A 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."