Shintoism: Harmonizing with the Natural World

Japan has adapted many religions that originated from other countries all throughout its colorful history. However, Japan developed its own unique path. They call this religious tradition Shinto. The spiritual heart of Shinto has no founder, no orthodox canon of sacred literature, and no explicit code of ethical requirements. It is so deep-seated and ancient that the symbolic meanings of many of its elaborate rituals have been forgotten by those who practice them. It seems to have begun as the local religion of agricultural communities and had no name until Buddhism was imported in the sixth century C.E. What makes Shintoism unique to other world religions is that its elaborate traditions have an affinity to being one with nature.

Although it had long existed, the term “Shinto” is notoriously vague and difficult to define. A brief look at the term’s history confuses more than it enlightens. Its first occurrence is in the Nihon shoki (720 C.E.), which writes of Emperor Y?mei  that he “had faith in the Buddhist Dharma and revered Shinto” (Satoshi, Jun & Mizue, 2003, p. 1). Only during the medieval and early modern periods that “Shinto” was applied to specific theological and ritual systems. In modern scholarship, the term is often used with reference to kami worship and related theologies, rituals and practices. In these contexts, “Shinto” takes on the meaning of “Japan’s traditional religion”, as opposed to foreign religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and so forth.

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Shaped by the amalgamation of beliefs, modern Japanese who are religious combine practices from several religions, for each offers something different. Confucianism informs organizations and ethics, Buddhism and Christianity offer ways of understanding suffering and the afterlife, traditional veneration of ancestors links the living to their family history, and the way called “Shinto” harmonizes people with the natural world.

Shinto’s Kinship with Nature

Before industrial pollution and urbanization, Japan was a country of exquisite natural beauty. The islands marry mountains to sea, and the interiors are laced with streams, waterfalls, and lush forests. Even the agriculture is beautiful, with ?owering fruit trees and terraced fields. The people lived so harmoniously with this environment that they had no separate word for “nature” until they began importing modern Western ideas late in the nineteenth century.

Living close to nature, the people experienced life as a continual process of change and renewal. They organized their lives around the turn of the seasons, honoring the roles of the sun, moon, and lightning in their rice farming. Mount Fuji, greatest of the volcanic peaks that formed the islands, was honored as the sacred embodiment of the divine creativity that had thrust the land up from the sea. It has never been called Mount Fuji by the Japanese, but rather Fuji-san, indicating a friendship and intimacy with the mountain (Nelson, 1995). The sparkling ocean and rising sun, so visible along the extensive coastlines, were loved as earthly expressions of the sacred purity, brightness, and awesome power at the heart of life.

Surrounded by nature’s beauty and power, the ancient Japanese people found the divine all around them. In Shinto, the sacred is both immanent and transcendent. It was believed that “Earth” itself gave birth to many kami, or spirits, two of which—the Amatsu Kami—were told to organize the material world. Standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, they stirred the ocean with a jeweled spear. When they pulled it out of the water, it dripped brine back into the ocean, where it coagulated into eight islands, with mountains, rivers, plants, and trees (these may be interpreted either as Japan or the whole world). To rule this earthly kingdom they created the Kami Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun. Through their union, the Amatsu Kami also gave birth to the ancestors of the people of Japan. All of the natural world—land, trees, mountains, waters, animals, people—is thus joined in kinship as the spiritual creation of the kami (Yamamoto, 1987).

Aside from the environmental consciousness that is espoused by Shinto believers, Hori (1968) deemed that Shinto displays many features of what we may call “folk religion”. This term here is used as a generic term for popular beliefs and practices that are not directly controlled by a shrine, temple or church, or led by a religious professional such as a priest, a monk or a minister. As such beliefs and practices in Japan, we may mention the worship of various deity tablets (ofuda), the tabooing of certain dates or directions, belief in different kinds of spirits (such as spirits of the dead, or “revengeful spirits” known as onry?), worship of natural objects such as trees and mountains, and worship of the kami of fields and mountains (ta no kami and yama no kami). Most of what is commonly called religious folklore, local customs, or superstition belongs in this category. Surrounded by nature’s beauty and power, the Japanese people found the divine all around them. In Shinto, the sacred is both immanent and transcendent. In Japanese mythology, the divine originated as one essence:

In primeval ages, before the earth was formed, amorphous matter ?oated freely about like oil upon water. In time there arose in its midst a thing like a sprouting reedshoot, and from this a deity came forth of its own (Picken 1980, p.10).

