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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 9

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


The origins of Shinto are lost in the dim past of Japanese history, and over the centuries its role has been to integrate with other systems, notably Confucianism from China and Buddhism from India, to give the people of Japan the most complex religious amalgam in the Orient.

At the same time Shinto has served to consolidate the nation and became the religious expression of patriotism, where the divine right of kings, familiar in the West, was an object of faith and the emperor a descendant of the gods. “Religion and government being one,” wrote a modern Shintoist, “all the heavenly functions which the sovereign undertakes and all the works that he performs as the representative of heaven are means of serving the heavenly forbear. Therefore that his line should endure as long as heaven endures is a natural consequence of the order of things.” [1]

This divinization of the sovereign was shattered by the events of the Second World War, which left Shinto in the emancipated position of a free religion, on a par with other religions, but also deprived the people of Japan of that religious mooring to which they had been accustomed for generations. It is not likely that the ancient traditions will be easily abandoned; and although some are already speaking of a post-Shinto era, the experience of history suggests rather a new form of syncretism that will build on the best elements of the past.

Native Deities

Of the three contributory sources to the religion of Japan---Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto---only the latter is indigenous to the country, and most distinctive of the religious culture of its people. While Shinto has no sacred writings in the sense of revelation, its origins are rooted in two writings that fairly describe the spirit which still prevails. Kojiki or Records of Ancients Matters, and Nihongi or Chronicles of Japan were both compiled in the early eighth century of our era, when Japanese writers were already strongly influenced by Chinese traditions.

It is difficult to distinguish the pure native traditions in these works. Many of the events described are anachronistic, and many of the legends are chosen to confirm the religious or political claims of the ruling dynasty. Nevertheless certain strains of faith and methods of worship are so close to what we know of primitive religion that they seem to be authentically Japanese.

Shinto mythology begins with the creation of the islands in the archipelago by two gods, Izanagi (the Male-Who-Invites), and his wife Izanami (the Female-Who-Invites), who were commanded by the deities to “make, consolidate, and give birth to this drifting land.” Izanami died in giving birth to the god of fire (Kagutsuchi). Overcome with grief, her spouse went down to the nether world to see the Female-Who-Invites, and she consented to return to him on condition that he did not look at her meanwhile. But in his impatience, he looked at her and saw the corruption of her body. She was angered by this impertinence and sent infernal deities to drive him out of Hades, where Izanami was left to be the great goddess of “the land of darkness.”

Returning to earth, Izanagi purified himself, and from this purification were born many gods, of whom the most famous are the sun goddess, born as he was washing his left eye; the moon god when he washed his right eye; and Susa-no-wo, a god of swift impetuosity. Then follows a tedious record of the birth and copulation of further deities with names descriptive of their attributes and earthly functions, until finally Jimmu Tenno is born as the fifth generation descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. At the age of forty-five, on February 11, 667 B.C., according to official chronology, Jimmu ascended the imperial throne and thus founded the Japanese dynasty.

The concept of God is expressed by the term Kami which means primarily “above” or “superior” and is applied first of all to the various divinities of heaven and earth mentioned in the ancient records, as well as to their spirits which reside in the shrines where they are worshiped. So characteristic is the term that the word Shinto is simply the Chinese reading of two characters meaning “The Way of the Gods,” the way of the Kami, the native spirits of Japan as distinct from the deities of Buddhism, whose introduction from China in the middle of the sixth century A.D., was the reason for coining a distinctive name.

However not only human beings but animals, plants, trees, seas and mountains and all other things which deserved to be feared or revered for the extraordinary powers they possess, are call Kami. Among human beings, highest in rank as a Kami were the successive imperial rulers; and among the forces of nature, thunder, lightning and storms.

Although Kami are far removed from the idea of God as an infinite personal being, they possess two essential properties which qualify them as deities: knowledge and volition and superhuman power. These two concepts may be united either by attributing sense and will to the great elemental objects and phenomena, or by applying to human and other living beings ideas of the mighty forces on whose operation the people constantly depend. Shinto therefore has two kinds of deities, nature-gods and man-gods, of whom the first are the result of personification and the latter of deification, although apologists frequently deny the fact and insist that their religion has been purified of nature worship. Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that the religion of the masses is still permeated with veneration of nature, which the more cultured Shintoists avoid.

Both categories of deities, man and nature gods, have further subdivisions, according as they are deities of individuals, of classes, or of qualities. They are all exemplified in Shinto. The sun goddess represents an individual object; Kukuchi, the god of trees, a class; and Musubi, the god of growth, an abstract quality. Jemangu is a deified individual statesman, Koyana represents a clan or family, and Taji-dara no wo is a personified human quality (hand-strength-male).

Although the ancient Japanese produced many gods, they remained only feebly characterized. In fact most of them have no characters at all. They are probably reckoned at eighty (or eight hundred) myriad. Admitting this as a poetic exaggeration, Shinto is essentially polytheistic and numbers its known deities in the hundreds. Yet there is a constant depletion by the mere lapse of memory, along with new deities that come into notice. Different gods may be identified with one another, others split into pairs of several gods, and the same deity at different places will have different rank and qualities.

