An article in Asahi Shinbun in December 2014 reveals this intriguing news: “A Tokyo project will avoid building over ‘cursed’ grave associated with samurai’s head.” The large 1.43-billion-dollar project involves construction of two skyscrapers which house offices, a hotel, and multipurpose concert halls in central Tokyo. Yet they avoid removing the small grave of a 10th century samurai because they fear a curse. We live in the 21st century, and this antiquated, superstitious thinking may cause many of us to wonder! But many Japanese still feel uneasy about upsetting spirits of the dead that had become gods. This reflects the Shinto way of thinking.
Another modern news topic concerns Japanese politicians making visits to Yasukuni shrine, which was built to commemorate the war dead. Because the shrine is Shinto, the war dead (even war criminals) become gods, and about 2,460,000 gods are enshrined there. Many cabinet members, including the prime minister, visit Yasukuni to pay their respects to the spirits of the dead as gods. This has led to a controversial issue in foreign diplomacy—most likely concern over enshrining war criminals and violating the principle of separation of church and state. Yet most Japanese are lenient about it because of Shinto culture.
The Japanese people of today are still deeply affected by Shinto, both in their culture and thinking. This is one of the reasons it’s difficult for them to accept monotheistic religions such as Christianity. Looking closely at Shinto can give us a better understanding of the underlying fundamental beliefs that shape the thinking of the Japanese people. In this chapter we’ll examine what Shinto is.
What Is Shinto? Brief Overview
Shinto is an indigenous religion originating with the Japanese. It is only practiced within Japanese communities, and it provides the backbone of Japanese culture and national identity.
The annual statistics of the religious population, taken by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 2011, show that there are over 100 million Japanese people adhering to Shinto (51.2%), 85 million to Buddhism (43.0%), 1.9 million to Christianity (1.0%), and 9.5 million in other religions (4.8%).
It is important to note that the total number of the religious population exceeds the actual population of Japan, which is about 130 million. Some people identify with multiple groups, and the history of Japanese religions is responsible for this phenomenon. This will be further explained later.
Shinto Definition of “God”
Shinto is written in two Kanji (Chinese characters), 神道, namely, 神 which is “god(s)” and 道 which is “way.” So it can literally mean “god’s way” or “gods’ way” (in Japanese, there are no explicit singular or plural forms, so it is determined by context).
In Shinto, a god is not like the God of the Bible who is the omnipotent Creator of the world. Shinto gods are basically spirits that are everywhere in nature and also in men—hence the assumption of many gods. Exactly how many? One may wonder. The phrase Yaoyorozu (meaning 8,000,000) is used to express the innumerable gods in Japan.
Shinto originally began as a form of animism. The early Japanese feared the natural forces and believed those forces came from the power of the spirits living in various natural entities, such as forests, rocks, oceans, etc. The habitats of the spirits, considered sacred, were called Yorishiro, but Yorishiro themselves were not the subjects of worship. In Shinto, therefore, the subjects of worship are not creatures or visible idols but spirits that are believed to have supernatural power. Both benevolent and malevolent spirits are called kami in singular or kami gami in plural, meaning “gods.”
As Shinto developed, not only spirits living in nature but also ancestors’ spirits were enshrined as gods. After death, ancestors’ spirits were believed to become guardian gods, watching over and protecting their living descendants. Furthermore, some distinguished persons became enshrined for various reasons. Michizane Sugawara, a famous scholar and aristocrat of the ninth century who is now viewed as a god of academics, was originally thought to have become an onryo, a cursing spirit, because he was falsely charged with treason and died a regrettable death. Tenman Shrine was originally built to placate his spirit to avoid his tatari (curse). Another famous enshrined person is Ieyasu Tokugawa, the primary shogun who established the Tokugawa administration. He was enshrined in Nikko Toshogu Shrine to authenticate and authorize the supremacy of the Tokugawa family to rule over the nation during the Edo period.
Shinto does not have scriptures such as the Torah of Judaism or the Bible of Christianity. Instead, its adherents rely on the folklore and ancient histories that are kept in Kojiki (meaning “old matters”) and Nihon Shoki (Japan chronicles), which give some background accounts to Shinto beliefs. In those books are written the accounts of how the gods created various physical entities including the islands of Japan. They also explain how gods and men once lived, even marrying each other. Those gods are now viewed as guardian angels, thus they are respected. Kojiki and Nihon Shoki also record that Japan’s emperors are the direct descendants of the famous Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun—with special care being taken to explain how emperors are fully sanctioned to rule over Japan. This leads to worshiping the emperor as a living god—seen recently in the days of World War II.
Because Shinto gods are related to the nation’s folklore and legends, some people view Shinto merely as tradition and culture—not as a religion. Shinto deals mostly with this life, and issues such as personal salvation or life after death are not discussed.
There are over 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan. Some distinguished shrines, such as Yasukuni, Ise Jingu, and Izumo Taisha gather many visitors from all over Japan, but most shrines are visited locally, as they enshrine gods of the area or Uji-gami (guardian gods of clans living in the area).
Shinto does not require one to affiliate with it by denying other religions, so it welcomes anyone who visits Shinto shrines to pay respects to gods whenever the individual wishes. This explains why many Japanese can identify with Shinto and other religions at the same time. When visiting shrines, the following is the common protocol:
- Bow at the Tori-i gate before entering the shrine precinct.
- Wash hands and mouth (there is usually a water fountain at the entrance of the shrine precinct).
