Assessment paper on the roots of Shintoism

Shintoism is a religion with strong indigenous roots. Because it developed as Japan developed into a unified culture, its ties to Japanese culture are strong. It is markedly different than many religions because it has no set of laws its followers must follow, and no concept of punishment for sins. It is a religion of many major and minor gods, and teaches that each person becomes a god at death. For this reason, an important part of Shintoism is ancestor worship, making Shintoism an important part of family life. Many people who declare themselves to be Shintoists also follow many Buddhist practices. While there is no one prophet for this religion, its followers embrace Confucian teachings for moral guidance.



Meaning of “Shinto”



Myth of creation

Indigenous basis





Loose structure

Influence of Buddhism










Shinto is the name given to a loosely organized religion of Japan. Its practices and beliefs are intertwined with Japanese culture in complex ways, and the recognition of Shinto as a religion by the Japanese coincides with the organization of Japan into one unified country (Nobutaka, et. al., 2003). Shinto has been profoundly affected over the centuries by other influences, notably BuddhIsm and the teachings of Confucius.

The word Shinto means “the way of the gods. While it is viewed by non-Japanese as the major religion of Japan, many Japanese consider themselves both Shinto and Buddhist (Miller, 1998). While Shinto has been influenced by other philosophies and religions, however, it is generally considered an indigenous religion. That is, the beginnings of Shinto emerged naturally as Japanese society developed. Those core beliefs are still present and still an important part of Shintoism. This makes Shintoism distinctly different than many other world religions, which were founded by specific individuals with specific teachings. Examples of this type of religion include Christianity and Islam (Nobutaka, et. al., 2003, p. 1).


The roots of Shintoism go back to 500 BCE or even earlier (Author not given, 2004). It began as a mix of nature worship, fertility rites, attempts at divination, and growing reverence for early heroes. Initial rites focused on attempts to guarantee a good rice harvest when the Japanese first started cultivating rice (Nobutaka, et. al., 2003, p. 14). It was given its name Shinto from the words “shin tao,” which in Chinese means “the way of the gods, around the 8th century CE.

As is common in many other religions, Shinto has a story that explains creation. They believe that two gods, one male and one female, gave birth to the islands that make up Japan. Their other children became the deified leaders of the early Japanese clans. One of their daughters was Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess. She was the founder of the imperial family and regarded as he most important deity, as her descendents unified the clans and created the country we now call Japan (Author not given, 2004). As this unification gradually took place, the Yamato family court focused on the worship of the Sun Goddess, while recognizing that other clans had singled out other deities. The Yamato court unified the country politically but allowed different areas to honor other deities (Nobutaka, et. al., 2003, p. 12). This trait is still seen today, where different cities in Japan tend to focus on different deities, called kami (Japan-guide).

The Shinto religion also has shamanistic roots, and they see natural formations and objects around them, such as rocks, trees, and other animals, as sacred. Eventually Shintoism began revering its great leaders, which led to viewing the emperors as gods (Author not given, 2004). Even abstract and creative forces have been deified, with the result that Shintoism imbues nearly every aspect of life with a sacred aspect. There are in fact prominent rocks along the coast of Japan that are considered to be sacred as well as Mount Fujiama, the famous Japanese volcano (Japan-guide). Typically these gods are viewed as benign or helpful. Different clans chose deities they believed protected their clans (Author not given, 2004).


As these indigenous beliefs were developing, Japan was influenced by other religions and philosophies. The religion that had the most influence was Buddhism, and eventually, Shinto and Buddhism were declared to both be the official religions of Japan (Author not given, 2004).

Since Shinto grew out of everyday life of the early Japanese, typically followers of Shinto do not preach, nor do they proselytize and attempt to convert others. The Shinto religion developed as Japanese culture developed, and the two are deeply intertwined. While people from any culture can adopt Buddhist beliefs, Shinto beliefs and practices are an integral part of Japanese traditional culture and not easily separated out (Japan-guide).


The Shinto religion can be hard for some people from other cultures to understand, because it does not have a deeply evolved theology. In fact, it does not even have a moral code, such as the Torah for Jews, the Ten Commandments for Christians, or the rules given in the Qu’ran for followers of Islam. Generally speaking, Shintoists embrace the moral code provided by Confucius, but they are not obligated to (Author not given, 2004). Confucius’ teaching is just part of Japanese cultural history. Reflecting the country’s mixed religious influences, many Japanese homes contain two altars. One is for Shinto rites and the other for Buddhist (Kumagi, 1995). Many followers of Shinto believe that the kami are various manifestations of the Buddha (Japan-guide).

However, Shinto does have some uniform beliefs. In addition to the general acceptance of the Shinto story of creation, certain dates are taboo, and many believe in spirits bent on revenge, or onryy, who are the spirits of dead people (Nobutaka, et. al., 2003, p. 2). But beyond the nearly universal belief in the story of Japanese creation, there are no rigid beliefs in Shinto. There are no rules or commandments to declare one action always right or another always wrong. Shinto recognizes that there are no perfect individuals and sees people as fundamentally good. Therefore evil is blamed on evil spirits. The purpose of Shinto rites is to keep those evil spirits at bay, using offerings to the kami, prayers, and purification rites (Japan-guide).


Mitsume, a Japanese acquaintance of my mother’s and a local potter, talked to me about Shinto beliefs and practices. I asked her what the basic principles of the religion were. She said that the Japanese believe that many things around them, including rocks and trees, are sacred. This belief affects many aspects of their life. The art of Japanese flower arrangement called ikebana reflects this belief, as does the design of ritual rock gardens. She said that the practice of origami, or folding paper, reflects the view that many things are sacred. The paper is never cut out of respect for the tree that gave the paper. She said there are no sacred texts, such as the Bible for Christians, although the teachings of Buddha and Confucius are given deep respect and believed to contain great wisdom.