Historical Development

The earliest extensive reference to the religion of the Japanese comes to us from the histories of the Chinese dynasties, about 300 A.D., in which the typical Shinto stress on purity and purification is already evident. Speaking of the Japanese, the chronicler says, “When death occurs mourning is observed for more than ten days. When the funeral ceremonies are over, all members of the family go into the water together to cleanse themselves in a bath of purification.” [2]

At this early stage the main features of the Japanese religion, besides polytheism, were a strong awareness of national solidarity occasioned by the insular geography of Japan, and a ritual concern for invoking the deities in order to be freed from legal impurities. Defilement for touching a dead body was only one of many such pollutions. It called for normal purification that implied no corresponding internal change of heart. As long as the Kami was invoked by someone outwardly clean, and if the mode of such invocation was technically correct, the aid of the spirit’s magic power would be received, no matter how evil the mind or heart of the suppliant.

Then Buddhism entered Japan, about 552 A.D., through the envoys of the Korean king, who told the Japanese emperor that their “doctrine is among all doctrines the most excellent, but it is hard to explain and to comprehend.” Even Confucius, they said, had not attained to knowledge of it. This doctrine can create religious merit and retribution without measure and without bonds, and so lead on to a full possession of the highest wisdom. “Imagine a man in possession of treasures to his heart’s content, so that he might satisfy all his wishes in proportion as he used them. Thus it is with the treasure of this wonderful doctrine. Every prayer is fulfilled and nothing is wanting.” [3]

The Emperor Kimmei was delighted with the new religion and fostered it zealously, but the conservative elements at court objected, saying that the worship of foreign gods would bring ruin on the nation. Their opposition was short-lived, and up to the middle of the eighth century, when Buddhism in Japan reached its climax, the Korean import permeated every phase of Japanese religious thought and worship. Buddhist monks and images came in a steady stream from Korea, and Japanese went to China to learn about Buddhist doctrines and Chinese customs. Soon Japan had absorbed the more advanced Chinese religious culture, while adapting what it received to its own preferences and past.

The climax was reached in 765 A.D. when the Empress Suiko Tenno, who was an ardent Buddhist, published an edict on the occasion of the feast of the First Fruits. Its fertility connections made the festival a distinctively Shinto rite, yet the empress passed a decree that showed how deeply Buddhism had penetrated the royal house. “My duties are first to serve the Three Treasures (Buddha, the Buddhist law, and its monasteries), next to worship the Spirits (of Shinto mythology), and finally to cherish my people.” Her subjects had only to examine the sacred writings of their country to find it is proper for Shinto deities to protect and respect the teachings of Buddha. [4]

Meantime Confucianism had entered the stream of Japanese belief to reshape its ethical side. Like Buddhism, the morals of Confucius came into Japan from China by way of Korea, as early as the beginning of the fifth century. But the first sign of a decisive influence of Confucianism appeared during the reign of Prince Shotoku (572-621), who promulgated the classic “Seventeen Article Constitution” in 604 to buttress the position of the central government. Its main provisions borrow the Confucian ideal of obedience of the people towards their sovereign, and the need for harmony between rulers and subjects on every level of communal authority.

Shotoku, like the empress in the next century, paid his respects to Buddhism in the Constitution, whose Confucian norm of “the mean” was wedded to the Shinto concept of the emperor as a descendant of the gods. The norm of morality (still valid in Shinto) is the voice of custom. “How can anyone lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them.” [5] Such is the norm prescribed for matters of interest; but where public policy is concerned, incontestable authority is in the sovereign.

When you receive the imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. Heaven overspreads, and Earth upbears. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature obtain their efficacy. If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore is it that when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance. Consequently when you receive the imperial commands, fail not to carry them out scrupulously. Let there be a want of care in this matter, and ruin is the natural consequence. [6]

The process of amalgamation went on apace, with deep Buddhist and Confucian elements entering Japanese religious faith and worship. From Buddhism, Shinto supplied the deficiency of image-making, which made the national religion more personal and concrete, and served to fill out the scanty and vague outlines of its mythology. Above all Buddhism gave Shinto a philosophical framework on which the popular piety and state worship were able to construct a systematic religious structure, whose moral fiber was in large measure borrowed from Confucianism.

Besides the general leavening influence, the unionist tendency produced a number of real Buddhist-Shinto hybrids that have survived to the present day. Shingon or the True Word set was founded by Kobo Daishi (774-835), a Japanese sage, who went to China to study Buddhism and returned to organize a pantheistic mixture which claims the universe is a dual manifestation of national and indestructible elements of a Buddha identified with the sun-goddess of Shinto.

By the middle ages, the blending of Buddhism and Shinto ceremonies became almost universal. Since most of the shrines were controlled by Buddhists, their images were worshipped as representatives of the Shinto gods, and Buddhist ritual equipment was used alongside the customary paper streamers and ropes. Although monks and nuns were not allowed to penetrate the inner sanctuary of certain Shinto shrines, like that of the sun-goddess at Ise, and individual Buddhist sects kept aloof from Shinto, by and large the two religions had combined in a fusion which still remains a general feature of Japanese religious life. Its technical name is honji suijaku, which means that the real basic entity (honji) is Buddhism, while the material and localized manifestation of religion (suijaku) is Shinto.

