History

Shinto is the ancestral religion for the people of Japan. Fundamentally, it is a primitive faith that centers on the worship of the inanimate nature and animalistic deities supplemented by deified ancestors. It has neither a founder, messenger nor an official doctrine - save for an oral tradition that dates back almost two thousand years. Its main emphasis lies in the worship of the Kami (a Japanese term for the divine). Kami are everywhere and the world is Kami.

The origins of the traditional Shinto faith are obscure. The word itself means 'the way of the gods'. Interestingly, the faith did not possess an actual name until the 6th century AD, when the situation demanded one, in order to distinguish it from Buddhism, which had begun to arrive in waves from China.

The early development of Shintoism requires a number of conjectures and assumptions, as proper recording only commenced in earnest when Buddhism started to threaten the hegemony of Shintoism and the Japanese begun writing things down, primarily as a strategy of protecting the old parables and oral practices of their forefathers, which was deeply ingrained in their daily activities and communal events such as births, weddings and even deaths.

The Genesis According to the creation parable, after the formation of heaven and earth, a pair of the divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, stood on the floating bridge of heaven, observing the new world below them. Izanagi then calmly stirred the seas with his spear, and when he lifted it out, the drops which slid down from it metamorphosized to form one of the Japanese islands. Izanagi and Izanami descended upon the land and produced the remainder of the Japanese archipelago. They also produced other deities to take command over the welfare of the land and of course, the Japanese people.

One of the chief deities was the sun goddess, Omikami. She had a grandchild named Jimmu Tenno who graced the sacred Japanese islands to become the emperor of Japan in 660 BC. Japanese tradition claims an unbroken line of succession from Jimmu Tenno to the current occupant of the Chrysanthemum throne, and this has led to a robust stress on emperor worship. Since the emperors were judged to be gods themselves, they were forced to be obeyed unquestioningly by all Japanese.

Ethics and Shinto

Popular Shinto has no ethical code of its own, so moral teachings from Confucianism and Buddhism was incorporated into their belief system. This is particularly obvious in the concepts of familial and societal obligations. Notwithstanding that, in the mid to late 1800s, a rise in Japanese nationalism movement led to the revival of Shinto at the cost of Buddhism. By 1882, taking advantage of the national fervor and xenophobic fears, Emperor Meiji officially elevated Shinto into the national religion.

Shinto has finally turned into a political force, and it was used to market the supremacy of the Japanese people and to prove that the creation of the Japanese Empire was a divine event. To further strengthen this claim and the Shinto's prevalence in the country, Shinto shrines were established nationwide.

The Essence of Shintoism

There are plenty of different variations in the deity constructs of Shintoism. There are gods of nature, ancestors, and even the emperor. The emperor is a living human while the other gods inhabit the plane of spirits. Even then, they continue to engage with humanity in a symbiotic relationship.

Shinto teaches that man is Kami's progeny. This suggests that since a person was gifted his existence by Kami, so his nature is by implication, holy. Man is said to hold a divine nature, but it is barely disclosed in this life. Purification is critical to metamophorically take away the impurities that obfuscate one's inner mind.

Deliverance is attained by observing the many social, spiritual and physical convention that are now a part of Japanese life. Ritualistic pureness (ceremonial washing and sweeping) is critical, since this is how impurities are assumed to be driven off. There are no conceptions of sin or baseness. If an individual mollifies the gods and ancestors, follows the proper conventions, and expresses his Kami nature, he can at last find his immortal place among the eternal beings of divinity.

Shinto and Japan

While not obvious in popular culture, the mass media or to anyone visiting Japan, the country practices Shintoism in almost every aspect of their life. While officially, only 4-10 million Japanese professes adherence to Shintoism, in reality, it is observed in various style, depths and forms by over a 100 million Japanese.

It is common for Japanese to seek blessings from random Shinto shrines for momentous events in their life. Forgiveness is also a very popular reason for the visits. Praying altars, house and office designs, observance of Shinto festivals, are also another clear evidence of this.

Shintoism, perhaps in many ways, is a derivative by product of all the best spiritual and noble aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, animalism and shamanism - hence its almost seamless integration into the Japanese culture.


Scriptures

Kojiki

Noted for being the oldest Japanese written book in existence, it was collaborative effort involving court officials and imperial family members. Believed to be written around 712AD, it contains narratives of the period's cultural, political, economic and religious observations.

Nihongi

Anonymously authored, the Nihongi is authoritative in its narration of the creation and growth of contemporary Japan, right from the moment when the island came into existence.







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