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  • Japanese: 神道 (shintou)

Shinto (lit. "Way of the Gods") is an indigenous, syncretic Japanese form of animism. All people, animals, places, and things are believed to be, or to possess or be associated with, kami ("spirits" or "gods"); people, places, and objects of particular significance are believed to have particularly powerful kami. Shinto shrines, of which there are roughly 80,000 in the country,[1] are erected at sites of particular spiritual power, or in honor of people or objects of particular significance, honoring and enshrining them.

Shinto in the modern Japanese nation can be described thusly: "No one believes in Shinto, but everyone reveres it." Shinto is an integral part of Japan's national identity, its cycle of daily life, and its culture.

Shinto puts forth the notion that nature, humanity, and the divine all exist in a state of harmony. Humanity is pure and good, and any evil is the result of impurity and pollution from outside sources-these impurities sever our link with universal harmony.

Central to the practice of Shinto is the concept of the kami. There are generally three types of kami:

  1. Lesser (kunitsu-kami)-the spirits that inhabit natural objects (mountains, rocks, water, trees, etc.) and animals.
  2. Ancestral (senzo-kami)-deceased ancestors , emperors, and other important people.
  3. Greater (amatsu-kami)- named figures such as Amaterasu the Sun Goddess and Hachiman the God Of War.

Kami can be petitioned for favors and enjoy the active worship of humanity. In fact, it is said that a kami who is no longer worshipped becomes a vengeful kojin (storm god) or onryo (demon).

Shinto worship covers a huge variety of practices and ceremonies. The tradition has no holy scripture or other singular written set of laws or beliefs. However, any form of worship will always involve these three steps:

  1. Purification (misogi)-usually by ceremonially cleansing oneself with water from a water basin located on the shrine grounds
  2. Petitioning the Kami - first, one must attract the attention of the kami, usually done by clapping one's hands twice or tugging a rope to ring a bell. Then one makes a silent prayer to the kami that resides within the shrine. Different shrines observe different practices in terms of the number of times one is meant to bow, clap, and bow again.
  3. Offering - to thank the kami, it is customary to place cash in an offering box. In earlier times, almost anything of value to the giver might be left (e.g. rice, water, paper fortunes, or ofuda talismans).

Shinto shrines range in size from a breadbox to entire mountains. Many Japanese homes have small kami-dana (lit. "god shelves") within their homes to pay homage to their families' ancestral kami. Most shrines include one or more torii (sometimes hundreds), a symbolic gate marking the approach, or progression, into spiritual space. Smaller shrines sometimes use a ceremonial rope (shimenawa) festooned with folded paper (shide) instead of torii.

Shrines are meant to house the kami; unlike Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines are not primarily residences, e.g. for monks, and do not contain extensive residence complexes. Many shrines, however, do maintain a small home for the attending kannushi (priest). A priest might also be in charge of attending to several smaller shrines. The kannushi are aided by miko (shrine maidens), recognizable by their red and white robes. Miko clean the shrines, collect offerings, put out fresh flowers, and staff the commercial venues of shrines which involve selling omamori (good luck charms) and giving tours of the grounds. At some shrines, on particular occasions, an ensemble of musicians and dancers performs ritual dances known as kagura.

The most popular form of Shinto worship involves the various matsuri (festivals). These often center on large parades where portable shrines (omikoshi) are carried through the streets on the shoulders of community teams. The more vigorously a mikoshi is shaken, the more apt a kami is to take notice of it.

The above is a summary of "Shrine Shinto" (jinja shintô). A variety of other practices and belief structures are sometimes categorized under terms such as kyoha (sectarian Shinto, started during the Meiji period), State Shinto (also begun during Meiji, and connected closely to the ultra-nationalism of the early 20th century), and folk Shinto, which encompasses a myriad of family and regional traditions and practices.

The first time the term Shintô appears within the Nihon Shoki is in the chapter concerning the reign of Emperor Yômei[2].


  • Bocking, Brian A Popular Dictionary Of Shinto Chicago:NTC Publishing Group, 1997


  1. Stated by Rev. Sonoda Minoru (Chief Priest of Chichibu Shrine and President of the International Shinto Foundation), 2 November 2012, UC Santa Barbara.
  2. Nihongi. Aston. 2.106.
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