Origins of Shintoism

Shinto is an indigenous Japanese faith. Basically, it revolves around worshipping higher beings or spirits who adherents refer to as the Kami. Worship of ancestors also plays an important role in Shinto practice. The Kami are not God or gods per se but are super natural beings whom Shinto adherents hold belief are present in all things; they emphasize that the Kami are present in significant astrological, metrological, and geographical phenomena like rains, mountains, forests, etc hence its basis as an animistic religion. To put it in a simpler term, Shintoists do not view the Kamis as a God or gods the way their monotheistic counterparts do, but rather as spirits who dwell in inanimate objects present in every element of nature. It is believed that once humans die they become Kamis.

Another unique feature of the Shinto faith is that it does not have a sacred scripture like the Christians with their Bible or the Muslims with their Quran do, rather it has two revered texts detailing the religion’s celestial origins of the royal lineage and that’s about it. It is to be noted here that the Japanese believe that its line of Emperors have celestial origins more specifically Amaterasu; a feminine deity linked to the sun and the Chief Kami.

The Narrative

In a strict sense, Shinto can be classified into three primary categories; Shrine or State Shinto, Sectarian Shinto, and Folk Shinto. Shrine or State Shinto is the oldest of these three classes hence can also be considered the original that gave birth to the other two. It entails the main basis of the Shinto tradition and is closely linked to the Japanese Imperial family. Sectarian Shinto is relatively new or modern compared to Shrine Shinto; it is comprised of 13 major sects and several minor ones. The 13 major sects were founded in the 19th century prior to World War II while the minor sects came about after the war. Folk Shinto has no solid structure compared to the other two Shinto traditions; it is primarily made up of Japanese folk beliefs, it has no official organizational structure or doctrines.

Unlike most religious practices, Shinto has no founder attributed to its origins. The term Shinto is coined from the Chinese term “Shin Tao” (to mean the way of the gods). The usage of this term can be traced to the second half of the sixth century, before that it bore no name and was but a collection of beliefs and practices incorporated into everyday lives of the Japanese to appease the gods or spirits for their respective needs. Since structure and coordination were absent before the sixth century it could loosely be termed as Kami worship but not Shinto.

In ancient Japan, the basic unit for society was the clan also known as uji. Each uji was headed by a central authority figure mostly a chieftain charged with the responsibility of leading their unit in worship of ujigami (the unit’s particular guardian deity). Ritual worship of ujigami or Kami if you wish entailed divination, ceremonial purification, and water purification. This system of worship became common with the indigenous people. The fact that it was more localized as opposed to other religious practices which are characterized by a universal system led the natives to build shrines in their homes for their Kami.

This period was between 400 BCE to 300 CE, a period referred to as the Yayoi Period; named after the archeological site where artifacts linked to this age were first discovered. Archaeological evidence suggests that spiritual life was closely linked to rice cultivation; a mainstay for the natives during this period. The Kami were heavily associated with natural forces governing crops. The chieftains or head of clans/families presided over rituals to invite spirits either in their homes or in rice granaries to ensure agricultural success. In those ancient times the Kami were not imagined as having an anthropomorphic form (dwelling in a single place), rather they were believed to only manifest in a certain place in response to human invitations.

After the Yayoi period came the Kofun period (300CE to 700 CE) named after the large tomb mounds that characterized the period. This period lends much significance in the shaping and development of the Shinto faith. In the mid fourth century, the three kingdoms in Korea went to war against each other, as a result immigrants fleeing the war spilled into Japan bringing with them their cultures, skills, and unique religious patterns including Buddhism.

The wave of immigrants led to a division between the local chieftains whose spiritual authority rested on presiding over Kami rituals and the foreign leadership whose authority was by continental religious rites. The royal court needed both factions to co-exist peacefully, it has to be mentioned here that the immigrants brought with them advanced skills in technology and construction borrowed from the Chinese, skills that were crucial and on demand in Japan at that time hence their personal needs (including spirituality) could not be overlooked. On the other end was the native population which was depended upon for agricultural production and who drew spiritual strength from perfoming agricultural spiritual rites to appease the Kami. A diplomatic approach had to be put in place to contain both factions.

