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Shinto (神道, shintō?) is the native religion of Japan and was once its state religion. It involves the worship of kami (神, kami?), gods. Some kami are local and can be regarded as the spiritual being/spirit or genius of a particular place, but other ones represent major natural objects and processes: for example, Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, or Mount Fuji. Shinto is an animistic belief system. The word Shinto was created by combining two kanji: "shin" (神, "shin"?)(loan words usually retain their Chinese pronunciation, hence shin not kami), meaning gods or spirits ; and "tō" (道, "tō"?), meaning a philosophical way or path (originally from the Chinese word dao). As such, Shinto is commonly translated as "The Way of the Gods".
A torii at Itsukushima Shrine.
A torii at Itsukushima Shrine.
Typical Shinto Shrine with paper streamers made out of unprocessed hemp fibre.
Typical Shinto Shrine with paper streamers made out of unprocessed hemp fibre.

After World War II, Shinto lost its status as the state religion of Japan. Some Shinto practices and teachings, once given a great deal of prominence during the war, are no longer taught or practiced today, while others still exist as commonplace activities such as omikuji (a form of fortune-telling) and the Japanese New Year that few people give religious connotations to. Important national ceremonies such as coronations and royal marriages are conducted at the Three Palace Sanctuaries in Tokyo, and many Japanese still travel at least once in their lives to the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie Prefecture.


Early history

A number of theories exist about the ancestors of today's Japanese people. Most scholars agree that there was at least one migration from East Asia and perhaps another from Central Asia to the ancient Japanese Archipelago, though there is no consensus as to where Shinto first developed. Some of them claim that it has always existed in Japan, back into the mists of the Jomon period. Others maintain that it came about in the Yayoi period (c.300 BC–c.250 AD) as a cultural product of immigrants from China via Korean Peninsula, who brought agricultural rites and shamanic ceremonies from the continent, which took on Japanese forms in the new environment. Some modern scholars claim that "Shinto," as it is presently understood, did not exist in this age at all and should be more properly referred to as "kami worship".

In the early centuries BC, each tribe and area had its own collection of gods with no formal relationship between them. However, following the ascendancy of the Yamato Kingdom around the third to fifth centuries, the ancestral deities of the Emperor of Japan and the Imperial family were given prominence over others and a narrative made up to justify it. The result was the mythologizing of the Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki, dated 712 AD) in which it was claimed that the imperial line descended directly from the sun-goddess, Amaterasu. Another important kingdom, Izumo, was dealt with in a separate cycle within the mythology and its deities incorporated into the service of Amaterasu's descendants. A more objective and historical version of events appeared in the Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki, dated 720 AD), where alternative versions of the same story are given.

Early ceremonies are thought to have been held outside before copses (iwakura), or rocks forming a sacred space or altar (himorogi). There was no representation of the kami, for they were conceived as formless and pure. After the arrival of Buddhism in the first year of the Asuka period (538–710 AD), the idea of building "houses" for the kami arose and shrines were built for the first time. The earliest examples are thought to have been built at Izumo in 659 and at Ise in 690.

An important development was the introduction of a legal system based upon Chinese legalism and Confucianism (ritsuryō), in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. This established in law the supremacy of the emperor and great nobles, as well as formalizing their relationship to major shrines and festivals.

Even before the arrival of Buddhism, the rituals involved in kami worship had borrowed from Chinese Taoism and Confucianism. Though clan rivalry led to friction and fighting during the introduction of Buddhism, the worship of kami and the teachings of the Buddha soon settled into coexistence. In fact, syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto (神仏習合, shinbutsu shūgō?) was to become the dominant feature of Japanese religion as a whole.


Definition

Shinto can be seen as a form of animism and may be regarded as a variant of shamanist religion. 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; 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 and kami. These practices have originated organically in Japan over many centuries and have been influenced by Japan's contact with the religions of other nations, especially China. Notice, for example, that the word Shinto is itself of Chinese origin and that much of the codification of Shinto mythology was done with the explicit aim of answering Chinese cultural influence. Conversely, Shinto had and continues to have an impact on 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. Further, the Japanese "New religions" that have emerged since the end of the Second World War have also shown a clear Shinto influence.

Some feel Shinto was used as a legitimizing ideology during the militaristic beginning of the Shōwa period, 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. For most Japanese, however, 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.

