Last updated 2009-10-30
This article looks at the nature of Shinto and whether or not it is considered to be a religion.
The nature of Shinto as a faith should not be misunderstood.
Shinto is often called the 'Japanese religion', and has been a big influence on Japanese culture and values for over 2000 years. But some writers think that Shinto is more than just a religion - it's no more or less than the Japanese way of looking at the world.
Because ritual rather than belief is at the heart of Shinto, Japanese people don't usually think of Shinto specifically as a religion - it's simply an aspect of Japanese life. This has enabled Shinto to coexist happily with Buddhism for centuries.
Shinto is involved in every aspect of Japanese culture: It touches ethics, politics, family life and social structures, artistic life (particularly drama and poetry) and sporting life (Sumo wrestling), as well as spiritual life.
Many events that would be secular in the West involve a brief Shinto ritual in Japan - for example, the construction of a new building would involve a Shinto ceremony.
Although most Japanese follow many Shinto traditions throughout life, they actually regard themselves as being devoted to their community's local shrine and kami, rather than to a countrywide religion.
So many Japanese don't think that they are practising Shinto nor are followers of the Shinto religion, even though what they do is what constitutes actual Shinto, rather than official or academic Shinto.
Today many Japanese mix Buddhism and Shinto in their lives; something that can't be done with more exclusive religions like Christianity or Islam. About 83% of Japanese follow Shinto, and 76% follow Buddhism (1999 figures).
Although early Christian missionaries were hostile to Shinto, in more recent times it was seen by some Christians as so different from their own faith that they were willing to allow Japanese Christians to practice Shinto as well as Christianity. (For example, a Vatican proclamation in 1936 allowed Japanese Catholics to participate in Shinto ceremonies, on the grounds that these were merely civil rites of "filial reverence toward the Imperial Family and to the heroes of the country".