So What is Shinto?

“The Torii”: The most common Shinto symbol (Shrine Gate)

Shinto is defined as “the way of the gods” and is Japan’s indigenous religion.  It is practiced by about 80% of Japans population.  Shinto does not require an admission of faith, instead just participating in certain aspects of Shinto is generally considered enough for an association.

Ema – Japanese Prayer Blocks


One such aspect is portrayed in the above photograph. Prayers are written on pieces of wood as an expression of concern but after they are hung the problems continue, the depression deepens, the hope disappears.  The people of Japan need the God who hears and answers prayers.



A hope that is no stronger than the changing weather is, in reality, no hope at all.  Our prayer to God for these people is that as we take the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to them that they would see that He alone is the true and living hope.  




Heian Shrine 1895 Kyoto, Japan
Heian Shrine 1895 Kyoto, Japan

Shinto practices date back to the 8th century. Still, these earliest Japanese writings do not refer to a unified “Shinto religion”, but rather to disorganized folklore, history, and mythology.



Shinto originated as a religion with a respect for nature and for particular sacred sites. These sites may have originally been used to worship the sun, rock formations, trees and even sounds. Each of these was associated with a deity, or kami, and a complex polytheistic religion developed. Shinto worship of kami is performed at shrines. The Shinto practitioner must be pure before visiting these shrines. There are a variety of denominations within Shinto. Shinto has no single founder and no canon or collection of spiritual writings, but the Nihongi and Kojiki contain a record of Japanese mythology.  Some Shinto sects have a unique dogma or leader.


Shinto began to fall out of fashion after the arrival of Buddhism, but soon Shinto and Buddhism began to be practiced together. On the sites of Shintō shrines, Buddhist temples were also built.

Shinto Festival: This Shinto festival in a Buddhist temple graveyard honors the dead.

Before 1868, there were three main forms of Shinto:

Shrine Shinto – The most common of all the different types, and the one mostly practiced today. Summer festivals, good luck charms, wish making are all practiced under this type of Shintoism.

Inside the courtyard of the large Shito shrines, you may see one or more smaller constructions, built in a similar style. These are sessha, “auxiliary shrines”, usually dedicated to a deity with strong connections to the kami venerated inside the main shrine.

Folk Shinto – Includes many different beliefs of several spirits and deities. Some of the practices come from Taoism or Buddhism and include possession, spiritual healers, and divination.


Imperial Household Shinto, practiced by the imperial family of Japan.


Koshinto – Means “old Shinto” and dates back from the time before Buddhism. It is based on Ainu and Ryukyuhan practices and continues the restoration movement started by Hirata Atsutane.


In the 18th and 19th centuries, independent Shinto sects – Sect Shinto – formed, some of which were very radical, such as the monotheistic Tenrikyo. These became known as the Shinto Sects or the New Religions.


Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were forcefully separated. The Emperor Meiji made Shinto the official religion, creating a form of Shinto known as State Shinto by merging Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Household Shinto.


Surrender of Satsuma Samurai Rebels, 1877, Westernization of Japan
Surrender of Satsuma Samurai Rebels, 1877, Westernization of Japan

The radical Sect Shinto was separated from State Shinto. Under Meiji, Japan became a moderate theocracy, with shrines under government control. Shinto soon became a reason for Japanese nationalism.


After Japan took over Korea and Taiwan, State Shinto became the official religion of those countries as well.

During World War II, the government forced every subject to practice State Shinto and admit that the Emperor was divine. Those who opposed the Imperial cult, including Oomoto and Soka Gakkai, were persecuted.


When the United States occupied Japan in 1945, the shrines were taken out of government control, and State Shinto was abolished. Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Shinto again became separate, and Sect Shinto further distanced itself from mainstream Shinto.

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