Japanese Religion (I): Shinto and Shrine
If you’ve watched Japanese comics, animations, and TV series, you must be no stranger to the Japanese Shrine. The ember red Torii is one of the iconic symbols representing Japan (it even has an emoji! ⛩). As a place of worship, the Japanese shrine is inseparable from Shinto - the Japanese native religion. It is the largest religion in Japan and has millions of believers.
What is Shinto?
In Japanese, the word “Shinto” consists of two parts: “Shin” means “god” or “spirits” and “to” means “way” or “path”. Though called “God”, Shinto is different from monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Catholicism, and Islamism, rather, it is a polytheistic religion. The God that Shintoists believe in is called “Kami”. Everything can become a Kami, such as natural creatures (trees, stones, flowers, animals, etc.), natural elements (wind, water, moon, sun, etc.), natural phenomena (snow, rain, frost, etc.), artifacts (mirrors, books, clothes, etc.), ancestors, and so forth. A Kami can be animate and inanimate, good and evil, visible and invisible.
Shinto can be traced back to the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD). However, it was not until the sixth Century that Shinto got its name. Between the 5th and 8th centuries, Buddhism was introduced to Japan and gradually got popular in Japan. The term “Shinto” was designed to distinguish Japanese native religion from “Buddhism”. Similar to its name, Shinto has no certain dogmas. In this respect, Shinto is hard to be regarded as a religion because of the lack of sacred scriptures, specific dogmas, and official founders. It’s a belief of a bundle of guiding creeds. That’s why many Japanese do not consider themselves Shintoist even though they follow the creeds and engage in activities.
What is the Shrine?
Shinto Shrine is the abode of Kami and a place of worship. Here are some stuff and structures you may find in the Shrine:
Torii: Torii is the gate of the Shrine and represents the entrance to the divine realm. It is used to distinguish between the divine realm, where the Kami dwell, and the mundane world, where humans live. Torii is made of different materials and made in various colors and shapes.
Komainu: Komainu is a pair of lion-dogs figures in stone. They are placed at the entrances of the Shrine as guardians.
Ema: Literally, Ema means picture-horse. They are small wooden plates in the Shrine for visitors to write down their wishes.
Omikuji: Omikuji is fortune-telling paper tape. Prophecy about health, fortune, life, and love is written on a slip of paper, which varies from very lucky to very unlucky.
Shimenawa: It is a straw rope with zigzag white paper stripes. The rope represents the boundary that protects the good from evil, and the paper represents sacredness and purity. You can find it on the Torii, old trees, and rocks.
If you are going to visit a shrine, there are some simple rules you should follow:
1. Bow: Before you enter the Torii, bow once in front of it. It’s not compulsory. However, if you want to show your respect, you can follow the rule. Do not go through the Torii in the exact middle - walk on the right or the left of the path.
2. Purify: There will be a purification trough near the entrance. Clean your hands and mouth with the water in it before you enter the main hall.
3. Pray: If you want to pray the Kami, you should do it in front of the main hall. Throw a five yen coin into the offering box, ring the bell to greet the Kami, bow twice, clap twice, pray with Namaste, and bow. It’s the polite and devout way to pray for good luck!