- Move forward to Haiden, the hall of worship building, located in front of Honden, the main sanctuary building where gods reside.
- Make offerings at the offertory box.
- Ring the large bell by pulling the attached rope to call the gods’ attention.
- Make a specific worshiping action, such as “bow twice, handclap twice, and bow once.” Usually prayers are made after the handclapping.
Quintessentially, the Japanese people visit shrines on New Year’s Day to pray for safety, good health, and prosperity in the coming year. This tradition is called Hatsumoude (meaning the first visit of the year). People also visit shrines for traditional festivals or seasonal events, as each shrine holds annual Matsuri (meaning festival or ritual ceremony).
At different life stages, typical Japanese follow specific Shinto traditions. When a baby is born and reaches the age of one month, parents usually take the infant to a local shrine to give thanks and pray for good health for their little one. The same is done for children turning three, five, and seven years old. When students take entrance exams for schools, they go to the shrine of gods of academics to ask for success and to buy good luck charms. Some young couples choose to get married at a shrine, as there are gods of good marriage, and they also go to a shrine devoted to the gods of childbearing when they wish to conceive, praying also for a safe delivery. As life advances, some families opt for funerals in Shinto style, though most of them are done according to Buddhist rites because of traditions added to the culture during the Edo period.
Shinto and Politics
Shinto has always been present on the political scene of Japan. In ancient times, a shaman or shamaness was the leader who enshrined and performed rituals to please gods. He or she also practiced divination to discern the will of the gods so that people knew such things as when to sow seeds. In the early days of Japan, shamans held high positions not only in rituals but also in politics. Later, the imperial family, viewed as the descendants of gods of Japan, became responsible for performing rituals and governing the country. Japanese political structure emerged from the integration of Shinto rituals and government (similar to a theocracy), and this was kept until the end of World War II. The remnants of such customs can be seen even today.
History of Japan and Shinto
In this section, let us examine more closely how Shinto was shaped throughout Japanese history.
Early Form of Shinto
Where did the first people of Japan originate? It is believed that during the Ice Age1 Japan was connected to the Asian continent by land, enabling various people to migrate across the Asian continent to the far eastern end of it after spreading out from Babel. This area later became the islands of Japan as the sea level rose. But even after the islands were disjoined from the continent, people were able to make the trek by sea, as recorded in ancient texts. Nothing definite can be said as to exactly which ethnic tribes reached Japan. In all likelihood, it was not a single tribe but multiple tribes bringing different cultures.2
With distinct seasons and with abundant natural resources such as the ocean, rivers, and forests, the Japanese islands provided a perfect environment for fostering in its residents a sense of awe toward nature. Climate and topography were both instrumental in nurturing animistic beliefs and provided a background for developing folklore, especially the mythological stories of spirit gods living with and interacting with men.
When rice cropping was brought to Japan in the third century B.C., people started to settle down into villages, forming units in an agricultural society. It is most likely that at that time the prototype of Shinto was formed. People tried to placate perceived spirits by worshiping them as gods and making sacrificial offerings to them—even going so far as to offer up the lives of women and children (according to lore). This was done in order to secure the villagers’ lives and crops from natural disasters. Festivals were held according to the farming calendar, and shamans exercised paramount roles in practicing divinations and instructing people in the will of the gods. This early form of Shinto, therefore, consisted of animism and shamanism.
Rise of Yamato Dynasty (the Imperial Family)
Several ancient Chinese records (Records of Three Kingdoms and Book of the Later Han) explain that there was a countrywide war in Japan in the second century A.D., a conflict lasting over 70 years. The war finally ended when they placed Himiko as their common ruler. Himiko was a female shaman and the queen of Yamataikoku; she lived from late second century to mid-third century A.D.
Himiko was also mentioned in another record as having sent her delegates to China, where she was recognized as ruler of Wa, the name given to Japan at that time. Himiko was given a special golden seal by the Chinese emperor around 238 A.D., confirming that she had great power in Japan in her day. It is not exactly known where Himiko’s kingdom Yamataikoku was, but it is said that Yamataikoku (“Yamatai kingdom”) could be related to the Yamato dynasty—the only dynasty that ever existed in Japan, becoming the imperial family that includes the present emperor of the nation.
By the fourth century, Yamato kings reigned as the rulers of Japan. Both governing and performing rituals were important duties of the ruler. They made sure to perform ceremonies for Amatsukami, gods who live in the heavens and created the land of Japan, and Kunitsukami, gods who reside on the earth and protect the land of Japan. The Yamato dynasty also enshrined Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun who is viewed as their ancestor, in Ise Jingu Shrine, the most prestigious Shinto shrine in Japan.
Emperor Tenmu ordered the compilation of national chronicles in the late seventh century. The writing of Kojiki was completed in 712 and Nihon Shoki in 720. These two texts are the foundational sources upon which Shinto beliefs are based. Both of these texts cover stories of the creation of Japan as well as the genealogies of Yamato kings. Folklores about stories of the gods are much like Greek mythologies, since gods of Japan are very much like humans, emotional and imperfect, getting married, and having children. The genealogies inform us that Yamato kings were descendants of Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu. It is important to note that one of the reasons these two texts were written was to authenticate the Yamato kings as the authorized rulers of Japan by tracing back their bloodline to the gods of Japan, especially to Amaterasu.
