SHINTOA Portrait by Naofusa Hirai Professor at Kokugakuin University, Tokyo (Emeritus); assistance was graciously provided by Professor H. Byron Earhart of Western Michigan University
Shinto is the national religion of Japan. It is more vividly observed in the social life of the people, or in personal motivations, than as a firmly established theology or philosophy; yet it has been closely connected with the value system and ways of thinking and acting of the Japanese people.
Modern Shinto can be roughly classified into three types: Shrine Shinto, Sectarian Shinto and Folk Shinto. "Shrine Shinto" has been in existence from the prehistoric ages to the present and constitutes a main current of Shinto tradition. Until the end of 1945, it included State Shinto within its structure and even now has close relations with the emperor system. "Sectarian Shinto" is a relatively new movement based on the Japanese religious tradition, and is represented by the 13 major sects which originated in Japan around the 19th century. Each of the 13 sects has either a founder or a systematizer who organized the religious
New Shinto sects which appeared in Japan after World War II are conveniently included in this type. "Folk Shinto" is an aspect of Japanese folk belief which is closely related to Shinto. It has neither a firmly organized religious body nor any doctrinal formulas, and includes small roadside images, agricultural rites of individual families, and so on. These three types of Shinto are interrelated: Folk Shinto exists as the substructure of Shinto faith, and a Sectarian Shinto follower is usually a parishioner of a certain shrine of Shrine Shinto at the same time. The majority of Japanese people are simultaneously believers of both Shrine Shinto and Buddhism.
The number of Sectarian Shintoists is about ten million. In North America, Shinto exists mainly among some people of Japanese descent. The center of Japanese myths consists of tales about Amaterasu Omikami (usually translated as "Sun Goddess"), the ancestress of the Imperial Family, and tales of how her direct descendants unified the nation under her authority. At the beginning of Japanese mythology, a divine couple named Izanagi and Izanami, the parents of Amaterasu, gave birth to the Japanese islands as well as to the deities who became ancestors of various clans. Here we can see an ancient Japanese inclination to regard the nature around us as offspring from the same parents.
This view of nature requires us to reflect on our conduct toward the pollution of the earth. The same myth also tells us that if we trace our lineage to its roots, we find ourselves as descendants of "kami" (deities). In Shinto, it is common to say that humanity is "kami's child." This means that, as we see in the above mentioned myth, man has life given through kami and therefore his nature is sacred. Reinterpreting this myth more broadly in terms of our contemporary contacts with people of the world, we must revere the life and basic human rights of everyone, regardless of race, nationality, and creed, the same as our own. At the core of Shinto are beliefs in the mysterious power of kami ("musuhi" -- creating and harmonizing power) and in the way or will of kami ("makoto" -- sincerity or true heart).
> Parishioners of a Shinto shrine believe in their tutelary kami as the source of human life and existence. Each kami is believed to have a divine personality and to respond to sincere prayers. Historically, the ancient tutelary kami of each local community played an important role in combining and harmonizing different elements and powers. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), Shinto was used as a means of spiritually unifying the people during the period of repeated wars. Since the end of World War II, the age-old desire for peace has been reemphasized. Shinto in the World Today Since the Industrial Revolution, advanced countries including Japan have undergone rapid modernization in pursuit of material comforts and convenience. Unfortunately, these efforts have resulted in producing well-known critical global issues.
To cope with such issues, Shinto leaders have begun to be aware of the necessity of international cooperation and mutual aid with other peoples. In this connection, there are several challenges facing Shinto. 1. Accumulation of experience in international life, which even today is not common in Japan. 2. Acquisition of new ethical standards to join a new spiritual and cultural world community, e.g. transforming the "in-group consciousness" which is one of the characteristics of the Japanese people. Today we need to care not only for the people within our own limited group, but also for unknown people outside our own group. 3. Changing the patterns of expression for international communication. As a cultural trait, Japanese people tend to express matters symbolically rather than logically. These efforts sometimes result in misunderstanding by others. 4. Cultivation of capable Shinto leaders equipped with a good command of foreign languages and cultures.
In spite of these difficulties, Shinto has the following merits for working positively with interfaith dialogue and cooperation. 1. Shinto's notion of kami emphasizes belief in many deities, and its doctrine does not reject other religions, so it is natural for Shinto to pay respect to other religions and objects of worship. 2. Within Shinto, it is thought that nature is the place where kami dwell, and we give thanks for the blessings of nature. This attitude toward nature may be of use to religious people considering environmental problems. 3. Within Japan, there is a tradition of carefully preserving and cultivating religions which originate in other countries. Within its boundaries, various religions have practiced cooperation and harmonious coexistence. However, the emphasis of these three points is not suggesting that, at the present time, Shinto seeks a simple syncretism. Shinto leaders, while intent on the peaceful coexistence of all people, wish to preserve Shinto's distinctive features and strengthen its religious depths.
About 20 years ago, Shinto leaders, together with people of other religions, initiated various activities for the purpose of international religious dialogue and cooperation. Since the first assembly of The World Conference on Religion and Peace was opened in Kyoto in 1970, important figures within the Shinto world have participated both in Japan and abroad in the meetings of World Conference on Religion and Peace, International Association for Religious Freedom and others. Jinja Honcho, the Association of Shinto Shrines, which includes about 99 percent of Shinto shrines, initiated in 1991 an International Department for the purpose of international exchange and cooperation. One noteworthy movement in Japan is the "offer a meal movement." Supporters of this movement give up one meal (usually breakfast) at least once each month, and donate the equivalent expense through their religious organization.
This money is used by the organization for international relief and other activities. This movement was begun in 1970s by the new religion Shoroku-Shinto-Yamatoyama; believers of Misogikyo (Sectarian Shinto) and Izumo Taisha (Shrine Shinto) have been doing the same for several years. Among Buddhists, Rissho Kosei-kai has actively advanced the same movement. While it is not easy to continue this practice, the participants have said "At first we thought this was for the sake of others, but actually we noticed this is the way to strengthen our own faith."