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Shinto (神道, Shinto?) is the folk religion of Japan and was once its state religion. It involves the worship of kami (神, kami?), spirits. Some kami are local and can be regarded as the spiritual being/spirit or genius (mythology) of a particular place, but other ones represent major natural objects and processes: for example, Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, or Mount Fuji. Shinto is an animism belief system. The word Shinto was created by combining two kanji: "shin" (神, "shin"?)(loan word usually retain their Chinese pronunciation, hence shin not kami), meaning gods or spirits ; and "" (道, ""?), meaning a philosophical way or path (originally from the Chinese language word tao). As such, Shinto is commonly translated as "The Way of the Gods".

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A torii at Itsukushima Shrine.
Typical Shinto Shrine with paper streamers made out of unprocessed hemp fibre.

After World War II, Shinto lost its status as the state religion of Japan. Some Shinto practices and teachings, once given a great deal of prominence during the war, are no longer taught or practiced today, while others still exist as commonplace activities such as omikuji (a form of fortune-telling) and the Japanese New Year that few people give religious connotations to. Important national ceremonies such as coronations and royal marriages are conducted at the Three Palace Sanctuaries in Tokyo, and many Japanese still travel at least once in their lives to the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie Prefecture.


Early history

A number of theories exist about the ancestors of today's Japanese people. Most scholars agree that there was at least one migration from East Asia and perhaps another from Central Asia to the ancient Japanese Archipelago, though there is no consensus as to where Shinto first developed. Some of them claim that it has always existed in Japan, back into the mists of the Jomon period. Others maintain that it came about in the Yayoi period (c.300 BC–c.250 AD) as a cultural product of immigrants from China via Korean Peninsula, who brought agricultural rites and shamanism ceremonies from the continent, which took on Japanese forms in the new environment. Some modern scholars claim that "Shinto," as it is presently understood, did not exist in this age at all and should be more properly referred to as "kami worship".

In the early centuries BC, each tribe and area had its own collection of gods with no formal relationship between them. However, following the ascendancy of the Yamato Kingdom around the third to fifth centuries, the ancestral deities of the Emperor of Japan and the Imperial family were given prominence over others and a narrative made up to justify it. The result was the mythologizing of the Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki, dated 712 AD) in which it was claimed that the imperial line descended directly from the sun-goddess, Amaterasu. Another important kingdom, Izumo, was dealt with in a separate cycle within the mythology and its deities incorporated into the service of Amaterasu's descendants. A more objective and historical version of events appeared in the Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki, dated 720 AD), where alternative versions of the same story are given.

Early ceremonies are thought to have been held outside before copses (iwakura), or rocks forming a sacred space or altar (himorogi). There was no representation of the kami, for they were conceived as formless and pure. After the arrival of Buddhism in the first year of the Asuka period (538–710 AD), the idea of building "houses" for the kami arose and shrines were built for the first time. The earliest examples are thought to have been built at Izumo in 659 and at Ise in 690.

An important development was the introduction of a legal system based upon Legalism (Chinese philosophy) and Confucianism (ritsuryō), in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. This established in law the supremacy of the emperor and great nobles, as well as formalizing their relationship to major shrines and festivals.

Even before the arrival of Buddhism, the rituals involved in kami worship had borrowed from Chinese Taoism and Confucianism. Though clan rivalry led to friction and fighting during the introduction of Buddhism, the worship of kami and the teachings of the Buddha soon settled into coexistence. In fact, syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto (神仏習合, syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto?) was supposed to become the dominant feature of Japanese religion as a whole.

