Shinto is a name for the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Japanese people, which can be traced back to times before the arrival of outside religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Most Japanese people now practice a mix of Buddhism and Shinto. Though it is known that Shinto originated in prehistoric Japan, the details of its beginnings are relatively unclear compared to those of other world religions.
Beliefs and Practices
The beliefs of Shinto revolve around spirits known as kami, which followers consider to exist everywhere alongside human beings. Today, many kami represent the spirits of great human leaders from the past, but in ancient times most were believed to be found in forces of nature or in the natural world. Kami were found in everything from plants and animals to storms, seas and mountains, and worship was performed through various rituals, often at sites designated as Shinto shrines.
The beginnings of Shinto are not known with certainty, because ancient Japan had no written documents until Chinese characters were introduced in the sixth century. Fragments of information about ancient Shinto can be pieced together based on later writings, records made by Chinese visitors to Japan and archaeological evidence. These show that there was indeed a thriving diversity of spiritual beliefs in Japan before written language was introduced, though the organized system of worship at shrines only came together near the end of the ancient period, and the practice of making statues of kami didn't begin until the arrival of Buddhists from China.
What scholars do know about ancient Shinto is that it was probably not a single religion, but instead a variety of different local belief systems practiced in different places across Japan. These would have arisen from animist beliefs in the spirits of nature which helped the early Japanese make sense of their world, and some of the traditions may also have been brought over by migrants and invaders from the Asian mainland. In ancient Japan, what we now call Shinto beliefs would not have been thought of as a religion in the modern sense. The early Japanese probably didn't separate concepts of the natural and supernatural, believing that spirits were just another real part of the world around them. In fact, the very term "Shinto" only started being used after Buddhism arrived in Japan, as a way to distinguish local beliefs from the new religious system.
Buddhism arrived to Japan in the sixth century, at around the same time that writing was introduced. This sparked a number of changes to Japanese religious beliefs, including efforts to organize Shinto into a unified religion with a defined moral code. Shrines began to be built, and a variety of rituals were codified and used by the state as a way of maintaining influence over the people. Examples of these rituals included regular offerings of tribute to the kami, as well as seasonal rites performed by the emperor himself to express thanks for the rice harvest. Though Buddhism brought major changes to Japanese society, Shinto and Buddhism did not clash through most of history. Instead, they mixed together and coexisted alongside each other in the religious beliefs of most Japanese people.
Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.