Shintoism 101


Shinto or Shintoism is a polytheistic religion that has existed before the 5th Century in prehistoric Japan. Although it only has five million official followers that claim the religion there are 110 million people in Japan who take part in Shinto based rituals and worship.

Shinto has no holy book, no origin story, no organized structure, and for much of its history no name. It does, however, possess many traditions and lore that were passed down from generation to generation. Since it is the indigenous religion of Japan they built much of Japanese civilization and culture on these Shinto values and ideals.

Shinto lacks written scripture and structure but there is still much to learn from this religion. The rest of this article will explain how Shintoism influences Japanese culture, what Shintoism means to its followers, and what wisdom people can gain from its practices.

The Early History of Shintoism

Before they gave Shinto the name Shinto, which means “the way of the gods,” it was a way that people would make sense of and define the world around them. Shinto beliefs are an evolved form of animism, which is the belief objects, places and animals are animated, significant, and alive. Many other religions have similar roots in animistic beliefs such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American Spirituality.

They believed that natural phenomena and aspects of earth were divine deities or held sacred spiritual essences. These sacred spirits could be anything that would naturally occur around them such as waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes, typhoons, the wind, the sun, the moon, and so on. The practices and beliefs they created centered on connecting humans to the natural divinity around them.

Through time these beliefs evolved into Shintoism. The focus of the religion was worshipping the kami. Kami is the plural and singular form of the word used for spirits that personify nature, gods, and the spirits of ancestors.

Shinto always has been and always will be a religion that honors the human connection to nature and the divinity that comes with being alive. It has not only brought people ritualistic worship of the kami and nature but also the importance of family and tradition. Therefore many in Japan do not consider Shinto religion but a set of values and rituals that have always been a part of Japan.

In the 6th century AD, they gave this indigenous way of life the name Shinto. Shinto from the Japanese word Shin-tao. Shin-tao means “the way of the gods.” With its new name, it could be distinguished from and be held to the same level of respect as Buddhism and Confucianism, which were making their way over from China during this time.

Buddhism gained massive popularity in the Japanese region but instead of competing both religions adapted by adopting aspects of the other and fusing their ideals. Anybody was free to practice Shinto rituals and be a Buddhist or believe in Buddhist enlightenment and worship kami. Taoism and Confucianism also influenced Shinto’s evolution.

The Way of the Kami

The word kami in Shinto refers to gods, deities, ancestors, spirits, any natural phenomenon, and divine essence. There are millions of different kami each one providing a unique purpose.

Some of the kami are Shinto gods that are revered by practitioners of the religion and are responsible for keeping the world around them in perfect balance. These gods are not all-knowing, immortal, or all-powerful, but they are present everywhere and require sincere worship.

Types of Kami

The Kami that are responsible for creating all things on Earth in Shinto are Izanami, she who invites, and Izanagi, he who invites. They both were descendants of the three primal kami Amenominakanushi, Takamimusubi, and Kamimusubi and were seventh-generation kami. The older generation of gods and goddesses assigned Izanami and Izanagi to shape the chaos into a structured world and they succeeded in creating the island Onogoro where they built a palace and lived.

Kami in Shintoism
Toyohara Chikanobu

From Izanagi’s left eye was born Amaterasu, his nose produced Susanoo, and from his eye came Tsukuyomi. Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun and revered as a supreme deity. Susanoo is the god of the sea and storms, and Tsukuyomi is the god of the moon. Once they were all formed kami these gods and goddesses starting with Japan began creating the rest of the world.

Kami aren’t always supreme deities capable of creating mountains, storms, and the world. Some kami were once or are mortal human beings. The first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, was considered a kami. He was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the storm god Susanoo.

Kami also refers to features of nature and natural phenomena. Since Shinto originates from Japan it bases the characteristics of these naturalistic kami on the seasons and landscapes of the area. Kami inhabit exquisite or serene places. Mountains, storms, the sea, waterfalls, the wind, and rivers are a few examples of natural occurrences that contain a divine essence that make them kami.