Inevitably periodic attempts were made to purify Shinto of its foreign (mostly Buddhist) accretions. Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281 aroused a new sense of Japanese loyalty, and the successful repression of the invaders was interpreted as proof of protection by the native gods. Not long after a Shinto patriot, Kitabatake (1293-1354), wrote his Records of the Legitimate Succession of the Divine Sovereigns, to show the supremacy of Japan over China and India because Japan’s single line of emperors was descended from the gods. About the same time were forged the Five Classics, which purported to have been written in distant antiquity and attempted to set forth a Shinto philosophy and ethics, ostensibly native, yet really borrowed from Buddhism and Confucianism.

“Japan is the divine country,” wrote Kitabatake. “The heavenly ancestor it was who first laid its foundations, and the Sun Goddess left her descendants to reign over it for ever and ever. This is true only of our country, and nothing similar may be found in foreign lands. That is why it is called the divine country.” [7] A century later, the chief figure in the “Primal Shinto” school was Yoshida Kanetomo (1435-1511), who did not try to discredit Buddhism but sought instead to shift the emphasis to Shinto while admitting the union. He explained honji suijaku to mean that the Japanese gods were the original substance, whereas Buddha and the bodhisattvas were the material, localized traces.

Yoshida depended much on the forged classics, and when these failed to meet his needs he supplied previously undiscovered sources of his own. His most famous statement has become proverbial in oriental literature. “During the reign of the Empress Suiko, the thirty-fourth sovereign, Prince Shotoku (c. 765 A.D.) stated in a memorial that Japan was the roots and truck in civilization, China its branches and leaves, and India its flowers and fruit. Similarly, Buddhism is the flowers and fruit of all laws, Confucianism their branches and leaves and Shinto their roots and trunk. Thus all foreign doctrines are offshoots of Shinto.” [8]

Rise of Pure Shinto

The triumvirate, which did most to purge Shinto of alien elements, was Kamo Mabuchi (1697-1769), Motoori Nolrinaga (1730-1801), and Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843). By their research into Japan’s classics and appropriation of what they considered best in the nation’s tradition, they provided both a scraper to remove the layers of foreign, mostly Chinese and Indian, lacquer, and the key to open the Japanese treasure that lay beneath. Their combined contributions are the most significant in Shinto history and have joined to produce all the distinctive features of “the Way of the gods.”

Kamo Mabuchi was the first scholar of national importance in the Shinto revival. He argued that the Manyoshu poetry of the eighth century, an anthology of ancient classics, had been free of foreign influences and represented a true concept of the Japanese spirit in an uncorrupted form. These compositions, he asserted, “are the natural expression of our ancient heritage; they are the voice of our divine land.” Mabuchi then set about composing poetry of his own, in the Manyosha style, and won remarkable success. Soon other writers followed his lead and their productions inaugurated a religious crusade that went straight to the heart of the Japanese, surmounting all intellectual and class barriers. The creative participation of the people won for this movement a more widespread acceptance than volumes of learned speculation.

In his Study of the Idea of a Nation, Mabuchi wrote in pure Japanese and attacked Chinese thought which he calls Confucian but that more certainly was a Taoist perversion of Confucianism. His contention was that Japan had prospered under its own spiritual ideals, only to have them corrupted by the intrusions from China.

Japan in ancient days was governed in accordance with the natural laws of Heaven and earth. There was never any indulgence in such petty nationalizing as marked China, but when suddenly these teachings were transmitted here from abroad, they quickly spread, for the men of old in their simplicity took them for the truth. In Japan there had been generation after generation, extending back to the remote past, which had known prosperity, but no sooner were these Confucian teachings propagated here than in the time of Emperor Temmu (631-686) a great rebellion occurred. Later, at Nara (in central Japan), the palace, dress, and ceremonies were Chinesified, and everything took on a superficial elegance; under the surface, however, contentiousness and dishonesty became more prevalent. [9]

Mabuchi is less critical of Buddhism. He concedes that “Confucianism made men crafty” and that some people speak ill of Buddhism. But since the latter “is a teaching which makes men stupid, it does not represent a grave evil; after all, rulers do not prosper unless the people are stupid,” on the Taoist principle that knowledge surely leads to greed and ambition and therefore to disorder and rejection of authority.

He rests his case on what he calls “a country of wicked-heartedness,” namely, China; there no amount of profound instruction, even from a genius like Confucius, could convert the people from their evil ways. “Japan,” on the contrary, “has always been a country where the people are honest.” The tragedy was that a foreign import was allowed to enter the country and corrupt the minds of a naturally law-abiding nation. He appeals to the past and urges a return to the times when “we worked in accordance with the will of Heaven and earth,” who’s living symbol was the reigning monarch.

