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The traditional religion of Japan, nearly 80% of the country’s population take part in Shinto practices or rituals. Shinto is Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism and the country is home to over 80,000 Shinto shrines.
So what exactly is Shinto and what are its beliefs and rituals. We’ll discuss the history of Shinto, why it didn’t really spread beyond Japan, and what the future holds for the religion.
What is Shinto?
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Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and their cultural activities. Unlike many religions, Shinto does not have a founder nor does it honor a single god. There is also no sacred book such as the Bible or holy place to pray to.
Shinto believes in the kami, a divine power that can be found in all things. Shinto is polytheistic in that it believes in many gods and animistic since it sees things like animals and natural objects as deities.
Also unlike many religions, there has been no push to convert others to Shinto. This has led to the religion remaining for the most part within Japan. Its practice and traditions have spread somewhat due to Japanese emigration but it is rare to find Shinto shrines and priests outside of Japan. Many say that to really understand and appreciate Shinto, you have to experience and practice it in Japan, and this may have led to it not traveling far and wide.
Many say that Shinto is less like a religion and more like a way of life or way of looking at the world.
The History of Shinto
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Although the exact beginnings of Shinto are not known specifically, many say its foundations may have begun as early as the 3rd century BCE. Shinto did not start off as a formal religion. The faith consisted mainly of rituals and stories concerning a spiritual and cultural world that allowed people to better make sense of their world.
Buddhism arrived in Japan around the 6th century and with it, Shinto faiths and traditions began to adopt Buddhist elements. Although there were a few conflicts between the religions, Shinto coexisted quite well with Buddhism for centuries, as it was seen as an aspect of Japanese life as opposed to a competing religion.
Japanese people began to believe in the kami as well as Buddhist ideas. Shinto was made Japan’s state religion during the Meiji Period until the two were separated after WWII when the Emperor lost his divine status. During the Meiji Period, many Shinto shrines were supported by state funding for a short period. During this period it became unacceptable for kami to be associated with Buddhist deities, therefore Buddhist imagery and rituals were removed from shrines and Buddhist monks were replaced with Shinto priests.
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Shinto involves the worship of kami. Kami can take the form of animals or natural objects such plants, mountains, or rivers. They are said to be responsive of human prayer and have the ability to influence the course of natural forces.
Once a human dies, they are said to become a kami themselves and are memorialized by their living descendants. Not all Kami are thought to be good, however, and the goal is to ward off evil kami.
Both men and women are allowed to become priests and they may choose to marry and have children as well.
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Shinto priests are often called on to bless objects such as cars, planes, and new buildings. These are known as Jichinsai. Although many wedding ceremonies are considered to be Shinto in Japan, the religion is not associated with funerals or cemetery rituals.
Shinto believers can worship in shared public shrines although many choose to do so in the privacy of their own homes where they may have their own shrine set up. Japanese people may set up what is known as a kami-dana, or shelf, in which they place offerings to the kami.
Unlike some religions, there is no specific day of the week in which believers of Shinto worship kami. People simply choose when they wish to call on kami or attend festivals. During festivals, purification is followed by offerings to kami, prayers, music and dance, and a ceremonial meal consisting of sake.
The Future of Shinto
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Today Shinto is one of the most widely practiced religions in Japan. Nearly every aspect of Japanese culture incorporates Shinto beliefs whether its politics, ethics, the arts, sports, or spirituality.
The Japanese people and their various religions and beliefs continue to coexist harmoniously. They may attend funerals in a Buddhist temple, Christian weddings, and Shinto festivals.
Although the percentage of Japan’s population that identifies with Shinto may be declining, they still actively incorporate Shinto beliefs into their daily lives. Shinto customs are ingrained in the Japanese lifestyle and they continue to form the identity of Japan in many respects. Japanese people today attend Shinto festivals more out of tradition rather than because they believe in the faith.