikami, and then faced east toward the Imperial Palace and worshiped the emperor,” recalls Masato, an older Japanese man. The emperor was worshiped as god by his subjects. He was viewed as supreme politically and religiously by reason of his descent from the sun-goddess. One Japanese professor stated: “The Emperor is god revealed in men. He is manifest Deity.”
26. What teaching resulted from the veneration of the emperor?
26 As a result, the teaching was developed that “the center of this phenomenal world is the Mikado’s [Emperor’s] land. From this center we must expand this Great Spirit throughout the world. . . . The expansion of Great Japan throughout the world and the elevation of the entire world into the land of the Gods is the urgent business of the present and, again, it is our eternal and unchanging object.” (The Political Philosophy of Modern Shinto, by D. C. Holtom) There was no separation of Church and State there!
27. How was worship of the Japanese emperor used by militarists?
27 In his book Man’s Religions, John B. Noss comments: “The Japanese military were not slow in availing themselves of this point of view. They made it part of their war talk that conquest was the holy mission of Japan. Certainly in such words we may see the logical outcome of a nationalism infused with all the values of religion.” What tragedy was sown for the Japanese and for other peoples, based mainly on the Shinto myth of the divinity of the emperor and the mixing of religion with nationalism!
28. What role did Shinto have in the Japanese war effort?
28 The Japanese in general did not have any alternative but to worship the emperor under State Shinto and its imperial system. Norinaga Motoori’s teaching of ‘Ask nothing, but submit to divine providence’ permeated and controlled Japanese thinking. By 1941 the whole nation was mobilized into the war effort of World War II under the banner of State Shinto and in dedication to the “living man-god.” ‘Japan is a divine nation,’ the people thought, ‘and the kamikaze, the divine wind, will blow when there is a crisis.’ Soldiers and their families petitioned their guardian gods for success in the war.
29. What led to loss of faith on the part of many after World War II?
29 When the “divine” nation was defeated in 1945, under the twin blows of the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and much of Nagasaki, Shinto faced a severe crisis. Overnight, the supposedly invincible divine ruler Hirohito became simply the defeated human emperor. Japanese faith was shattered. Kamikaze had failed the nation. States the encyclopedia Nihon Shukyo Jiten: “One of the reasons was the nation’s disappointment at being betrayed. . . . Worse yet, the Shinto world gave no religiously advanced and appropriate explanation of doubts that resulted from [defeat]. Thus, the religiously immature reaction of ‘There is no god or Buddha’ became the general trend.”
The Way to True Harmony
30. (a) What lesson can be learned from the Shinto experience in World War II? (b) Why is it vital to use our power of reason with regard to our worship?
30 The course that State Shinto trod highlights the need for each individual to investigate the traditional beliefs to which he adheres. Shintoists may have sought a way of harmony with their Japanese neighbors when they supported militarism. That, of course, did not contribute to worldwide harmony, and with their breadwinners and young ones killed in battle, neither did it bring domestic harmony. Before we dedicate our lives to someone, we must make sure to whom and to what cause we are offering ourselves. “I entreat you,” said a Christian teacher to Romans who had previously been given to emperor worship, “to present your bodies a sacrifice living, holy, acceptable to God, a sacred service with your power of reason.” Just as the Roman Christians were to use their power of reason to choose to whom they should dedicate themselves, it is vital to use our power of reason to determine whom we should worship.—Romans 12:1, 2.
31. (a) What has been sufficient for most Shinto believers? (b) What question needs to be answered?
31 For Shintoists in general, the important factor in their religion was not the specific identification of one god. “For the common people,” says Hidenori Tsuji, an instructor of Japanese religious history, “gods or Buddhas did not make any difference. Be they gods or Buddhas, as long as they heard supplications for a good crop, eradication of disease, and family safety, that was sufficient for the people.” But did that lead them to the true God and his blessing? History’s answer is clear.
32. What will our next chapter discuss?
32 In their search for a god, the Shintoists, basing their beliefs on mythology, turned a mere man, their emperor, into a god, the so-called descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu Omikami. Yet, thousands of years before Shinto started, the true God had revealed himself to a Semitic man of faith in Mesopotamia. Our next chapter will discuss that momentous event and its outcome.
In Japan the religious buildings for Shintoists are regarded as shrines and those for Buddhists, temples.
[Box on page 191]
The Sun-Goddess in Shinto Myth
Shinto myth says that far back in time, the god Izanagi “washed his left eye, and so gave birth to the great goddess Amaterasu, goddess of the Sun.” Later on, Susanoo, the god of the sea plains, so frightened Amaterasu that she “hid in a rocky cave of Heaven, blocking the entrance with a boulder. The world was plunged into darkness.” So the gods devised a plan to get Amaterasu out of the cave. They collected crowing cocks who herald the dawn and made a large mirror. On the sakaki trees, they hung jewels and cloth streamers. Then the goddess Ama no Uzume began to dance and drum on a tub with her feet. In her frenzied dance, she stripped off her clothes, and the gods burst out laughing. All this activity aroused the curiosity of Amaterasu, who looked out and saw herself in the mirror. The reflection drew her out of the cave, whereupon the god of Force grabbed her by the hand and brought her out into the open. “Once more the world was lit up by the rays of the Sun goddess.”—New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.—Compare Genesis 1:3-5, 14-19; Psalm 74:16, 17; 104:19-23.
[Box on page 193]
Shinto—A Religion of Festivals
The Japanese year is full of religious festivals, or matsuri. The following are some of the principal ones:
▪ Sho-gatsu, or the New Year Festival, January 1-3.
▪ Setsubun, bean throwing inside and outside homes, while shouting, “Devils out, good luck in”; February 3.
▪ Hina Matsuri, or Doll Festival for girls, held March 3. A platform of dolls, depicting an ancient imperial household, is displayed.
▪ Boy’s Festival, on May 5; Koi-nobori (carp streamers symbolizing strength) are flown from poles.
▪ Tsukimi, admiring mid-autumn full moon, while offering small round rice cakes and firstfruits of crops.
▪ Kanname-sai, or the offering of the first new rice by the emperor, in October.
▪ Niiname-sai is celebrated by the imperial family in November, when the new rice is tasted by the emperor, who presides as chief priest of the Imperial Shinto.
▪ Shichi-go-san, which means “seven-five-three,” celebrated by Shinto families on November 15. Seven, five, and three are viewed as important transition years; children in colorful kimono visit the family shrine.
▪ Many Buddhist festivals are also celebrated, including the Buddha’s birthday, on April 8, and the Obon Festival, July 15, which ends with lanterns floating out on sea or stream “to guide the ancestrial spirits back to the other world.”
[Picture on page 188]
A Shinto devotee asking gods for favors
[Picture on page 189]
Shinto, ‘Way of the Gods’
[Picture on page 190]
An entire mountain, such as Fuji, is sometimes viewed as a shintai, or object of worship
[Pictures on page 195]
Shintoists carrying a mikoshi, or portable shrine, and above, wearing hollyhock (aoi) leaves during the Aoi Festival in Kyoto
[Picture on page 196]
The swinging of paper or flax tied to a branch of evergreen is thought to purify man and objects, assuring them safety
[Pictures on page 197]
A Japanese does not feel contradiction in praying before both a Shinto shrine, left, and a Buddhist altar
[Picture on page 198]
Emperor Hirohito (on dais) was worshiped as the descendant of the sun-goddess
[Picture on page 203]
A young woman affixes to the shrine an ema, or wooden prayer plaque, she has bought