Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures like the sutras or the Bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions.
“Shinto gods” are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers, and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines. Shinto acknowledges a pantheon of specific divine personalities in addition to other, less differentiated kami. Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, has a tie to the lineage of the Imperial Household of Japan as well as a connection to the Imperial Regalia of Japan. These Three Sacred Treasures – a sword, a jewel, and a mirror – have recorded history dating them as over one-thousand years old and are material objects representative of Japan’s status as a spiritual protectorate under kami. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto’s most important kami.
Customs and Beliefs
In contrast to many monotheistic religions, there are no absolutes in Shinto. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits. Consequently, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers, and offerings to the kami.
Kami are typically petitioned for worldly favors such as a reward for good performance in school or work, protection on trips, or for success toward a building’s purpose at its dedication. Before Kami are consulted the associated people, objects, and places are ritualistically made clean through a process called O Harae. O Harae is performed with the help of a Shinto priest, who directs various rituals involving washing with water, the sprinkling of salt, or the shaking of onusa, wooden wands with paper streamers attached.
Kami are separated from the human world symbolically by a torii (gate), which traditionally is made from two horizontal supports born by two vertical supports, all painted red. Torii can be large works of architecture or small enough to sit on a desktop; all sizes are religiously significant. Torii mark the entrance to Shinto shrines, but the use of the natural environment to complement the human element of proper protocol characterizes the shrine experience as a whole.
Shinto puts emphasis on successful living and has little to say of an afterlife. Yomi, the land of the dead, is taught as the likely destination of all deceased. It is described as a gloomy, boring, resting place for spirits.
Shinto shrines are the places of worship and the homes of kami. Most shrines celebrate festivals(matsuri) regularly in order to show the kami the outside world. Shinto priests perform Shinto rituals and often live on the shrine grounds. Men and women can become priests, and they are allowed to marry and have children. Priests are aided by younger women (Miko) during rituals and shrine tasks. Miko wear a white kimono, must be unmarried and are often the priests’ daughters.
Important features of Shinto art are shrine architecture and the cultivation and preservation of ancient art forms such as Noh theater, calligraphy and court music (gagaku), an ancient dance music that originated in the courts of Tang China (618 – 907).
The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century was followed by a few initial conflicts, however, the two religions were soon able to co-exist and even complement each other. Many Buddhists viewed the kami as manifestations of Buddha.
In the Meiji Period, Shinto was made Japan’s state religion. Shinto priests became state officials, important shrines receive governmental funding, Japan’s creation myths were used to foster a national identity with the Emperor at its center, and efforts were made to separate and emancipate Shinto from Buddhism.
After World War II, Shinto and the state were separated.
People seek support from Shinto by praying at a home altar or by visiting shrines. A whole range of talismans are available at shrines for traffic safety, good health, success in business, safe childbirth, good exam performance and more.
Japanese tend to view religion in a pragmatic way, and typically see no conflict in exploiting only the best parts of various religions. An example of this is the custom of overworked students to pray at Shinto shrines before exams. These same Japanese might later look to Christian churches to perform marriages because they like the idea of God blessing a marriage. On another occasion, a Buddhist temple would be sought to perform a funeral, because Buddhists are thought to have the most pleasant things to say about death and rebirth. Whatever other religious traditions are celebrated, the kami are always there to help when asked
A large number of wedding ceremonies are still held in Shinto style. Death, however, is considered a source of impurity and is left to Buddhism to deal with. Consequently, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, and most funerals are held in Buddhist style.