General Essay on Shinto

'Shinto' is a broad term with no agreed meaning. From the beginnings of Japanese recorded history up to 1868, shrine-based religious activities in Japan which might be termed 'Shinto' were more or less thoroughly intermingled with Buddhism, to the extent that a separate Shinto tradition cannot easily be identified. The chart shows how the non-Japanese sources of Shinto (mainly influences from China, such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism) mingled with indigenous Japanese traditions. This mingling of traditions was symbolised by the building of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dedicated to local spirits, sometimes ancestors. Buddhism and local traditions became thoroughly assimilated, often through the integration of neighbouring temples and shrines. From this matrix emerged several sectarian lineages within Japanese religion which involved Shinto shrine priests who were often simultaneously Buddhist monks. Examples of such developments are Ryobu Shinto, Sanno-ichijitsu Shinto, Suika Shinto, Watarai Shinto and Yui-itsu Shinto.

In the Edo or Tokugawa period (1600-1868) popular movements and scholarly trends emerged focusing respectively on shrines and ancient mythological texts. Watarai Shinto based at the outer shrine of Ise dedicated to the kami Toyouke incorporated Buddhist and Confucian ideas and focused popular devotion towards the shrine of the sun goddess Amaterasu at Ise. At approximately 60-year intervals, millions of people spontaneously left their homes and work and set out for Ise on mass pilgrimages known as okage-mairi (blessings visits), hoping for 'world-renewal' and relief from oppression. Meanwhile Kokugaku ('national learning') scholars were rediscovering ancient Japanese texts which emphasised the divine descent of the imperial family from Amaterasu. Their efforts provided an intellectual basis for the development of Japanese nationalism and the 'restoration' of the emperor in the 19th century.

Japanese religion underwent radical changes after the country was opened to Western technology and ideas and began to industrialise rapidly in the mid-19th century. In 1868 a new form of constitutional government, headed by the emperor, replaced the feudal rule of the shoguns. The power of traditional Buddhism was broken by reforms known as shinbutsu bunri (separation of kami and Buddhas) and a new kind of Shinto was created in the Taikyo (great teaching) movement of 1870-1884 which emphasised civic duty and devotion to the emperor as a divinity. In the 1890's Shinto was declared non-religious, meaning that adherence to emperor-worshipping Shinto was the sacred constitutional duty of every citizen, not an optional 'religion'. In the early 1900's about half of the then 200,000 shrines in Japan were closed in government-imposed 'shrine mergers'.

The 'Emperor System', also known as State Shinto united the Japanese people behind the emperor in the country's drive towards modernisation and acquisition of an overseas empire. From 1868 to 1945 the idea that emperor-worshipping Shinto was the unique - and ancient - religion of Japan was successfully promoted through the national education system. This19th-century image of Shinto as an ancient national religion is, as a result, widespread even today. By the time the military took control of government in the 1930's Shinto-based nationalism permeated every aspect of Japanese life and was influencing the teachings and practices of all other religions in Japan.

Some 19th century new religious movements and shrine-supporters' associations were for various reasons designated 'Shinto sects'. These included Tenrikyo, Konkokyo, Kurozumikyo and others including Shinto Taikyo. In the post-war period some have repudiated their earlier Shinto identity, while other Shinto-style movements have arisen.

Japan's post-war constitution, promulgated during the Occupation (1946-1951) provides for religious freedom USA-style, in which religion and state are strictly separated. There is no longer official government support for Shinto. Shinto shrines compete and occasionally cooperate with Buddhist temples, Christian churches and numerous new religious movements in the 'marketplace' of religions in contemporary Japan. Some Shinto leaders seek to preserve the notion that Shinto has a special relationship to national life through its enshrinement of the war dead. 'Shinto' today broadly refers to 'shrine shinto' (jinja shinto) which means customary religious activities such as shrine visits, purification rites and numerous festivals focusing on a loose nationwide network of local and regional shrines dedicated to divinities known as kami. The institutional 'separation' of Shinto and Buddhism is still evident in Japan, and most people are unaware that until 1868 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were more or less fully integrated with each other. However, most people attend both Shinto shrines (for purification, marriage etc.) and Buddhist temples (for funerals and memorial rites) as appropriate, without any sense of contradiction. Despite the institutional reforms of the 19th century Buddhas and kami are not separated in the mind of the ordinary worshipper.


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