Japan Table of Contents

Shinto (Way of the Gods) is the term used to refer to an assortment of beliefs and practices indigenous to Japan that predate the arrival of Buddhism but that have in turn been influenced by it. The Shinto worldview is of a pantheistic universe of kami, spirits or gods with varying degrees of power.

Although each person is expected to continue existence as a kami after death, Shinto is concerned with this world rather than with the afterlife. This world contains defiling substances, and Shinto ritual often involves mental and physical purification of a person who has come into contact with a pollutant, such as death. Water or salt commonly serve as purifying agents. Some kami are guardian deities for villages, and thus they symbolize the unity of the human community as well as mediating in its relationship with the natural and supernatural worlds.

Japanese legends describe the activities and personalities of the kami. The most well-known legends describe the creation of the human world and trace the origins of the Japanese imperial family to the gods. The latter legend formed the basis of the wide acceptance of the concept of the emperor's divine descent in pre-1940s Japan.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, Shinto came under the influence of Chinese Confucianism and Buddhism. From the former, it borrowed the veneration of ancestors, and from the latter it adopted philosophical ideas and religious rites. Because of the popularity of things Chinese and the ethical and philosophical attraction of Buddhism for the court and the imperial family, Shinto became somewhat less influential than Buddhism for more than a millennium. Many people, however, were adherents to both systems of belief. By the seventeenth century, Shinto began to emerge from Buddhism's shadow through the influence of neo-Confucian rationalism.

The emerging nationalism of the late Tokugawa period combined with the political needs of the Meiji Restoration (1868) oligarchs to reform Shinto into a state religion, and it flourished as such until 1945 under government patronage. Japan's defeat in World War II and the emperor's denial of his divinity brought an end to State Shinto. Sometimes considered synonymous with State Shinto before 1945 was Shrine Shinto (Jinja Shinto), but after the war most Shinto traditions were observed in the home rather than in shrines. Most shrines, which had previously benefited from state sponsorship, were organized into the Association of Shinto Shrines after 1946. Sect Shinto (Kyoha Shinto) consists of more than eighty private religious sects, which conduct services in houses of worship or lecture halls rather than in shrines.

In 1991 there were nearly 80,000 Shinto shrines and 93,000 clergy in Japan. After World War II, the requirement of membership in a shrine parish was revoked, but local shrines still serve as focal points for community identity for many Japanese, and occasional informal or ritual visits are common. Nearly 95 million Japanese citizens profess adherence to some form of Shinto. Some of the Sect Shinto groups are considered new religions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress