A Shintoism Overview
At the Shinto shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu
The Basics of Shinto
The purpose of this article is to give you an easy to understand and general overview of what Shintoism is. I decided to create this article as a response to a question in the comments section of "How to Visit a Shinto Shrine," where a user asked about what exactly one prays for at a Shinto shrine. Here's some general knowledge regarding Shintoism, and also what you pray for.
Who believes in what in Japan
Percentage of population
Christians take up 1% of the 'Other'
What Shintoism is (more or less)
Shintoism is one of two major religions in Japan, sharing its seat of power with Buddhism. Commonly, Japanese families believe in both religions, and visit Buddhist temples on some holidays, and Shinto shrines on others. You'd be remiss though to discount the occasional wily Christian who belongs to a minority religion in Japan. Anyway, back to what Shintoism is (as this isn't a Hub about general religion in Japan).
What Do People Worship in Shintoism?
If you've taken some sort of basic religion course, or have picked up an encyclopedia at any point in your life, chances are you might vaguely know that Shintoism is all about nature. Nature, however, is a very broad topic, so let's break it down. By being a Shinto practitioner, whether you know it or not, you're engaging in the worship of nature and all things that reside within nature (bears, bugs, waterfalls, mountains, gorges, forests, etc.). This might be obvious to those who've peeked at one or two Shinto shrines, as it's pretty easy to pick up on the pattern that all Shinto shrines are at the very least surrounded by trees, and more often than not near some obnoxiously gorgeous physical phenomenon. In addition to this though, is the worship of certain extraordinary human beings, like heroes or great leaders (Emperor Meiji for example, or Tokugawa Ieyasu).
Lastly, Shintoism focuses on not only tangible entities like human beings and neat mountains, but also the power that lies within everything that resides in nature. This brings me to my second point, that involves teaching you about some terms that Shintoism uses.
"Kami" and "Musubi"
Kami and Musubi are two important terms in Shintoism, with the former meaning God, and the latter meaning, roughly, the power that resides within the Kami and all things on this earth. Kamis are things on this earth that have an unfair amount of power, but it's the same power that resides within you, the reader, myself, and also the fly that might be buzzing around trapped in your refrigerator as you read this. This power is within all of us, and it ties us together, hence why it is called "Musubi," which literally means "a tie," or "tying together." Because the same power that makes Kamis gods is also in everything and everyone, there isn't the same distance between gods and humans that is prevalent in Western religions. Things that are gods in Shintoism are things you can go out and touch with your hand, or maybe if you somehow miraculously knew Emperor Meiji, people you could've had tea and a crumpet with. Following that, it's important to note that gods in Shintoism aren't eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, or what have you.
The Importance of Cleansing
In Shintoism, just as "Musubi" flows through us and is great and such, there is also that which can disrupt the flow of good energy. This can reside within us, or occur outside of us, in the form of volcanoes erupting, or lightning coming down and setting your house on fire. In Shintoism, to counteract this, there are a variety of cleansing rituals that people undergo. If you remember the "temizuya" I talked about in my Shinto Shrine article, you might have a basic understanding of such a ritual. If you've ever seen Sumo on television or laughed at it on YouTube, the salt they throw into the ring is another example of a cleansing process. The general idea is that once you've been cleansed, you'll come back into tune with the "musubi" that's in you, and everything else you're surrounded by.
Ema, the Wooden Tablets That Shrine Goers Write Prayers on
What Do You Say for Grace at a Shinto Table?
Here's where history is especially important. If you go up to a shrine that houses the spirit of a great educator and academic genius and pray for a puppy for Christmas, you'll likely get books on present-opening day (and boring, spiteful ones at that). In Shintoism, it's pretty common for shrine goers to go to specific shrines for a specific purpose. Here are some examples of shrines that share a common religion (Shinto), but are erected for different reasons.
The Shrine of the God of Scholars
In Tokyo, there's a shrine called the Yushima Tenjin which is famous for attracting students who pray for success on their college entrance exams (here's a pretty sparse English version of the Japanese site). Essentially, students will go and write their prayers on these wooden tablets called Ema, and then attach them to a wall that holds thousands of other ema from other aspiring scholars. The pictures to the right are examples of how many ema are written by aspiring students at shrines famous for helping those interested in education. If you go to your everyday Shinto shrine, chances are you'll see these billboard-like things with ema hanging off of them, but nothing like the thousands you see in the pictures above (unless it's another specialty shrine).
Photo of the Entrance to the Southern Suwa Shrine
The Shrine of the Gods of Suwa Lake
Near my hometown in Nagano prefecture, there's a giant lake (nowhere near Great Lakes size) called Suwa lake. It's said that two gods live there, one male, and one female, and they each have their respective Jinjyas (shrines) at opposite sides of the lake. This is an example of Shintoism deifying a geographical location, but also personifying it by attributing sexes.
A pretty cool phenomenon occurs here called "Kami Watari", which means "God crossing", where the lake freezes and converges in the middle to form a jagged line of ice down the middle. The video below shows the phenomenon, with an especially good view of it towards the end (nowadays it's a rare sight due to warming temperatures). Essentially, this lake was deemed special because it was believed that the gods would walk over it and create those lines of ice that you see.
The famed "Kami Watari" at Suwa Lake
Now don't expect to go and win any Jeopardy categories on Shintoism after reading this, but do expect to have a slightly more informed standpoint on a foreign religion. To explain the entireties of a religion millions believe in in a single Hub would be folly, but like I said, this is just to prod some basics into your brain. Shintoism is complex, and I'd be lying if I said I knew a respectable amount about it. If you have any questions or clarifications, I'd love to answer them, after I call my very religious grandfather!
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Akbok