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Shinto Overview

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Shintô (Japanese: 神道) is the native religion of Japan. It involves the worship of kami, which could be translated to mean gods, nature spirits, or just spiritual presences. Some kami are very local and can be regarded as the spirit or genius of a particular place, but others represent major natural objects and processes, for example, Amaterasu, the Sun goddess. Shinto is a combination of two Chinese words (神道, shen tao) for "gods" and "road." Thus, Shinto means literally, "the way of the kami."

Definition of Shinto
Shinto is a difficult religion to classify. On the one hand, it can be seen as merely a highly sophisticated form of animism and may be regarded as a primal religion. On the other hand, Shinto beliefs and ways of thinking are deeply embedded in the subconscious fabric of modern Japanese society. The afterlife is not a primary concern in Shinto, and much more emphasis is placed on fitting into this world, instead of preparing for the next. Shinto has no binding set of dogma, no holiest place for worshippers, no person or kami deemed holiest, and no defined set of prayers. Instead, Shinto is a collection of rituals and methods meant to mediate the relations of living humans to kami. These practices have originated organically in Japan over a span of many centuries and have been influenced by Japan's contact with the religions of other nations, especially China. (Notice that the word Shinto is itself of Chinese origin.) Conversely, Shinto had and continues to have an impact of the practice of other religions within Japan. In particular, one could even make a case for discussing it under the heading of Japanese Buddhism, since these two religions have exercised a profound influence on each other throughout Japanese history. The Japanese "New religions" that have emerged since the end of the Second World War also show a clear Shinto influence.

Some feel Shinto was used as a legitimising ideology during the militaristic phase of Japanese history following the Meiji Restoration. Because Shinto has no absolute source of authority, some feel what was a natural expression of the beliefs of the people was hijacked by radical Nationalists, who desired to unify the Japanese people against the "inferior" people in other nations. Others wonder if the emphasis Shinto places on Japanese exceptionalism made such developments inevitable. Even today, some far right factions within Japanese society want to see a greater emphasis placed on Shinto and increased reverence shown to the Emperor as part of a project to restore Japan to its "rightful place" as the leading nation of the world. However, for most Japanese, Shinto is not about expressing disdain for other nations but expressing one's own love of the natural landscape of Japan and the people and spirits that reside within it.

The most immediately striking theme in the Shinto religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphic forms, with a formidable corpus of myth attached to them. The kami, though, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word - although divine, they are close to us; they inhabit the same world as we do, make the same mistakes as we do, and feel and think the same way as we do. Those who died would be automatically be added to the rank of kami regardless of their human doings. (Though it is thought that one can become a ghost under certain circumstances involving unsettled disputes in life.) Belief is not a central aspect in Shinto, and proper observation of ritual is more important than whether one "truly believes" in the ritual. Thus, even those believing other religions may be venerated as kami after death, if there are Shinto believers who wish them to be.

Practice and Teaching of Shinto
Unlike many religions, one does not need to publicly profess belief in Shinto to be a Shintoist. Whenever a child is born in Japan, a local Shinto shrine adds the child's name to a list kept at the shrine and declares him or her "Ujiko", lit. name child. After death an "Ujiko" becomes an "Ujigami", lit. name kami. One may choose to have one's name added to another list when moving and then be listed at both places. Names can be added to the list without consent and regardless of the beliefs of the person added to the list. However, this is not considered an imposition of belief, but a sign of the welcome of the area kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death. Those children who die before addition to the list are called "Mizuko", lit. water child, and believed to cause troubles and plagues. "Mizuko" are often worshipped in a Shinto shrine dedicated to stilling their anger and sadness. These shrines have become more popular with the growth of abortion in modern Japan.

Shinto has no absolute commandments for its adherents outside of living "a simple and harmonious life with nature and people". Because Shinto has co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it is very difficult to disentangle Shinto and Buddhist beliefs about the world. One might say that where Buddhism emphasizes the afterlife and ending the cycle of rebirths, Shinto emphasizes this life and finding happiness within it. Though Buddhism and Shinto have very different perspectives on the world, most Japanese do not see any need to reconcile these two very different religions and practice both.