Honoring the Kami

Recognizing the presence of kami, humans have built shrines to honor them. There are even now more than 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan. Yamamoto (1987) explained that shrines may be as small as bee-hives or elaborate temple complexes covering thousands of acres. Some honor kami protecting the area; some honor kami with special responsibilities, such as healing or protecting crops from insects. The shrines are situated on sites thought to have been chosen by the kami for their sacred atmosphere. At one time, every community had its own guardian kami. It is thought that the earliest Shinto places of worship were sacred trees or groves, perhaps with some enclosure to demarcate the sacred area. Shrine complexes that developed later also have some way of indicating where sacred space begins: tall gate-frames, known as torii, walls, or streams with bridges, which must be crossed to enter the holy precinct of the kami. Water is a purifying influence, and basins of water are also provided for washing one’s mouth and hands before passing through the torii. Statues of guardian lions further protect the kami from evil intrusions, as do ropes with pendants hanging down (Nelson, 1995).

Later on, Nelson (1995) narrated the Japanese built temples. In temple compounds, a person first enters a public hall of worship, behind which is an offering hall where priests conduct rites. Beyond that is the sacred sanctuary of the kami, which is entered only by the high priest. Here the spirit of the kami is invited to come down to dwell within a special natural object or perhaps a mirror, which re?ects the revered light of brightness and purity, considered the natural order of the universe.

To properly encourage the spirit of the kami to dwell in the holy sanctuary, long and complex ceremonies are needed. In some temples, it takes ten years for the priests to learn them. The priesthood was traditionally hereditary. One temple has drawn its priests from the same four families for over a hundred generations. Also, followers of the way of the kami may also make daily offerings to the kami in their home. Their place of worship usually consists of a high shelf on which rests a miniature shrine, with only a mirror inside. The daily home ritual may begin with greeting the sun in the east with clapping and a prayer for protection for the household. Then offerings are placed before the shrine: rice for health, water for cleansing and preservation of life, and salt for the harmonious seasoning of life. When a new house is to be built, the blessings of the kami are ceremonially requested. To acknowledge and follow the kami is to bring our life into harmony with nature, Shintoists feel. The word used for this concept is kannagara, which is the same word used for the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets.

In addition to elaborate regular ceremonies, Shintoism is associated with numerous special festivals throughout the year and throughout a person’s life. They begin four months before the birth of a baby, when the soul is thought to enter the fetus. Then, thirty-two or thirty-three days after the infant’s birth, its parents take it to the family’s temple for initiation by the deity. In a traditional family, many milestones—such as coming of age at thirteen, or first arranging one’s hair as a woman at age sixteen, marriage, turning sixty-one, seventy-seven, or eighty eight—are also celebrated with a certain spiritual awareness and ritualism. The seasonal festivals are reminders to the people that they are descendants of the kami. This means remembering to live in gratitude for all that they have received. Festivals became exuberant affairs in which the people and the kami join in celebrating life. Many have an agricultural basis, ensuring good crops and then giving thanks for them. Often the local kami is carried about the streets in a portable shrine (Smith, 1974).


Over time, the ways of the kami that has been labeled “Shinto” blended with other religions imported into Japan. The two religions with which Shinto has been most blended are Buddhism, first introduced into Japan in the sixth century, and Confucianism, which has been an intimate part of Japanese culture since its earliest contact with Chinese influences.

Outside Japan, Shinto beliefs and practices are common only in Hawaii and Brazil, because many Japanese have settled there. Shintoism has not been a proselytizing religion (that is, it does not seek to convert others). Most Japanese people, who visit shrines and pray to the kami during festivals, do not even think of themselves as “Shintoist.” This label is applied mostly by the priestly establishment.

Modern life, instead of distancing Japanese from their ancient traditions, has ultimately encouraged renewed interest in Shinto beliefs. Rapid and extreme urbanization and industrialization in twentieth-century Japan brought extremes of pollution and disease. For example, the Minamata disease inflicted paralysis and painful suffering in an area of southern Japan where a chemical factory had been dumping mercury into the bay, contaminating the fish eaten by the residents. In another area of southern Japan, iron and steel factories had extremely polluted the air that children developed severe respiratory diseases and the sky was never blue. This is why there are new attempts to teach children the thousand-year-old rice cultivation ceremony, and with it, Shinto values such as co-existence and “co-prosperity” are integrated with their modern lifestyles. Thus, these attempts show how Shintoism has universalized its fundamental intention, along with the broad resources it employs for expression of its universal attitude, it still remains authentically Shinto (Stoesz, 1992).

Living close to nature, modern people like us should experienced life as a continual process of change and renewal because everything around us is the sacred embodiment of the divine creativity that had thrust the land up from the sea. Living in consonance with Nature is basic with the teachings of Shintoism and it is quite a relief that Japanese still hold so dear on these ancient beliefs. Shintoism sprung from expressions of the sacred purity, brightness, and awesome power at the heart of life. It is beyond religious tradition; it is a way of living a healthy and productive life.