Shinto and Buddhism

The introductions of writing in the 5th century and Buddhism in the 6th century had a profound impact on the development of a unified system of Shinto beliefs. In the early Nara period the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki were written by compiling existing myths and legends into a unified account of Japanese mythology. These accounts were written with two purposes in mind: the introduction of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist themes into Japanese religion; and garnering support for the legitimacy of the Imperial house, based on its lineage from the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Much of modern Japan was under only fragmentary control by the Imperial family, and rival ethnic groups (including, perhaps, the ancestors of the Ainu people) continued to war against the encroachment of the Japanese. The mythological anthologies, along with other poetry anthologies like the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man'yōshū) and others, were intended to impress others with the worthiness of the Imperial family and their divine mandate to rule.

With the introduction of Buddhism and its rapid adoption by the court, it was necessary to explain the apparent differences between native Japanese beliefs and Buddhist teachings. Indeed, Shinto did not have a name until it became necessary to distinguish it from Buddhism. One explanation saw the kami as supernatural beings still caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth (reincarnation). The kami are born, live, die, and are reborn like all other beings in the karmic cycle. However, the kami played a special role in protecting Buddhism and allowing its teachings of compassion to flourish. This explanation was later challenged by Kūkai (空海, 774–835), who saw the kami as different embodiments of the Buddhas themselves. For example, he famously linked Amaterasu (the sun goddess and ancestor of the Imperial family) with Dainichi Nyorai, a central manifestation of the Buddha, whose name is literally "Great Sun Buddha". In his view, the kami were just Buddhas by another name.

Buddhism and Shinto coexisted and were amalgamated in the shinbutsu shūgō and Kūkai's Syncretism view held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period. At that time, there was a renewed interest in "Japanese studies" (kokugaku), perhaps as a result of the closed country policy. In the 18th century, various Japanese scholars, in particular Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長, 1730–1801), tried to tease apart the "real" Shinto from various foreign influences. The attempt was largely unsuccessful, since as early as the Nihon Shoki parts of the mythology were explicitly borrowed from Chinese doctrines. For example, the co-creator deities Izanami and Izanagi are linked to yin and yang. However, the attempt did set the stage for the arrival of state Shinto, following the Meiji Restoration (c.1868), when Shinto and Buddhism were separated (shinbutsu bunri).

State Shinto

Following the Meiji Restoration, Shinto was made the official religion of Japan, and in 1868 its combination with Buddhism was outlawed. During this period, numerous scholars of kokugaku believed that Shinto could be the unifying agent of the country around the Emperor while the process of modernization was undertaken with all possible speed. The psychological shock of the Western "Black Ships" and the subsequent collapse of the shogunate convinced many that the nation needed to unify in order to resist being colonized by outside forces. As a result, Shinto was used as a tool for promoting Emperor (and Empire) worship, and Shinto was exported into the conquered territories of Hokkaidō and Korea.

In 1871, a Ministry of Divinities was formed and Shinto shrines were divided into twelve levels with the Grand Shrine of Ise (dedicated to Amaterasu, and thus symbolic of the legitimacy of the Imperial family) at the peak and small sanctuaries of humble towns at the base. The following year, the ministry was replaced with a new Ministry of Religion, charged with leading instruction in "shushin" (moral courses). This was a major reverse from the Edo period, in which families were registered with Buddhist temples, rather than Shinto shrines. Priests were officially nominated and organized by the state, and they instructed the youth in a form of Shinto theology based on the official history of divinity of Japan's national origins and its Emperor.

As time went on, Shinto was increasingly used in the advertising of nationalists popular sentiments. In 1890, the "Imperial Rescript on Education" was passed, and students were required to ritually recite its oath to "offer yourselves courageously to the State" as well as protect the Imperial family. The practice of Emperor worship was further spread by distributing imperial portraits for esoteric veneration. All of these practices were used to fortify national solidarity through patriotic centralized observance at shrines. This use of Shinto gave to Japanese patriotism a special tint of mysticism and cultural introversion, which became more pronounced as time went on.

Such processes continued to deepen until the Showa period, finally coming to an abrupt halt in August 1945.


