Japan Glossary

Early Shinto
Because of the . . .
thought and philosophy of the Tokugawa period in Japan (1600-1868), nothing says "Japan" like the Shinto religion. The Tokugawa "Enlightenment" inspired a group of thinkers who studied what they called kokugaku , which can be roughly translated "nativism," "Japanese Studies," or "Native Studies." Kokugaku was no dry as dust academic discipline as the term "Japanese Studies" seems to imply; it was a concerted philosophical, literary and academic effort to recover the essential "Japanese character" as it existed before the early influences of foreigners, especially the Chinese, "corrupted" Japanese culture. Recovering the essential Japanese character meant in the end distinguishing what is Japanese from what is not and purging from the Japanese culture various foreign influences including Confucianism (Chinese), Taoism (Chinese), Buddhism (Indian and Chinese), and Christianity (Western European). The kokugakushu ("nativists") focussed most of their efforts on recovering the Shinto religion, the native Japanese religion, from fragmentary texts and isolated and unrelated popular religious practices.

   Despite this optimism, Shinto is probably not a native religion of Japan (since the Japanese were not the original "natives" of Japan), and seems to be an agglomeration of a multitude of diverse and unrelated religions and mythologies. There really is no one thing that can be called "Shinto," since there are a multitude of religious cults that gather beneath this rubric. The name itself is a bit misleading, for Shinto is a combination of two Chinese words meaning "the way of the gods" (shen : "spiritual power, divinity"; tao : "the way or path"). The Japanese word is kannagara : "the way of the kami ."

   Several things, though, can be said about Shinto. First, it was a tribal religion, not a state one. Individual tribes or clans, which originally crossed over to Japan from Korea, generally held onto their Shinto beliefs even after they were organized into coherent and centralized states.



Japan Glossary
Kami
   Second, all Shinto cults believe in kami , which generally refers to the "divine." Individual clans (uji ), which were simultaneously political, military, and religious units, worshipped a single kami in particular which was regarded as the founder or principal ancestor of the clan. As a clan spread out, it took its worship of a particular kami with it; should a clan conquer another clan, the defeated clan was subsumed into the worship of the victorious clan's kami . What the kami consists of is hard to pin down. Kami first of all refers to the gods of heaven, earth, and the underworld, of whom the most important are creator gods (all Shinto involves a developed mythology of the creation of the world). But kami also are all those things that have divinity in them to some degree: the ghosts of ancestors, living human beings, particular regions or villages, animals, plants, landscape—in fact, most of creation, anything that might be considered wondrous, magnificent, or affecting human life. This meant that the early Japanese felt themselves to be under the control not only of the clan's principal kami , but by an innumerable crowd of ancestors, spiritual beings, and divine natural forces. As an example of the potential for divinity: there is a story of an emperor who, while travelling in a rainstorm encountered a cat on a porch that waved a greeting to him. Intrigued by this extraordinary phenomenon, the emperor dismounted and approached the porch. As soon as he reached the porch, a bolt of lightening crashed down on the spot his horse was standing and killed it instantly. From that point on, cats are, in Shinto, worshipped as beneficent and protective kami; if you walk into a Japanese restaurant, you are sure to find a porcelain statue of the waving cat which protects the establishment from harm.


   Thirdly, all Shinto involves some sort of shrine worship, the most important was the Izumo Shrine on the coast of the Japan Sea. Originally, these shrines were either a piece of unpolluted land surrounded by trees (himorogi ) or a piece of unpolluted ground surrounded by stones (iwasaka ). Shinto shrines are usually a single room (or miniature room), raised from the ground, with objects placed inside. One worshipped the kami inside the shrine. Outside the shrine was placed a wash-basin, called a torii , where one cleaned one's hands and sometimes one's face before entering the shrine. This procedure of washing, called the misogi , is one of the principal rituals of Shinto, which also included prayer and spells. One worships a Shinto shrine by "attending" it, that is, devoting oneself to the object worshipped, and by giving offerings to it: anything from vegetables to great riches. Shinto prayer (Norito ) is based on koto-dama , the belief that spoken words have a spiritual power; if spoken correctly, the Norito would bring about favorable results.


World Cultures Modules
Buddhism

Chinese Philosophy
Confucius
Neo-Confucianism
   Unfortunately, we know almost nothing at all about early Shinto, since nobody wrote about it. Early Shinto may, in fact, be a myth; what is called early Shinto may simply be a large number of unrelated local religions that began to combine with the advent of centralized states. History as accreted an enormous amount of non-Shinto ideas into this original religion: Buddhism, Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism have all significantly changed the religion.

   The two great texts of Shinto belief and mythology, the Kojiki (The Records of Ancient Matters ) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan ), were written down around 700 A.D., two centuries after Buddhism had been declared the state religion of Japan.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-5-97