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Shinto (Way of the Gods)

Shinto (Kami-no-Michi — the Way of the Gods), Japan's only indigenous faith, 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. Various shrines, myths, and rituals of pre-Shinto worship were interpreted as Shinto and merged into the notion of Shinto that exists in Japan today. The Shinto worldview is of a pantheistic universe of kami, spirits or gods with varying degrees of power. It encompasses myths of the origin of Japan and the Japanese people, beliefs and practices in local communities and the highly structured rituals associated with the imperial family.

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 After World War II, the requirement of membership in a shrine parish was revoked, but local shrines still serve as focal points for community identity for many Japanese, and occasional informal or ritual visits are common.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.

Today Shintoism plays a more peripheral role in the life of the Japanese people. The numerous shrines are visited regularly by a few believers and, if they are historically famous or known for natural beauty, by many sightseers. Many marriages are held in the shrines, and children are brought there after birth and on certain anniversary dates; special shrine days are celebrated for certain occasions, and numerous festivals are held throughout the year. Many homes have "god shelves" where offerings can be made to Shinto deities.

The question of the origins of Shinto, the national religion, is a controversial topic, especially among scholars in Asia, notably Chinese and Korean specialists. The origins of Shinto beliefs are lost in the past. Elements in it seem also to have come from as far afield as Southeast Asia and Polynesia. Some experts feel that prehistoric beliefs date as far back as the Jomon culture. They developed as Japan developed, always closely associated with its culture and its politics. Because Shinto is regarded as a natural or ethnic religion, its origins cannot be clearly specified. Early Shinto had no founder, no orthodox canon of sacred literature, and no explicit code of ethical requirements.

The sources of Shinto are often traced to kami beliefs that existed during the later Yayoi period or the subsequent period of burial mounds (the Kofun period, c.300–700). The religion of ancient Japan presents no definitely systematized forms of worsnip or belief. It was animistic or spiritistic. The term kami, which signifies 'deity,' was applied indiscriminately to any object or natural phenomenon that might arouse the feelings of wonder, awe, or reverence. Men, beasts, birds, plants, seas, mountains, rivers, winds, and storms, in which the people believed some supernatural spirit dwelt, were worshipped. Belief in divine and demoniacal possession was common. Divination and augury of various kinds were practised. Magic and charms were employed to avert evil.

Many of its rituals are not indigenous — and only in relatively recent Japanese history did it become a unified religion. The origins of Shinto are said to hark back to Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and progenitrix of the Japanese imperial line. According to Japanese tradition, the reign of the first emperor, Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, began in the year 660 BC. In early Shinto, trees and stones were the objects of devotion, simply marked with ceremonial rope without any structure. Kami were to be found everywhere in things such as boulders or sugi.

The origins of Shinto could be traced to ancient times, long before the coming of Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism. The introduction of Confucianism in AD 285, and of Buddhism in AD 538, produced no change in these primitive practices, which it only refined outwardly. Beginning around the AD 500's, the philosophies of Buddhism and Confucianism influenced Shinto, helping to shape rituals and doctrines. From Chinese Confucianism, Shinto borrowed the veneration of ancestors, and from Buddhism 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.

No documentary evidence exists from the period before the reign of Suiko (r. 593-628). Matsumae Takeshi argues that the Yamato Clan replaced its earlier tutelary agricultural deity Takamimusubi (“High Producing Spirit”) by appropriating the kami of a local solar cult at Ise, one which resembled the prestigious solar deities of Korean royal families. The clan then steadily integrated other clan cults into its own “earthly & heavenly deities” (jingi) cult by the late 600s, by superior force and propaganda. By the late 600s the creation of the “earthly & heavenly kami” (jingi) cult by the Yamato court had absorbed local cults and promoted the superior divine origins of the royal family. This process soon found expression in the establishment of a Council of Kami Affairs (Jingi-kan) in 689.

Kami worship (jingi saishi) or shrine Shinto became systematized in a variety of aspects in or just before the period of the Ritsuryo codes, starting in the 7th century and coming to its peak in the Heian Period [AD 794-1185], but the cultic forms on which the system was based had taken shape before that.




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