Types of Shinto

To distinguish between these different focuses of emphasis within Shinto, many feel it is important to separate Shinto into different types of Shinto expression.

* Shrine Shinto (神社神道, jinja-shintō?) is the oldest and most prevalent of the Shinto types. It has always been a part of Japan's history and constitutes the main current of Shinto tradition.

* Sect Shinto (宗派神道, shūha-shintō?)is comprised of 13 groups formed during the 19th century. They do not have shrines, but conduct religious activities in meeting halls. Shinto sects include the mountain-worship sects, who focus on worshipping mountains like Mt. Fuji, faith-healing sects, purification sects, Confucian sects, and Revival Shinto sects. Konkōkyō, Tenrikyō, and Kurozumikyō, although operating separately from modern Shinto, are considered to be forms of Sect Shinto.

* Folk Shinto (民俗神道, minzoku-shintō?) includes the numerous but fragmented folk beliefs in deities and spirits. Practices include divination, spirit possession, and shamanic healing. Some of their practices come from Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, but most come from ancient local traditions.

State Shinto (国家神道, kokka-shintō?) was the result of the Meiji Restoration and the downfall of the shogunate. The Meiji restoration attempted to purify Shinto by abolishing many Buddhist and Confucian ideals; also, the Emperor was once again considered divine. After Japan's defeat in World War II, State Shinto was abolished and the Emperor was forced to renounce his divine right.

Characteristics


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. (See also: Japanese mythology.) The kami, however, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word. Although divine, they are close to humanity; 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 automatically be added to the rank of kami regardless of their human doings (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.

This transmogrification after death creates ambiguities that are being debated even today amid the controversy surrounding former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's (小泉 純一郎 Koizumi Jun'ichirō) annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war-dead. While the visits are widely viewed as an act of political swagger on the part of Japanese conservatives who eschew expressions of regret for past Japanese military aggression — and take place against the backdrop of historic reassertions of Japanese militarism by the current government — some Japanese, even liberals and moderates, wonder if opposition to the visits is based on a misunderstanding of Japanese spirituality. They explain that there is a kind of "apotheosis" when deceased become kami; since Japan's war-dead are already kami, then, paying respects to their spirits at the shrine is not the same as honoring specific acts during their lives. This view is not shared by Japan's neighbors, who have been on the receiving end of these acts.


Practices and teachings
Tying her fortune (omikuji) at Kasuga Shrine.
Tying her fortune (omikuji) at Kasuga Shrine.

[edit] Afterlife

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 a "family child" (氏子, ujiko?). After death an ujiko becomes a "family spirit", or "family kami" (氏神, ujigami?). 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 being welcomed by the local kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death. Those children who die before addition to the list are called "water children" (水子, mizuko?), and are believed to cause troubles and plagues. Mizuko are often worshipped in a Shinto shrine dedicated to stilling their anger and sadness.

Because Shinto has co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it is very difficult to untangle Shinto and Buddhist beliefs about the world. Though Buddhism and Shinto have very different perspectives on the world, most Japanese do not see any challenge in reconciling these two very different religions, and practice both. Thus it is common for people to practice Shinto in life yet have a Buddhist funeral. Their different perspectives on the afterlife are seen as complementing each other, and frequently the ritual practice of one will have an origin in the other.


Four affirmations

Though Shinto has no absolute commandments for its adherents outside of living "a simple and harmonious life with nature and people", there are said to be "Four Affirmations" of the Shinto spirit:

* Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.
* Love of nature: Nature is sacred; to be in contact with nature is to be close to the kami. Natural objects are worshipped as containing sacred spirits.
* Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouth often.
"Matsuri": Any festival dedicated to the Kami, of which there are many each year.