The emperor was the sun and the moon, and the subjects the stars. If the subjects as stars protect the sun and moon, they will not hide it as is now the case. Just as the sun, moon and stars have always been in Heaven, so our imperial sun and moon, and the stars his vassals, have existed without change from ancient days, and have ruled the world fairly. However, some knaves appeared, and as a result the emperor is diminished in power, and his subjects too have fallen off. The Age of the Gods is where we may gain knowledge of this. [10]

In order to restore the original glory of Japan, let the people examine the words and thoughts of her early writers, and find there the promise which Shinto holds for the future.

Mootoori Norinaga went beyond his teacher Kamo. He recognized that an enduring religious movement needs more scriptural authority than even the most elevated literature can give. His first task was to reinstate the first Japanese annals, the Kojiki, to their deserved place as the primeval source of the national religion. Though compiled in 712 A.D., the Kojiki had long been neglected owing to the greater popularity of the official chronicle, the Nihongi. Besides the Kojiki were a deplorable maze of curious legends and genealogical records of the emperors which afforded small room for reflection, coupled with anecdotes that the first Western translators prudently rendered into Latin.

But Motoori was not discouraged. He reasoned that whatever belongs to gods and goddesses is beyond human comprehension and redirected the principles of Shinto by shifting the emphasis away from philosophy and ethics (as in Buddhism and Confucianism) to an emotional response to the deities. First he insisted on the ancient communication from the gods to the human race, in a period which he calls the Divine Age, which some had perverted to suit their own ends.

No one knows with whom these ancient traditions began, but they were handed down orally from the very earliest times and they refer to the accounts which have since been recorded in the Kojiki and the Nihongi. The accounts recorded in these two scriptures are clear and explicit and present no cause for doubt. Those who have interpreted these scriptures in a later age have contrived oracular formulae and have expounded theories which have no real basis. Some have become addicts of foreign doctrines and have no faith in the wonders of the Divine Age. Unable to understand that the truths of the world are contained in the evolution of the Divine Age, they fail to ascertain the true meaning of our ancient tradition. [11]

Not a few Japanese, he charged, presumed to interpret the Way of the Gods (Shinto) on the principles of a foreign religion. Denying that the sun-goddess was divine, they claim she was only “an earthly person and forebear of the nation.” These are “arbitrary interpretations purposely contrived to flatter foreign ideologies.”

Coming to grips with the fundamental issue of rationalism, that all things religious may be understood by the human mind, Motoori is at pains to show that man’s reason is inadequate to comprehend the wondrous manifestations of the power of the gods, and mocks at the Confucian pretension that we have a rational answer to every problem. The objection was raised that, “You are obstinate in insisting that the Sun-Goddess is the sun in heaven. If this is so, perpetual darkness must have reigned everywhere before her birth.”

Motoori at first sidesteps the difficulty. “I cannot understand,” he tells the objector, “why you say I am obstinate. That the Sun-Goddess is the sun in heaven is clear from the records of the Kojiki and the Nihohgi.” Then he appeals to a higher principle, to the fact that divine revelation may of necessity surpass the understanding of man.

The acts of the gods cannot be measured by ordinary human reasoning. Man’s intellect, however wise, has its limit. It is small, and what is beyond its confines it cannot know. The acts of the gods are straightforward. That they appear to be shallow and untrue is due to the limitation of what man can know. To the human mind, these acts appear to be remote, inaccessible, and difficult of comprehension and belief. Chinese teachings, on the other hand, were established within the reach of human intelligence; thus to the mind of the listener, they are familiar and intimate and easy of comprehension and belief. The Chinese, because they believe that the wisdom of the Sage (Confucius) was capable of comprehending all the truths of the universe and of its phenomena, pretend to the wisdom of the Sage and insist, despite their small and limited minds, that they know what their minds are really incapable of knowing. [12]

At the same time, the Chinese “refuse to believe in the inscrutability of the truth,” handed down from the divinities, for this, they conclude, would be irrational. “This sounds clever, but on the contrary, it betrays the pettiness of their intelligence,” which refuses to confess its limitations before the superior intellects of the gods.

Then follows one of the most cogent argumentations in all Shinto literature. Beginning with the premise that the “Way of the gods” must be above the comprehension of man, Motoori turns the table on the Confucianists and runs through a litany of purely natural phenomena that, by Confucian principles, should be explainable and yet are mysterious. By what right, then, do they question the mysteries of the gods if they cannot account for mysteries of physical nature. “Thus,” Motoori concludes, “the universe and all things therein are without a single exception strange and wondrous when examined carefully. Even the Sage would be incapable of explaining these phenomena. So, one must acknowledge that human intelligence is limited and puny while the acts of the gods are illimitable and wondrous.” [13]

As the most analytic spokesman for Shinto in modern times, Motoori’s concept of good and evil, and their relation to the gods may be accepted as traditional. “All things in life, great and small, and their very existence in the universe, even man himself and his actions---are due to the spirits of the gods and their disposition of things.” However not everything is good, but some things are evil and others a mixture of both. Whence evil in the world? “Such things,” says Motoori, “are the acts of the evil deities. The evil deities are those who do all manner of evil, moved by the spirit of the deity,” which appears to be a kind of fatalism. “When such evil deities flourish and are unchecked, there are times when even the protective powers of the shining deities prove inadequate.” In proof of which we have the ancient writings, that “this has been true since the Divine Age” described in ancient scriptures.

