Shinto - a Philosophical Introduction

Do not read the US government's explanation of Shinto. It is wrong! You will only find the following, correct, explanation here! This is a potted version of my master's thesis, published for the first time here on the internet. The views expressed here are my own and have no connection to the The Shinto Online Network Association, for which I am the International Liaison Officer.

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Is Shinto a religion?

A lot of people who are religious like to deny it. "Me? I am not religious", they say, "I know that Jesus is Lord... But that is not religious, it is a historical fact". They say. And Shintoist too, are particularly unlikely to see their behaviour as being "religious". They may have had their car purified, they may have asked their local god for good luck before their university entrance examinations or making investments, they are likely to go to a shrine every year on New Year's Day. But if asked if they are religious they will say, "Who me? This is not religion. This is just a custom. Just, well, the normal thing to do". ho ho.

To verify the fact that Shinto practitioners do not see their behavior as being religious, I carried out a survey asking visitors to a Shinto shrine "Do you believe in God?", "Are you religious?", and "How much money would I have to pay you to go home today without having prayed?". While those that answered "yes" to the first two questions were in the minority, to the third question, all except one of the 40 respondents replied "I would not do home without praying, no matter how much money you gave me." It was apparent that some of the some of the respondents were slightly offended to be asked. The single respondent that would have excepted the money to go home without praying defined himself as a Christian.

From this it is clear that: those that practice Shinto do not regard it as a religion, but neither to they regard their behaviour as entirely secular and mundane. The reasons why Shinto is not seen as a religion are various. Principally, the image of a religion held by many Japanese is of an organisation which one joins, and which stipulates various ways in which one should behave according to some kind of teaching or scripture. If Shinto had an organisation once it lacks one now. Shinto has always lacked a scripture, other than the myths which explain the origin of Japan but are not proscriptive in any way. Other than myths and legends of this sort Shinto has hardly any oral tradition. Lacking an organisation and any linguistic formulation of how one should behave, Shinto is particularly transparent. Rather than an oral tradition all Shinto seems to possess is a bodily tradition - one sees the body of another, one imitates, the practice is transferred. Prayer is matter of movement - before god one bows twice, claps ones hands twice and bows again. The festivals of Shinto are predominantly linked to the calendar - the new years festival, the harvest festival - and thus do not seem to require any justification by scripture or as commemorative event.

While Shinto is very different from the Judaic religions and even Indian Buddhism, it does in my view contain sufficient points of commonality to allow it to be compared these and to be called a religion. In Shinto there is prayer to and worship of something transcendent, not part of the mundane physical world. And more than this, Shinto like Christianity and other world religions has, I believe, a structure which structures Japanese society and in particular the family, in much the same way as the "philosophy" of Christianity structures the societies of the Christian West.

Geographical Totemism

To cut a long story short, I think that Shinto can be best be understood as a form of geographical totemism  as referred to by Durkheim and Freud. As mentioned above the sacred in Shinto is almost invariably linked with a particular geographical location. In Shinto, God is something that you can point to, it is "there". The shrine or "jinja" is contains or enshrines a thing, but it is also a sacred site. The god-body of the shrine may be a mountain, a tree, a rock or other natural feature but most importantly it will be the thing in that place. And that place have create a possess a particular atmosphere. The god or gods that resides there may have certain qualities to bestow certain benefits. But above all the fundamental characteristic of a shrine is geographically defined point in space. Every aspect of the sacred site: its approach, its boundaries, its layers are all delineated in such a way as to emphasise its located-ness. The Entering the boundary one washes ones hands and mouth. One steps into the in sanctuary with ones left foot first and before one leaves one bows. Generally speaking, traditionally one worships only the god or gods of shrine located in the geographical proximity of ones home. And most importantly, one considers oneself to be the child of that shrine, that location.

It is a striking thing to believe, to believe oneself to be the child of a location. Freud and Durkheim considered a similar form of "geographical totemism" to be the most "primitive", the earliest form of religion found in human society since, in the societies of central Australia the tribesmen denied the existence of fatherhood. Here I will not consider the possible connections between worship a place and the absence of the belief in fatherhood except to note that fatherhood often said to be have been weak through out Japanese history (other than the Meiji & pre-war period) and even "absent" in present day Japan. Instead I concentrate simply on the localised nature of Shinto and show how this reflects, and may be said to have had a profound affect on Japanese society.