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A modern shrine in Osaka

The era of State Shinto came to an abrupt close with the end of World War II, when Americans decided to bring separation of church and state to Japanese shores in the wake of the Japanese surrender. Soon after the war, the Emperor Ningen-sengen renouncing his claims to the status of "living god" (arahitogami). In the aftermath of the war, most Japanese came to believe that the hubris of Empire had led to their downfall. Lust for foreign territory blinded their leaders to the importance of their homeland. In the post-war period, numerous "Shinshūkyō" cropped up, many of them ostensibly based on Shinto, but on the whole, Japanese religiosity may have decreased. However, the concept of religion in Japan is a complex one. A survey conducted in the mid 1970s indicated that of those participants who claimed not to believe in religion, one-third had a Japanese Buddhism or Shinto altar in their home, and about one quarter carried an omamori (an amulet to gain protection by kami) on their person. Following the war, Shinto has, for the most part, persisted with less importance placed on mythology or the divine mandate of the Imperial family. Instead, shrines tend to focus on helping ordinary people gain better fortunes for themselves through maintaining good relations with their ancestors and other kami. Shinto has largely reverted to its pre-imperial family state. Post-war, the number of Japanese citizens identifying their religious beliefs as Shinto has declined a great deal, yet the general practice of Shinto rituals has not decreased accordingly, and many practices have persisted as general cultural beliefs (such as ancestor worship, which is still very popular), superstitions, and community festivals (matsuri) - focusing more on religious practices and items than principles. The explanation generally given for this anomaly is that, following the demise of State Shinto, Shinto has reverted to its more traditional position as a folk religion which is culturally ingrained, rather than enforced. In any case, Shinto and its values continue to be an important component of the Japanese cultural mindset.

Shinto has also reached the shores of North America where the first non-Japanese Shinto priests have been ordained. The very active Jinja Shinto Shrine exists in the Pacific Northwest, The TSUBAKI GRAND SHRINE OF AMERICA (US Branch of one of Japan's oldest and most prestigious shrines). Tsubaki America Shrine receives thousands of worshippers each year and has the active Shrine Membership throughout North America and the World. All Seasonal Observances/Festivals are conducted in the traditional way and people can make the appointment to visit for the Go-kitoh (or special prayer ceremonies). With less than 500 members a relatively small number of people practice Shinto in America.


Shinto can be seen as a form of animism and may be regarded as a variant of shamanism. Shinto beliefs and ways of thinking are deeply embedded in the subconscious fabric of modern Japanese society. The afterlife is not a primary concern in Shinto; much more emphasis is placed on fitting into this world, instead of preparing for the next.

Shinto has no binding set of dogma, no holiest place for worshippers, no person or kami deemed holiest, and no defined set of prayers. Instead, Shinto is a collection of rituals and methods meant to mediate the relations of living humans and kami. These practices have originated organically in Japan over many centuries and have been influenced by Japan's contact with the religions of other nations, especially China. Notice, for example, that the word Shinto is itself of Chinese origin and that much of the codification of Shinto mythology was done with the explicit aim of answering Chinese cultural influence. Conversely, Shinto had and continues to have an impact on the practice of other religions within Japan. In particular, one could even make a case for discussing it under the heading of Japanese Buddhism, since these two religions have exercised a profound influence on each other throughout History of Japan. Further, the Japanese "New religions" that have emerged since the end of the Second World War have also shown a clear Shinto influence.

Some feel Shinto was used as a legitimizing ideology during the militaristic beginning of the Shōwa period, following the Meiji Restoration. Because Shinto has no absolute source of authority, some feel what was a natural expression of the beliefs of the people was hijacked by radical nationalists, who desired to unify the Japanese people against the "inferior" people in other nations. Others wonder if the emphasis Shinto places on Japanese exceptionalism made such developments inevitable. Even today, some far right factions within Japanese society want to see a greater emphasis placed on Shinto and increased reverence shown to the Emperor as part of a project to restore Japan to its "rightful place" as the leading nation of the world. For most Japanese, however, Shinto is not about expressing disdain for other nations but expressing one's own love of the natural landscape of Japan and the people and spirits that reside within it.