Impurity

Shinto teaches that certain deeds create a kind of ritual impurity that one should want cleansed for one's own peace of mind and good fortune, not because impurity is wrong in and of itself. Wrong deeds are called "dirtiness" (穢れ, kegare?), opposed to "purity" (清め, kiyome?). Normal days are called "day" (ke), and festive days are called "sunny", or simply, "good" (hare).[citation needed] Killing living beings should be done with reverence for taking a life to continue one's own, and should be kept to a minimum. Modern Japanese continue to place great emphasis on the importance of ritual phrases and greetings (挨拶, aisatsu?). Before eating, many (though not all) Japanese say, "I will humbly receive [this food]" (戴きます, itadakimasu?), 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 can be seen as a lack of concern for others, looked down on 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 bring ruin on themselves. The worst expression of such an attitude is the taking of another's life for personal advancement or enjoyment. Those killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold a grudge (怨み, urami?) and become a powerful and evil kami that seeks revenge (aragami). This same emphasis on the need for cooperation and collaboration can be seen throughout Japanese culture today. Additionally, if anyone is injured on the grounds of a shrine, the area affected must be ritually purified.

[edit] Purification

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 [1], 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 (misogi). These two forms of purification are often referred to as harae (祓). 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, in the era of the Meiji Restoration. 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.


Gods

Shinto teaches that everything contains a kami ("spiritual essence" which is translated into "god"). Every rock, every squirrel, every living and nonliving thing contains a kami. There is also a main kami for groups of things: for example, there is a kami within a rhino, and there is also a main kami residing over all the rhinos of the world.

Shinto's kami are collectively called Yaoyorozu no Kami (八百万の神), a traditional expression literally meaning "eight million kami". The arcane name of eight million, Yaoyorozu, is not the exact number, but the concept of an infinite number did not exist at that time.

The most widely worshiped of all kami is the sun-goddess Amaterasu. However, Japanese do not specifically worship her or invoke her name to ask for help. Her main shrine is the Grand Shrine of 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, it symbolizes that 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 (Emperor) 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 does not require a declaration or an enforcement to be worshiped (considered "unharmonious,") this declaration, while serving political reasons, is religiously meaningless and merely means that the state enforcement has ended.

[edit] Ema
Ema at a Shinto shrine
Ema at a Shinto shrine

In medieval times, wealthy people would donate horses to shrines, especially when making a request of the god of the shrine (for example, when praying for victory in battle). For smaller favors, giving a picture of a horse became a custom, and these are popular today. The visitor to a shrine purchases a wooden tablet with a likeness of a horse, or nowadays, something else (a snake, an arrow, even a portrait of Thomas Edison), writes a wish or prayer on the tablet, and hangs it at the shrine. In some cases, if the wish comes true, the person hangs another ema at the shrine in gratitude.

[edit] Kagura

Kagura is the ancient Shinto ritual dance of Shamanic origin. The word "Kagura" is thought to be a contracted form of kami no kura or seat of the kami or the site where the kami is received.(Kobayashi, Kazushige p.3) There is a mythological tale of how Kagura dance came into existence. The sun goddess Amaterasu became very upset at her brother so she hid in a cave. All of the other gods and goddesses were concerned and wanted her to come outside. One of the goddesses began to dance and create a noisy commotion in order to entice Amaterasu to come out. The kami (gods) tricked Amaterasu by telling her there was a better sun goddess in the heavens. Amaterasu came out and light returned to the universe.

Music plays a very important role in the kagura performance. Everything from the setup of the instruments to the most subtle sounds and the arrangement of the music is crucial to encouraging the kami to come down and dance. The songs are used as magical devices to summon the gods and as prayers for blessings. Rhythm patterns of five and seven are common, possibly relating to the Shinto belief of the twelve generations of heavenly and earthly deities. There is also vocal accompaniment called kami uta in which the drummer sings sacred songs to the gods. Often the vocal accompaniment is overshadowed by the drumming and instruments, reinforcing that the vocal aspect of the music is more for incantation rather than aesthetics.(Averbuch, Irit pp.83-87)

In both ancient Japanese collections, the Nihongi and Kojiki, Ame-no-uzeme’s dance is described as asobi, which in old Japanese language means a ceremony that is designed to appease the spirits of the departed, and which was conducted at funeral ceremonies. Therefore, kagura is a rite of tama shizume, of pacifying the spirits of the departed. In the Heian period (8th-12th centuries) this was one of the important rites at the Imperial Court and had found its fixed place in the tama shizume festival on the eleventh month. At this festival people sing as accompaniment to the dance: “Depart! Depart! Be cleansed and go! Be purified and leave!” (Kobayashi, Kazushige pp.4-5)

