Shinto is the religion originated in Japan. Shinto religion is polytheistic almost similar to the Hindu religion in India, in which there is no systematised set of beliefs. Hinduism has some holy script unlike Shinoism. Shinto, which is written in Japanese Kanji as 神道 literally means the way of Gods, or Spirits. Around 69 percent of Japanese population practice Shinto religion.
Shinto is considered to be the religion of nature and its practitioners in Japan regard it as Japan’s indigenous religion. Shinto religion has no central authority in control, when compred with semitic religions, and much diversity exists among practitioners. Shinto practitioners believe in supernatural entities that inhabit in things. There is no dogmatic set of rules in Shintoism. It is said that in order to understand the Japanese culture and society, one need to understand the Shinto religion.
In general Shinto religion shares many animistic beliefs, a kind of mix of animism and ancestor worship. A tree has a spirit, so has a mountain, forest or ocean. For this reason, Shinto practitioners keep the wood for certain period after cutting a tree, before using for construction work. This will allow the spirit of the tree to depart. Inside Shinto shrines we can see statues of foxes (Kitsune in Japanese language).
Shinto belief in Kami (loosely translated as God) is a kind of spirit, which is similar to the Atma in Sanskrit language. Ancient Japanese believed that the Atma – Tamashii – lives after death also. Another aspect of Shintoism is ancestor worship, which is the base of Obon festivals. In fact, Obon festival is influenced by the Buddhist beliefs as well.
Shinto practitioners believes in heaven and hell, but interestingly there was no sinners and therefore no absolution for the offences committed. Like the Hindus, Shintoism believes in the rebirth of the dead. One of the most famous Shinto shrines is the Yasukuni Jinja in Kudanshita, Tokyo, where the souls of the Japanese soldiers/supporters participated in the WWII are being worshipped.
Jinjas are the sacred locations of one or more kami. There are around 80,000 Jinjas in Japan. Jinjas do not necessary always have to be a built strutrure. In fact certain natural features and mountains may also be considered shrines. Early shrines were merely rock altars. Jinja and th temple designs in Japan are influenced by Chinese architecture from the Nara period in the 8th century AD. Shrines will have a Taisha, that are sacred gateway.
Today, there are thirteen mainstream Shinto sects and various subsects, which are not under the control of Government (after the World War II).
In order to keep the sanctity of shrines, the worshippers cleanse themselves (known as Oarai) before entering the shrines. This includes washing of hands and mouth with water. Shinto believers make a small money offering, clap their hands twice to alert the kami and then bow while saying their prayer in the mind. The end of the prayer is characterised by a final clap. Some believers request the priest to offer their prayer. Offerings to the Kami include a bowl of sake, rice, and vegetables.
Many Japanese shrines are near the mountains, and visiting these shrines is seen as an act of pilgrimage. This is also very similar to the sacred places of Hindu believers in India. Believers wear Omamori, that are small, embroidered sachets containing prayers to guarantee the person’s well-being. Cemeteries are rare for the Shinto believvers since they do not have any particular view on the afterlife.
Shinto festivals are colorful. The calendar is punctuated by religious festivals to honor particular kami. During these events, portable shrines may be pulled to sites linked to a kami, or there are parades of colorful floats, and worshippers dress to impersonate certain divine figures.
Three of the most important Shinto annual festivals are;
– Three-day Shogatsu Matsuri or Japanese New Year festival
– The Obon celebration of the dead returning to the ancestral home (Budhhist tradition), which includes many Shinto rituals
– Annual local festival knowin Japanese language as matsuri when a shrine is pulled around the local community to purify it and ensure its future well-being.