Types of Shinto

To distinguish between these different focuses of emphasis within Shinto, many feel it is important to separate Shinto into different types of Shinto expression.

  • Shrine Shinto (神社神道, Shrine Shinto?) is the oldest and most prevalent of the Shinto types. It has always been a part of Japan's history and constitutes the main current of Shinto tradition.
  • Sect Shinto (宗派神道, Sect Shinto?)is comprised of 13 groups formed during the 19th century. They do not have shrines, but conduct religious activities in meeting halls. Shinto sects include the mountain-worship sects, who focus on worshipping mountains like Mt. Fuji, faith healing sects, purification sects, Confucian sects, and Revival Shinto sects. Konkokyo, Tenrikyo, and Kurozumikyō, although operating separately from modern Shinto, are considered to be forms of Sect Shinto.
  • Folk Shinto (民俗神道, Folk Shinto?) includes the numerous but fragmented folk beliefs in deities and spirits. Practices include divination, spirit possession, and shamanic healing. Some of their practices come from Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, but most come from ancient local traditions.
  • State Shinto (国家神道, State Shinto?) was the result of the Meiji Restoration and the downfall of the shogunate. The Meiji restoration attempted to purify Shinto by abolishing many Buddhist and Confucian ideals; also, the Emperor was once again considered divine. After Japan's defeat in World War II, State Shinto was abolished and the Emperor was forced to renounce his divine right.


Torii at Itsukushima Shrine

The most immediately striking theme in the Shinto religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphism forms, with a formidable corpus of Mythology attached to them. (See also: Japanese mythology.) The kami, however, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word. Although divine, they are close to humanity; they inhabit the same world as we do, make the same mistakes as we do, and feel and think the same way as we do. Those who died would automatically be added to the rank of kami regardless of their human doings (It is thought that one can become a ghost under certain circumstances involving unsettled disputes in life). Belief is not a central aspect in Shinto, and proper observation of ritual is more important than whether one "truly believes" in the ritual. Thus, even those believing other religions may be venerated as kami after death, if there are Shinto believers who wish them to be.

This transmogrification after death creates ambiguities that are being debated even today amid the controversy surrounding former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's (小泉 純一郎 Koizumi Jun'ichirō) annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war-dead. While the visits are widely viewed as an act of political swagger on the part of Japanese conservatives who eschew expressions of regret for past Japanese military aggression — and take place against the backdrop of historic reassertions of Japanese militarism by the current government — some Japanese, even liberals and moderates, wonder if opposition to the visits is based on a misunderstanding of Japanese spirituality. They explain that there is a kind of "apotheosis" when deceased become kami; since Japan's war-dead are already kami, then, paying respects to their spirits at the shrine is not the same as honoring specific acts during their lives. This view is not shared by Japan's neighbors, who have been on the receiving end of these acts.

Practices and teachings

Tying her fortune (omikuji) at Kasuga Shrine.


Unlike many religions, one does not need to publicly profess belief in Shinto to be a Shintoist. Whenever a child is born in Japan, a local Jinja (Shinto) adds the child's name to a list kept at the shrine and declares him or her a "family child" (氏子, "family child"?). After death an ujiko becomes a "family spirit", or "family kami" (氏神, "family spirit", or "family kami"?). One may choose to have one's name added to another list when moving and then be listed at both places. Names can be added to the list without consent and regardless of the beliefs of the person added to the list. However, this is not considered an imposition of belief, but a sign of being welcomed by the local kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death. Those children who die before addition to the list are called "water children" (水子, "water children"?), and are believed to cause troubles and plagues. Mizuko are often worshipped in a Shinto shrine dedicated to stilling their anger and sadness.