Shintoism Worship

Worship in Shintoism is done through sacred rituals at home or in public shrines. These rituals must be performed with sincerity, purity, and a good attitude. The way the rituals are carried out is very significant and every detail is designed to give the kami the utmost respect.

Shintosim worship

Shinto rituals involve purification, bowing to the altar, prayers, sanctuary opening and closing, and offerings. During festival rituals, there is music, dancing, and possibly a sermon.

Shintoism teaches that people are born good, but can be turned bad by evil spirits. Rituals are not only for worshipping and praying to kami but also a way to keep evil spirits from bothering or infecting people.

Purification Rituals

Shinto purification rituals are referred to as Harae or Harai and the purpose of them is to wash away evil, pollutants, sins, guilt, bad luck, and other negative concepts. Harai is an essential part of Shinto ceremonial worship that purifies people, objects, and places.

Worship ceremonies begin with Harai which involves symbolic washing using salt and water. People will ceremonially rinse their hands and face with saltwater before entering a shrine. The shrine itself is purified before offerings are laid upon it and then a priest using a wand called haraigushi purifies the offerings.

There are many methods for performing Harai such as misogi that uses a cold waterfall to cleanse someone while a priest is chanting a sacred script or Oharae that is used to cleanse many people at once. Shubatsu is a common purification ritual in Shinto that is performed by sprinkling salt. Sprinkling salt for purity can be seen at funerals and the beginning of the sumo wrestler fighting matches. People also sprinkle water at the entrance of their homes in the morning and night.

In Shintoism cleanliness and holiness are so similar they are the same and therefore ritual purity is crucial to the practice. It is a representation of how humans must move through the world and should keep their good nature despite the pollutions and stress of everyday life. This journey through the shrine and Harai is a part of worshipping the kami.

Public Shrines

Shinto shrines are sacred temples. Shinto is a religion that bridges spirit and the human experience through sacred worship of nature and kami and Shinto shrines represent this ideal.

There are 80,000 Shinto shrines throughout Japan. These shrines are built with the natural world and create a serene and vibrantly beautiful environment for worship and special events.

Shintoism Shinto

The architecture that goes into building these sacred temples is also very symbolic from its front gates to its deepest chamber where the essence of the kami dwells. A shrine often has guardian statues of dogs or lions, a purification trough, the main hall, and a stage.

Private Shrines          

Someone that is an adherent of Shintoism can also opt to have a shrine within their own home. Usually, a person will have a kami shelf so they can pray to particular kami for favor and thanks whenever they want.

The kami shelf may contain a small version of a shrine sanctuary. This replica may contain amulets or other religious objects. To connect the shelf to the kami they will place a mirror in the center of the shrine.

Afterlife in Shintoism

Shinto belief regarding the afterlife is the spiritual essence of someone is released and recycled when they die. This is not the same as reincarnation instead spirits will simply exist in another plane of existence for spirits. These spirits or kami can connect and visit when people perform the proper rituals.

Many Shinto families will create shrines for loved ones that have passed. Ashes of the person are sometimes placed within the shrine. It is believed that ancestral spirits can protect families and offer blessings.

Shinto Afterlife

Shinto funerals are meant to connect the spirit of the deceased person with the kami and purify anyone that comes in contact with the dead. Death can contaminate the living if unceremoniously handled. A Shinto priest will perform a proper and ritualistic funeral with reverence and care, so the spirit can move on and the living can remain clean.


Shintoism evolved from the ancient worship of nature into the modern way of life it is today. Shinto’s core foundation is ritual purity, family values, ancestral worship, and the sacredness of nature. Japanese culture is built on the core beliefs of Shinto and uses the values and traditions throughout society.

Shinto believes in divine spiritual essences that exist all around us and within nature and is personified through kami. Kami can be our ancestors, gods, deities, or aspects of nature. These kami protect and bless those who worship through Shinto rituals in shrines whether at home or in public.

Shintoism is a religion without strict rules and a defined moral philosophy because it believes people are born good and through Shinto ritual and worship of kami they will remain that way. This close relationship between kami, nature, and humankind is not your typical religion, but it does serve as inspiration for its followers to live a life of purity and value.

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