Shinto (shĬn´tō), ancient native religion of Japan still practiced in a form modified by the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism. In its present form Shinto is characterized less by religious doctrine or belief than by the observance of popular festivals and traditional ceremonies and customs, many involving pilgrimages to shrines. Shinto, a term created to distinguish the indigenous religion from Buddhism, is the equivalent of the Japanese kami-no-michi, "the way of the gods" or "the way of those above." The word kami, meaning "above" or "superior," is the name used to designate a great host of supernatural beings or deities.

History and Development

Shinto cannot be traced to its beginnings, because until the 5th cent. (when Chinese writing was introduced into Japan) the myths and rituals were transmitted orally. The written record of the ancient beliefs and customs first appeared in the Kojiki [records of ancient matters], prepared under imperial order and completed in AD 712. From those first Japanese accounts of the religion of times then already far past, it can be seen that a worship of the forces and forms of nature had grown into a certain stage of polytheism in which spiritual conceptions had only a small place. Nor was there any clear realization of a personal character in the beings held to be divine, and there were practically no images of the deities.

There was no one deity supreme over all, but some gods were raised to higher ranks, and the one who held the most exalted position was the sun goddess, known as the Ruler of Heaven. The emperors of Japan are said to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, in unbroken line beginning with the first, Jimmu, who ascended his throne in 660 BC Thus the emperor was looked upon as divine, even while living; by divine right he was the chief priest, and as such he presided over ceremonies of foremost importance. Aside from this his religious responsibilities were delegated to others.

A Shinto shrine, unaffected by other religious influences, is a simple unpainted wooden building, having some object within it that is believed to be the dwelling place of the kami. After Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th cent. AD, it had some influence on Shinto. In many shrines Buddhist priests serve, and worship under their direction is more elaborate than pure Shinto.

Beginning in the 17th cent. a vigorous effort was made to revive the old ways and ideas. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, the ancient department of Shinto rites was reestablished, giving Shinto much of its structure and identity as a religion. In 1882 all Shinto organizations were divided into two groups, state shrines (supervised and partially supported by the government) and sectarian churches. The ancient mythology was used to glorify the emperor and the state, and state Shinto became a powerful instrument in the hands of the militarists, who used it to glorify their policy of aggression.

Modern Shinto

Japan's defeat in World War II brought about the disestablishment of state Shinto. In 1946 in a New Year's rescript, Emperor Hirohito destroyed its chief foundation by disavowing his divinity; in the same year Gen. Douglas MacArthur forbade the use of public funds to support Shinto. In present-day Shinto there is no dogmatic system and no formulated code of morals. Shinto practices can be found abroad wherever large Japanese communities exist, as in the United States and South America. Some of the newer sects stress world peace and brotherhood as part of their philosophy.


See W. G. Aston, Shinto (1905, repr. 1968); D. C. Holtom, Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism (rev. ed. 1947, repr. 1963); A. Akiyama, Shinto and Its Architecture (2d ed. 1956); S. Ono, Shinto: The Kami Way (1962); F. H. Ross, Shinto (1965); J. Herbert, Shinto (1966); S. D. Picken, Shinto: Japan's Spiritual Roots (1980).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Shinto: Selected full-text books and articles

Shinto, a Short History By Ito Satoshi; Endo Jun; Mori Mizue; Inoue Nobutaka; Mark Teeuwen; John Breen Routledge Curzon, 2003
Resurrecting the Sacred Land of Japan: The State of Shinto in the Twenty-First Century By Breen, John Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2, July 1, 2010
Readings in Eastern Religions By Harold Coward; Eva Dargyay; Ronald Neufeldt Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Shinto"
The Religion Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Religious Studies By John Morreall; Tamara Sonn Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Librarian's tip: "Shinto" begins on p. 283
Understanding Japanese Society By Joy Hendry Routledge, 2003 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: "Shinto" begins on p. 127
The Making of Modern Japan By Marius B. Jansen Belknap Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Discusses Shinto throughout, especially in relation to the Meiji period (begins on p. 333)
Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology By Julia Adeney Thomas University of California Press, 2001
Librarian's tip: "Shinto's National Nature" begins on p. 188
Religions View Religions: Explorations in Pursuit of Understanding By Jerald D. Gort; Henry Jansen; Hendrik M. Vroom Rodopi, 2006
Librarian's tip: "The Religion of Self-Awareness The Co-existence of Religions From the Perspective of Shinto" begins on p. 11
A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine By John K. Nelson University of Washington Press, 1997
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.