Because Shinto has co-existed with Buddhism for well over a millennium, it is very difficult to untangle Shinto and Buddhist beliefs about the world. Though Buddhism and Shinto have very different perspectives on the world, most Japanese do not see any challenge in reconciling these two very different religions, and practice both. Thus it is common for people to practice Shinto in life yet have a Buddhist funeral. Their different perspectives on the afterlife are seen as complementing each other, and frequently the ritual practice of one will have an origin in the other.

Four affirmations

Though Shinto has no absolute commandments for its adherents outside of living "a simple and harmonious life with nature and people", there are said to be "Four Affirmations" of the Shinto spirit:

  • Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.
  • Love of nature: Nature is sacred; to be in contact with nature is to be close to the kami. Natural objects are worshipped as containing sacred spirits.
  • Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouth often.
  • "Matsuri": Any festival dedicated to the Kami, of which there are many each year.


Shinto teaches that certain deeds create a kind of ritual cleanliness that one should want cleansed for one's own peace of mind and good fortune, not because impurity is wrong in and of itself. Wrong deeds are called "dirtiness" (穢れ, "dirtiness"?), opposed to "purity" (清め, "purity"?). Normal days are called "day" (ke), and festive days are called "sunny", or simply, "good" (hare).[citation needed] Killing living beings should be done with reverence for taking a life to continue one's own, and should be kept to a minimum. Modern Japanese continue to place great emphasis on the importance of ritual phrases and greetings (挨拶, ritual phrases and greetings?). Before eating, many (though not all) Japanese say, "I will humbly receive [this food]" (戴きます, "I will humbly receive [this food]"?), in order to show proper thankfulness to the preparer of the meal in particular and more generally to all those living things that lost their lives to make the meal. Failure to show proper respect can be seen as a lack of concern for others, looked down on because it is believed to create problems for all. Those who fail to take into account the feelings of other people and kami will only bring ruin on themselves. The worst expression of such an attitude is the taking of another's life for personal advancement or enjoyment. Those killed without being shown gratitude for their sacrifice will hold a grudge (怨み, grudge?) and become a powerful and evil kami that seeks revenge (aragami). This same emphasis on the need for cooperation and collaboration can be seen throughout Japanese culture today. Additionally, if anyone is injured on the grounds of a shrine, the area affected must be ritually purified.


Ritual purification rites are a vital part of Shinto. These may serve to placate any restive kami, for instance when their shrine had to be relocated. Such ceremonies have also been adapted to modern life. For example, a ceremony was held in 1969 to hallow the Apollo 11 mission to the moon [1], new buildings made in Japan are frequently blessing by a Shinto priest during the groundbreaking ceremony, and many cars made in Japan have been blessed as part of the assembly process. A more personal purification rite is the purification by water. This may involve standing beneath a waterfall or performing ritual ablutions in a river-mouth or in the sea (misogi). These two forms of purification are often referred to as harae (). A third form of purification is avoidance, that is, the taboo placed on certain persons or acts. For example, women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji until 1868, in the era of the Meiji Restoration. Although this aspect has decreased in recent years, religious Japanese will not use an inauspicious word like "cut" at a wedding, nor will they attend a wedding if they have recently been bereaved.

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Gateway to Shinto shrine with torii gate
Shinto shrine in Fujiyoshida


The principal worship of kami is done at public jinja (Shinto), although home worship at small private shrines (kamidana) (sometimes only a high shelf with a few ritual objects) is also common. It is also possible to worship objects or people while they are still living. While a few of the public shrines are elaborate structures, most are small buildings in the characteristic Japanese architectural style. Shrines are commonly fronted by a distinctive Japanese gate (torii) made of two uprights and two crossbars. These gates are there as a part of the barrier to separate our living world and the world the kami live in. There are often two guardian animals placed at each side of the gate and they serve to protect the entrance. There are well over 100,000 of these shrines in operation today, each with its retinue of Shinto priests. Shinto priests often wear a ceremonial robe called a jo-e. Kami are invoked at such important ceremonies as weddings and entry into university. The kami are commonly petitioned for earthly benefits: a child, a promotion, a happier life. While one may wish for ill fortune on others, this is believed to be possible only if the target has committed wrongs first, or if one is willing to offer one's life. Though Shinto is popular for these occasions, when it comes to funerals most Japanese turn to Buddhist ceremonies, since the emphasis in Shinto is on this life and not the next. Almost all festivals (matsuri) in Japan are hosted by local Shinto shrines and these festivals are open to all those that wish to attend. While these could be said to be religious events, Japanese do not regard these events as religious since everyone can attend, regardless of personal beliefs.