This rite of purification is also known as chinkon. It was used for securing and strengthening the soul of a dying person. It was closely related to the ritual of tama furi (shaking the spirit), to call back the departed soul of the dead or to energize a weakened spirit. Spirit pacification and rejuvenation were usually achieved by songs and dances, also called asobi. The ritual of chinkon continued to be performed on the emperors of Japan, thought to be descendents of Amaterasu. It is possible that this ritual is connected with the ritual to revive the sun goddess during the low point of the winter solstice. (Averbuch, Irit p.12)

There is a division between the kagura that is performed at the Imperial palace and the shrines related to it, and the kagura that is performed in the countryside. Folk kagura, or kagura from the countryside is divided according to region. The following descriptions relate to sato kagura, kagura that is from the countryside. The main types are: miko kagura, Ise kagura, Izumo kagura, and shishi kagura.

Miko kagura is the oldest type of kagura and is danced by women in Shinto shrines and during folk festivals. The ancient miko were Shamanesses, but are now considered priestesses in the service of the Shinto Shrines. Miko kagura originally was a shamanic trance dance, but later, it became an art and interpreted as a prayer dance. It is performed in many of the larger Shinto shrines and is characterized by slow, elegant, circular movements, by emphasis on the four directions and by the central use of torimono (objects dancers carry in their hands), especially the fan and bells.(Averbuch, Irit p.15)

Ise kagura is a collective name for rituals that are based upon the yudate (boiling water rites of Shugendo origin) ritual. It includes miko dances as well as dancing of the torimono type. The kami are believed to be present in the pot of boiling water, so the dancers dip their torimono in the water and sprinkle it in the four directions and on the observers for purification and blessing. (Averbuch, Irit, p. 16)

Izumo kagura is centered in the Sada shrine of Izumo, Shimane prefecture.Izumo kagura is also centered in the Sada shrine of Izumo, Shimane prefecture. It has two types: torimono ma, unmasked dances that include held objects, and shinno (sacred No), dramatic masked dances based on myths. Izumo kagura appears to be the most popular type of kagura. (Averbuch, Irit, p.16)

Shishi kagura also known as the Shugen-No tradition, uses the dance of a shishi (lion or mountain animal) mask as the image and presence of the deity. It includes the Ise daikagura group and the yamabushi kagura and bangaku groups of the Tohoku area (Northeastern Japan). Ise daikagura employs a large red Chinese type of lion head which can move its ears. The lion head of the yamabushi kagura schools is black and can click its teeth. Unlike other other kagura types in which the kami appear only temporarily, during the shishi kagura the kami is constantly present in the shishi head mask. During the Edo period, the lion dances became showy and acrobatic losing its touch with spirituality. However, the yamabushi kagura tradtion has retained its ritualistic and religious nature. (Averbuch, p.16)

Originally, practice of kagura involved authentic possession by the kami invoked. In modern day Japan it appears to be difficult to find authentic ritual possession, called kamigakari, in kagura dance. However it is common to see choreographed possession in the dances. Actual possession is not taking place but elements of possession such as losing control and high jumps are applied in the dance.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shinto Beliefs

Shinto creation stories tell of the history and lives of the "Kami" (deities). Among them was a divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, who gave birth to the Japanese islands. Their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans. Amaterasu Omikami (Sun Goddess) was one of their daughters. She is the ancestress of the Imperial Family and is regarded as the chief deity. Her shrine is at Ise. Her descendants unified the country. Her brother, Susano came down from heaven and roamed throughout the earth. He is famous for killing a great evil serpent.
bullet The Kami are the Shinto deities. The word "Kami" is generally translated "god" or "gods." However, the Kami bear little resemblance to the gods of monotheistic religions.

There are no concepts which compare to the Christian beliefs in the wrath of God, his omnipotence and omni-presence, or the separation of God from humanity due to sin.
There are numerous other deities who are conceptualized in many forms:
Those related to natural objects and creatures, from "food to rivers to rocks."

Guardian Kami of particular areas and clans
Exceptional people, including all but the last of the emperors.
Abstract creative forces

They are seen as generally benign; they sustain and protect the people.

