Shinto in Japan

Shintoism or Shinto (神道, whose literal translation is ‘path of divinity’) is a religion that has always been specific to Japan, born of its climate and customs.
The origins of Shintoism are generally unknown as it developed from a primitive cult. It is not a rationalized system: it is a religion without a text and without a founder, based on a natural phenomenon and on the cult of ancestors, one of the essential elements of this religious practice.
Shinto is polytheistic: to represent the abundant number of deities, in Japanese there is an expression “八 百万 の 神”, which translates to 8 million deities. The number of kami (Shinto deities) is incalculable. Among these numerous kami, we can distinguish 3 main types.

  1.  deities such as Amaterasu (deity of the Sun) that appear in Japanese mythology written in the 8th century.
  2.  deities like Inari (grain deity) who were born from popular and natural beliefs.
  3.  the royal characters, such as Sugawara-no Michizane or Tokugawa Ieyasu who became a deity after his death.
Shinto in Japan
Shinto in Japan

Syncretism and separation from Buddhism

In the 6th century, the buddhism It was introduced to Japan and Shintoism was influenced by the popular beliefs of Buddhism. They influenced each other considerably, and in the Nara period in the 8th century, even the syncretism of Buddhism and Shintoism appeared (神 仏 習 合).
When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, Buddha was received as a foreign deity. This syncretism gave rise to several different ideas such as that a kami is like a human being who has desires, so the Buddha must help him to tame his passions, or that a kami is a protector of the Buddhist divinity, etc., so There are different views of the two religions in Japan depending on the time period. There are also stories that show this syncretism: it is said that during the Nara period, when it was decided to build the Todaiji temple, the deity Hachiman (八 幡 神) from the Usa shrine in Oita came to Nara to help build the temple. .
Sanctuaries of both faiths were also built in the same place. Thus, on the same land the Jingu-ji shrine (literal 寺, literally temple shrine) was built to protect the Shinto deity by the power of Buddha and another built shrine, called Chinju-no-Yashiro (鎮守 の 社, literally shrine for protectors), to worship a Shinto deity, protector of the Buddhist religion.

For Shintoism, deities were born from natural, and therefore immaterial, beliefs. But Buddhism also introduced the idolatry of deities in Japan and the Japanese then began to represent them.

However, towards the end of the Edo period, in the 19th century, the idea of ​​eliminating the Buddhist influences of Shintoism began to spread little by little, and with the Meiji restoration in 1868, the new government of the emperor proclaimed a ban on mixing Kamis. and Buddhas, which led to the massive destruction of the temples. This idea was to make Shinto the state religion as the Emperor of Japan considered himself a descendant of the Shinto goddess Amaterasu (Goddess of the Sun). The emperor then became the supreme god of Shintoism, thus becoming the state religion between 1868 and 1945.

Shinto belief

It is also believed that one can be cleansed by means of ceremonies, harai or misogi, from all his faults and defilements.
Shintoism is a religion that prays for the happiness of life today. Death is considered impure, so as a general rule there is no cemetery in the sanctuary area.

Shinto shrine

Nature was considered as divinity and to bring men closer to divinity, the ceremony (party) was indispensable. To organize this ceremony, the sanctuary was built.
Shinto shrines, commonly called jinja (神社, Pavilion of the Divinities) in Japanese, are places of worship where a kami or god is worshiped. In Japan there are more than 85,000 shrines.
Before the introduction of Buddhism, the Shinto shrine had no buildings. It was believed that the deity would descend on a mountain or a beautiful rock at the time of the festival and disappear when the festival ended. (Example of the Nachi waterfall). Under the influence of Buddhism, the permanent jinja was born.
At the entrance to the enclosure, there is always a portico, called a torii (鳥 居). Behind this portico, there is a main alley that leads to the main buildings, the haiden (拝 殿), where the faithful pray, and the honden (本 殿) where the god is worshiped.

It is common to make a vow at the entrance of the haiden or honden and offer a coin in the saisen bako (offering box).
There are annual festivals called matsuri, during which mikoshi (portable shrines) processions are sometimes organized.
As Shintoism has received many Buddhist influences, the site itself has been greatly influenced throughout our history.

