Shintoism, an ancient Japanese religion, is still practiced today and has been considered the official state religion of Japan. Rooted in prehistoric animism, religion has no founders, official sacred texts or formalized doctrine. Shintoism consists of ritual practices in public shrines dedicated to many deities, public rituals such as war memorials and harvest festivals and ancestor worship. Shintoism has been used throughout history in the development of distinctive Japanese attitudes, consciences and traditions.
- History and overview of believers
The recorded history of Shinto dates back to a couple of 8th-century texts, but archaeological evidence suggests that the tradition extends much further. Like many prehistoric peoples, the early Japanese were probably animists, giving spiritual characteristics to plants, animals and other natural phenomena. An oral tradition of organically developed rituals and stories, as these first people began to establish historical roots and struggled to make sense of their place in the world. Shintoism became more formally established in response to major interactions between Japan and continental Asia: Japanese clans developed a formalized system to differentiate their beliefs from those of outsiders. From the 6th century CE,
Shintoism is based on worship and belief in the kami, which are intended as sacred and divine beings, as well as spiritual essences. These spiritual beings exist in nature: within mountains, trees, rivers, natural phenomena and geographical regions. Kami is believed to be an abstract and natural creative force, as opposed to the omnipotent deities of Western religion. Followers are expected to live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with the natural world and with other human beings, allowing religion to be practiced in tandem with other religious beliefs.
- Global presence and important members
Although almost 80% of the Japanese population practices Shintoism, very few people identify themselves as “Shintoists” in religious investigations. This is due to the omnipresence and informality of religion: most Japanese participate in “Folk Shinto”, visiting Shinto shrines and participating in rituals, without belonging to an institutional religious group. There are about 81,000 shrines and Shinto priests 85,000 in Japan. Some foreign priests have been ordained in the last two decades, but the practice remains predominantly Japanese.
- Development and dissemination of the faith
Nel tardo 19th e nei primi 20th secoli, lo Shintoismo fu fondato come religione di stato del Giappone e le feste e le cerimonie religiose scintoiste furono irrevocabilmente legate agli affari del governo. L’aristocrazia dominante usava lo shintoismo, il confucianesimo e il buddismo come mezzo per mantenere l’ordine in Giappone. La leggenda scintoista sosteneva che la famiglia imperiale giapponese discendesse in una linea ininterrotta dalla dea del sole Amaterasu.
The emperor and the court performed meticulous religious rituals and ceremonies to ensure that the kami protected Japan and its people. These ceremonies were set in the administrative calendar of the government. During this period, the Japanese government systematically used the cult of sanctuaries to encourage imperial loyalty among its citizens. The government even established the “Department of Divine Affairs” to promote the idea that Japan’s survival depended on its citizens maintaining the status quo with the undisputed support of the government and the imperial family.
- Challenges and controversies
The missionaries arrived in Japan during the 16th century with the intention of converting the Japanese people from Shintoism and Buddhism to Christianity. This was seen as a political threat and the government took drastic measures to prevent Christianity from spreading. During the 17th century, anti-Christian government policy required that all Japanese register in a Buddhist temple and commit themselves to Buddhism, albeit with strong Shinto influences. During the nationalistic period, traces of Buddhism were torn from Shinto shrines and Shintoism was officially declared “non-religious”. This statement was made to preserve the guarantee of religious freedom of the Japanese constitution, even though Shintoism was imposed on the people as a nationalistic cultural practice. After the Second World War, Shintoism was abandoned and the emperor lost his divine status during Japan’s allied reform.
- Future perspectives
Although he is no longer the official state religion, Shinto still heavily influences spirituality and everyday life in Japan. Shinto priests are often called upon to bless during the inauguration of new buildings or businesses, and cars manufactured in Japan are often blessed during the assembly process. Although the emperor is no longer considered a deity, many imperial ceremonies are still immersed in religious ritual and mysticism. And despite the Emperor’s non-divine status, a considerable religious ritual and mysticism still surround many imperial ceremonies. Shinto continues to bind the Japanese people with its powerful mix of spiritual devotion, family loyalty and national pride.