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Understanding Japanese Shinto

Are you currently planning a stay in Japan, or are you perhaps already in Japan, and just wanting to find out more about the temples and shrines that you will likely encounter during your exploration of this wonderful country? Are you possibly studying traditional Japanese religion in school or even just wanting to understand more about the history of Japan and its unique culture? Let’s take a look at a popular animistic belief system with many shrines throughout Japan known in Japanese as “Shinto”.

You may or may not have heard of Shinto before, depending on how much you have traveled in Japan or studied the culture. The Japanese word “Shinto” is a combination of imported Chinese words for “Spirit” (Shin) and “Way” (To) which is actually from the word “Tao”. Thus Shinto essentially means “Way of the Spirit”. Taoism is a kind of traditional Chinese way of understanding and interacting with the natural world that focuses primarily on harmony with the flow of energy of the world.

While most people today have likely heard of Taoism, or at least seen a yin-yang or person performing Tai Chi movements at some point, most people are likely not so familiar with Japanese Shinto. Shinto is attributed to a combination of numerous influences, including Chinese Tao and also animistic Korean and aboriginal Japanese shamanism. Add a helping of Buddhism and Confucianism and you start to realize how diverse it can be. Many of China’s cultural gems have historically been imported and adopted by Japanese culture over the centuries. This makes more sense when one looks at the origins of the non-aborigine Japanese people as they historically appear to have primarily migrated from China. A decent percentage also likely migrated from Korea, but that is not generally spoken about popularly in Japan.

You may also be interested to know that in addition to the diversity of imported influences, there is also uniquely Japanese customization to this ideology. Basically, the concept is that there are spirits called “Kami” present throughout the natural world and so shrines and traditions are based around appeasing the Kami and benefiting from them. The issue is that what is called Shinto is essentially a variety of localized animistic shrines and practices which historically vary from place to place. There is also no real historical continuity in Shinto as a singular religion in Japan prior to the late 1800s or early 1900s. There were, however, numerous animistic temples across the land that shared many similar symbols, customs, and traditions.

Shinto as a singular organized and nationalized “religion” essentially dates back to the Meiji constitution of the late 1800’s as a way for the newly self-appointed and centralized imperial government to rewrite history for its own benefit and create a national identity in the process. It was fabricated by the imperial government to falsely deify the royal family and socially engineer a monarchy. The nation was programmed to believe it and thus Japan attempted to take over the world in WWII. What you may find surprising in Japan is how many of the Japanese people still seem to have no idea how young and corrupt that conceptualized version of Shinto essentially is. This is likely, in part, due to the fact that the Japanese population was so well brainwashed, by their then imperial government, to accept that a modern retrofitted conceptualization of traditional Shinto was actually a historic tradition. The modern propagandized Shinto introduced around the turn of the 20th century in Japanese schools is still apparently, although somewhat discreetly, practiced by many temples who only allow people that seem Japanese to enter. What is ironic is that this invented modern imperial Shinto based this bigotry on the concept of the Japanese people being native to Japan, yet the actual natives of the country have been historically shunned. Part of this is obviously due to the fact that the existence of actual natives of Japan, whose presence long pre-dates those considered “Japanese”, completely falsifies imperialistic Shinto. The natives were conveniently written out of Japanese history books and their existence was generally ignored for the sake of nationalistic pride.

Regardless of all of this, the shrines of Japan are often pretty and can be a lot of fun if you don’t take them too seriously. Remember that the customs and shrines usually pre-date the concepts of the priests you will see at the temples. It’s generally best to enjoy the shrines and ignore the people running them.