Shinto, a Short History

By Ito Satoshi; Endo Jun et al. | Go to book overview

baby (hatsumiya), or their child’s third, fifth and seventh birthdays (shichigosan), by making a shrine visit. One in three employs a Shinto priest to perform ritual purification of a new building plot, or a new car. One in four participates in shrine festivals, prays at shrines for success in examinations, and uses Shinto-style marriage ceremonies. Only 16 per cent of respondents stated that they never pray at shrines. 1 Yet even these are likely to visit shrines for non-religious reasons, since many shrine precincts double as parks, and are used for a variety of recreational pursuits.

Yet, even though shrines play some part in the lives of most Japanese, few define themselves as followers of a religion called Shinto. In the same 1997 survey, less than 4 per cent did so. In fact, most Japanese have only a very vague understanding of the term, and a large proportion of the younger generation do not know it at all. In contrast to shrines, ‘Shinto’ is a concept of little consequence in Japanese society. Nor is this a phenomenon of recent origin. While shrines have been an enduring element of Japanese religious life, the notion of an overarching, abstract Shinto that integrates diverse shrine cults into a single cultic system has, at most times, been of marginal importance. In this sense, the present situation, in which shrines are integrated in the social life of contemporary Japanese while Shinto remains an unfamiliar concept, represents a continuation of the past.

It is, therefore, essential to make a clear distinction between shrines on the one hand, and Shinto on the other. Shrines are the concrete sites of worship of kami, the deities or spirits that form the focus of shrine practice. Central to shrines, of course, are the worshippers who manage and use them, and the changing social structures that have secured their upkeep through the centuries. Shinto, on the other hand, refers to structures (organisational, doctrinal, or both) that aim to integrate individual shrine cults into a larger, national or even universal system. Attempts at construing such structures and putting them into practice have been made by various groups during different periods in Japanese history. The institution of a system of regular offerings to shrines throughout the land by the court in the seventh and eighth centuries was the first, and one of the most successful, of such Shinto constructs. During the medieval period, the main superstructures that served to conjoin different local shrine cults were Buddhist ones, and most shrines were linked to, and accommodated within, Buddhist temples. The Meiji, Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1868-1945) saw yet other attempts at rallying shrines under a common Shinto banner; this time, they were political and designed to serve the cause of strengthening the emerging Japanese nation-state. Thus, we find that throughout history, shrines and their kami drifted in and out of consecutive Shinto constructs, presented to them (or, at times, imposed on them)

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Shinto, a Short History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Contributors vii
  • Translators' Introduction ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Ancient and Classical Japan 12
  • 2 - The Medieval Period 63
  • Notes 102
  • 3 - The Early Modern Period 108
  • 4 - The Modern Age 159
  • Selected Reading 198
  • Index 204
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