The analysis proceeds to examine the most palpable of human evils, death, on which every possible theory has been concocted, but without convincing evidence. “Some foreign doctrines teach that death should not be regarded as profoundly sorrowful while others assert that one’s actions and attitude of mind in this life can modify the situation after death. So comprehensive and detailed are these explanations that people have been deluded into thinking they are true.” All that we know about death is what was “fixed in the Divine Age and recorded in the Kojiki and Nihongi.” They teach that death is, indeed, sorrowful, and that “the land of death is situated beneath the ground or at the bottom of the earth. It is an extremely dirty and evil land, where the dead go.” [14] Before all these “pointless theories” about man’s destiny were invented, people simply believed in the truth that at death they would go to the land of death, and death was cause for them to weep in sorrow. More than this is human speculation.

Hirata Atsutane completed the work of his predecessors, Kamo and Motoori. Where the latter had succeeded in making “national learning” based on Japanese antiquity a subject worthy of a scholar’s attention and thereby restored the sacred writings to a place of respect, Hirata sought to make Shinto supreme in Japan as a religion and as a body of knowledge. His blend of extreme nationalism and real scholarship did much to shape the destinies of his country up to the present day.

Whereas Motoori was satisfied to show that Shinto had a rightful place alongside Buddhism and Confucian thought, Hirata insisted that there was room for nothing else. He also modified the concept of Shinto as more than just a religious faith, by extending its boundaries to include other forms of knowledge.

Instead of decrying foreign ideologies, Hirata preferred to absorb them. “All the various types of learning, including Confucianism and Buddhism, are joined in Japanese learning, just as the many rivers flow into the sea, where the waters are joined.” [15] Otherwise than Kamo and Motoori, he urged the Japanese to study “all the different kinds of learning,” even those of the West, “so that they can choose the good features of each and place them at the service of the nations.” This was daring eclecticism, in which the people of Japan were credited with a spontaneous ability to recognize the good in alien religious systems. His self-assurance was based on the heavenly lineage of the nation. “Even in countries where our ancient traditions have not been transmitted, the peoples recognize Japan as a divine land because of the majestic effulgence that of itself emanates from our country.” [16] Consequently people now everywhere refer to Japan as the Land of the Gods.

Hirata borrowed at times from Christian theological writings and integrated his findings with Shinto mythology. Books by Christians had been banned in Japan for almost two hundred years, but Hirata is known to have obtained copies of at least three written in Chinese by Catholic missionaries in Peking. In one early essay, for example, he took with slight adaptations the arguments of Mathew Ricci in favor of Christianity and used them against Confucianism in order to bolster the cause of Shinto.

Among the areas where Hirata’s Christian borrowings seem to be most evident are his treatment of creation and life after death. Still imbedded in Shinto parlance, they are quite un-Shintoist in the doctrines expressed.

Writing in Kodo Taii (Summary of the Ancient Way), Hirata examines the origins of the word Mi-musubi, and concludes that while the ancient records speak of two gods who made the sun and moon, the name itself “stems from their miraculous creative power” which should rightly be attributed to a single deity, Takami-musubi, whom he sometimes calls Kami-musubi, as another aspect of the same divinity.

Takami-musubi must be credited with the creation of Heaven and earth…a god of incomparable power. Without doubt he resides in Heaven and reigns over the world. Despite the pellucidly clear nature of these truths, scholars whose minds have been damaged by Chinese and Indian learning---as well as people who in their ignorance display impious disbelief---do not understand that the very fact of their own birth is immediately attributable to the creative power of this god. They persist in their skepticism and declare that the ancient truths are merely legends peculiar to Japan which they refuse to believe. These truths are by no means confined to Japan. In many other countries it is believed that the seed of man and all other things owe their existence to the powers of this god. [17]

To prove his point, Hirata refers to certain Confucian writers who believed in a single, ultimate divinity; he identifies the Hindu Brahma with this creator of heaven and earth. Then most pertinently, he says that “far to the west of India are numerous other countries, and in each of them are traditions of a god of Heaven who created the heavens and earth, man and all things. [18]

So convinced was he of these discoveries, that he took issue with his teacher Motoori on the correlative doctrine of life after death. “Accounts of the afterworld,” he admitted, “are so confused it is only natural that they arouse bewilderment. Even my teacher did not escape this confusion.” Hirata vacillated in his own position, and is embarrassed by the legends in the old Japanese mythology, but the general outline of his teachings is nevertheless remarkably Western.