By the beginning of the eighth century the Yamato dynasty achieved centralized power and established a new governmental structure called the Ritsuryo system, similar to the one in China. In this new structure, a specific religious bureau was installed wherein the government could carry out Shinto rituals. The rituals, Matsuri, defined under Ritsuryo system, are listed in Table 1. The religious bureau became superintendent of all the shrines in the country. The shrines were ranked, and 22 shrines related to the imperial family or to the dominant clans were chosen to be operated at public expense. An interesting fact is that this system evaluated and put rankings on gods, just as it did on human officers. In Shinto, gods became ranked according to their abilities and titles.
|Time||Name of the Rituals (Matsuri)||Religious Practice|
Pray for the Year Matsuri
|To pray to Amatsukami and Kunitsukami for abundant harvest year|
Flower Appeasing Matsuri
|To pray for plague or diseases to depart from the country, at Oomiwa Shrine and Sai Shrine|
|April & September||
God Clothing Matsuri
|To offer clothes to Amaterasu at Ise Jingu Shrine|
Three Branch Matsuri
|To decorate Sake (rice wine) barrel with lilies at Isagawa Shrine|
|April & July||
Large Sacred Matsuri
|To pray for good rain and harvest for rice crops at Hirose Shrine|
|April & July||
Wind God Matsuri
|To pray for rice fields to be protected from bad storms or floods at Tatsuta Shrine.|
|June & December||
|To pray for the welfare of the imperial family at Ise Jingu Shrine (it used to be done every month)|
|June & December||
Feasting God Matsuri
|Make a feast for evil spirits so that they don’t come into the town|
|June & December||
Fire Appeasing Matsuri
|To pray for safe fire|
God’s Meal Matsuri
|To offer the first fruit of the year to Amaterasu at Ise Jingu Shrine|
Partaking God’s Meal Matsuri
|To offer the first fruit to gods and partake of it together|
New Meal Matsuri
|To celebrate the harvest, the emperor offers the new meal to gods, and he partakes too|
Soul Appeasing Matsuri
|To pray for peace of the emperor’s soul|
|June & December||
|To remove the impurity accumulated over the 6 months, done on the last day of June and December.|
Special New Meal Matsuri
|The first New Meal Matsuri since the emperor’s enthronement|
Ritsuryo system was in operation for about three centuries. By the end of the tenth century, it became difficult for the government to keep centralization of power, and a new system was installed. For religious matters, the spread of Buddhism changed the position of Shinto in the culture.
Introduction of Buddhism
The introduction of Buddhism had an enormous impact on Shinto. In the mid-sixth century, Buddhism was officially brought into Japan from Baekje (one of three kingdoms of Korea at that time). Seong, the king of Baekje, presented Buddha statues and scriptures to Kinmei, the emporer of Japan. Unsure of what to do, Kinmei consulted his court advisers. Some said to accept Buddhism, as it was already accepted in countries such as China and Korea, while others said to refuse it, for Japan had its own gods, and accepting a new god like Buddha might upset the nation’s original gods. Therefore, from the onset, Buddhism was not accepted well in Japan. To make a definitive contrast with Buddhism, Japan’s indigenous religion began to be called Shinto.
But it was not long before Buddhism began to be accepted in Japan. The famous Prince Shotoku, who was regent to Queen Suiko in late sixth century, adopted and promoted Buddhism. Buddhist temples and statues began to be crafted at public expense. But Prince Shotoku was wise enough not to deny Shinto worship, issuing a law ordering people to continue worshiping Amatsukami and Kunitsukami. He was politically savvy enough to respect both the new and the old to avoid religious conflicts.
The Buddhism brought into Japan was Mahayana Buddhism with influences from other religions such as Confucianism, Taoism, and even Christianity.3 Compared to this Buddhist admixture, Shinto is a simple ritualistic religion with few doctrines. Shinto deals with present happiness and not with personal salvation or afterlife. Folklore and traditions, on which Shinto is established, do not offer ethics or discipline to improve one’s character. On the other hand, Buddhism has doctrines of enlightenment and commandments to follow. Sacred texts of Buddha can be studied by erudite scholars, and mysterious disciplines can be performed by practitioners. Buddhism offered what Shinto could not. Consequently, Buddhism attained the higher position in Japanese religious circles.
Syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism
As Buddhism became widely accepted in Japan, there followed a phenomenon called Shin Butsu Shugo, which means syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism.
This syncretization can be seen in the following phenomena:
- Shinto gods were accepted as the guardian gods of Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines were built on the grounds of Buddhist temples.
- Temples were also built on the grounds of Shinto shrines to help Shinto gods to become Buddha, since Shinto gods were acknowledged as lower than Buddha and therefore needed to attain nirvana in the manner of humans.
- Certain Shinto priests became Buddhist monks hoping to attain their own personal “salvation” or enlightenment.
Further advancing the amalgamation of Shinto and Buddhism, the concept of Honji Suijyaku was developed. Shinto gods who supposedly created Japan and had been protecting the nation came to be viewed as the Buddha’s personification. In this, worshiping Shinto gods was understood to be worshiping Buddha. In some cases, Buddhist monks even performed Shinto rituals. This strange mixture of Shinto and Buddhism was present in Japan for a long time, from the 10th century until the end of the Edo period in the mid-19th century when a new government ordered the separation of Shinto and Buddhism.
Uji-gami Beliefs at Local Shrines
Buddhism also affected Shinto’s Uji-gami beliefs that were seen among common people at local shrines.
