Japan is known around the world for its distinctive culture and unique, beautiful traditions. It is an island state, and has a long history of isolation, and thus, many aspects of its customs and culture have developed without any influence from the outside factors. In this article, we will be talking about the religious beliefs of the people of Japan. It is home to many religions, but have we ever heard of a religious culture that originated in Japan?
To the rest of the world, the country of Japan is often perceived to be a Buddhist country, however, the truth remains in the fact that Buddhism came to Japan around the sixth century. Before this however, Japan had its own original indigenous faith, called the Shinto religion. Even though one doesn’t hear about this religion every so often like the others, Shinto is very much alive today and is rooted in the everyday lives of the Japanese people.
The word Shinto, which literally means ‘the way of kami’ (generally sacred or divine power, specifically the various gods or deities), actually came into use to distinguish indigenous beliefs from Buddhism. Shinto has no founder, no fixed dogmas, and no official sacred scriptures, however, throughout the ages, it has preserved its guiding beliefs.
There’s a lot that remains unknown about religion in Japan during the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages, although it is believed that the religion of these ages has hardly any direct connection with Shinto. In the second or third century BCE, Yayoi culture originated in the northern area of the island of Kyushu, and is believed to be directly related to the later Japanese culture and thus, to Shinto. It is believed that Shinto was born from folk belief and nature worship in small villages of Japan.
Ancient Shinto was polytheistic, and it contains two different views of the world. One of them is three dimensional in which the Plain of High Heaven (Takama no Hara, the kami’s world), Middle Land (Nakatsukuni, the present world), and the Hades (Yomi no Kuni, the world after death) were organised in vertical order. The other one is a two dimensional view in which this world and the Perpetual Country (Tokoyo, a utopian place far beyond the sea) subsisted in a horizontal order.
Gods of this religion stretch from ancestors of the family, people who tied a tragic death because it is believed that they might cause harm in the real world if they hold a grudge, or made a great triumph in the society, and ancient gods from old texts, the nature itself, the terrain, the weather and so on. There’s a phrase in Japanese, ‘Yaoyorozu no Kami’, and ‘Yaoyorozu’ means eight million, so one can guess just how many gods this one religion has.
Many aspects of nature are also worshipped in the religion, for example a mountain itself would be worshipped as a god. Some of the older shrines don’t essentially have a construction: they use the mountains and large rocks themselves as holy places.
Since Shintoism is believed to have started from folk belief and nature worship in little villages, it doesn’t really have a clear holy text written down like the Bible for Christians, or the Quran for Muslims. Instead, texts called Shinten which include ‘Kojiki’, ‘Nihon Shoki’, ‘Kogo Shuui’, are considered model texts.
In the Shinto religion, there is no omnipotent being governing the world. However, the utmost kami is called Amaterasu Ohmikami, who is said to have crafted the landscapes of Japan.
Shintoism’s gods are contemplated to be guardians of the public. They give life tips or aid them a little in living with the cruel force of nature. There are some gods that cause chaos, but most gods are serene. In Shintoism, there are eleven different forms of Saishi implemented, and by performing these customs, people show their devotion to their gods in order to obtain guardianship or opulence in return.
One other important aspect of Shintoism is the fact that it does not say not to believe in other religions or to stand against them, and so, as a result, when Buddhism first came to Japan during the sixth century, the two religions mixed up pretty well. In Japan, it’s not rare to see a temple near a shrine. Even when the Christians came to Japan, they were welcomed. While most of the locals of this country would deny being religious at all, Shinto traditions and festivals have played a big role in their everyday life.
Festivals are an important part of Shintoism, and are accompanied by crowds of people dancing and carrying these large shrines, and even today, there are countless Shinto festivals all over Japan.
Shintoism has also shaped people’s way of thinking, and shaped their perspectives and life. It has built morals in people, including humans getting along with nature, and harmonizing with communities through festivals, appreciating their everyday life, and their gratitude for their meals. So, for the Japanese, the Shinto religion has been a big part of their lives, and in the past, people used to go to these shrines on a daily basis.
Visiting shrines is meant to be a way of purifying your spirit. That is why even if most of them do not identify with a particular religion when you ask them, almost all Japanese people will go to the shrine for the New Year celebrations, buy oracles or lucky charms, or even take part in purification ceremonies.
Since Shinto customs are ingrained in people’s lifestyles, they still visit the shrines on some occasions like the childhood milestones (when kids celebrate 100 days, or at ages 3, 5 and 7), the people also pray at the shrines at the ages that are considered unlucky, they also pray for the safe delivery of the child during a pregnancy, etc. Shinto imprints the idea of optimism throughout its philosophies. It’s this embracing of optimistic thinking that gives the place and the people a beaming backdrop and allows the people to be more at harmony with their own souls. The most significant impact that Shintoism has had on society is that of peace.
Through love of the environment, care for all things within our surroundings and the honest acceptance and a happy outlook for life, the Japanese people and the followers of Shintoism create a serene projection in and throughout their own and others’ cultures. Thus, the culture of Japan has been intensely affected by the central beliefs and way of life of Shinto.