He admits that the more common belief is that the dead spirits go to Yomi, the foul netherworld described by Motoori. But, he argues, the spirit of man is not his body; it is of a different nature than the corpse left behind when a man dies. Hesitant about making a universal judgment, he says, “This is one reason why we know that all human souls do not go to Yomi. Since the soul is bestowed on man by the god Musubi, by nature it should return to Heaven. However, I have not yet found positive evidence or old traditions to prove that this is true of all men.” [19] He might have added that traditional Shinto belief was quite to the contrary.

Consistent with the belief in immortality and the prospect of happiness after death, Hirata chided those “self-important scholars (who) conclude that the realm of the dead does not exist, simply because they do not see it, but this is exceedingly foolish.” Rather, man’s lot in the “realm of the dead” is somehow conditioned by his status and condition during life on earth. “Their souls become gods, differing in the degree of excellence, virtue, and strength according to the individual.” [20] Apparently, he assumed that all souls reach beatitude, and implicitly rejected the Buddhist theory of endless reincarnations and the ambiguous existence-less Nirvana.

Meiji Era to the Present

Shortly after the death of Atsutane, yet without the impress of his clear insight, “Pure Shinto” was one of the factors which brought about the Restoration of 1868, when the Mikado, Emperor Meiji, ascended to effective power as offspring of the sun-goddess. The Meiji era (1868-1912) crystallized the traditional concept of a divine sovereign and at least temporarily increased the popularity of Shinto. However, the government felt constrained to distinguish between two types of Shinto: the Shinto of the shrines (jinja, god houses) and Shinto of the churches (kyokai). Jinja meant the buildings which the government either took over or had erected for the performance of a national ritual, while kyokai were the religious edifices for church services by the various (about a dozen) Shinto sects. Priests serving the jinja were state supported, the others depended on voluntary contributions. Sect Shinto, along with Buddhism and Christianity, was given freedom of worship and propaganda by the 1889 Constitution.

Before long the political interests of the country tended to obliterate the distinction between the two types of Shinto, and for years Christians and others were subjected to grave hardships by the duty of joining in shrine Shinto ceremonies and education, which the state insisted was not strictly religious. Catholic consciences, for example, were relieved in 1936 when Rome allowed participation in the jinja because it was “a mere civil expression of patriotism.”

In years immediately preceding the war and during the conflict, Shinto ideology reigned supreme. Statements were issued to reassure the people of their divine ancestry and the heavenly mandates of the emperor. Then came the humiliating defeat of Japan in 1945 and with it disappeared by official proclamation the centuries old status of the emperor’s divinity and the more recent innovation of shrine Shinto.

In his New Year’s message to the nation in 1946, the reigning emperor Hirohito declared, “The ties between Us and Our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated upon the false conception that the emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and are fated to rule the world.” A few weeks earlier (December 15) State Shinto and all it stood for was abolished with the incisive statement that “the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalist propaganda” had plunged the Japanese nation into a tragic war.

Basic Principles and Practices

Apart from isolated exceptions among scholars like Atsutane, the Shinto deities worshiped by the masses are called Kami because they cover such a large variety of entities, quite literally anything which customs or the religious fancy has divinized by the attribution of supra-human qualities. The Kami are universally conceived in anthropomorphic terms. They are born, get married, beget offspring, work, play and die. Without being omnipotent or all-knowing, they are gifted with extraordinary powers, though limited to their respective spheres. They have a kind of soul, called mi-tama, represented in the temples by a “substitute for the mi-tama” or shintai, that may be any object, like a mirror or stone, in which the divinity abides invisibly incorporated in order to enter into contact with the faithful. These objects are not mere symbols nor divine attributes but quasi-incarnations of myriad deities. Everything has its particular god, from rain to smoke, and from rice to a peasant’s barn. Added to these are the ancestors, of family, clan and country, which Shinto introduced according to the Confucian faith.

Although primitive Shinto did not have a set code of morality, a rudimentary ethical principle was early developed in the concept of purity and the parallel horror of contamination, based on a mysterious relationship to the gods. The purity was mainly ritual and physical, not moral, and contamination either visible (through contact with dirt), or invisible (through contact with such impure things as blood or a cadaver). A contaminated person was displeasing to the gods and had to be cleansed to avoid tatari or heavenly punishment, by death, suffering or some misfortune.

This notion of an extrinsic morality, with only a vague recognition of what the Judaeo-Christian world calls the natural law concretized in the Decalogue, is still characteristic of Shinto. Western scholars point out that Shinto has hardly anything in the shape of a moral system. The Ohoharahi, a service in which the Mikado, by divine authority, declared to his ministers and people absolution of their offenses against the gods, makes no explicit mention of any one of the sins of the Decalogue. No doubt there are moral elements in the Ohoharahi, but they are scanty. Not only is there no mention of the sins commonly understood, but they are scarcely condemned even by implication. Shintoists do not deny this feature of their religion, but say that the absence of a code of ethics is proof that the natural goodness of a people does not need such artificial aids to virtuous conduct. Actually the ethical elements in Shinto are numerous, but largely inherited from Confucianism.

A stress on legal defilement was balanced by a similar emphasis on ritual purification, still considered one of the mainstays of Shinto. Three types of cleansing are dominant: through exorcism (harai), ablution, especially with water (misogi), and abstention (imi).

