Shintoism is a purely Japanese religion, the origins of which are buried in the hazy mists of ancient Japanese history. It is one of the world’s oldest religions. The Japanese people have a fierce love for their land and believe that the Japanese islands were the very first divine creation. In fact, Shintoism teaches that no other land is divine, making Japan unique in the world. Not surprisingly, Shintoism is not popular outside of Japan.
The two fundamental Shinto doctrines are that Japan is the country of the gods and her people are the descendants of gods. This concept of the divine descent of the Japanese people, as well as the divine origin of the land, has given rise to a conviction of superiority over other countries and peoples. With the exception of a few designated sects of Shinto, the religion has no founder, no sacred writings, and no authoritative set of beliefs. Worship takes place at one of the numerous shrines in the country of Japan, although many Japanese have altars in their home to one or more of the large number of deities.
The word Shinto comes from the Chinese word Shen-tao, which means “the way of the gods.” A major feature of Shinto is the notion of kami, the concept of sacred power in both animate and inanimate objects. There is in Shinto a powerful sense of the presence of gods and spirits in nature. The gods of Shinto are too numerous to be grouped into a hierarchy, but the sun goddess Amaterasu is highly revered, and her grand imperial temple is located 200 miles southwest of Tokyo. Shinto teaches that the Japanese people are themselves descended from the kami.
The religion of Shinto is entirely incompatible with biblical Christianity. First, the idea that the Japanese people and their land are favored above all others contradicts the Bible’s teaching that the Jews are the chosen people of God: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). However, though the Jews are God’s chosen people, they have never been designated as better than any other people, and the Bible does not teach that they were directly descended from gods.
Second, the Bible is clear that there are not many gods, but one God: “I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God (Isaiah 45:5). The Bible also teaches that God is not an impersonal force but a loving and caring Father to those who fear Him (2 Corinthians 6:17–18). He alone created the universe, and He alone reigns sovereignly over it. The idea of gods that inhabit rocks, trees, and animals combines two different falsehoods: polytheism (the belief in many gods) and animism (the belief that gods are present in objects). These are lies from the father of lies, Satan, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Third, Shintoism fosters pride and feelings of superiority in the Japanese people; such elitism is condemned in Scripture. God hates pride because it is the very thing that keeps people from seeking Him with their whole hearts (Psalm 10:4). In addition, the teachings of the basic goodness and divine origin of the Japanese people preclude their need for a Savior. This is the natural consequence of assuming one’s race is of divine origin. The Bible states unequivocally that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), that we all need a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is “no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Shinto teaches that the kami might commune with those who have made themselves worthy through ritual purification, but the God of the Bible promises to be present to anyone who calls upon Him for forgiveness. No amount of personal purification (a form of salvation by works) will make a person worthy of the presence of God. Only faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross can accomplish cleansing from sin and make us acceptable to a holy God. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures like the sutras or the Bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions.
“Shinto gods” are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto’s most important kami.
In contrast to many monotheistic religions, there are no absolutes in Shinto. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits. Consequently, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers and offerings to the kami.
Shinto shrines are the places of worship and the homes of kami. Most shrines celebrate festivals(matsuri) regularly in order to show the kami the outside world. Shinto priests perform Shinto rituals and often live on the shrine grounds. Men and women can become priests, and they are allowed to marry and have children. Priests are aided by younger women (miko) during rituals and shrine tasks. Miko wear white kimono, must be unmarried, and are often the priests’ daughters.
Important features of Shinto art are shrine architecture and the cultivation and preservation of ancient art forms such as Noh theater, calligraphy and court music (gagaku), an ancient dance music that originated in the courts of Tang China (618 – 907).
The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century was followed by a few initial conflicts, however, the two religions were soon able to co-exist and even complement each other. Many Buddhists viewed the kami as manifestations of Buddha.
In the Meiji Period, Shinto was made Japan’s state religion. Shinto priests became state officials, important shrines receive governmental funding, Japan’s creation myths were used to foster a national identity with the Emperor at its center, and efforts were made to separate and emancipate Shinto from Buddhism.
After World War II, Shinto and the state were separated.
People seek support from Shinto by praying at a home altar or by visiting shrines. A whole range of talismans are available at shrines for traffic safety, good health, success in business, safe childbirth, good exam performance and more.
A large number of wedding ceremonies are held in Shinto style. Death, however, is considered a source of impurity, and is left to Buddhism to deal with. Consequently, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, and most funerals are held in Buddhist style.