Shinto teaches that everything contains a kami ("spiritual essence" which is translated into "god"). Every rock, every squirrel, every living and nonliving thing contains a kami. There is also a main kami for groups of things: for example, there is a kami within a rhino, and there is also a main kami residing over all the rhinos of the world.

Shinto's kami are collectively called Yaoyorozu no Kami (八百万の神), a traditional expression literally meaning "eight million kami". The arcane name of eight million, Yaoyorozu, is not the exact number, but the concept of an infinite number did not exist at that time.

The most widely worshiped of all kami is the Solar deity Amaterasu. However, Japanese do not specifically worship her or invoke her name to ask for help. Her main shrine is the Grand Shrine of Ise, but many lesser shrines are dedicated to her. Within the shrine, she is often symbolised by a mirror. Alternatively, the inner sanctum may be empty. This emptiness does not mean non-existence; rather, it symbolizes that everything that one sees through the mirror is the embodiment of Amaterasu and every other kami.

Until the end of World War II, the Tenno (Emperor) was believed to have been descended from Amaterasu and father of all Japanese, and was therefore a kami on earth (an ikigami or "living kami"); this divine status was popularized during the Meiji Restoration. This did not prevent military governors (Shogun) from usurping power, but the emperor was always seen as the true ruler of Japan, even when his rule was only nominal. Although Hirohito renounced his divine status in 1946 under American pressure (Ningen-sengen), the imperial family remains deeply involved in the Shinto ritual that unifies the Japanese nation symbolically. Because Shinto does not require a declaration or an enforcement to be worshiped (considered "unharmonious,") this declaration, while serving political reasons, is religiously meaningless and merely means that the state enforcement has ended.


Ema at a Shinto shrine

In History of Japan#Feudal Japan, wealthy people would donate horses to shrines, especially when making a request of the god of the shrine (for example, when praying for victory in battle). For smaller favors, giving a picture of a horse became a custom, and these are popular today. The visitor to a shrine purchases a wooden tablet with a likeness of a horse, or nowadays, something else (a snake, an arrow, even a portrait of Thomas Edison), writes a wish or prayer on the tablet, and hangs it at the shrine. In some cases, if the wish comes true, the person hangs another ema at the shrine in gratitude.


Kagura is the ancient Shinto ritual dance of Shamanic origin. The word "Kagura" is thought to be a contracted form of kami no kura or seat of the kami or the site where the kami is received.(Kobayashi, Kazushige p.3) There is a mythological tale of how Kagura dance came into existence. The sun goddess Amaterasu became very upset at her brother so she hid in a cave. All of the other gods and goddesses were concerned and wanted her to come outside. One of the goddesses began to dance and create a noisy commotion in order to entice Amaterasu to come out. The kami (gods) tricked Amaterasu by telling her there was a better sun goddess in the heavens. Amaterasu came out and light returned to the universe.