The most ancient of these rites, harai is regularly done by priests. It consists of reading from a sacred text and making an offering by which the sins pass away in the course of the recitation, in a way similar to the familiar scapegoat in Mosaic legislation. After the ceremony, the expiatory gifts were some personal belonging of the penitent, but later on they assumed a symbolic function. A common practice is to use slips of paper on which the penitent writes his sex and the year and month of his birth, then proceeds to rub his body with the paper and breathe upon it, by which his own sins pass on to the symbolic substitute (katashiro). When the ceremony is made in a group, all the katashiro are gathered together and thrown into the fire or sea.

Of the other types of cleansing, misogi may be done privately with water, or water and salt, to remove minor contaminations as a result of sickness, marital relations and the like. The imi are mainly protective practices against impurity, as keeping the body free from dirt, eating certain kinds of food cooked over the open flame and wearing of purifying garments. Priests are normally required to administer the imi to the people.

Shinto temples are classified in hierarchical order, at the head of which are the jingo, or temples, associated with a particular level of holiness. Such are the temples of Ise and Atsuta. All others are called jinga, which in turn are classified as “temples of the State,” where until recently were held the civil ceremonies of State Shinto; “provincial temples” for larger geographical areas; “city temples” for the main urban districts; and “rural (or village) temples” which are most numerous.

The principal Shinto shrine of Ise is located at Uji-Yamada, in central Japan and southeast of Kyoto. It has two temples, an interior one dedicated to the goddess of the sun, and an exterior one to the goddess of food. Founded in ancient times, the temples are periodically torn down and reconstructed, with amulets made of the wood from the old structure. Pilgrimages to Ise are a common religious event, on which a man’s success or failure in life is believed to depend.

Clergy and Festivals

In view of the close connection for centuries between Shinto worship and the secular government, it is not surprising that the clergy have in many cases not risen above the level of civil functionaries. However with the passing away of the established religion, the clergy associated with popular Shinto have come into their own, with a recognized religious status and corresponding ritual duties. Originally stratified in a kind of hierarchy, from the grand-master of the temple of Ise to the lowest shisho connected with the village places of worship, Shinto priests now belong principally to one of the numerous sects that had always been distinct from the government sponsored religion.

For almost a century, the state religion found its main outlet in the celebration of rites considered necessary to the deepening of national unity. In its traditional form, the main element in shrine functions was the reading by priests of ritualistic prayers (norito) before the altars of the gods, asking for a good harvest, peaceful family life, success in war, sufficiency of food and a long life for the emperor. These activities continue, with understandable changes, in the new era, directed as much to satisfy the religious aspirations of the people as to consolidate their sense of racial solidarity.

Upwards of fifty major religious festivals are presently celebrated in Japan. Their number and variety offer a good cross-section of the variegated nature of the Japanese religion. Shinto in its ethnic tradition and worship of the national gods, Buddhist in the metaphysical groundwork that underlies it, and Confucian in the application of religious values to private and social morality.

Early in January is celebrated the Bullfinch Exchange Feast of the Dazaifu shrine, slightly north of Nagasaki. On the evening of the festival (January 7), the people flock to the shrine precincts and in the dim light of the small bonfire they pass quickly from hand to hand small bullfinch-shaped pieces of wood. In the meantime, twelve gilt ones are passed out in the crowds by the shrine priests without exciting any suspicion. Those who finally end up with the coveted golden bullfinches are assured of special blessing from the gods.

On March 12 is held the time-honored exorcism festival of the Tojaiji temple at Nara in central Japan. Twelve large torch stands are brought onto a stage. Each stand has at the top a large round iron basket in which a fire is kept burning. Young priests brandish the burning torches by drawing circles of fire and shaking off the burning pieces. The people make a rush to gather up these fragments which are believed to have special power against malicious spirits. At two in the morning begins the water-drawing ceremony, accompanied by ancient Japanese music. While priests draw water from the sacred well, other priests blow conch horns, as a harbinger of heavenly blessings on the spring.

The greatest of all festival is the Higan, the spring and autumn equinoxes, both of which are national holidays. At Higan the farmers invoke and thank the gods for good crops, which is the Shinto part of the celebration. Simultaneously the Buddhist temples throughout the country during a whole week hold special services in honor of the dead. People visit the tombs of their ancestors to do homage to the memory of their departed.

The Gion religious festival is mid-summer, observed at Kyoto, may justly be considered the representative celebration of modern Japan. Dating back to the ninth century, it commemorates the permission then given by the head priest of the famous Yasaka shrine to a large number of men and women to escort the decorated shrine carts as an act of prayer to the gods for protection against the pestilence then raging in the city. Typical of the Gion are the huge, colored floats paraded in the city to the accompaniment of music. Yama floats, covered with Shinto mythological figures, are carried by long poles; the hoko floats, rising to a height of more than a hundred feet, are hung with lanterns that for many people have lost their original significance as offerings to the gods.