In Shinto the places of worship were at Yorishiro, the sacred dwelling places of gods such as woods, rocks, mountains, and other monumental natural objects. In the early days there were simple altars at Yorishiro, but later, larger buildings were constructed on premises as shrines.
In these local shrines each clan (Uji) or village enshrined its own guardian gods of their ancestor (Uji-gami) or of their village (Ubusuna-gami). Seasonal festivals were held at shrines to please these gods, and participation in various events at the local shrine was mandated in order to be part of the village community. This simple, traditional Shinto belief among common people was called Uji-gami belief, and it dealt with the interest of the entire village, not with personal interests or wishes.
When Buddhism, which deals with personal faith and “salvation,” came along and began to spread among the common people, it profoundly affected and modified Shinto practices. It became acceptable to pray about personal matters at shrines.
Also, the efficacy of each god was defined so that people would visit shrines whose gods seemed to answer their specific prayers. Shrines began to recruit gods with certain efficacies from other shrines. By a process called bunshi, a god’s spirit could be split to live in a new shrine as well as in the original shrine. In this way, popular gods were invited into many shrines and shared by more people. By way of example, the Inari god, originally living in Fushimi Inari Shrine, had the purported power to bring agricultural harvest and business success. This was a popular god, and his spirit was split into as many as 32,000 bunshi shrines that still exist today. This is an example of the arbitrary way Shinto gods are viewed.
Corruption of Buddhism and Re-evaluation of Shinto
During the 16th century Samurai wars, Catholic missionaries such as Francisco Xavier arrived and evangelized Japan. Amazingly, many Japanese received the good news of salvation through Christ, and as many as 1,000,000 people, including samurai lords and common people, converted to Christianity. But by the end of the century, Christianity was banned by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the top Samurai who had become the ruler of the country. Severe persecution against Christians started. Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa overturned Toyotomi and ended the long age of Samurai wars by establishing the Tokugawa Administration as the unified governing power in the Edo period (1603–1868). But the Tokugawa Administration also enforced anti-Christian policy.
As part of its thrust against Christianity, the Tokugawa Administration utilized the Buddhist temples as monitoring offices to ensure that people did not practice Christianity. They initiated a system called “Temple Binding” (Tera-uke), which mandated that every person had to belong to a Buddhist temple. Without a registration document from the temple, a person could not do any business, could not travel to other towns, and could not get married or conduct funeral services. This system led to corruption and secularization of many Buddhist temples and monks because they all too easily procured for themselves much capital and labor from the indigenous populace bound for the temple. The oppressed people were unhappy, but they had no choice.
Over the span of 250 years in the Edo period, peace was maintained within Japan enabling art and literature to flourish. Scholars again studied Kojiki and Nihon Shoki and were reawakened to the significance of these Japanese classics. They established a new field of study called Kokugaku, meaning “national studies.” Kojiki and Nihon Shoki provided not merely information on the early history of the nation but also the reminder that the original Shinto was the vital religion and true identity of Japan. The inevitable conclusion was that the Japanese people should go back to original Shinto. This brought about the rejection of Buddhism-influenced Shinto as secular and the removal of Buddhist influences to restore the nation’s original religion.
This movement to restore Shinto by the Kokugaku scholars provided the philosophical base for the revolutionists who overturned the Tokugawa Administration, ending the Edo period. The new Meiji government elevated the emperor, believed to be the true descendant of Japan’s gods, as the ruler of the country, established a policy of “Separation of Shinto and Buddhism,” and tried to restart the Shinto rituals at the national level as in the Ritsuryo system of the eighth century. Thus began the National Shinto system, under which all Japanese citizens were viewed as servants or children of the emperor, a living god.
Emperor Meiji ordered construction of the predecessor of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to enshrine the war dead from the civil battles that occurred during the transition from Edo to Meiji. Since then, Yasukuni enshrines all Japanese who die in any war for the country.
View of Divine Nation and “Kamikaze” in War Times
In Shinto, there is always the concept of Japan being the gods’ country or “divine nation,” protected by its guardian gods. This concept emerges whenever Japan engages in battle with foreign countries.
The mention of a “divine nation” first appears in Nihon Shoki with respect to an incident as early as the third century. When Empress Jingu sent troops to rule over three kingdoms of Korea, one of the kings surrendered without a fight, saying, “They are divine troops from a divine nation, sent by a holy king of the East; therefore we are better off not to resist.” This quote of a Korean king may not be authentic, as it was probably written to glorify the emperors of Japan, yet it verifies that there was already the concept of Japan as a divine nation from the early days.
Another incident worth mentioning is that of a Mongolian invasion in the late 13th century. The Mongol Empire, which extended its power over China and Korea, tried to approach Japan twice. However, with the help of strong Kamikaze, which translated means “divine wind,” Japan was able to chase off the outnumbering Mongolian troops from the coastline both times. At this point in history, the myth developed that Japan could not be invaded because the guardian gods of Shinto protected its islands.
When the samurai age ended and the modern nation started in the mid- 19th century, the National Shinto provided the image of the new Japan as being the divine nation since antiquity. Eager to catch up with technologies and military powers of Western countries, the Meiji government utilized Shinto to unite Japanese citizens by ordering them to pay respects to the guardian gods of Japan and their descendants, namely the emperor and the imperial family.
After winning the wars with China in 1895 and with Russia in 1905, Japan was recognized internationally and became confident enough to enlarge its territories over Asian countries to create “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The Shinto view enabled Japanese military officers to rationalize it as Japan, the divine nation, being given the authority to free and protect Asian countries from control by Western nations.