Music plays a very important role in the kagura performance. Everything from the setup of the instruments to the most subtle sounds and the arrangement of the music is crucial to encouraging the kami to come down and dance. The songs are used as magical devices to summon the gods and as prayers for blessings. Rhythm patterns of five and seven are common, possibly relating to the Shinto belief of the twelve generations of heavenly and earthly deities. There is also vocal accompaniment called kami uta in which the drummer sings sacred songs to the gods. Often the vocal accompaniment is overshadowed by the drumming and instruments, reinforcing that the vocal aspect of the music is more for incantation rather than aesthetics.(Averbuch, Irit pp.83-87)

In both ancient Japanese collections, the Nihongi and Kojiki, Ame-no-uzeme’s dance is described as asobi, which in old Japanese language means a ceremony that is designed to appease the spirits of the departed, and which was conducted at funeral ceremonies. Therefore, kagura is a rite of tama shizume, of pacifying the spirits of the departed. In the Heian period (8th-12th centuries) this was one of the important rites at the Imperial Court and had found its fixed place in the tama shizume festival on the eleventh month. At this festival people sing as accompaniment to the dance: “Depart! Depart! Be cleansed and go! Be purified and leave!” (Kobayashi, Kazushige pp.4-5)

This rite of purification is also known as chinkon. It was used for securing and strengthening the soul of a dying person. It was closely related to the ritual of tama furi (shaking the spirit), to call back the departed soul of the dead or to energize a weakened spirit. Spirit pacification and rejuvenation were usually achieved by songs and dances, also called asobi. The ritual of chinkon continued to be performed on the emperors of Japan, thought to be descendents of Amaterasu. It is possible that this ritual is connected with the ritual to revive the sun goddess during the low point of the winter solstice. (Averbuch, Irit p.12)

There is a division between the kagura that is performed at the Imperial palace and the shrines related to it, and the kagura that is performed in the countryside. Folk kagura, or kagura from the countryside is divided according to region. The following descriptions relate to sato kagura, kagura that is from the countryside. The main types are: miko kagura, Ise kagura, Izumo kagura, and shishi kagura.

Miko kagura is the oldest type of kagura and is danced by women in Shinto shrines and during folk festivals. The ancient miko were Shamanesses, but are now considered priestesses in the service of the Shinto Shrines. Miko kagura originally was a shamanic trance dance, but later, it became an art and interpreted as a prayer dance. It is performed in many of the larger Shinto shrines and is characterized by slow, elegant, circular movements, by emphasis on the four directions and by the central use of torimono (objects dancers carry in their hands), especially the fan and bells.(Averbuch, Irit p.15)

Ise kagura is a collective name for rituals that are based upon the yudate (boiling water rites of Shugendo origin) ritual. It includes miko dances as well as dancing of the torimono type. The kami are believed to be present in the pot of boiling water, so the dancers dip their torimono in the water and sprinkle it in the four directions and on the observers for purification and blessing. (Averbuch, Irit, p. 16)

Izumo kagura is centered in the Sada shrine of Izumo, Shimane prefecture.Izumo kagura is also centered in the Sada shrine of Izumo, Shimane prefecture. It has two types: torimono ma, unmasked dances that include held objects, and shinno (sacred No), dramatic masked dances based on myths. Izumo kagura appears to be the most popular type of kagura. (Averbuch, Irit, p.16)

Shishi kagura also known as the Shugen-No tradition, uses the dance of a shishi (lion or mountain animal) mask as the image and presence of the deity. It includes the Ise daikagura group and the yamabushi kagura and bangaku groups of the Tohoku area (Northeastern Japan). Ise daikagura employs a large red Chinese type of lion head which can move its ears. The lion head of the yamabushi kagura schools is black and can click its teeth. Unlike other other kagura types in which the kami appear only temporarily, during the shishi kagura the kami is constantly present in the shishi head mask. During the Edo period, the lion dances became showy and acrobatic losing its touch with spirituality. However, the yamabushi kagura tradtion has retained its ritualistic and religious nature. (Averbuch, p.16)

Originally, practice of kagura involved authentic possession by the kami invoked. In modern day Japan it appears to be difficult to find authentic ritual possession, called kamigakari, in kagura dance. However it is common to see choreographed possession in the dances. Actual possession is not taking place but elements of possession such as losing control and high jumps are applied in the dance.