As time progressed, immigrants slowly began building Buddhist temples and championing for Buddhist rites; soon, the temples began springing up in most places within Japan. The native clans on their part also began building shrines for their respective Kami, with a similar design to those of the Buddhist temples built by immigrants. It became a competition of some sorts. The introduction to Buddhism in Japan also led to Shinto beginning to have a more solid structure than it initially was.

After many years, following interesting twists within the spiritual sphere between Japan natives and Immigrants from neighboring countries, the competition on whose deity was superior soon found its way into the royal court. Arguments arose within the royal court on whether or not to adopt Buddhism as a replacement of Kami worship. Those advocating for Buddhism argued that neighboring states which had adopted it had exhibited prosperity in the process thus it would be beneficial to adopt it in place of Kami worship. The group arguing against adoption of Buddhism stated that replacing indigenous spiritual rites would invite the wrath of the Kami. After a long tussle and struggle the court ruled in favor of Buddhism which led to conversion of the King and installation of a Buddhist priest into the palace.

The adoption of Buddhism by the state in the sixth century led to several radical changes within the royal court; in addition to sponsoring construction of new temples, the Chinese calendar was also imported and made part of the 17th article of the constitution. Article 2 of this document urged every one of every age to revere Buddhist law terming it the eternal truth. However, the fact that the royal court adopted Buddhism did not mean that it entirely discarded Kami worship.

The governance system of Ritsuryo adopted in the seventh century was developed on penal codes (ritsu) and administrative law (ryo) simulated from China. This period was referred to as the Ritsuryo era because it was a period when the Ritsuryo system of governance was most dominant .Under the Ritsuryo codes, two councils were created: The council of state referred to as the Dajokan, and the Council of Divinities referred to as the Jingikan. Even though a big portion of the Ritsuryo system was directly replicated from China, the Jingikan was entirely a Japanese creation; it was charged with the task of presiding over Kami rites in accordance with the Kami law otherwise referred to as Jingiryo.

Jingiryo stipulated twenty rites to be performed annually for peace and prosperity within the empire. These rites were the basis of Kami law. The rites were fixed within the Yoro code which itemized legally mandated rites; it was made up of thirty sections each composed of laws governing different sectors within the government. Two of these sections regulated religious affairs; the first one was the Jingiryo concerned with Kami rites to be administered by the Jingikan, and the other was the Genbaryo concerned with administration of Buddhist affairs.

Jingiryo was made up of twenty articles starting with the recommendation that the worship of gods be presided over by the Jingikan. This recommendation grants the Jingikan the sole prerogative of presiding over the Kami rites on behalf of the royal court and the emperor. Other areas of the Yoro code allocate a significant portion of official state positions to the Jingikan.

To many scholars and historians, the origins of Shintoism as we know it today, stem from the Jingikan, the Jingiryo, and the ancient royal court. One historian states that the established system of Kami worship depicted all the elements of a fully fledged religion. The historian goes on to state that even though it is difficult to point out its inception date, it became a complete system following the establishment of Kami law, a structured ritual annual calendar, and the inclusion of Kami priests into the government.


Sources indicate that in the eighth century, there were tendencies to define Shinto from a Buddhist perspective. The Japanese teacher Kobo Daishi developed a doctrine merging Buddhism and Shinto under a single name Ryobu Shinto (to mean “the Shinto of two kinds”). Kami were seen as Buddhism protectors and were elevated to the status of devas (gods). Kami shrines were built within the confines of Buddhist temple.

According to Buddhist teachings, gods also go through samsara (death and birth cycle) and dukha (suffering). Since Kami worship was now also being viewed from Buddhist lenses, assistance was offered to the Kami from a Buddhist angle. Buddhist temples were built within the confines of Kami shrines where Buddhist sutras were recited in front of the Kami. Boddhisattva names were given to the Kamis who were also seen as incarnations of Buddhas.

In the Meijji era, Shinto became Japan’s state religion; important Shinto shrines received support from the state through government funding. Shinto priests received official recognition some of them being made state officials. Japan’s creation myths attributed to Shintoism were used by the state to foster national identity with the Emperor at the top.
These are just but some of the influences linked to Shintoism since the ancient past. There are several sources that confine its definition as purely a Japanese indigenous religion, but from the alliances it has had with other trans-continental religions like Buddhism, it’s time for it to be looked at as among one of the global religions.

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