Shintoism is primarily a Japanese religion, a part of the very fabric of it's ethnic culture and society. Though it claims about 119,000,000 members in Japan only about 3 percent of the population actually profess to believe in Shinto. However, Shinto is such a part of the society and daily lives of the people that they are hardly aware that it is even there.
Even those who don't profess Shintoism will buy Shinto traffic safety amulets, participate in annual festivals and have their weddings in the Shinto tradition.
The word Shinto comes from the Chinese, combining kanji (kami), or shin, meaning spirits or deities, and to or do from the Chinese tao meaning way. The "Way of the Gods." Though Shinto existed before the eighth century C.E. the term for it wasn't used until then, in order to distinguish it from Buddhism having been introduced into Japan at that time.
The religion itself probably formulated with the advent of the wetlands. With the cultivation of rice came the organized and stable communities. Agricultural rites would become an important part of Shinto. Gods of nature were created and revered.
The Shinto belief in the departed soul, which is thought to retain its personality but is stained upon death, developed into memorial rites in order to purify the soul and remove all malice. The ancestral spirit then becomes a peaceful guardian spirit. It is interesting that in Japanese culture matters of life are typically reflective of Shinto beliefs whereas matters of death are typically reflective of Buddhist beliefs. Ones birth would be celebrated according to Shinto and ones funeral conducted according to Buddhist tradition.
The ancestral and nature gods are considered to coexist with the living, the spirits are floating in the air all around. People call upon these gods to specific sites which they have sanctified and the spirits temporarily reside in objects of worship such as mountains, trees, mirrors or swords. These objects are called shintai. Eventually shrines were constructed for the purpose of specific worship in the place of objects as shintai. The term 八百万の神, or yaoyorozu no kami, meaning "eight million gods" became "countless gods," reflective of the ever increasing number of spirits.
The development of shrines created specific guardian spirits for each clan until in the seventh century C.E. the imperial family unified the nation and elevated the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami as the national deity. Gradually the mythical connection of the emperor as a descendant of the gods took hold and in order to support the belief the two major sacred writings of Shinto were completed in the eighth century C.E. The Kojiki and The Nihongi.
Although the Kojiki and Nihongi are important to Shintoism, they are not considered inspired, as the Bible is. A detailed theology, definite doctrine, precepts and even the manner of worship itself isn't important to Shinto thinking. A god of one shrine may be exchanged for another without the worshiper knowing or caring. It is far more important to promote the overall harmony of the community. Disrupting the harmony of the community was a matter of great concern of Shinto rather than morality itself.
What is most important in Shintoism are the rituals and festivals. Centered around the cultivation of rice, the festivals of the ancestral gods brings the community together. In the spring the spirits come down to the village and the people pray for a good crop and in the fall they thank the gods for the harvest. The Mikoshi, or portable shrines, are carried with sake and food for the gods.
Without the rituals of purification Shintoism would most likely not exist. In order to be in union with the gods a person must be purified from all moral impurity and sin. There are two forms of purification. The oharai, wherein the Shinto priest swings an evergreen sakaki branch with paper or flax tied to its tip at an object or person and misogi where water is used.
Shinto is a syncretistic religion, easily fusing elements of other religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity. Buddhism in particular is an example of this. Though there was some dispute as to whether Buddhism should be accepted it eventually was accepted by the sixth century C.E. when Prince Shotoku embraced it. Jinguji, or "shrine-temples," a combination of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were built for this reason. The Shinto deities were believed to be the original gods and the bodhisattvas or enlightened ones were believed to be temporary and earthly manifestations of the deities.
In the 13th century the Mongols twice attacked Japan by raiding the island of Kyushu and both times great storms turned them away. The winds, or kaze, were credited to the Shinto gods, or kami and the nation of Japan, with its Shinto gods, was on the way to becoming a divine nation.
In the 18th century Norinaga Motoori, a theologian of Shinto, began a purist movement which attempted to remove outside influences such as Buddhism. Restoration Shinto concentrated on the classics, such as the Kojiki and Nihongi, though in an odd twist of events one of Norinaga's followers, Atsutane Hirata, in removing all Chinese influences, likened the Kojiki Amenominakanushi no kami with the Christian God. Takami musubi became the "High Producing" God and Kami musubi the "Divine Producing" God. The apostate Christian Trinity.
Hirata's teachings looked back to the "ancient ways" and led to the Reverence of The Emperor, though he also taught that all people of Japan were descendants of the gods. In 1868 the Shoguns, who were feudal military dictators, were overthrown and the imperial government was established. The constitution was formed and the emperor was elevated to the "sacred and inviolable" god of State Shinto. In 1882 Emperor Meiji issued the Imperial Rescript, a Japanese holy text, to the armed forces, followed by the Imperial Rescript on Education in 1890. These acted as a sort of bridge between the historical and mythical and solidified the elevation of the Emperor and the State. The sun, as symbol of the goddess Amaterasu Omikami as well as the Imperial Palace were worshipped by the people.
The Mikado's, or Emperor's land was viewed as the center of the world from which must spread the political and religious awareness throughout the entire world. Military conquest became the holy mission of Japan. By 1941 the entire nation was mobilized to that effect. The Kamikaze, or divine wind, would fail them miserably.
In 1945 the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a devastating effect upon Shinto and Japanese religious faith. Emperor Hirohito was a defeated mortal and the people began to think that there was no God or Buddha. As is always the case with religion, the original teachings are transmogrified to the detriment of the people. The importance of benefiting the community turned into something which became extremely harmful to the community. The gods become men and men fail.
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