Shinto does not teach that anything is a sin per se. Rather certain deeds create a kind of ritual impurity that one should want cleansed merely for one's own peace of mind and good fortune, and not because impurity is wrong in and of itself. Evil and wrong deeds are called "Kegare", lit. "dirtiness", and the opposite notion is "Kiyome", lit. "purity". Normal days are called "Ke" lit.(?) and festive days are called "Hare", lit. "sunny" or simply "good". Killing anything for living should be done with a gratitude and with a worship for taking their life to continue one's life; it should be kept to a minimum. Modern Japanese continue to place great emphasis on the importance of "aisatsu" or ritual phrases and greetings. Before eating, one should say "itadakimasu", lit. "I will humbly have", in order to show proper thankfulness to the preparer of the meal in particular and more generally to all those living things that lost their lives to make the meal. Failure to show proper respect is a sign of pride and lack of concern for others. Such an attitude is looked down upon, because it is believed to create problems for all. Those who fail to take into account the feelings of other people and kami will only attract ruin for themselves. The worst expression of such an attitude is the taking of another's life for personal advances and enjoyments. Those killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold "urami", lit. a grudge and become "aragami", a powerful and evil kami that seeks revenge. This same emphasis on the need for cooperation and collaboration can be seen throughout Japanese culture even today. Thus, at modern Japanese companies no action is taken before consensus is reached (even if only superficially) among all parties to a decision.

Purification rites are a vital part of Shinto. These may serve to placate any restive kami, for instance when their shrine had to be relocated. Such ceremonies have also been adapted to modern life. For example, a ceremony was held in 1969 to hallow the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, new buildings made in Japan are frequently blessed by a Shinto priest during the groundbreaking ceremony, and many cars made in Japan have been blessed as part of the assembly process. A more personal purification rite is the purification by water. This may involve standing beneath a waterfall or performing ritual ablutions in a river-mouth or in the sea. A third form of purification is avoidance, that is, the taboo placed on certain persons or acts. For example, women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji until 1868. Although this aspect has decreased in recent years, religious Japanese will not use an inauspicious word like "cut" at a wedding, nor will they attend a wedding if they have recently been bereaved.

Gateway to Shinto shrine with torii gateThe principal worship of kami is done at public shrines, although home worship at small private shrines (sometimes only a high shelf with a few ritual objects) is also common. It is also possible to worship objects or people while they exist. While a few of the public shrines are elaborate structures, most are small buildings in the characteristic Japanese architectural style. Shrines are commonly fronted by a distinctive Japanese gate (torii) made of two uprights and two crossbars. These gates are there as a part of the barrier to separate our living world and the world the kami live in. There are often two guardian animals placed at each side of the gate and they serve to protect the entrance. There are well over 100,000 of these shrines in operation today, each with its retinue of Shinto priests. Kami are invoked at such important ceremonies as weddings and entry into university. The kami are commonly petitioned for quite earthly benefits; a child, a promotion, a happier life. While one may wish for ill bidding on others, this is believed to be possible only if the target has committed wrongs first, or if one is willing to offer one's life. Though Shinto is popular for these occasions, when it comes to funerals, most Japanese turn to Buddhist ceremonies, since the emphasis in Shinto is on this life and not the next. Almost all festivals in Japan are hosted by local Shinto shrines and these festivals are open to all those that wish to attend. While these could be said to be religious events, Japanese do not regard these events as religious since everyone can attend, regardless of personal beliefs.

The most widely worshipped of all kami is the sun-goddess Amaterasu. However, Japanese do not specifically worship her or call her name to ask for help. Her main shrine is at Ise, but many lesser shrines are dedicated to her. Within the shrine, she is often symbolised by a mirror. Alternatively, the inner sanctum may be empty. This emptiness does not mean non-existence; rather, everything that one sees through the mirror is the embodiment of Amaterasu and every other kami. Until the end of World War II, the Tenno was believed to have been descended from Amaterasu and father of all Japanese, and was therefore a kami on earth (an ikigami or "living kami"); this divine status was popularized during the Meiji restoration. This did not prevent military governors (Shogun) from usurping power, but the emperor was always seen as the true ruler of Japan, even when his rule was only nominal. Although emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status in 1946 under American pressure (Ningen-sengen), the imperial family remains deeply involved in the Shinto ritual that unifies the Japanese nation symbolically. Because Shinto doesn't require a declaration or an enforcement to be worshipped, which is actually "unharmonious" and is something to be avoided, this declaration, while serving political reasons, is religiously meaningless and merely means that the state enforcement has ended.

Cultural Effect of Shinto
The influence of Shinto on Japanese culture can hardly be overestimated. Although it is now near-impossible to disentangle its influence from that of Buddhism, it is clear that the spirit of being one with nature that gave rise to this religion underlies such typically Japanese arts as flower-arranging (ikebana) and traditional Japanese architecture and garden design. A more explicit link to Shinto is seen in sumo wrestling: the purification of the wrestling arena by the sprinkling of salt and the many other ceremonies that must be performed before a bout can begin are definitely Shinto in origin. Many Japanese cultural customs, like using wooden chopsticks and removing shoes before entering a building, have their origin in Shinto beliefs and practices.
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