Japanese Society and Place

The title of Nakane Chie's tremendously popular book on Japanese society "Tateshakai no Ningen Kankei" (Human relationships in a Vertically Orientated Society) seems to be describing Japan as a hierarchy -- a misapprehension that the Nakane was at pains to correct in her subsequent publications -- made the following two assertions. The fundamental building block of Japanese society is not the individual in the Western sense but the small group. The distinguishing characteristic of Japanese small groups is that they contain the essential element of a space, a place where they are founded. A few example few examples of way in which an importance placed on places are as follows :

In sum, we may go as far as to say that in Japan, due to the polytheistic geographically located nature of its religion Shinto, there is no universal god nor are there universal rules. There are instead locationally defined norms of behaviour.
Shinto and the Japanese Family

The connection between these features of Japanese society and Shinto should be clear. The worship of sacred sites encourages the Japanese to have certain values and certain ways of seeing organisation - particularly in spatial terms. People are seen as being linked together by the fact that they share the same environment, the same atmosphere, the same space. The maintenance of such spaces and environments is considered to be important. The religion Shinto fostered that way of perceiving the world. And that way of perceiving the world encouraged the Japanese people to maintain the Shinto religion. In the specific case of the family, family members are defined by, and bound to the family by their shared attitude toward the home. They are people that go home to a particular place and strive to maintain and improve the conditions therein. By so doing they believe that they will live happily and harmoniously according to their nature. This is simply, from a Shinto view point, what humans do. Or rather this is simply what is natural for Japanese humans, that is to say humans that are from the geographical region Japan. The concept of "human" is a non spatially limited and therefore, under this world view, somewhat bogus. Americans, who have grown up in a different environment, are different.

I have defined Shinto as a form of geographic totemism and in turn as spacio-centrism or place orientated-ness. But is this enough? How much does structure does a society need? The principles of Christianity are fairly simple. Humans are all children of one god and they all have the same good - to "love", where "love" is considered to be a unity and even god itself). This formula is simple and yet sufficient to organise societies in a very different to and yet they are enough to organise western society, and indeed the Western family, in different way to Japan. Upon the principle of love Western men and women may be united in marriage under the presumption of having the same, Christian, goal.

From a Japanese point of view this Christianity's supposed goal is bogus since men and women are seen to have different goals. Just as from a Christian view point it is bogus to think that humans have the natural propensity to create and delineated, sacred places.

Shinto And Postmodern Philosophy
There is a lot that could be said about the connection between Shinto and postmodern philosophy. It was this apparent connection that originally interested me in the study of Shinto in the first place. I have not done it justice but it is a start.

Books on Shinto
If you really want to know about shinto then come to Japan. If you don't have then time to come to Japan then you could try reading some books on Shinto in Japanese. If you don't have the time to learn Japanese then there is nothing for it but to read some books on Shinto in English- but beware of anyone like me, that would tell you what Shinto is, or even what Shinto is not.

Some Shinto Links (Partly thanks to Michael Critz)

Basic Terms of Shinto. An online searchable dictionary provided by Kokugakuin University. With some photographs.

Cyber Shrine Photographs of shrines in my, the Northern Kyushu region and the chance to pull a Shinto Fortune cookie.

Ise Shrine The shrine of the Sun goddess and as such, of the ancestor of the emperors, and the most sacred place in Japan, maybe.

The international Shinto Foundation I thought that this was purely an academic organisation, and it does hold academic conferences but I have also heard rumour that it is rather partisan and a little like a religions organisation in itself. And why not. Includes a brief answer to the question "What is Shinto"

A Brief History of Shinto There are lots of histories of Shinto but there are few philosophies of Shinto. One always comes away from books about it knowing a lot of facts about the thing but not what it is. This is a pretty Shinto way of describing Shinto.

Shauweckers Guide to Shinto A good glossary of terms and introduction to the fundamental beliefs.

Shinto: The Way of the Gods By N. Alice Yamada Another introduction to Shinto with some nice photographs.

Osamu's Shinto World of Enlightenment In Japanese and English (side by side) with an invitation to read his as yet unpublished book on Shinto

Tsubaki America Shrine A shrine in continental America that sells Shinto related supplies. Address: 1545 West Alpine - Stockton CA 95204, ph. 209-466-5323 - fax. 209-463-1826, email:

Kannagara Jinjya A shrine in continental America that sells Shinto related supplies. Rev.  Koichi Barrish, 17720 Crooked Mile Rd. - Granite Falls, WA 98252, ph. 360-691-6389 - fax. 360-691-638. email:

Shinto Mailing list
I am the moderator for the English version of the Shinto Online Network Association ML. You are welcome to join if you are interested in Shinto, whether or not you know anything about Shinto and whatever the level of your English. Kannushisan ha tokuni kanngeishimasu.

The Cool Part about Shinto

Will have to wait to next time. It is cool though.
The more I think about it the more I think that I don't think that I am ever going to write this.
The beauty of Shinto is a secret. You have to try it to find out.

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