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A Shintoism Overview

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I was born in Nagano, Japan. I moved to America when I was 2, where I received a BA from Connecticut College before returning to Japan.

At the Shinto shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu

This was taken at the very impressive Shinto shrine that houses Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the famous Tokugawa shogunate.

This was taken at the very impressive Shinto shrine that houses Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the famous Tokugawa shogunate.

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

Data taken from
For some reason the only page that had actual percentages was the 2006 report. This is most likely due to the fact that because many Japanese practice multiple religions, getting accu

ReligionPercentage 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 an article 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 Temizuya

A close up of the ladles and water, both important tools to cleanse yourself before entering a shrine.

A close up of the ladles and water, both important tools to cleanse yourself before entering a shrine.

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: Wooden Tablets Used by Shrine Visitors to Write Prayers

A frontal view of the ema

A frontal view of the ema

A side view of the ema

A side view of the ema

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

Taken at the southern Suwa lake shrine

Taken at the southern Suwa lake 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

Sum Up

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 article 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!

Tidying up at a Shinto shrine that's about a 5 minute walk from my house.  My family a couple of generations back built it.  Humble but cool!

Tidying up at a Shinto shrine that's about a 5 minute walk from my house. My family a couple of generations back built it. Humble but cool!

© 2011 Akbok


Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on May 04, 2012:

Thanks a bunch Bob. Regarding the connection between SW and Shintoism, I honestly have no idea. It seems to draw some similarities though, what with the inner spark that exists in both. Interesting connection, and although they might not be entirely tied I'm sure one could consider SW partially influenced. Thanks for reading, and I appreciate the comment!

Civil War Bob from Glenside, Pennsylvania on April 29, 2012:

Good introductory hub, Akbok...voted up, useful, interesting. Your description of kami and musubi make me think of the Jedi and the Force of Star that anywhere close to its intent or am I thinking in too Western a fashion? Grace to you!

rty on March 01, 2012:


Dr Freddie Haddox from a Franklin, Tennessee native, who travels globally. on July 10, 2011:

Shinto is a way of life. I lived in Gotemba for 4 years, climbed Mt. Fuji 4 times, and was able to spend time with Japanese rice and tea growers. While living at the base of Mt. Fuji, studying karate, working with the farmers and taking it all in, I came to a better understanding of Shinto. One has to live it. Dr. Haddox

Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on July 06, 2011:

Daneastside: Thank you much.

Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on July 06, 2011:

Ritsos: I think you're referring to State Shinto, which is a wee bit different from what I wrote about here. During the Meiji revolution (I'm pretty sure) the government decided to take Shinto as the official state religion, and kind of used it to their own ends to unify the country and such. The Shintoism in this Hub, however, is commonly referred to as Shrine Shinto. Maybe I'll write a Hub about the differences!

Tillsontitan: Thanks a bunch! I'm glad my very cursory introduction into Shintoism was satisfactory. I honestly felt bad about taking such an old religion and trying to fit it into a single Hub.

Anunez49: Thanks for stopping by.

Marebear2410: Yes I agree, Shintoism is kind of under looked in most discussions regarding religion (by the pool or over dinner). After getting asked a lot of questions by my friends upon visiting Shinto shrines, I decided to finally put together a brief introduction. Thanks for reading!

Chefsref: Happy you stopped by. I'll take a look at your Hub and let you know what I think.

Ctbrown7: Thanks a lot, and I can only hope that I did it justice.

Johncimble: Thanks!

Bubblegum Senpai: Yeah, Japanese religion takes quite a bit of time to read up on. Hopefully this Hub will help you on your way to a very arduous scholarly journey :). Thanks for reading!

Nigel Kirk from Calgary, AB, CAN on July 05, 2011:

Great Hub! I'm actually reading up Japanese religion right now, so this made the homepage in perfect timing!

Thank you very much!

johncimble from Bangkok on July 04, 2011:

awesome :)

ctbrown7 on July 04, 2011:

This is one religion I knew nothing about. Thanks for posting it.

Lee Raynor from Citra Florida on July 04, 2011:

Hey Akbok

Interesting Hub, I know a little more about Shintoism now.

I just wrote a Hub about Japanese food, perhaps you would check it out and point out any mistakes.



Marebear2410 on July 04, 2011:

Shintoism is an interesting and important religion that many people aren't familiar with. Thank you for taking the time to put this together, it is very well written! Voted up :)

anunez49 from New York on July 04, 2011:

Amazing hub!

Mary Craig from New York on July 04, 2011:

Excellent introduction to Shintoism! You did a great job of skimming the surface. Voted up and useful.

Ritsos from Nottingham UK on July 04, 2011:

Mmm didn't Shinto back the Japanese Military in WW2 ?

Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on July 04, 2011:

Peter Lumetta: I was sort of in the same boat as you when I first started writing this Hub. I remember being told what to do when visiting Shinto shrines by my family, but not really having the history or reason explained to me. I'm glad you took the time to read my Hub and, needless to say, I'm ecstatic that you're now complete!

Melpor: Thanks a bunch, and I have to admit I learned a decent amount myself when researching for this Hub. Growing up I've been to a bunch of Shinto shrines, but never really knew the reason behind the practices. Glad you stopped by.

Melvin Porter from New Jersey, USA on July 04, 2011:

Good hub. I learned a lot from reading this. I now have a better understanding of Shintoism. Thanks.

PETER LUMETTA from KENAI, ALAKSA on July 04, 2011:

I've always wondered what Shintoism was about and now I basically know. I admire the Japanese culture and life style and have been there many times. Now I am complete.

Thanks, Peter

Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on April 21, 2011:

Jhangora:From the research I've done on Kami, it seems like there is no particular number. According to a Shinto priest, we apparently are all kami, since we all possess the energy that makes kami great. Further, since everything that exists contains "musubi", basically everything is, fundamentally, kami. It's better to think of it not as counting gods, but counting instances and occurences of musubi (which would be like saying, "count everything that exists"). As for the number of okami, I did a Japanese google search and had a hard time finding any sites where "Okami" was used directly. I did however find a list of Gods according to Japanese mythology (the ones that you wrote hubs about were listed here) and the list was quite long. Although it's in Japanese, you can see here how many there are:

I'll continue to research this though, and let you know if I find anything

Dinesh Mohan Raturi from Dehradun on April 18, 2011:

While writing Hubs on Shinto Okami I was a bit confused regarding their total number. I know that the number of Kami is said to be in millions, but what is the exact number of Okami and what are their names?

Ruthcurley from Bozrah, CT on April 14, 2011:

This was a clear consise overview. Very useful. I liked the varied examples. The two religions always seem to get mixed up in Japan so it is hard to get a clear understanding.I liked the video. Never hear that story.


JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on April 14, 2011:

You did your research! I first ran across these topics in a Modern East Asia class that I took in college. Great Job!