Traditional Torii portico

A torii is a traditional Japanese portico. It is usually located at the entrance of the sanctuary to separate the sacred world from the divine world. It is also considered a symbol of Shintoism.
When the Japanese pass under the torii, they bow to thank the deity for welcoming the enclosure. And when they cross again, they bow again to acknowledge the hospitality.
Most toriis are made of wood painted red, but they can also be metal, stone, or porcelain. The forms are not unique: as there is no holy book, we do not know the explanation of each form, nor the material of the torii.

Shinto priest

A kannushi (神主, literally teacher god) is the person responsible for the maintenance of a Shinto shrine, as well as the worship of a particular kami.
Kannushi can marry, and her children often inherit her position. The clothing they wear has no particular religious significance, but is simply official clothing worn in the past at the imperial court. This detail reveals the close link between the cult of the kami and the figure of the Emperor.

To become a kannushi, one must pursue special study at Jinja Honchō (Shinto Shrine Association) approved universities, Kokugakuin University in Tokyo or Kogakuka University in Mie, or specialized training schools. At the end of their studies, they receive the qualification to become kannushi. Women can also become kannushi.

What we can find in the Jinja complex

Komainu – Guardian

They are imaginary Japanese animals, placed in pairs at the entrance of the sanctuary, which mainly protect a sanctuary (sometimes we can find some at the entrance of the temple). There are several interpretations that explain why one has an open mouth and the other closed. As they are often placed at the entrance of the enclosure or in front of the haiden, so that the evil spirit does not enter the sacred realm, the animal with its mouth open catches the evil spirit and the other with its mouth closed keeps it in its body .


The shimenawa is a sacred rope hung at the entrance to Haiden or Honden. It separates the divine world from the earthly vigilance and above all has the role of keeping the evil spirit away from the sacred building. The Shimenawa is made of more or less large braids of rice straw depending on the use, and is often braided from left to right (except for the Shimenawa from the Izumo shrine).

When a rock or a tree is surrounded by Shimenawa, it shows that he is considered to be God, Kami.

Omikuji – prediction

Omikuji (お み く じ) are predictions written on strips of paper that are drawn randomly in Shinto shrines and also in Buddhist temples.
There are often 5 main categories of spells (from best to worst): Daikichi (大吉), Kichi (吉), ChuKichi (中 吉), ShoKichi (小 吉), Kyo (凶) that predict all kinds of things: health, life, fortune, study, marriage, travel, etc …
When the prediction is bad, the paper strip is folded and it is usually glued to a tree or a dedicated place and the kannushi says the prayer so that the curse becomes a benefit. If the prediction is good, the strip of paper is kept in the wallet as a charm.

Omamori – amulet

Omamori (literally: protect yourself) are lucky charms that can be found and bought in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan.
There are many different forms of omamori and often each shrine or temple has its own design. An omamori can be a statuette, a pendant, a ring, a design … Each omamori has a specific theme: health, exam luck, love, road safety …

Shinto in Japan
Shinto in Japan

Ema – wooden boards

It is a wooden plaque on which the worshipers inscribe the wishes and prayers of the deities, and then hang them in a dedicated place in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
Literally, Ema (絵 馬) means “drawing of a horse.” In the past, it was believed that the deities came down to earth on horseback so for the cult of the kami, the horses were consecrated to the deities. Since the Nara period, when horses could not be handed over to the Kamis, horses were drawn on paper or on a wooden plate. Hence this wooden plaque is called Ema (絵 馬).
Now each shrine or temple has its own Ema design.

Shinto in Japan
Shinto in Japan

Goshuin-cho – book of seals

It is a notebook in which the seal (signature) of the sanctuary can be inscribed. When you visit a shrine, you can ask for the seal (signature) to be inscribed on the Goshuin-cho by dedicated staff. The origin of this brochure is not really known. But each seal is so beautiful that many Japanese collect them.

How to make the prayer (vow) and give the offering (osaisen)?

When you make a prayer or vow in front of a shrine, there are some rules to follow.
1, Throw one or more coins into a box placed in front of a religious building.
2, Bend over twice.
3, Clap your hands twice and in the second clap, close your eyes and say the prayer or make the wish.
4, at the end to show your appreciation, bow.