Introduction to Shinto

Introduction to Shinto

Shinto, also known as Shintoism, is a polytheistic animist religion primarily found in Japan and revolves around the so-called “kami”, i.e. divinities or natural spirits presents both in daily life objects and in specific natural places such as waterfall, tree or rivers. Even dead humans are sometimes venerated as “kami” being regarded as family ancestors or illustrious characters.

According to Japanese mythology, there are eight million kami and Shinto practitioners believe that they are present everywhere. The sun goddess Amaterasu stands out from these divinities as a prominent figure, considered a major deity and ancestor of the Emperors of Japan. Considering this lineage, it is no coincidence that the sun has always been one of the recurring elements of Japanese national symbols.

History and Etymology of Shinto

Shinto has very ancient origins linked to the traditions and customs of the first civilizations appeared in the Japanese archipelago about a thousand years before Christ, yet its origin was subordinated to the arrival of another religion in Japan. The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century and its rapid spread therefore created the need to standardize and group the various native beliefs under one common name. Thus was born the word Shintō (神道) which literally means the “way of the gods” and is formed by the two ideograms of divinity 神 (the same used for Kami, the Shinto divinities) and “way” 道 (intended as a path/conduct to follow, not surprisingly it is also used in various martial arts). Unlike other animist religions, Shintoism has a well-defined mythology and places of worship while not presenting binding dogmas or a set of standard prayers; the attendance at shrines is not necessary on weekly/monthly bases and every religious practices are left up freely to people. Shinto therefore presents itself as a collection of customs and traditions ritualized through time without impositions from above.

Shinto Symbols

Shinto shrines, in Japanese jinja 神社 or jingu 神宮, are the places of worship and all have some common elements that are typically features of Shintoism. The torii 鳥居 certainly the most famous symbol of the Japanese religion is the iconic entrance gate preceding the shrine or a sacred place and represents the point of contact between the earthly and the divine world. Other famous symbols are the tomoe 巴, an abstract motif very common in Japan that recalls the division of the world into Man, Earth and Sky and the shime 締, the “sacred rope” that can be frequently found tied to a tree trunk or around a rock to signal the strong intrinsic spiritual presence of those objects. Despite combining ancient traditions with handed down customs as well as the almost total absence of proselytism, Shinto and its values are firmly rooted in Japanese culture and mentality.