In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. In 1932, Japan assisted in establishing the independent Manchukuo nation from China. Believing that America was trying to stunt Japan’s advancement, Japan eventually entered the war with America by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. When the war situation worsened, the Japanese government put enormous emphasis upon the idea of the divine nation under the emperor, the living god, to prevent any resistance from its citizens. This emphasis also served to motivate soldiers that it was an honor to die for the living god. Thus were born the famous Kamikaze (divine wind) pilots, who gave their lives in suicide attacks on American war ships. Even ordinary citizens were commanded not to surrender but to die for the nation and the emperor. Tragic suicidal death took its greatest toll in victims among the citizens of the Okinawa Islands, with many women and children included.
Post WWII Shinto
When World War II drew to a close, the Allied Powers sent General Douglas MacArthur and his team to occupy and restructure Japan. They spared the lives of the emperor and the imperial family since they were merely used by the government and the military, but they made the emperor declare himself to be an ordinary man and not a god. Today the emperor of Japan is a figurehead and cannot be engaged in political issues. However, he still performs the Shinto rituals as the head of the country, according to traditions of the imperial courts. Even the head of the Cabinet (i.e., the prime minister), the head of the Congress, and the head of the Supreme Court attend some of the major rituals performed by the emperor. It is not discussed openly in public, but there still exists the problem of separation of religion (Shinto) and government in Japan.
The National Shinto was disassembled right after the war, and all Shinto shrines became private religious corporations according to the new constitutional policy of the separation of religion and government. Yasukuni Shrine also became a private corporation, though it still embodies the notion of a national reposing monument. As mentioned in the story at the beginning of this article, the problem of politicians visiting Yasukuni exists because now it is a private Shinto shrine.
For most Japanese people, the long history of religious syncretization deeply affects their religious positions. Shinto and Buddhism—both cultivated in Japan for many centuries—are regarded as a tradition and culture. Affiliations with Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples are just the remains of the Uji-gami community or Temple Binding system from the previous eras. A person can be counted in both Shinto and Buddhist populations, but it does not mean that the person has an active personal faith in these religions. Therefore, when asked about his or her faith, many Japanese would find that question difficult to answer.
Comparison between Shinto and Christianity
It is easily recognized that Shinto is quite different from Christianity. The following summarizes the views of Shinto and Christianity with respect to some fundamental doctrines.
|View on God||Polytheism (Innumerable gods)||Monotheism (Triune God)|
|Character of God||
Gods can die
Good and bad
God lives forever
Good all the time
Kajiki and Nihon Shoki are used as the source of Shinto mythology
|Target||Japanese only||All mankind|
|Human nature atbirth||Neither good nor bad||All men inherit the original sin committed by Adam|
|Sin||Can be cleansed by a ritual called Misogi, washing with water||Cleansed by animal sacrifice in Old Testament pointing to Jesus’ final atoning blood in the New Testament|
Through faith in Jesus Christ
Life after death
Existence of the underworld where all the dead go is mentioned.
The saved go to heaven, and the unsaved go to hell.
All mankind must face God in judgment
Not explicitly stated
General respect toward nature and life is suggested
Laws and commandments in Old and New Testaments
Man-centered worship of gods in order to receive safety, success, health, and prosperity
God-centered worship because of love toward God
Unlike Christianity, Shinto does not claim to be the only truth nor the only way to heaven. Therefore, arbitrariness and inconsistencies inherent in Shinto are not considered to be of great significance.
- Shinto mythology is not to be taken literally; even Shinto priests would say it’s a folk tale.
- Shinto gods act like humans—imperfect and quite emotional. They demand being enshrined and respected by making people fear a curse.
- Many Shinto practices are merely customs and traditions for the Japanese, but most Japanese don’t know how such practices originated and why they do what they do.
- Shinto is superficial. Sin and uncleanness are easily relieved by performing some outward rituals, without any inward repentance. Success and prosperity are ensured by purchasing ofuda (paper with a god’s name on it) or omamori (good luck charms) at shrines.
For people accustomed to monotheism, Shinto probably appears to be naive or unsophisticated, yet this religion is what has been fostered in Japan for nearly two millennia. Most Japanese would not care how illogical or inconsistent Shinto is; they respect it out of a deeply ingrained sense of tradition and ethnic identity.
Early Christian Influences on Shinto
From the basic facts (as shown in the chart above) and histories, Shinto looks quite different from Christianity. Interestingly, though, influences from Christianity are still evident. This is due to the unofficial but probable historical accounts detailing how early Christians from the school of Assyrian Churches of the East had come to Japan between the second and seventh centuries with teachings from the Bible, which then became syncretized with Shinto mythology and practices.
According to “official” history, Christianity was first brought to Japan in 1549 by a Jesuit missionary, Francisco Xavier, from Europe. Although many believers came to faith during this time, under the fierce persecution in the Edo Period from the 17th to mid-19th century, only a few survived. In 1873, the Meiji government once again permitted the practice of Christianity, making way for the arrival of Protestant missionaries from the United States and Europe. In both cases, these missionaries had come from the Western countries. Thus, in the minds of many Japanese today, Christianity is still viewed as Western religion, and this view continues to serve as a chief alienating factor.
In studying the “unofficial” historical accounts (preceding 1549), researchers have found that missionaries could have arrived from Eastern countries as early as the second to third centuries with the emigration of a group of Christians of the clan of Hata (秦) from the ancient country of Yutsuki in central Asia. There is little information on Yutsuki, but the country is believed to be a small Christian nation evangelized by missionaries from Assyrian Churches of the East.