Cultural effects

Shinto has been called "the religion of Japan", and the customs and values of Shinto are inseparable from those of Japanese culture prior to the influx of Chinese religious ideas that occurred in the mid 4th century.[citation needed] Many famously Japanese practices have origins either directly or indirectly rooted in Shinto. For example, it is clear that the Shinto ideal of harmony with nature underlies such typically Japanese arts as flower-arranging (ikebana), traditional Japanese Japanese architecture, and Japanese garden. A more explicit link to Shinto is seen in sumo wrestling, where, even in the modern version of the sport, many Shinto-inspired ceremonies must be performed before a bout, such as purifying the wrestling arena by sprinkling it with salt. The Japanese emphasis on proper greetings and respectful phrasings can be seen as a continuation of the ancient Shinto belief in kotodama (words with a magical effect on the world). Many Japanese cultural customs, like using wooden chopsticks and removing shoes before entering a building, have their origin in Shinto beliefs and practices. Also, a number of other Japanese religions, including Tenrikyo, have originated from or been influenced by Shinto. Tenrikyo is a religion of Shinto origin with some Buddhist influence.

Important shrines

  • Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya, Aichi, shrine to the Imperial sword Kusanagi
  • Heian Jingu (Kyoto), dedicated to Emperor Kammu and Emperor Kōmei
  • Hikawa Shrine, Ōmiya-ku, Saitama
  • The Grand Shrine of Ise (Ise), dedicated to Amaterasu
  • Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima prefecture
  • Iwashimizu Shrine, Yawata, Kyoto
  • Izumo Taisha (Izumo)
  • Kasuga Shrine, Nara, Nara
  • Katori Shrine, Chiba Prefecture
  • Kumano Shrines, Wakayama Prefecture
  • Meiji Shrine (Tokyo), the shrine of Emperor Meiji
  • Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture
  • Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Three Palace Sanctuaries, Kokyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo
  • Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Suzuka, Mie, Mie Prefecture, main Shrine of Sarutahiko and one of Japan's oldest shrines
  • Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, Granite Falls, Washington, active shrine in North America
  • Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura, Kanagawa
  • Usa Hachiman Shrine, Ōita Prefecture
  • Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo), controversial shrine dedicated to the 'peace of the nation' and seen by some as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past

See also


  • Culture of Japan
  • History of Japan
  • Japanese Buddhism
  • Japanese mythology
  • Japanese nationalism
  • Jinja (Shinto)
  • Libation
  • Oomoto
  • Religion in Japan
  • Shinto music
  • Touch Pieces


  • Littleton, C. Scott (2002). Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. Oxford University Press, Inc. ISBN 0-19-521886-8.
  • Ueda Kenji|Ueda, Kenji (1999). "The Concept of Kami". In John Ross Carter (Ed.), The Religious Heritage of Japan: Foundations for Cross-Cultural Understanding in a Religiously Plural World, pp. 65-72. Book East. ISBN ???.
  • Tsumura, Yukihiko. "Shinto, the U.S.A. and the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF)", Kami No Michi, 1988, retrieved November 12, 2006.
  • Averbuch, Irit. The Gods Come Dancing: A Study of the Japanese Ritual Dance of Yamabushi Kagura, East Asia Program, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1995. ISBN 1-885445-67-9
  • Averbuch, Irit, “Shamanic Dance in Japan: The Choreography of Possession in Kagura Performance”, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol.57, No.2, 1998, pp.293-329
  • Kobayashi, Kazushige; Knecht, Peter, “On the Meaning of Masked Dances in Kagura”, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol.40, No.1, 1981, pp.1-22
  • Blacker, Dr. Carmen, “Shinto and the Sacred Dimension of Nature”, University of Cambridge,
  • Endress, Gerhild, “On the Dramatic Tradition in Kagura: A Study of the Medieval Kehi Songs as Recorded in the Jotokubon”, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol.38, No. 1, 1979, pp.1-23

External links