The Ultimate Guide to Shinto in Japan

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An imposing red gate torii gate, reflective of shinto in Japan.

Shinto in Japan, also known as Shintoism, is an indigenous folk religion.  It is based on beliefs in the supernatural and nature itself. Its beliefs of purity, respect for the cycle of life, and “the way of the Gods” underline every aspect of traditional and modern Japanese culture. 

Shinto  (しんとう、神道)  means “the way of God” (kami no michi) in Japanese. Shinto did not have an official name until Korea introduced Japan to Buddhism in the 6th century. People found it necessary to name Shinto to distinguish the two religions from each other. Before that, the Japanese simply followed the rituals and beliefs they took for granted in the world. 

Up to now, the Japanese Shinto has more than 100 million followers, more than 9,000 shrines and has become the most important religion of Japan. Shinto is not exactly a religion in its own right, but rather an integration of beliefs and rituals that worship the gods – the kami. 

How is Shinto Different From Others?

No one knows who created Shinto and there are no central figures such as Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, Buddhism’s Siddhartha Gautama or Christianity’s Jesus. Therefore, Shinto is “polytheistic” – meaning there are many gods.

Gods in Shinto are kami (神). Kami represents sacred objects in nature. For example the sun, moon, wind, thunder, and other natural elements can all be kami. People also revere the spirits of the dead (the emperor’s ancestors, the ancestors of the family, heroes of service to the country).

Another difference between Shinto and other religions is that it doesn’t have an official sacred scripture or a bible, so to speak. It only has a loose collection of prayers and rituals. Most people know them as the ancient prayers of Norito or Norii

These prayers were passed down centuries, then eventually recorded on paper. Generally speaking, the guardians of the Divine Shrine are the ones who memorize the prayers. Then they send them to the gods during annual matsuri (festival).

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Shintoism in the Life of Japanese People

Like many other religions, Japanese Shinto is an important factor in the important events of a person’s life from birth, to adulthood, marriage and death.

Miyamairi 

Miyamairi (宮参り) is a traditional Shinto rite of passage in Japan for newborns. About a month after birth, parents will take the child to a local shrine to express gratitude to the deities for the birth of the baby and have a shrine priest pray for the child’s health and happiness. Miyamairi marks the connection and attachment between humans and gods since birth. 

A family of five (mother, father, two youn daughters and a baby) are posing for a snapshot outside of a Shinto shrine.
A first baby’s visit to a Shinto shrine is cherished by the whole family. Image via Shutterstock

Boy and Girl’s Day

According to Shinto tradition, March 3 every year is Girl’s Day or Hina Matsuri. On this day, girls display dolls on an ornate platform then invite friends to sit, watch dolls and drink tea. In an old tradition, this was a day of purification as people made paper dolls, rubbed them on their bodies to remove bad luck, then they took these dolls away and threw them into the sea. 

A young girl dressed in a pink kimono places her hina matsuri dolls on a platform.
Hina matsuri is usually celbrated in early March. Iamge via Shutterstock

Boy’s Day (Tango no Sekku), better known as Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi) is celebrated on May 5th annually. On this day, people will display old samurai dolls or armor outside the door to ward off evil. The boys usualy wear the traditional costumes worn by the samurai of the past. It’s considered to be a symbol of strength and courage. They also hang a carp kite, a symbol of vitality and strength.

Colorful carp kites fly in the sky in celebration of Kodomo no Hi, a Shinto celbration in Japan.
Children’s Day is celebrated by both boys and girls these days. Image via Shutterstock

Today, people rarely celebrate girls’ and boys’ days in solely religious contexts. However, they are still important days for young children and is also a day for families to gather and spend time together. Moreover, since the end of World War II, Children’s Day is a holiday for both boys and girls.

Shichi-go-san

Shichi-go-san (7-5-3) is a day to bless children that takes place on 15th November. Girls at the age of three (3) and seven (7), and boys at the age of five (5) will wear traditional Japanese clothing such as kimono and hakama, a type of fancy kimono to visit shrines. There the children will pray to the gods for health and prosperity as they grow.

A girl and a boy dressed in a kimono and hakama respectlively outside of a Shinto shrine.
Shichi-go-san celebrates children at the luckiest ages in their lives. Image via Shutterstock

Coming of Age

The coming-of-age ceremony (Seijin no Hi) is held on the 2nd Monday of January. It is the celebration of young men and women turning 20 years old in that year, marking their adulthood. In the countryside, young men turning 20 years old have the honor of being invited to carry the palanquin in parades at festivals.

Four young women dressed in elaborate furisode kimonos with fur collars stand outside a sign for a Coming-of-Age Ceremony. It is a crucial part of Shinto in Japan.
Seijin no Hi celebrates young adults who have turned 20 years old. Image via Shutterstock

Weddings

Many couples also choose this traditional wedding in shrines instead of holding a Western style.

In Japan, October is the wedding season. Brides can choose to wear a European-style dress or wear a traditional wedding kimono called shiromuku. The grooms can wear the traditional men’s kimono and hakama, or more common today, the suit.

A traditional Shinto wedding procession in Japan.
Shinto weddings are a major event in Japanese culture. Image via Shutterstock

A traditional wedding ceremony, like many other Shinto rituals in Japan, is preceded by a ritual purification of the ceremony site. The celebrant will offer rice and salt and other sacrifices in front of the altar before praying to the gods. 

After the offering, all of the wedding attendants stand up to listen to the blessings for the young married couple. Next is the san san kudo (三々九度) ceremony, in which the bride and groom drink sake together. This is one of the oldest rituals of a Shinto wedding, dating back to the 8th century.

Funeral

In ancient Shintoism, there was no funeral, because most Japanese people are “born Shinto and that they die Buddhist”. Because of this, they usually choose Buddhist rituals to organize funerals.  However, most of these funeral rites are a blend of both Buddhist and Shinto customs.

The funeral ceremony marks a new life for the deceased. They officially become the “ancestor” for the next generation and continue the will of the Gods. According to tradition, their main job in the afterlife is to continue to bless and protect their future descendants.

When someone in the house dies, family members and relatives often gather in the house and people light candles and burn incense throughout the night. The next day, the family will hold the funeral at home or at the nearest temple.

Usually, people will undertake the funeral process depending on the financial situation of the family and the wishes of the deceased. A funeral includes a prayer for the departed soul and a party for attendees to say goodbye to the deceased.

Have you ever visited a Japanese Shinto shrine or celebrated any Shinto traditions? Let us know in the comments below!

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