I wrote about traditional Shinto in the second article of this sixth chapter to help explain the awareness and way of thinking of Japanese people. In response to that, I received questions about the multitudinous Shinto deities and shrines from Japanese readers as well as non-Japanese readers. This indicates that in the current situation of Japan even Japanese people don't know much about Japan, as the title of this series of articles suggests.
Due to the limited space, I leave the explanation of the Shinto deities and shrines to experts, and in this article I will take the liberty of writing about the changing face of Shinto in the long history of Japan.
Shinto itself has been changing in the long course of history, both in terms of what it is and also of interpretations of what it is. Japanese people gained knowledge and learned technology from people of mainland China, including refugees who came to Japan when political upheavals occurred in China. At the same time, Japanese adopted Buddhism and Confucianism, which were the main religion and philosophy of the mainland people, and assimilated Buddhas and gods to Shinto. We tend to think the doctrines of a traditional religion are consistent from the beginning, but they change with changes of the times and society, or in accordance with intentions of governors or rulers in a particular time.
This is true for Shinto. In the late 19th century, a period of a big turning point of Japanese history when the regime was changed from the Tokugawa Shogunate to the new Meiji government, the Meiji government reformulated the traditional Shinto and made it the state religion to support imperial government and emperor worship. Subsequently, the government used Shinto for political purposes until the end of WWII, starting with the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1905). Shinto of this era is referred to as State Shinto, and this is the Shinto that many people imagine when they hear the word "Shinto," regardless of whether that are foreigners or Japanese. What I wish to be understood clearly is that State Shinto was created by the Meiji government and is different from original Shinto.
After the war, in Japan, people tended to feel alienated from Shinto because it played a role in promoting the war. In particular, those who were students of elementary school or junior high school in the immediate postwar years were taught that Shinto is a bellicose, rightist mode of thought. Together with the dire experiences of the war, this education led many people to negative feelings toward Shinto. Most such people, however, don't know original Shinto and confuse it with the State Shinto that was exploited in the war years.
Although original Shinto has important elements underlying Japanese history, culture and the mindset of people, a disastrous memory of the war and a fundamental misunderstanding of Shinto has thus negatively affected people's attitude toward Shinto since the end of the war. As a result, sad to say, Shinto today is merely a kind of ceremonial event such as a new year's visit to a shrine (hatsumode), a visit to a shrine when a baby is born (omiyamairi), or a festival for 3-year-old boys and girls, 5-year-old boys and 7-year-old girls (shichigosan). This situation has been preventing Japanese people who were born in the postwar era from understanding their own country's deeper historical and cultural roots.
The original Shinto is a loose system of rituals and ceremonial etiquette of those who came to and settled in this island country intended to promote awe or show respect for Nature, including the Cosmos. It is not a "religion" or set of beliefs. Japanese people in ancient times thought that a kami or "god" inhabited every living thing and that all phenomena were manifestations of kami. Therefore, there are multitudinous deities in Japan. Activities to express their gratitude to these kami for peaceful daily life and a bumper harvest comprised Shinto - "the way of the kami - and were part of the lives of Japanese people. However, reasons why so many people misunderstand Shinto may stem from existence of so many "gods" and an incorrect understanding of the word "god" itself.
Originally, the kami or "gods" of Shinto are the fundamental energy that created the universe, and all activities of the Cosmos and Nature are fundamental energy of the cosmos, or the expressions of kami. A number of the kami portrayed in Japanese myths are clearly a manifestation of fundamental energy of the cosmos. We, as descendants of the kami, also embody such fundamental energy of the Cosmos. This underlies the original respect toward ancestors of the Japanese and is the fundamental basis of Shinto. In some sense, I feel this way of thinking is similar to the latest theories of quantum mechanics.
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