Shinsen Shoujiroku, compiled in A.D. 816, records that the prince of Yutsuki and his people arrived in Japan and became naturalized either in the 8th year of Emperor Chuai (A.D. 199) or in the 14th year of Emperor Oujin (A.D. 283). The clan of Hata had a reputation for excelling in the production of silk. If the clan of Hata brought not only the advanced technologies and skills available in Assyria and Persia but also the biblical cultures and teachings that had spread to those nations, then some traces should be seen mixed in and syncretized with the original culture of Japan. Vestiges of Christianity should be detected in the account of mankind’s origins and in various objects and rituals of Shinto.
First, let us look at the origins account in Shinto and see if there are some influences of the Bible present.
Origins Account in Shinto
As mentioned previously, Shinto’s mythology is recorded in two ancient texts, Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, compiled in the early 8th century. The following is a summary of the relevant origins stories of Shinto.
The beginning of the heaven and the earth
- * Kojiki describes that in the beginning, when the heaven and the earth were separated, there were three gods, Amenominakanushi（ 天之御中主神, the central master in heaven), Takamimusuhi（高御産巣日神, high creator god), and Kamumusuhi（神産巣日神, divine creator god）in Takamanohara, the heaven.
- * When the earth was without a form, “like oil in water and floated like jellyfish,” two gods sprang up like reeds.
- * Then the names of two gods and five pairs of gods are listed and are known as seven generations of gods, Kamiyonanayo. The last pair on the list are Izanagi (man deity) and Izanami (woman deity), who would create the islands of Japan.
Creation of islands of Japan by Izanagi and Izanami
- * Other heavenly gods ordered Izanagi and Izanami to make something firm out of the formless earth. The two gods stood on the bridge between heaven and earth, and pierced a halberd-like long spike into the earth and stirred it. When they took the spike out, salty water dripped and crystalized into a small island. The two gods went down to the island, mated, and produced the islands that compose Japan.
Izanagi and Izanami bearing various gods, death of Izanami
- * After bearing the Japanese islands, Izanagi and Izanami bore the many gods who reside in nature (ocean, river, mountains, etc.), in housing, and in many other objects. Finally Izanami bore a god of fire, but she was burnt by the fire and died. When she died, she went to the underworld, a place like hades.
- * Saddened at losing his wife, Izanagi visited Izanami in the underworld, but her body was already decomposing. Izanagi grew terrified and ran away. Upset by his escape, Izanami cursed the living world to kill 1,000 people a day. But Izanagi blessed the world by bringing 1,500 births a day to counteract it.
Purification bathing of Izanagi and the birth of three noble gods
- * Coming back from the underworld, Izanagi performed purification bathing, called misogi, in the ocean. Out of his clothing, gods were born, and through his bathing, more gods were born. Finally, as Izanagi washed his eyes and nose, three noble gods were born: Amaterasu (goddess of the sun, in charge of the heavens), Tsukuyomi (god of the moon, in charge of the night), and Susano-o (god of the storm, in charge of oceans).
Amaterasu’s hideaway in a cave
- * Susano-o was a rough god, causing much harm in both the heavens and on the earth. This disturbed Amaterasu greatly, and she decided to hide away in a cave and shut the door. Darkness filled heaven and earth, and evil prevailed. The gods in heaven conferred with one another and decided to throw a big noisy party in front of the cave to interest her. Eventually she got curious and opened the door slightly. A powerful god pulled her out of the cave, thus returning light to the world.
Ninigi as the ruler of Japan
- * Ookuninushi, the descendant of Susano-o, rose up as the first ruler of Japan since its creation. Watching it from above, Amaterasu decided her son should be the ruler instead. So she sent several messengers to Ookuninushi, and eventually he agreed to hand over the position without much ado. Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, descended from heaven along with some attendant gods and three sacred treasures to assume the throne. Ninigi became the first heavenly approved ruler of Japan.
- * The great-grandson of Ninigi, Iwarebiko, known as Emperor Jinmu, was the first emperor of Japan. Thus, the present imperial family is viewed as the direct descendant of Ninigi and Amaterasu.
It is logical to acknowledge these accounts as nothing but myth, yet mythological stories may contain traces or evidences of real incidents or of borrowed stories from other folklore or religions. Some researchers say that the concept of “the beginning of the heaven and the earth” is not originally in Shinto mythology and is most likely included because of early Christians introducing the Genesis account. It is also possible that a clan of people brought this history to Japan with them after the scattering at the Tower of Babel. It merely became corrupted and mythologized as history proceeded. Consider that the first three gods that were present from the beginning of creation seem also to have their origins in the triune God of the Bible.
Early Eastern missionaries could easily account for other corruptions or even information emanating from Solomon’s day where people came from around the world to hear Solomon’s wisdom. For example, the story of Amaterasu’s hideaway in a cave could be related to Joshua’s long day in Joshua, chapter 10, in the Bible. If the sun stood still in the middle of the sky for a day in Israel, allowing Joshua’s troops to overtake the Amorites, a night would have fallen for the same amount of time in Japan, which is on the other side of the globe. It must have been frightening in Japan not to see the sun rise for a whole day, and this may have led to the folklore that the sun goddess had hidden away in a cave.
