Shinto, a Short History

Shinto, a Short History

Shinto, a Short History

Shinto, a Short History

Synopsis

This book provides a running history of Shinto as a religious system from prehistory to the present day. The introduction explains the concept of a religious system, followed by four chapters that treat different periods in Shinto history.

Excerpt

The term Shinto covers a many-hued array of Japanese religious traditions. In the Japan of today, these are represented by a considerable number of organised religious groups, an even larger number of more or less organised local shrine cults, and an ill-defined body of unorganised beliefs and practices that do not involve religious professionals. To the outside observer, Shinto appears less as a distinct religion, than as an extremely fluid body of religious phenomena linked, at best, by a family resemblance.

What defines these disparate phenomena as aspects of Shinto, is not so much shared beliefs, ideas or moral attitudes, but rather a common set of physical symbols and ritual patterns. There is no scripture, no set of dogmas, nor even a shared pantheon that could warrant the lumping together of Shinto’s multifarious traditions under one label. Rather, practices are identified as some form of Shinto by such markers as the torii gate and shimenawa straw ropes, used to demarcate sacred spaces or objects; by branches of the evergreen sakaki tree, used as offerings or for purification; by shrine buildings with readily identifiable characteristics that set them apart from both Buddhist temples and the churches of established and new religions; and by the use of mirrors to signal the presence of the kami or deities. One ritual pattern that conveys a Shinto identity is purification (harae), performed by a priest waving a sakaki branch over the heads of worshippers; another is the parading of deities through the streets, carried on the shoulders of parishioners in elaborate portable shrines.

These symbols and rituals are immediately recognisable to all Japanese. Shinto shrines dot the landscape of Japan, and number more than 100,000. Some, such as the Meiji shrine in Tokyo, dominate large areas in city centres; others are tucked away in the corners of rural fields, or on the rooftops of office blocks. Statistics show that the majority of Japanese engage actively with shrines in some form or other on a regular basis. According to a 1997 survey, some 70 per cent of Japanese visit a shrine at New Year (hatsumōde), and over 50 per cent celebrate the birth of a new . . .

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