The Shinto , Japan’s national religion, is an amalgam of beliefs and rites ancestors centered in the worship of supernatural forces called Kami. It has survived from ancient times to the present, but over the centuries it has undergone innumerable adaptations and transformations.
Characterization of Shinto
The name of Japan’s national religion, Shinto, was created in the 6th century, from two Chinese concepts, Shen and to. Shen (Shin in Japanese) means “spirit” or “god”. To (do in Japanese) means “via” or “way”. This denomination served to differentiate it from Buddhism (Butsudo or Buddha’s way).
The spirits or gods whose worship is the basis of Shinto are the supernatural forces called Kami, multiple and varied and that, over the centuries, have increased in number and have experienced numerous mutations.
The most notable characteristics of Shinto are the following:
- a) the syncretic capacity, that is, the facility to adapt or assimilate beliefs of other religions with which he lived, especially Buddhism;
- b) it is a national religion that favored the creation of its own myths, since it was complemented by other religions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. Due to its own ancestral nature, it is archaic and conservative, but it has undergone changes and adaptations throughout history.
Written sources of Shintoism
Shinto, because it is an amalgamation of disparate local beliefs, does not have canonical texts of priestly origin, since there was no organized and hierarchical priestly class that held ideological control.
In the 7th century, Emperor Temmu (c. 631-686), however, ordered the compilation and ordering of genealogies (Teikí) and narrations (Kyuji).
In the year 712, O No Yasumaro, a scholar and statesman who died in 723, wrote – in a Japanese complex full of Chinese expressions – the Kojiki (Narrations of ancient things), in which he tells the history of Japan until the year 628, including mythical accounts . In the year 720, Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) is compiled in Chinese, in which Prince Toneri (676-735) and statesman Fujiwara No Fubito (659-720) work. The Izumo Fudoki, compiled in 733 and the only one of the Fudoki (local reports commissioned by the imperial court of Nara), is also important for the study of Shinto. Finally, religious data of interest appears in the anthologies of poems of the 8th century, the Koifuso of 751 and the Man’yoshu of 759, and in Engishiki (Rules of the era of Engi), compiled in 927.
Shinto theology: the Kami
The Kami are supernatural beings with power and capacity superior to that of man, who reside or materialize in objects and beings. Their number is very high and they are difficult to represent iconographically.
They can be condensed into three major groups: the Kami of nature and its forces, the Kami of the uji (lineages) and the Kami of individuals and ancestors.
The Kami of nature are the oldest. Among them are trees, especially pines. In the same way, the mountains, the stones (especially those of strange shapes), the lakes and the rivers were also Kami. The animals, especially the larger ones, were seen as manifestations of Kami or as Kami themselves (wolves, deer). In many cases, they were idealized as beings favorable to man and invoked to obtain a better harvest. Thunder, stars and wind were also venerated Kami, which made nature a place populated by supernatural and generally beneficial beings. There was also a tendency to identify these deities territorially, with Kami emerging from labor camps or fertile valleys.
The Kami of the lineages, or uji, arose from the territorial Kami, who were modifying and expanding their field of action until they represented and protected the groups established there. Primitive Japan was organized into lineages (uji); belonging to the uji was based on common kinship ties, whether biological or fictitious, on the acceptance of the uji chief and on the cult of the protective deity, the ujigamí. When social organization became more complex, certain underlines became privileged and increased in importance. On the other hand, the Yamato lineage was consolidating its superiority in relation to the rest of the lineages of Japan.
Recognized by their chiefs as kings by the Chinese after accepting to pay taxes, the Yamato bloodline increased its power from the third century onwards, controlling large territories and beginning to consolidate an ideology that sustained its preeminence. The Yamato sovereigns claimed to originate in Yimmu Tenno, the first emperor of Japan, related to the gods, whose life is dated in legendary accounts in the 660s BC From the middle of the sixth century, cults began to be centralized, especially the spring festivals, and rituals were being regulated. The Yamato kingdom intended to control and channel the religion of the Uji, vassals through a political administration closely linked to the religious.
The exceptional individuals by their power or their capacities are taken in life by Kami, like the emperor. After death, some especially notorious characters also become Kami, although it does not seem to have existed a cult of ancestors as it happened in China. In addition, as a consequence of the fact that the world of death and the funerary cult were religious facets in which Buddhism specialized since its implantation, the knowledge of ancestral funeral rites was compromised.
Fertility was also presided over by Kami, who materialized in stones and objects that presented shapes alluding to the male sexual organs.