Similarities in Objects and Rituals
There are some objects and rituals that bear resemblance to Christianity. This resemblance cannot be used as conclusive proof of the Bible’s influence on Japan’s indigenous religion, but the observations are fascinating and might encourage one to do further research.
Mikoshi vs. the Ark of Covenant
Mikoshi is a temporal housing for gods, used during ceremonies or festivals to move gods from one place to another. It is a gold-covered wooden box supported by two wooden carrying bars. An ornate golden phoenix stands on top of the housing.
The general appearance of Mikoshi resembles the ark of the covenant in the Bible. The golden phoenix, a fictional bird with its wings spread out on top of the box, reminds us of cherubim with their outspread wings on top of the ark. Both are carried on poles by men in a similar way.
Shrine Structure vs. Tabernacle/Temple Structure
In early Shinto there was no shrine structure. Yorishiro alone or simple altars in front of it were the places of worship. However, by the fourth century, shrine buildings were constructed. The layout of a shrine precinct is similar to that of the biblical tabernacle or temple with the holy of holies.
Tori-i vs. Passover Gate
At the entrance to the shrine area, or precinct, there is a gate called Tori-i, which is composed of two columns and a beam across the top. The purpose of the gate is to separate the secular world and the sacred place. Today unpainted Tori-i are quite common, but many are painted red, bringing to mind the doors of the Israelites’ homes on the day of Passover, where the blood of the lamb was applied to the top and sides of the doorframes.
Purification Rituals: Misogi and Harae
Shinto holds to the concept of ritual uncleanness, brought upon one’s person when touching dead bodies, etc. Shinto values purification before facing gods; therefore, there are cleansing rituals known as misogi and harae.
Misogi is ritual bathing. A person goes into water to wash off the ritual uncleanness and sins—similar to Jewish customs.
Harae is a ritual whereby a Shinto priest shakes onusa, a wooden staff with a bundle of zigzag-shaped white papers, over an unclean person or thing. The uncleanness is taken away from the person or thing and gets attached to the onusa or a doll used for the purpose. This could be related to the custom of Azazel, the scapegoat of Israel, upon which the nation’s sins were placed, as well as the ritual cleansings performed by Israelite priests.
Assyrian Churches of the East and Keikyo, the Luminous Religion
It is worth mentioning that Christianity is not just a Western religion but should also be considered an Eastern religion. Acknowledging the work of the churches of the East is imperative because Japanese people would note the geographical proximity and would be more open to Christianity if its history in the East would be emphasized to a greater degree.
Assyrian Churches of the East, which had headquarters in Edessa (Urfa in modern Turkey), exerted great influence in the evangelization of Asian countries such as Persia, India, and China. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, was known to have gone to Assyria to build churches before going farther eastward to Persia and India. Also, there were Assyrian witnesses at Pentecost in Acts 2, who in all likelihood went home with the good news of salvation through Christ and probably helped establish churches with Thomas.
The Assyrian Church is also known as the Nestorian Church. It was rejected as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church in 431 because Nestorius denied Catholicism’s veneration of Mary as the “Mother of God.” From the biblical point of view, of course, Nestorius’ teaching about refusing to participate in venerating Mary as the “Mother of God” was not heresy. But the unfortunate labeling of the Nestorian Church as heretical resulted in Western Christian schools’ lack of appreciation for the great work and history of Assyrian Churches.
Assyrian missionaries officially visited the Chinese emperor in A.D. 635. They were called the “Luminous Religion” (Keikyo, 景教 in Japanese) and were allowed to publicly teach the Bible. They built Keikyo temples in Chang’an, the capital of China at that time.
When the famous Japanese monks Kuukai and Saicho visited Chang’an to study Buddhism in the seventh century, they probably encountered Keikyo missionaries and learned some biblical concepts. They probably did not distinguish between Buddhist and Christian ideas, thus bringing back to Japan a conglomeration of Buddhism, Keikyo, and other religions and philosophies. This is probably why Buddhism in Japan is somewhat different from the Buddhism in other countries. And of course this mixture also affects Shinto.
Assyrian missionaries probably reached Japan well before the 16th-century time frame of Francisco Xavier, though this is not recorded officially. It’s possible that the history was rewritten to hide Christian influences, or the teachings were simply taken as a style of Buddhism and all got syncretized. It would be interesting and eye opening if researchers studied this matter further.
Analysis of the Japanese Mindset
It is important to know that Shinto still exerts a profound effect on the unique worldview that runs deep within the hearts and minds of the Japanese populace. To sum up, there are three main characteristics found in the typical Japanese mindset influenced by Shinto:
- Superstitious: Today’s Japanese people are fond of horoscopes and other fortune telling means in their daily lives. They buy good luck charms (omamori) from shrines. Some even like to visit “power spots” where they hope to get healings and energies from spirits or gods. Japanese people like to “feel” rather than “think logically” in spiritual matters.
- Tolerant: Throughout the ages, Shinto was able to accept Buddhism and other ideas, and it allowed syncretization to maintain the co-existence of various religions within the nation. Therefore, the Japanese are good at tolerating and respecting assorted religions and views. It is difficult for the Japanese to sympathize with religious conflicts that involve violence, such as that which occurs in the Middle East.
- Very little interest in an afterlife: Shinto deals with this life. People go to shrines to pray for safety and prosperity in the here and now. The general picture of life after death is that every dead person becomes a spirit and then watches over the living in the air or from the sky (heaven). There is no concept of judgment, so no ultimate motivation for living a moral life pleasing to God.
