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Shinto history

Shinto has been a major part of Japanese life and culture throughout the country's history, but for the greater part of that history Shinto has shared its spiritual, cultural, and political roles with Buddhism and Confucianism.

Periods of Shinto history

One of the standard classifications of Shinto history reduces it to four major periods:

Historians encounter some problems when trying to understand Shinto history as a discrete narrative.

Before Buddhism

Before the arrival of Buddhism

Traditional Japanese stepped temple roofs ornamented with gold, with mossy stone lanterns on the gravel-covered path below Tosho Gu shrine, Nikko

During this period there was no formal Shinto religion, but many local cults that are nowadays grouped under the name Shinto.

Like many prehistoric people, the first inhabitants of Japan were probably animists; devoted to the spirits of nature. In their case these were the Kami that were found in plants and animals, mountains and seas, storms and earthquakes, sand and all significant natural phenomena.

The early Japanese developed rituals and stories which enabled them to make sense of their universe, by creating a spiritual and cultural world that gave them historical roots, and a way of seeming to take control of their lives, in what would otherwise have been a fearful and puzzling landscape.

Other cults that are grouped together into Shinto probably arrived in Japan from Korea with the Korean tribes which invaded Japan in late prehistoric times.

These religions were highly localised, and not organised into a single faith. Nor were they seen as a single religion; the realms of Earth and the supernatural were so closely integrated in the world-view of the early Japanese that the things that modern people regard as a faith were seen in those times as just another part of the natural world, albeit a part of enormous power.

Shinto and Buddhism

Shinto and Buddhism together

From the 6th century CE the beliefs that are now known as Shinto were greatly altered by the addition of other ingredients.

Shintoisms were the only religions in Japan until the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century CE. From then on Shinto faiths and traditions took on Buddhist elements, and later, Confucian ones. Some Shinto shrines became Buddhist temples, existed within Buddhist temples, or had Buddhist priests in charge. Buddhist temples were built, and Buddhist ideas were explored.

The ruling aristocracy saw advantages in harnessing Shinto, Confucianism and Buddhism together to guide the people of Japan. At the same period, government took a role in religion with the establishment of the 'Department for the Affairs of the Deities'.

Shinto had a disadvantage compared to Buddhism and Confucianism in its lack of complex intellectual doctrines. This meant that the development of Japanese theology and philosophy inevitably drew on the comparative intellectual richness of Buddhism and Confucianism.

Group of seven smiling gods painted in various styles The Seven Lucky Gods, depicted here by Hokusai (1760-1849), are a mixed bunch, sharing influence with Buddhism and Hinduism among other traditions. ©

Buddhism began to expand significantly, and was given a role in supporting the growing influence of central government.

The idea was put forward that humans should follow the will of the gods in political life. The rule of the state was referred to as matsurigoto, a word very close to that for religious ritual - matsuri - that was used to refer to both government and worship.

The Emperor and the court had very clear religious obligations, ceremonies that had to be carried out meticulously to make sure that the kami looked after Japan and its people. These ceremonies (which soon included as many Buddhist and Confucian elements as they did Shinto) became part of the administrative calendar of the Japanese government. This court liturgical calendar continued to play a major part in Japanese government until virtually the present day.

As time went on, the Japanese became more and more accustomed to including both the kami and Buddhist ideas in their spiritual lives. Philosophers put forward the idea that the kami were "transformations of the Buddha manifested in Japan to save all sentient beings".

During the 7th and 8th centuries the spiritual status of the emperor as the descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu became official doctrine, and was buttressed by rituals and the establishment of the Ise shrines as the shrines of the divine imperial family.

Over the next few centuries the Buddhist influence in government grew steadily stronger, despite the DÕkyÕ affair in the middle of the 8th century. Between the 11th and 15th centuries Japanese government was in the hands of three interdependent power blocs: the court, the aristocracy, and the religious establishments, although there is some debate as to whether the various religious groups were ever able to present a united front, or whether they ever had as much political muscle as the other two blocs. The 16th century was a time of conflict in Japan, but religious establishments continued to play a part in the administration of the various territories of the country.

Religion became something of a hot potato when missionaries arrived in Japan during this period and started converting people from Shinto and Buddhism. Christianity was seen as a political threat and was ruthlessly stamped out. The 17th century was dominated by Buddhism - but a Buddhism heavily laden with Shinto - partly because an anti-Christian measure forced every Japanese person to register at a Buddhist temple and to pay for the privilege of being a Buddhist.

Japanese Buddhist temple The Daibutsuden, the Great Buddha Hall at the Todai-ji Temple in Nara. (The hall houses the Daibutsu or Great Buddha, the largest cast bronze sculpture in the world.)