I asked her if there were any roles defined by her through the Shinto religion, and she didn’t really understand the question. This may because Shinto is not a rule-driven religion. However, I pointed out that in some churches women cannot be priests, and she explained that this is not true in Shinto. In Shinto, women can be priests, and if they choose that path they can still marry and have a family. The priest’s assistants are young unmarried women. So women play an important part in the formal practice of Shinto.

However, overall, Mitsume did not really understand why I asked about being a woman in the Shinto religion. It is not a religion with lots of rules, and gender has very little to do with the Shinto religion.

I asked Mitsume how the Shinto religion related to the family, and she said that family is one of the most important parts of it. Shintoists believe that all people become kami, or gods, when they die. Because of this, they are worshipped by their families at the family’s Shinto shrine, asked her how Confucian influences fit into her religion. She said that there were two major influences that include reverence for the emperor and reverence for ancestors who have died. Finally, I asked her if there was anything that made practicing Shintoism in the United States hard. She thought about this for a moment and said that the religion is tied to the land. It isn’t just that land is sacred. Specific land is sacred. Mount Fuji has special meaning. In addition, the kami live in specific places, and she and her family are not near those places. The spirits of her ancestors are also in Japan, so they cannot properly honor their ancestors.


All religions contain some cultural traits. For instance, Jewish history goes back over 5,000 years, and the history of the Jewish people is woven into the religion. However, this trait is magnified in Shintoism because the religion developed in close relationship to the rest of Japanese culture. While a person who, say, married a Japanese person could follow Shinto practice, it is unlikely that someone outside Japan or a Japanese family would do so (Japan-guide).


Unlike most other religions, celebrations are typically local festivals that focus on local shrines. This is because the festivals honor the kami living in those shrines (Author not given, 2004). Thus, use of festivals and ceremonies varies from location to location. Some festivals may take place over several days (Japan-guide). So, although Shinto is a unifying cultural trait throughout Japan, the expression of the religion can vary greatly from location to location.

However, some traditions are practiced nationwide, such as Kagura, or ritual dances performed to traditional music. Many people wear mamori, or charms intended to protect and heal. Many kinds of charms exist to serve a variety of purposes. In addition to the home altar, called a kami-dana, or shelf of gods, people celebrate planting and harvest times. Many shrines hold festivals in coordination with National Founding Day, celebrated on February 11. There is also a festival for girls called Hinamatsuri, a boy’s festival called Tango no sekku, and the star festival, or hoshi matsuri, held on July 7.

In addition, certain life passages require a visit to the shrine. The priests bless children on Nov. 15 in a ritual called shichigosan Matsuri. Girls are blessed when they are three and again at the age of seven, while boys are blessed at the age of five (Miller, 1998).


While Shinto has some superficial similarities to other religions, such as processions celebrating selected gods, Shinto has no one prophet who defined the religion, no set of laws followers must follow, and no concept of punishment for sin. The priesthood is loosely organzed. There is no concept akin to Satan, and no belief in a Hell. Most religious services are held at home, not in a house of worship.


Shinto is a remarkable religion to study. Because of Japan’s relative isolation from the Western world, its outside influences came from cultures that were somewhat similar to its own. The result of this is that Shinto retained remarkably and uniquely characteristic traits. The strongest influences from the outside, Buddhism and the teachings of Confucius, were not incorporated into the Shinto religion. Instead, they were allowed to exist side by side. Neither Buddhism nor Confucius’ teachings were incompatible with Shintoism, and Confucius’ teachings provided moral guidelines Shintoism lacked (Nobutaka, et. al., 2003, p. 4).

In addition, Shintoism is tightly woven into family life and Japanese society. Since Shintoism and the country of Japan developed together, the beliefs about Shinto support beliefs held about the Japanese culture (Miller, 1998). Shinto teaches followers that all Japanese are descended from gods, and that these gods organized their society (into clans) very early in their history. This encourages the Japanese feelings about the importance of family, which is shown not only by ancestor worship but by the number of festivals and ceremonies emphasizing children.

Finally, Shintoism binds the Japanese to the world around them in a way most religions do not. When the very environment is sacred, a deep respect for nature is engendered. This is reflected in many aspects of Japanese life from the layout of gardens to flower arranging and even cultural arts such as origami. This shows that Shinto imbues its presence throughout Japanese life.

As the world becomes more and more a global village, it will be interesting to see how the Japanese will learn to cope with such realities as businessmen who must live, at least for some time, outside Japan, as the religion is not easily transportable outside its home country.


Author not given. Last updated July 2, 2004. Brief history of Shinto, in About Specific Religions, Faith Groups, Ethical Systems, Etc. Accessed via the Internet 7/12/05. “Shinto.” Accessed via the Internet July 12, 2005.


Kumagai, Fumie. 1995. “Families in Japan: Beliefs and Realities.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 26:1, pp. 135+.

Miller, Alan S. 1998. “Why Japanese Religions Look Different: the Social Role of Religious Organizations in Japan.” Review of Religious Research 39:4, pp. 360.

Nobutaka, Inoue (editor), with Satoshi, Ity; June, Endy; and Mizue, Mori. Translated and adapted by Mark Teeuwen and John Breen. Shinto – a Short Story. London & New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003.

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