What is Shinto?

By Cory Evans 

Shinto is Japan’s folk religion. An ancient religious tradition, Shinto was already old before the first written Japanese texts. As a powerful force that shapes Japanese culture and identity, understanding Shinto is crucial for understanding Japan. Surveys find that well over ninety percent of Japanese identify as Shinto, yet few American commentators write on the subject. In this column I take a look at basic Shinto principles, focusing especially on Shinto theology.

For Americans, Shinto can be challenging to grasp. First and foremost, this is because Shinto is non-creedal. Shinto does not demand or require any particular beliefs. There is no list of propositions Shinto holds to be true; no analogue to something like the Nicene Creed. Different Shinto persons hold different propositions about Shinto to be true, and that’s perfectly alright. For some, the myths collected in ancient Japanese texts like the Chronicle of Ancient Things are taken literally. For most, the meaning is figurative. There is no correct answer in Shinto, even for the most central religious texts.

In this way, Shinto has more in common with ancient Bronze-age ethnic religions, which emphasize tradition and ritual over personal belief. This is a categorically different approach to religion than evangelical Christianity.

For example, at Times Square Church in Manhattan it is always immediately clear what is required to convert. If you develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and, as they say, accept Jesus as your personal savior, that’s it! You’re a Christian, as far as Times Square Church is concerned. You don’t need any special rituals or any special knowledge. You need to hold a specific belief. Often on Sundays a few newcomers convert on the spot, simply by approaching the stage.

Similarly, from the perspective of many evangelical denominations, you can be profoundly knowledgeable about Christianity and even go to church every Sunday without being a Christian. Evangelicals often cite this verse by St. Paul: “We hold that man is justified by faith alone.” Faith is a belief, an internal status of the believer.

Shinto is completely different. No belief, on any issue, makes you Shinto. No lack of belief, on any issue, makes you non-Shinto. Shinto is demonstrated by ritual observance, behavior and attitude, not by belief. Shinto holds no creed.

For this reason, many Shinto persons simultaneously belong to other religions. There are Shinto Buddhists and Shinto Christians. There are even a few Shinto Jews. There’s nothing in Shinto to make that impossible, because every form of belief is compatible with Shinto.

In fact, surveys show that the majority of Japanese are Shinto Buddhists. Syncretism is rich in the history of Shinto and in many parts of Japan local shrines were long managed by the staff at Buddhists Temples.

If belief is not a requirement of Shinto, what does it mean to be a Shinto adherent? Even though there is no fixed theology, there are certainly general religious ideas. Principally, there is the Shinto concept of “kami“. The word “kami” is variously translated as ‘god’, ‘spirit’, ‘essence’, or even ‘memory’. There is no one correct translation. Kami are not perfect nor are they necessarily good: there can be evil kami, or at least kami temporarily driven to evil. Kami are certainly not omnipotent.

Mountains are kami, as are rivers, waterfalls and forests. Kami are particularly suitable for worship at a physical focus point, often housed within a Shinto Shrine.

“Shrine Shinto” is the form of Shinto most widely practiced. There are some 130,000 shrines in Japan, along with a very few outside Japan. A Shinto shrine is maintained by one or more Shinto priests, who are trained in ritual and are learned in folk mythological traditions.

Births, deaths and marriages are recorded at local Shinto shrines in ancient record books. These books are a treasure trove of local information. To be a member of a Shrine is really just to have your name recorded in the books.

Because of a lack of creed, and because Shinto is so old, Western press often dismisses Shinto as a tradition and not a religion. But this is just bias; Shinto is very much a living religious tradition. One need only visit Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture to see thousands of very sincere religious adherents, very much a part of their living faith.

Several aspects of contemporary Japanese society has roots in Shinto. Let me provide just a few of the more notable examples. Japan’s real estate market is unique, with the price of flats declines rather than rises over time. A plausible explanation for this extraordinary phenomenon is the Shinto focus on newness and cleanliness, reflected in the regular rebuilding of Grand Shrines.

Japanese spirituality often takes the form of etching moments into memory, a search for the timeless reflected in a cultural love of photography and memoirs. This plausibly reflects the Shinto theological concepts of the horizontal (daily life) and the vertical (the timeless) and a sort of quasi-existentialist search for the latter in the former.

A central Japanese aesthetic ideal, mono no aware, similarly plausibly reflects the philosophy of Shinto. Mono no aware is usually translated as “sadness tinged with joy at the impermanence of things” and shares some features with the Roman aesthetic concept lacrimae rerum. The ideal of mono no aware is reflected in Shinto architecture, music, ritual and in varying artistic and literary motifs throughout Japanese culture.

Japanese politics also is deeply connected to Shinto. The Emperor of Japan is the formal head of Shinto. Shinto organizations like the National Association of Shinto Shrines directly lobby Members of Parliament.

Yet despite its fundamental importance, Shinto remains in many ways ethereal and mysterious. Motoori Norinaga, a great 18th century scholar of Shinto, wrote at that end of his life that, despite all of his study, he still did not understand the meaning of kami.

Shinto, like Japan’s culture in general, is subtle, enigmatic but vitally important. For its role in contemporary Japanese politics and ordinary life, understanding Shinto is critical to understanding modern Japan.

About Cory Evans 5 Articles
Cory Evans is a professor at Baruch College. His research focuses on East Asia, classics, and mathematical game theory. E-mail him at: c.alexander.evans@gmail.com.