Japanese civic religion still included very many elements of Confucianism in its political and administrative thinking, while popular Japanese religion was a pragmatic fusion of Shinto rituals and myths with a hefty dose of Buddhism. Buddhist temples came under the control of the state, and the training of priests and the management of temples and the hierarchy was effectively state supervised.

In the two centuries before the Meiji period there was a movement towards a purer form of Shinto, with a particular focus on the Japanese people as being the descendants of the Gods and superior to other races.

Buddhist and other influences were filtered out of institutions and rituals. This was not so much a purification of something that had once existed, as the creation of a unified faith from a group of many ideas, beliefs and rituals.

During this period Shinto acquired a stronger intellectual tradition than it previously had.

This change was evolutionary, as had been previous changes in the nature of Japanese religion.

Meiji Restoration

The Meiji reinterpretation of Shinto

Female and male figures, Izanami and Izanagi, poking a spear down from heaven into the empty ocean Meiji period painting of Izanagi and Izanami creating Japan, by Kobayashi Eitaku c.1885 ©

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought a sudden change in the religious climate of Japan. The aim was to provide a sacred foundation and a religious rationale for the new Japan and its national ethos, and to support the system of central administration.

Shinto was reorganised, completely separated from Buddhism, and brought within the structure of the state administration. Amaterasu, who until then had not been a major divinity, was brought to centre stage and used to validate the role of the Emperor, not only as ruler, but as the high priest of Shinto.

Shinto became the official state religion of Japan, and many shrines were supported by state funding. However, this financial aid was short-lived, and by the 1890s most Shinto shrines were once again supported by those who worshipped at them.

One result of this reformation was that it was no longer acceptable for kami to be identified with Buddhist deities, and a considerable reorganisation of the Japanese pantheon of spirit beings had to take place.

Shrines were cleaned of every trace of Buddhist imagery, apparatus, and ritual, and Buddhist deities lost their godly status. Buddhist priests were stripped of their status, and new Shinto priests were often appointed to shrines with a tacit mission to purify them.

Once again, this zeal for the reformation and purifying of Shinto did not last, and within a few years shrines were cautiously re-incorporating elements from Buddhism or tribal tradition.

The Emperor Jimmu stands on a hill Meiji period painting of Jimmu, the first Emperor, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi c. 1876-1882 ©

Shinto was enthusiastically promoted by Japan's militaristic rulers, who stressed that the emperor was a divine being, directly descended from the gods who had given birth to the Japanese islands.

Shinto became the glue that bound the Japanese people together with a powerful mix of devotion to kami, ancestor-worship, and group loyalty to family and nation.

Shinto's 'non-religious' period

It was during this period that Shinto was declared 'non-religious'. Traditional historians say (rather cynically) that this was done to avoid any conflict between the imposition of Shinto by the Japanese state and the Japanese constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.

In fact it was more subtle than that - Shinto was regarded as inseparable from the 'Imperial Way' and inseparable from the fundamental ethical and social code of Japan. This made Shinto so superior to other religions (which, although of enormous value, were created by human beings) that it counted as non-religious.

In his criticism of popular conceptions of Shinto, historian Kuroda Toshio explains that it has come to be regarded as "the cultural will or energy of the Japanese people, embodied in conventions that precede or transcend religion".

Shinto after WWII

Shinto after World War II

Shinto was disestablished in 1946, when the Emperor lost his divine status as part of the Allied reformation of Japan. The Emperor wrote:

The ties between Us and Our people have always stood on mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths.

They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.

from the Imperial rescript, January 1, 1946

Red-and-white painted shrine building with traditional Japanese curved roof Shrine

One academic has written that the American Occupation Forces "undoubtedly wished to crush and destroy Shinto", and certainly the orders issued by the occupying forces were very hostile to Shinto which they seem to have regarded as either a government-run cult, or a religion that had been converted into a military and nationalist ideology.

Japan's post-war constitution separates religion and state in article 20:

1) Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.

2) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious acts, celebration, rite or practice.

3) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.

Constitution article 20

Despite the loss of official status Shinto still remains a very significant player in Japanese spirituality and everyday life. And despite the non-divine status of the Emperor, considerable religious ritual and mysticism still surrounds many Imperial ceremonies.

Problems in studying Shinto history

Problems in studying Shinto history

Experts don't agree as to when Shinto became a unified religion rather than just a convenient label to give to the different (but similar) faiths found in Japan, so any history of Shinto is bound to cover a wide range of beliefs and traditions.

Shinto is a modern construction

The scholar Kuroda Toshio has suggested that the traditional view of Shinto as the indigenous religion of Japan stretching back into pre-history is wrong.