To ponder the mindset of the 21st-century Japanese is truly a fascinating, compelling study in contrasts. As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this chapter, builders of a 1.4 billion dollar skyscraper project in modern Tokyo avoid moving one small samurai grave because they are afraid a curse may fall on their new buildings. This kind of news and stories are not uncommon in today’s modern Japanese societies, since they have deep roots in a centuries-old thinking process that has been fostered through Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. Therefore, it is especially meaningful and helpful for Christians who are evangelizing the Japanese to know and understand this background.
Good News for the Japanese
The Japanese people are, in a sense, quite devout—seen in the fact that they are capable of respecting not only Shinto gods and Buddha but also other gods that are highly valued. Sadly, the one eternal God is not known by most Japanese. This eternal One is the only absolute and omnipotent God, the Creator of the world.
Because this Creator God is completely different in power and authority from other gods, the word “God” with upper case “G” is used to distinguish Him, in English, from the many other so-called “gods” with lower case “g” who are not absolute and omnipotent.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).4
The Bible testifies that this God alone created the physical universe. Therefore, He is more powerful than the universe itself. God created the earth as the perfect environment for mankind and for all His creatures as well—the birds of the air, the fish in the sea, and the animals on the ground. When mankind sinned against God, God’s Curse fell upon the earth. This God who created our earth with such intricacy and beauty is without a doubt the Almighty One of incomparable intellect, possessing the highest, ultimate artistic sense.
Today, however, we are taught the religious ideas of evolution (which is now being syncretized into Japanese culture as well). Especially in Japan, school textbooks and television proclaim that everything came into existence through the natural process of evolution and that it is proven by “science.”
Most Japanese think “science” is the way to the truth and would be surprised that there are people who “still” believe in the biblical creation view. They consider the Bible’s description of there being one God who created everything an old-fashioned religious myth. Also, the biblical creation idea is seen as coming from Western cultures; thus the Japanese do not generally respect it or feel responsible to study it.
Most Japanese are not exposed to learning that evolution is not supported by “observable science” and is merely an idea that actually contradicts many observations and laws of nature. They have no opportunity to learn that “observable science” better supports the biblical creation view. When properly confronted with scientific facts supporting creation by the Intelligent Designer, people can start to see how illogical and unreasonable it is for evolution to bring this intricate world into existence.5 If evolution is not the truth, then considering the Creator God and the biblical account should be taken more seriously by everyone—including the Japanese.
According to the Bible, God created the entire universe. He created the earth and filled it with plants and animals and then, finally, created the first man and woman with special care. All men and women, regardless of their ethnic or religious identities, are the descendants of the first man and woman God created—Japanese included.
Not only is there one true Creator of all races, but the Creator is also the Savior of the world. Shinto does not explain the afterlife or what happens to a person after death, but that does not spare a person from the ultimate judgment. The Creator God, who loves His creatures deeply, made a sacrifice and prepared a way for any person to be saved, if he or she repents and places faith in Him.
The Bible tells us mankind was created in God’s image; thus, they have a moral will. But the first man and woman freely chose not to obey God but to do their own thing. This sin unleashed upon mankind unspeakable suffering and death—death not only of the body but also of spiritual separation from the Creator Himself. This sinful state also includes the certainty of facing God in the final judgment and eternal punishment in the afterlife.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
The Bible proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Creator God: “For by Him all things were created. . . . He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16–17). As the King of the universe, He has infinite power and authority. Yet, in His infinite love, He humbled Himself and became a man to provide a way to save people from eternal suffering. Jesus took the sins of mankind upon Himself, endured suffering and death on the Cross, and endured from the wrath of God the Father on behalf of His people. His death paid the penalty for their sin. Jesus was resurrected from the dead with a glorified body on the third day and now sits enthroned in heaven. The good news is that anyone who turns from his or her sin and trusts Jesus as his personal Savior can have his own sins forgiven as a free gift from God. Along with this forgiveness comes wonderful, beautiful eternal life.
I sincerely wish for many Japanese to come to know their true identity and accept their true Creator and Savior. They would be free from fearing curses of Shinto gods or spirits. They would truly be “children of God” and be a member of the true divine nation, the eternal kingdom of God, mentioned in the Bible. How much better to live for the true God than for whimsical Shinto gods!
As maintained throughout this chapter, Shinto is mythology deeply entwined with Japanese national history and ethnic identity. For those who wish to share the gospel with the Japanese, it is important to understand how their mindset is influenced by these Shinto roots and approach them carefully. Logic would demand that the sincere Japanese seeker of truth would serve himself best by turning to the One who knows him best, his omnipotent Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ. May the Japanese people open up their hearts to know the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
|Doctrine||Teachings of Shinto|
|God||Deny the God of the Bible, but worship many local gods and ancestors|
|Authority/Revelation||Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are used as the source for Shinto mythology|
|Man||Men are neither good nor bad|
|Sin||Sin can be cleansed by a ritual called Misogi, a washing with water|
|Salvation||Existence of the underworld where all the dead go is mentioned, but there is no concept of judgment|
|Creation||Several gods were involved in the creation of the earth and the land|
This chapter is dedicated to my daughter, Rieko. May she find the Savior Lord in her life even while she grows up in the Shinto culture of Japan.
My beloved husband, Souta, who always stands beside me, encourages me, and honors the Lord. Mrs. Pat Kovacs, my dear sister and mentor in the Lord, who took much time to read and check my English thoroughly.