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Shintoism: Basic Terms and Concepts

Shintoism: Basic Terms and Concepts

Shintoism (or simply ‘Shinto’) is an ancient religion of Japan. ‘Shinto’ means the way of the gods.

1.Shintoism, which is also called ‘kami-no-michi,’ began at least as long ago as 1000 B.C.E. but is still practiced today by multitudes of people, especially Japanese.

2. Kojiki (‘Records of Ancient Matters’ or ‘An Account of Ancient Matters’), together with the Nihon shoki, is deemed a sacred text of the Shinto religion. Also known as ‘Furukotofumi,’ Kojiki is the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, dating from the early 8th century (711–712).

3.Nihon shoki, also called Nihongi (‘Chronicles of Japan’), is the second oldest book of classical Japanese history. The book is more elaborate and detailed than the Kojiki.

4. Kami is the Japanese word for a divine being, god, deity, divinity, spirit, or an aspect of spirituality. The term has been used to describe mind, God, supreme being, one of the Shinto deities, an image, a principle, and anything that is worshipped.

5. The creation story recorded in the Kojiki pertains particularly to the myth or story of the creation or birth of Japan. Admittedly a myth, this creation story nonetheless gives us insight into ancient Japanese lives and beliefs, and gives meaning to some of Japanese customs and ceremonies practiced until today.

The following concepts are also important in studying Shintoism:

1.Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), one of the most distinguished Japanese scholars of Shinto, described kami, thus: “any being whatsoever which possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary, and is awe-inspiring, is called kami” (“Kami,” n.d.).

2. The core teaching of Shintoism is to worship the ancestors and forces of nature to achieve harmony in all dimensions. As we have discussed, the spirits of the ancestors and the forces of nature are seen as kami in Shintoism.

3. The shrine visit of Japanese prime ministers per se is never an issue. But it becomes an international issue if it is done in the Yasukuni Shrine, a Japanese Shinto shrine to war dead who served the Emperor of Japan during wars from 1867–1951. For most Japanese, shrines like Yasukuni house the actual kami (souls or spirits) of the dead.

4. The Kojiki is a collection of myths on the origin of the four home islands of Japan, and the Kami. It contains myths, legends, and historical accounts of the imperial court from the earliest days of its formation up to the rule of Empress Suiko (628).

5. Kami is the Japanese word for a divine being, god, deity, divinity, spirit, or an aspect of spirituality. The term has been used to describe mind, God, supreme being, one of the Shinto deities, an image, a principle, and anything that is worshipped.

6. Arguably the most popular of the Shinto gods or kami is Amaterasu. Stories about her (and other prominent gods and goddesses) are chronicled in the Kojiki and the Nihongi. Based on the mythologies contained in these texts, Amaterasu is the Sun Goddess who was born from the left eye socket of a male creator kami named Izanagi.

7. Nihon shoki, also called Nihongi (‘Chronicles of Japan’), is the second oldest book of classical Japanese history. The book is more elaborate and detailed than the Kojiki.

8. These ‘goryo’ are the revengeful spirits of the dead whose lives were cut short. It is thus important to revere them as a way of calming them as they are believed to punish those who do not honor the kami.

9. Shintoism teaches that the kami ought to be respected and worshipped. To Shinto followers, the goal of life is to achieve ‘magokoro,’ “a pure sincere heart which can only be granted by the kami.

10. However, the Japanese Prime Minister Abe explained that he went to the shrine to reflect on the preciousness of peace. He said that he “prayed for the souls of all those who had fought for the country and made ultimate sacrifices … the purpose of my visit is to report before the souls of the war dead how my administration has worked for one year and to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.” (“Prime Minister’s Visits to Yasukuni,” n.d.).


Finally, the following statements are also worth knowing about Shintoism:

1.Shintoism’s concept of the divinity of the Emperor is usually misunderstood especially by Westerners. Neither the Emperor nor most of Japanese people ever thought that the Emperor was a God in the sense of being a supernatural supreme being.

2.Collectively, the stories in Nihongi and the Kojiki are referred to as the ‘Kiki stories.’

3. Kami is the Japanese word for a divine being, god, deity, divinity, spirit, or an aspect of spirituality. The term has been used to describe mind, God, supreme being, one of the Shinto deities, an image, a principle, and anything that is worshipped.

4. The Nihongi focuses on the merits of the righteous rulers as well as the errors of the wicked rulers.

5. Shinto believers find it important to worship the kami also because of the assumed roles they play in the nature. The kami’s supposed primitive roles were as earth-based spirits, helping the early hunter-gatherer groups in their day-to-day lives, thus revered as gods of earth and sea.

6. For reasons mentioned, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Ministers have been a cause of protest in Japan and abroad. The visits have long had diplomatic consequences.

7. Amaterasu is the Sun Goddess who was born from the left eye socket of a male creator kami named Izanagi.

8. In principle therefore, all—human beings, birds, animals, trees, plants, mountains, oceans—may be kami. Based on ancient usage, whatsoever seemed extraordinarily impressive, possessed the quality of excellence, or inspired a feeling of awe was called kami.

9. The core teaching of Shintoism is to worship the ancestors and forces of nature to achieve harmony in all dimensions.

10. Shintoism has no founder in the sense that Christianity or Buddhism has a founder, nor is there a person or group of persons who were responsible for developing Shinto as a religion.

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