He argues that Shinto didn't emerge as a separate religion until comparatively modern times, and that this happened for political reasons. The traditional view, he says, is a modern construction of Shinto that has been projected back into history.

The truth, he says, is that for most of Japanese history, Shinto amounted to no more than part of a complicated spiritual view of the world that for most of the time contained as much Buddhism as Shinto.

Shinto is a cultural backdrop

Some writers suggest that Shinto is actually not so much a religion as "the seamless cultural-religious historical backdrop " in front of which the various religious experiences of Japan are played out - "a backdrop which transforms and interprets those religious experiences and imposes on them a continuity that they would otherwise lack".

Shinto's chain of continuity

Although ancient and modern Shinto are not linked by a single institution, the shrines, structures, and rituals of modern Shinto are so similar to those of ancient Shinto as to provide a clear chain of identity.

In this sense it is unarguable that Shinto has been an integral part of Japan's history.

Shinto as an institution

There have been several periods in Japanese history when attempts have been made, with varying success, to impose a centralised and imperial Shinto on various local shrine cults.

These centralisations usually allowed local variations to flourish within the localities - and this freedom may well have accounted for the survival of Shinto throughout different Japanese communities.

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Summary | 33 Annotations
During this period there was no formal Shinto religion, but many local cults that are nowadays grouped under the name Shinto.
2021/04/07 23:06
Like many prehistoric people, the first inhabitants of Japan were probably animists; devoted to the spirits of nature.
2021/04/07 23:07
In their case these were the Kami
2021/04/07 23:07
found in plants and animals, mountains and seas, storms and earthquakes, sand and all significant natural phenomena
2021/04/07 23:07
Japanese developed rituals and stories which enabled them to make sense of their universe,
2021/04/07 23:09
These religions were highly localised, and not organised into a single faith.
2021/04/07 23:09
From the 6th century CE the beliefs that are now known as Shinto were greatly altered by the addition of other ingredients.
2021/04/07 23:18
Shintoisms were the only religions in Japan until the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century CE.
2021/04/07 23:18
From then on Shinto faiths and traditions took on Buddhist elements, and later, Confucian ones.
2021/04/07 23:19
Some Shinto shrines became Buddhist temples, existed within Buddhist temples, or had Buddhist priests in charge.
2021/04/07 23:19
Buddhist temples were built, and Buddhist ideas were explored.
2021/04/07 23:19
Buddhism began to expand significantly, and was given a role in supporting the growing influence of central government.
2021/04/07 23:20
Over the next few centuries the Buddhist influence in government grew steadily stronger,
2021/04/07 23:21
Religion became something of a hot potato when missionaries arrived in Japan during this period and started converting people from Shinto and Buddhism. Christianity was seen as a political threat and was ruthlessly stamped out.
2021/04/07 23:22
The 17th century was dominated by Buddhism - but a Buddhism heavily laden with Shinto - partly because an anti-Christian measure forced every Japanese person to register at a Buddhist temple and to pay for the privilege of being a Buddhist.
2021/04/07 23:22
Shinto was reorganised, completely separated from Buddhism,
2021/04/07 23:31
nd brought within the structure of the state administration
2021/04/07 23:31
Amaterasu
2021/04/07 23:32
was brought to centre stage and used to validate the role of the Emperor
2021/04/07 23:32
not only as ruler, but as the high priest of Shinto.
2021/04/07 23:32
but as the high priest of Shinto.
2021/04/07 23:32
Shinto became the official state religion of Japan, and many shrines were supported by state funding.
2021/04/07 23:33
However, this financial aid was short-lived, and by the 1890s most Shinto shrines were once again supported by those who worshipped at them.
2021/04/07 23:33
One result of this reformation was that it was no longer acceptable for kami to be identified with Buddhist deities,
2021/04/07 23:35
Shrines were cleaned of every trace of Buddhist imagery
2021/04/07 23:36
Buddhist priests were stripped of their status, and new Shinto priests were often appointed to shrines with a tacit mission to purify them.
2021/04/07 23:37
Shinto was disestablished in 1946, when the Emperor lost his divine status as part of the Allied reformation of Japan.
2021/04/07 23:49
One academic has written that the American Occupation Forces "undoubtedly wished to crush and destroy Shinto"
2021/04/07 23:50
certainly the orders issued by the occupying forces were very hostile to Shinto
2021/04/07 23:51
seem to have regarded as either a government-run cult, or a religion that had been converted into a military and nationalist ideology.
2021/04/07 23:51
which they se
2021/04/07 23:51
which they seem to have regarded as either a government-run cult, or a religion that had been converted into a military and nationalist ideology.
2021/04/07 23:51
Constitution article 20 Despite the loss of official status Shinto still remains a very significant player in Japanese spirituality and everyday life.
2021/04/07 23:51