About 84% of the population of Japan follow two religions: both Shinto and Buddhism. As in much of Asia, Christianity is very much a minority religion. 12 Fewer than 1% of Japanese adults are Christians. Buddhism first arrived in Japan from Korea and China during the 6th through 8th centuries CE. The two religions share a basic optimism about human nature, and for the world. Within Shinto, the Buddha was viewed as another "Kami". Meanwhile, Buddhism in Japan regarded the Kami as being manifestations of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Most weddings are performed by Shinto priests; funerals are performed by Buddhist priests.
Shinto does not have as fully developed a theology as do most other religions. It does not have its own moral code. Shintoists generally follow the code of Confucianism.
bullet Their religious texts discuss the "High Plain of Heaven" and the "Dark Land" which is an unclean land of the dead, but give few details of the afterlife.

Ancestors are deeply revered and worshipped.

All of humanity is regarded as "Kami's child." Thus all human life and human nature is sacred.

Believers revere "musuhi", the Kamis' creative and harmonizing powers. They aspire to have "makoto", sincerity or true heart. This is regarded as the way or will of Kami.
Morality is based upon that which is of benefit to the group. "Shinto emphasizes right practice, sensibility, and attitude."

There are "Four Affirmations"in Shinto:

1. Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.
2. Love of nature: Nature is sacred; to be in contact with nature is to be close to the Gods. Natural objects are worshipped as sacred spirits.
3. Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouth often.
4. "Matsuri": The worship and honor given to the Kami and ancestral spirits.

The desire for peace, which was suppressed during World War II, has been restored.


Shinto practices:
bullet Shinto recognizes many sacred places: mountains, springs, etc.
Each shrine is dedicated to a specific Kami who has a divine personality and responds to sincere prayers of the faithful. When entering a shrine, one passes through a Tori a special gateway for the Gods. It marks the demarcation between the finite world and the infinite world of the Gods.
In the past, believers practiced "misogi,", the washing of their bodies in a river near the shrine. In recent years they only wash their hands and wash out their mouths in a wash basin provided within the shrine grounds.
bullet Believers respect animals as messengers of the Gods. A pair of statues of "Koma-inu" (guard dogs) face each other within the temple grounds.
Shrine ceremonies, which include cleansing, offerings, prayers, and dances are directed to the Kami.

Kagura are ritual dances accompanied by ancient musical instruments. The dances are performed by skilled and trained dancers. They consist of young virgin girls, a group of men, or a single man.

Mamori are charms worn as an aid in healing and protection. They come in many different forms for various purposes.
bullet An altar, the "Kami-dana" (Shelf of Gods), is given a central place in many homes.

Seasonal celebrations are held at spring planting, fall harvest, and special anniversaries of the history of a shrine or of a local patron spirit. A secular, country-wide National Founding Day is held on FEB-11 to commemorate the founding of Japan; this is the traditional date on which the first (mythical) emperor Jinmu ascended the throne in 660 BCE. Some shrines are believed to hold festivities on that day. Other festivals include: JAN 1-3 Shogatsu (New Year); MAR-3 Hinamatsuri (Girls' festival); MAY-5 Tango no Sekku (Boys' festival); JUL-7 Hoshi Matsuri (Star festival).

Followers are expected to visit Shinto shrines at the times of various life passages. For example, the Shichigosan Matsuri involves a blessing by the shrine Priest of girls aged three and seven and boys aged five. It is held on NOV-15.

Many followers are involved in the "offer a meal movement," in which each individual bypasses a breakfast (or another meal) once per month and donates the money saved to their religious organization for international relief and similar activity.

Origami ("Paper of the spirits"): This is a Japanese folk art in which paper is folded into beautiful shapes. They are often seen around Shinto shrines. Out of respect for the tree spirit that gave its life to make the paper, origami paper is never cut.

Shinto: The Way of the Gods

Gods still inhabit the island country of Japan. Although Japan has experienced a rapid change of environment due to a gust of modernization, the Japanese feel the same presence of gods, in their modern lives, that they had felt in the ancient days. Shinto, written as the Way of the Gods, is a native religion of Japan that encompasses the poetic reality of senses, which is a part of basic Japanese principles of life. According to the Kojiki, the mythological chronology of Japan, the gods of the Shinto religion are believed to have created Japan as their image of paradise on earth, and the ruler of Japan, the Emperor, is a direct descendent of the Sun-goddess Amaterasu.

Shinto combines with the civil rule of Japan as well as many other aspects of daily life. The emperor is respected and honored by every member of the nation. Throughout history, emperors have experienced many fluctuations in power. There are over a hundred enormous shrines dedicated to the past emperors. The Heian Shrine, a relatively new addition to the list, was built in 800 AD as one of the largest shrines.

