Japanese Religion (I): Shintoism and Shrines

Japanese Religion (I): Shintoism and Shrines

If you’ve watched Japanese comics, and TV series, you must be no stranger to a Japanese shrine. The ember red Torii is one of the iconic symbols representing Japan. It even has a character that can be typed! (⛩). As a place of worship, the Japanese shrine is inseparable from Shinto - the native religion of Japan. It is the largest religion in Japan and has millions of believers.

What is Shintoism?

Shinto Shrine

In Japanese, the word “Shinto” consists of two parts: “Shin” means “god” or “spirits” and “to” means “way” or “path”. Though the word “god” appears, Shinto is different from monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam; 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 (around 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”. Shinto has no set beliefs. In this respect, Shinto is hard to be regarded as a religion because of the lack of a sacred text, specific doctrine, and official founders. It’s a belief of many guiding creeds. That’s why many Japanese do not consider themselves Shintoist even though they follow the creeds and engage in activities at shrines.

What is the Shrine?

Japanese Shrine

Shinto Shrines are the abode of kami and a place of worship. Here are some stuff and structures you may find in shrines:

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 are made of different materials and come in different colors and shapes.

Komainu: Komainu is a pair of lion-dog figures of stone. They are placed at the entrances of shrines as guardians.

Ema: If taken literally, ema would mean "picture-horse". They are small wooden plates in the Shrine for visitors to write down their wishes.

Omikuji: Omikuji is fortune-telling paper. Prophecy about health, fortune, life, and love is written on a slip of paper, which varies from very lucky fortunes to very unlucky fortunes.

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 pass through a Torii gate, bow once in front of it. It’s not compulsory. However, if you want to show your respect, you should do that. Do not go through the Torii in the exact middle - walk a little to the the right or the left of the center.

2. Purify: There will be a washbasin near the entrance. Clean your hands and mouth with the water in it before you enter the shrine.

3. Pray: If you want to pray to the kami at the shrine, you can do it in 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 your hands together, and bow again. It’s the polite and devout way to pray for good luck!

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