What is Shinto

Shintoism - the way of the gods

Of divine beings and death

Shintoist in life, Buddhist to die - this formula is too short to describe the complex relationship between Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, but it gives a first indication of the nature of the religion of nature. Shintoism is life-affirming and is primarily interested in the here and now. The question of death does not play a prominent role.

Because Shintoism knows no comforting afterlife, most Japanese resort to Buddhism on this subject and have their relatives buried according to its custom, in the hope of redeeming nirvana.

The Shintoist idea of ​​death exists in parallel: When a person dies, his soul ("tama") remains on earth between 33 and 49 years and continues to exert influence on the living in order to then enter the realm of his own ancestors. He becomes one with the family "kami", the divine and supernatural beings.

Everyone can be "kami" in Shintoism, regardless of whether they are good or bad: people, animals, trees, plants, mountains or seas. Shinto idolizes nature, to which man belongs. That is why the Shinto shrines are usually located in particularly scenic locations.

Babies in the shrine

In contrast to death, Shintoism is clearly responsible for birth. Newborns are made members of their parents' protective shrine on the 31st or 32nd day of their life, with the mother, child and usually other family members visiting the shrine.

100 days after the birth, the priest welcomes the child in a ceremony: He waves a branch of the sacred "sakaki" tree or a "gohei", a stick with strips of paper, over the head of the child to cleanse it.

Age of gods

Shintoism also has a creation myth, which differs greatly from the Christian one in that there is no omnipotent God, but several gods. The myth is passed down through the work "Kojiki", which was compiled by the court scholar Ono Yasumaru in 712, and the writing "Nihon Shoki", written in 720 by several scholars.

In contrast to the Bible and the Koran, these two works are not divine revelations, but chronicles that tell of the divine and human generations since the creation of the world. Both tell of the Japanese creation myth:

In the beginning the world was a fluid, swirling chaos that was inhabited by "kami" for seven generations. In the eighth generation, the deities Izanagi and his sister Izanami emerged. They created the island of Onogoro with a jeweled spear.

Now the myth gets a lot of side threads and gets a bit complicated. Briefly it goes like this: On the island that has already been created, Izanagi and Izanami unite and - after a malformed child - get many "kami".

Izanami also gives birth to the other islands of the Japanese chain of islands and Izanagi creates the sun goddess Amaterasu, the moon god Tsukiyomi and the storm god Susanoo. Amaterasu's descendant Jimmu Tenno in turn becomes the first emperor. With the beginning of the imperial dynasty, the "Age of the Gods" ended.

Shinto as the state religion

The Japanese emperor ("tenno") has always played a special role in Shintoism: According to the creation myth, he comes from the sun goddess Amaterasu and is also the chief Shinto priest. That means he performs the most important ceremonies that affect the whole country: above all the "niinamesai", the tasting of the new rice, and the "toshigoi no matsuri", the request for a good harvest.

With the Meiji Restoration, which in 1868 abolished samurai rule in the name of the then emperor Mutsuhito and made the emperor the center of a centralized nation state, his position became even more important: he was appointed a "kami", a Shinto deity.

However, one has to be careful with the translation: In the polytheistic religion of Shintoism, in which all Japanese become "kami" after their death and in which special living people can also be "kami", God means something different than in monotheism, in that there is only one god.

Nevertheless, with the introduction of the state Shinto, a lot changed: the worship of the emperor as high priest and the Shinto shrines became a civic duty. At the top of the shrines were the Great Shrines of Ise, southeast of Nara in Mie Prefecture. The holiest and most revered site is over 1700 years old and is dedicated to two goddesses: the sun goddess Amaterasu and the harvest goddess Toyouke.

Extreme cleansing ritual

Every 20 years something special happens in Ise: The shrine buildings are torn down and replaced with detailed replicas, most recently in 2013. This is to prevent the wood from becoming unclean. In addition, the two goddesses who live here are supposed to get new strength in this way to protect the imperial family and the rice harvest.

Actually, all Shinto shrines should be rebuilt in this cycle, but because of the high costs you can only afford it in special places.

The Ise shrines are still one of the most important shrines in Japan, although the Allies abolished state Shinto after the Second World War and decided to separate religion and state.

The imperial ceremonies such as weddings, accession to the throne and the annual visit to the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo are based on Shintoism to this day - even if it is officially only the private religious practices of a family.

The ritual of purification is central in Shintoism. The demolition and rebuilding of shrines is just one extreme form of it. Every day you can see how Shintoists clean their mouths and hands with water before entering the shrine. There is a water basin with ladles in front of each shrine, but they must not be touched with the mouth. This ritual is intended to keep evil spirits away.

Peaceful coexistence with Buddhism

Shintoism is deeply linked to Japanese culture and older than its name. The term "Shinto" ("path of the gods" or "path of the kami") only became necessary to distinguish it from Buddhism ("path of the Buddha") when it came to Japan in the 6th century AD. The first components of Shintoism probably appeared towards the end of the prehistoric Yoyoi culture (around 300 BC to 300 AD).

Because of its tolerant gods and its open understanding of who can be divine, ie "kami", Shintoism had little problem with other religions that came to Japan. There was even a mix-up with Buddhism in particular: For example, many Buddhist deities were worshiped as "kami" and there were small Shinto shrines in Buddhist temples.

Only earthly claims to rule by the emperor brought this practice to a temporary end in 1868 with the state Shinto: a decree determined the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism. Since the end of World War II, the Japanese have been able to practice both religions again.