Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Starting about 500 BCE, it was originally a mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism. Its name was derived from the Chinese words shin tao- The Way of the Gods- in the 8th Century CE.
At that time the Yamato dynasty had consolidated its rule over most of Japan, divine origins were given to the imperial family, and Shinto established itself as an official religion of Japan, along with Buddhism. Unlike most other religions, Shinto has no real founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a very loosely-organized priesthood.
Shinto creation stories tell of the history and lives of the Kami -the Shinto deities. The word Kami has generally been translated to “god” or “gods.” However, the Kami bear little resemblance to the gods of monotheistic religions. There are no concepts that compare to the Christian beliefs in the wrath of God, his omnipotence and omni-presence, or the separation of God from humanity due to sin.
There are numerous other deities who are conceptualized in many forms: those related to natural objects and creatures; guardians of particular areas and clans; exceptional people, including all but the last of the emperors; and abstract creative forces. They are seen as generally benign and serve to sustain and protect the people.
Shinto does not have as fully developed a theology as do most other religions. It does not have its own moral code; practitioners generally follow the code of Confucianism. Their religious texts discuss the High Plain of Heaven and the Dark Land which is an unclean land of the dead, but give few details of the afterlife. Ancestors are deeply revered and worshipped, and all of humanity is regarded as Kami’s child. All human life and human nature is considered sacred.
Believers revere musuhi, the Kamis’ creative and harmonizing powers. They aspire to have makoto- a sincere or true heart. This is regarded as the way or will of Kami. Morality is based upon that which is of beneficial to the group. Shinto emphasizes right practice, sensibility, and attitude.
Shintoists pray and worship in shrines, which are found all over Japan. Each shrine is dedicated to a specific Kami. When entering a shrine, one passes through a Tori – a special gateway for the Gods. It marks the demarcation between the finite world and the infinite world of the Gods. When entering the shrine, practitioners wash their hands and wash out their mouths in a basin provided within the shrine grounds.
Shrine ceremonies, which include cleansing, offerings, prayers, and dances are directed to the Kami. Followers are also expected to visit Shinto shrines at the times of various life passages. For example, the Shichigosan Matsuri involves a blessing by the shrine Priest onto girls at the age of 3 and 7, and boys at the age of 5. Many Shintoists also keep an altar called the Kami-dana (Shelf of Gods) in their homes.
Essentially all followers of Shinto are Japanese; it is difficult for a foreigner to embrace Shintoism. Unlike most other religions, there is no book to help a person learn about the religion. It is transmitted from generation to generation by experiencing the rituals together as a group.
The number of practitioners is estimated to be 40% of Japanese adults, or about 50 million. There are only about 1500 Shintoists living in North America and Canada.