Shintoism in Japan

          The people of the West tend to believe that Oriental religions are mysterious.  this may be because we, in the West, have never taken the time to really understand the Asian people and their religious beliefs.  the religions and concepts of the Western peoples are quite different from those of the East.  But the more you study and learn about the Asian religions, the more you will be able to see similarities.
          In the West, religion makes morality part of our daily lives.  In Japan, religion does not have much influence on the daily life of the people.  The attitude of the Japanese toward their gods is respectful and practical.  They tend to find religion comforting and even enjoyable.  The purpose of a visit to a temple is for a brief contact with a Supreme Being.  Visiting the temple brings about a feeling of emotional release, and gives the people a chance to visit with other people.  There are hundreds of small local festivals during the year in which the Japanese can become religiously involved.
          Westerners find it hard to understand why Japanese society is orderly since there is no fear of sinning against God.  Since there are no commandments, morality does not come from God.  The Japanese do not feel a sense of guilt before God, but they do feel a sense of shame before their fellow men.  A Japanese parent will discipline a child not by saying that what he has done was morally wrong, but rather that people will laugh at him.  The greatest sin in Japan is to violate the social codes and "loose face!"

          Shinto, or "the way of the gods," has no official religious influence in Japan.  Shinto is Japan's own religion, created by the Japanese for the Japanese.  The name SHINTO, however, comes from two Chinese words--SHIN, meaning "good spirits," and TAO, meaning "the way."  These spirits are known as kami, a word which a Westerner could translate as "god."  However, the Japanese kami and the Western concept of God are not the same.  Shinto is based on man's response to his natural and human surroundings.  It is a way of life woven into the character of Japanese thought and conduct.
          Kami Shinto is a simple religion.  In fact, it is one of the simplest known.  There are no images, no sacred books, and no commandments.  It was originally a way of thinking, a way of looking at life.  As a religion, it is concerned with a variety of gods--the spirits of trees, animals, and mountains; the principles of love, justice, and order; and the god-like ancestors, heroes, and Emperors.  The chief heavenly deity is Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess.  The worship of these kami is centered in private, personal meditation as well as in the observance of ceremonies and festivals which are closely related to the community and national traditions.  To have unity with the kami, a person must have a bright, pure correct heart.  If a person does not have these qualities, he is in disfavor with the kami.

          Thousands of years ago, Shinto began as a religion centered about nature, and ever since it has been closely connected with the natural world.  it was a combination of nature worship and animism, a belief that everything is inhabited by a soul which gives life or activity to substances.  Anything the Japanese feared seemed to them to possess extraordinary powers or qualities and was worshipped as a divine spirit.  These spirits, or kami, were the gods of heaven and earth.  Their spirits dwelt in shrines, beasts, birds, plants, seas, waterfalls, mountains, storms, rocks, winds, and echoes.  The insect, too, is awe-inspiring and has a kami within it.
          Man's approach to the kami was one of friendly intimacy, love, and gratitude.  Fear was almost totally absent.  Shintoists love the sun; thus they worship the Sun Goddess.  The Japanese sing, dance, laugh, and clap their hands at the sun to express their joy and gratitude.  The sun provides light and warmth, and causes the rice to grow.  Without the sun, all Shintoists believe they would die and go to the underworld.  The sun also signifies beauty, which is one of the main concepts of Shinto.  Anything that has beauty beyond the power of man is considered to be the greatest kami.  Shinto, which is said to have been founded in 660 BCE, is the third oldest religion in the world.  For over 1,400 years Shinto has been mixed with Confucianism and Buddhism in Japan.

          There are numerous shrines throughout Japan.  They are usually found in a lovely natural setting.  The Shinto shrines further show Japanese belief in simplicity.  Few shrines are highly decorated, and some reflect Chinese architecture rather than Japanese.  The Shintoists favor what is natural, and this is shown in their shrines.  These shrines can only be entered through the torii gate.  The ends of the upper crosspiece of the gate curve upward to signal communication with the gods.  The torii always marks a sacred place.  As a symbol, the torii marks off the earthly world from the kami world; the world of everyday life is separate from the spiritual world.
          The shrines are designed to promote a religious appreciation of nature.  Every shrine, even if it is in a crowded city, is surrounded by trees.  The oldest and most gnarled trees are roped off because they are regarded as the holiest of trees.  The Japanese believe that a divine spirit exists among the pines that shelter the shrines.  Only the priests and the Emperor are allowed inside a shrine.  When they enter the shrine they must wear specially purified garments.  Before taking part in any Shinto ritual, the worshipper also must purify himself.  he must cleanse himself physically and mentally.  He then faces the object of devotion and says his prayers.

          The Japanese home contains a Shinto altar.  It is always spotless, as is the rest of the home.  The altar is plain, and is rebuilt as soon as the wood begins to rot.  There are no images.  There are slips of paper on which the kami's names are written.  The name of the kami to whom a prayer is said is burned at the altar.  The family also places wine, rice cakes, and flowers on the altar.  Offerings are made daily.  if the act of placing something on the altar is neglected, the kami, and especially the ancestral kami, are displeased.  Misfortune will probably come to those who do not perform their duty of attending the home altar.

  The Shinto faith has many ceremonies and rites that might appear strange to Westerners.  Cleanliness is very important to the Shintoist.  Great washing ceremonies take place before any holiday.  it is important to realize that the purity of Shinto is regarded more as physical and ceremonial than as a purity of heart or thought.  Basins of salt and water are found before every shrine.  These are used by the worshipper to purify himself or herself.  They wash their hands and mouth before they pray.
          Uncleanliness, or pollution, is offensive to the kami.  The West finds it hard to understand some Japanese festivals because the Japanese have an appreciation of the beauty of nature that most people in the West lack.  The Japanese feel close to nature and believe that the forces of nature are also in mankind.  the people in the West often try to dominate nature.  The Japanese love nature so much that in the spring they close their shops and go to the parks or to the country to admire the cherry blossoms.  A class may be dismissed if a bird begins to sing outside a window.  Students and teachers may sit on the lawn and listen to the bird's song.  To the Japanese, this is a lesson nature offers.  A Japanese may sit for hours gazing at the moon, or thinking about the beauty of the garden.

          The Emperor has a symbolic position in Shintoism.  Prior to World War II, he was believed to be the highest of all kami.  During the Meiji period, political Shintoism developed and called for the worship of the Emperor.  Emperor-worship continued until Japan's defeat in World War II.  In 1945, when political Shintoism was no longer supported by the new government, it was made a private faith; the idea of Emperor worship was also ended.  Nevertheless, even today, the Emperor is held in the highest regard by all the Japanese people.