A large gate greets the visitors as they enter into the holy realm.

Intricate detail is found in everywhere from paintings to architecture.

White sand marks the territory as where the gods are present.

The Japanese take great pride in such architectural accomplishments, and these buildings are preserved as the nation's cultural treasures.

Numerous Shinto festivals are held throughout the year in order to assimilate the gods into the daily life of each Japanese citizen. In these ceremonies, gods are brought to presence; that presence is honored and celebrated, and blessings are sought for. These practices of ritual by the mass keeps the gods alive. Every Japanese lives with ritual as a custom. Shinto has survived in modern Japan because of this perfect assimilation into Japanese custom. Much like the hand shake being a natural custom, a prayer or Norito, and offerings to the god by a high official of the Shinto religion, is a natural custom when building a new skyscraper. When businesses start, they look into the Shinto calendar for a lucky day when all the gods will work in the favor of the business owner. Many families have kami-dana, the Shelf of Gods, where a model of the holiest center of shrines is depicted. A mirror is placed in the center, and gods are connected to the Kami-danas through these mirrors.

Although the Shinto ritual involves more than the religious practice in the shrines, some of the most important rituals take place in the shrines. The shrines are marked by Torii, special gateways for the gods. When entering these Torii, the visitor leaves the finite world and enters the infinite world of the immeasurable powers of the gods. During the visit, the believer will purify himself of all dirtiness and then returns to the finite world through the Torii.

Some of the rituals that one may participate within a shrine includes the watching of a Kagura, a dance with music performed by ancient instruments. The dancers are specialized holy dancers. When girls perform, they must be virgins, and relatively young of age. Masked dances by men as well as single man dances are also common, although the performance quantity is proportional to the amount of offerings given by the audience.

Within the shrine, many gods are honored, although the main shrine, which is the biggest and the most respective, is usually the god the shrine is specially dedicated to honoring. White rocks cover all the pathways, and it is common for shrines to have rivers or lakes flowing by the walkways. A special type of wood is used to build the housings for the gods, and is renewed once in every specified time. Many dedicated believers and followers of the Shinto religion work very hard to keep the shrines very clean, since cleanliness is a trait very favored by the gods.

The chrisnathemum shown in the center above is the crest of the emperor's family.

The religious doctrine behind Shinto creates a flexibility to suit many types of individuals and reflects on the needs of the agricultural days. Known as the doctrine of Yorozu-yomi, there are gods for everything and anything, from food to rivers to rocks. One can choose to worship any god in any region. However, to unite the gods, the Sun-goddess, Amaterasu, is given the highest respect. The Great Ise Shrine in the east coast of Japan is dedicated to her. Her brother, Susano-no-mikoto, is also a great hero in mythology, and he is thought to have descended from heaven to roam the earth. His journey includes the slaying of a great evil dragon, and the sword he held in the battle is preserved in one of the three major shrines of Japan - Atsuta Shrine. The Ise Shrine also holds his belonging, the mirror which acted as his shield.

As in the Kami-dana, the mirror, with its reflection has a special effect on the Japanese. Many historical buildings are found where lakes and rivers offer another version of the buildings in its reflection.

Here, Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple combines the Buddhist style of architecture to the Shinto doctrine of reflections. A similar use of reflections are seen in this building:

The Shinto religion places a great importance in nature, in purity, and in tranquility. Cleanliness is a main factor, and the gods are pictured as disliking insincerity and disorder. Shinto emphasizes right practice, sensibility, and attitude over conceptual understanding of the universe and holiness, respect for nature is permeated throughout the society in Japan. Nature, in its unmeasurable power and beauty, is understood as the manifestation of divine power. A rainstorm is provoked and halted by honoring the gods; there is no reasoning necessary. The power of nature lies in the hands of the gods, and to drive the forces of nature to the favorable side is only possible through seeking blessings from the divine.

Since Japan's earliest days, Shinto has been the code of honor and action for the Japanese. It gives the Japanese citizens customs, doctrines, and a general respect for purity, sincerity, and cleanliness. Through successful assimilation into the daily life of Japan, Shinto will continue to be a part of the Japanese culture.
by N. Alice Yamada

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