A New Era

When State Shinto was formally suppressed in 1945, the effect on the nation was less drastic than might have been expected. For a while the people reacted strongly against the religious system which the Japanese militarists had used to exploit their extreme nationalism and plunge the country into a disastrous war. But soon the age old traditions began to reassert themselves, and the ancient faith found new expression, even without the government support that some felt was indispensable for the continued existence of Shinto.

Prior to the decree of suppression, sectarian Shinto was relatively unimportant, although nourished by association with the state religion. When the latter passed out of the picture, the sects came into their own to fill the vacuum thus created, and they show every promise of flourishing under the status of religious liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.

Within a month after Hirohito publicly disclaimed his divine lineage and frankly called emperor-worship a legendary myth, the previously obscure sects formed (February 3, 1946) a religious organization in which they combined with the former representatives of State Shinto. Under the title Jinja-honcho (Central Administration of the Jinjas), they have their headquarters at the temple of the Emperor Meiji at Tokyo, and chose for president the ex-prince Nobusuke Takutsakasa. This promptly identified the federation with the royal family.

If the Jinja-honcho attaches little importance to doctrinal issues beyond the acceptance of the traditional Japanese gods, it promotes a steady program of propaganda, urging the people to recover their former heritage and has undertaken a careful preparation of its priests, not only in Japan but also through studies in other countries. In 1951, after the peace treaty was signed at San Francisco and Japan regained her sovereignty, the Jinja-honcho was authorized to participate in the temple services for the soldiers who had died in the late war. The following year it received legal recognition, according to the provisions of the law that had been passed in 1945, which meant the reinstatement of Shinto as one of the major religions of Japan.

Heading the new Shinto is the president assisted by his council, which is subdivided into functionary departments. The primary temple remains the shrine at Ise to the sun-goddess Amaterasu, ancestress of the royal family, but otherwise the temples are not mutually dependent, as they had been before the war. Their position is technically one of equality, while retaining fidelity to historic traditions. Several periodicals are published by Jinja-honcho, directed to “promoting the prosperity of the Shinto temples, inculcating the eternal laws of sound morality, offering of sacrificial actions in order to obtain blessings from the divinity (Kami), advancing a way of life under the constant influence of the same divinity, favoring of legitimate traditions and good customs, and contributing to the welfare of humanity.”

Little by little the temples destroyed by the war are being rebuilt and the number of worshipers increases annually, without the government directly entering the religious scene.

To all appearances the association is growing rapidly, although accurate statistics cannot be found. In Japan it is no contradiction for one person to belong simultaneously to several religions, especially Shinto and Buddhism. Official sources place the adherents of Jinja-honcho at more than fifty percent of the national population with some ninety thousand jinjas. Other estimates divide the given number of adherents by three, while admitting the figure on the number of shrines.

What complicates the picture is the shifting religious status of the people, who may favor all three major Japanese religious, including Confucianism, and attend now one kind of function, now another, without feeling any inconsistency in the practice. As a rule Buddhism is associated with the darker and more somber aspects of religion, and Shinto with the brighter and more joyful. So that weddings are normally under Shinto auspices, and for funerals the Buddhist services are preferred.

Yet Shinto offers the common people a hopeful outlook which Buddhism cannot supply. In referring to the death of man, the Buddhist will say he has become a hotoke, a candidate for annihilation, whereas the Shintoist says the equivalent of “he has become a saint.” Some years ago a Japanese scholar analyzed about ten thousand prayer-formulas used in Shinto worship. He found that almost without exception they refer to prosperity and happiness in this life, with a special concern for families and other persons, in contrast with the native individualism of the Buddhist philosophy of life.

Preoccupation with this-worldly values, however, makes Shinto an easy prey to Western secularization, of which Japanese religious leaders are deeply aware. Japan is the most highly industrialized nation in Asia; it is also the most densely populated. Despite its impressive efforts and results, demographers, both Western and Japanese, do not believe Japan can sustain an increase in population. Emigration has few available outlets. As a consequence, the moral conscience of the people has been put to a severe test by the so-called Eugenics Protection Law, legalizing abortion, sterilization and the sale of contraceptives. Japan has reported the sharpest birth decline in any nation in modern history, yet inherited new problems that Japanese spokesmen fear will take more than the ancient “Religion of the gods” to solve.

Chapter 9 - Shinto


[1] Takasu Yoshijiro, Shinron Kowa, Tokyo, 1941, p. 20.

[2] Tsunoda and Goodrich, Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories, Pasadena, 1951, p. 11.

[3] Nihongi (W. G. Aston transl.), II, p. 66.

[4] Shoku Nihongi, Edict 38.

[5] Nihongi, article X.

[6] Ibid., Article III.

[7] Jinno shoto-ki, Tokyo, 1927, p. 1.

[8] Quoted in Kiyowara Sadao, Shinto-shi, Tokyo, 1932, p. 237.

[9] Monumenta Nipponica, II, pp. 165-192.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hirata Atsutane Zenshu, I pp. 6-7.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 27.

[18] Ibid., p. 28.

[19] Ibid., p. 27-28.

[20] Ibid.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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