Various peoples who moved to this island nation are the origin of Japanese people. They gave thanks to Nature for the land because the land was blessed with relatively warm weather, abundant water, and foods from mountains and the ocean. This animistic impulse gave rise to shamans who in many places performed rituals to calm extraordinary natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and heavy weather. As time passed, one family line of shamans led to the later Imperial Family, as many other shaman families were integrated or eliminated by natural selection.
This means that the Imperial Family was originally a shaman family whose role was to conduct rituals that prayed to the gods for peace of the country and people Ð not that of a ruler or a policy maker. Shinto was a set of rituals performed by the Emperor and was never a religion or a faith. The Imperial Family conducted rituals and is the only family that continues from before recorded history down to the present day among family lines in Japan, leaving aside the question of its actual lineage.
There have been a variety of rituals in every place in Japan since ancient times, and local people or blood-related groups people have built shrines and conducted rituals. The Imperial Family is the head of all such people who conduct rituals in each place, and has the role of conducting rituals and ceremonies for the entire nation. Although, of course, some emperors participated in the national government in the long history of Japan, basically rituals and politics were separated from ancient times. The Emperor originally had appointive power for officer ranks. But the real national government was in the hands of elite aristocrats or warriors.
In this way, the Imperial Family is the family line that has continued to pray for the prosperity and peace of the country, and has been a model of rituals and conduct of life for Japanese people since even before the nation state was formed in these islands. It is also the foundation of the spiritual life of the Japanese people. The Emperor was never a ruler or a policy maker for most Japanese people until the Edo period. And beyond that, the Emperor was never considered to be a Living God.
One of major reasons that now not only foreign people but also many modern Japanese people misunderstand the meaning of Shinto and Emperor is the existence of a personal God or gods. Emperors, aristocrats and warriors who achieved great deeds and made large contributions to the nation are enshrined as a "god" after their death, and are worshipped as personal gods. There are many shrines enshrining such figures. Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo, is a representative example of the modern era. Some people are enshrined for the opposite reason. For example, Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine enshrines Sugawara no Michizane, who bore a grudge against the Imperial Family, so as to calm his anger and quell his grudge and thus forestall future calamities.
Some versions of Shinto were influenced by the thought of Buddhism that people will be reborn in the next life or can gain benefits in this world from their belief, and turned into a faith-type religion in the long history on Shinto. In the new faith, they worshiped a personal God who enabled their wishes and dreams. Then, before they knew it, Japanese people began to not revere traditional Shinto kami and even irreverently to toss coins to the new God, as if for hire. Moreover, people forgot that kami were not originally involved in the human world, and also that not all kami were sublime in existence, as many old sayings indicate.
For a long time, the imperial institution has been the spiritual foundation of the Japanese people, through the Emperor's conducting of rituals and appointing rulers of the national government when the regime changed. And because of their appointive power, Emperors were politically used in various ways by the powers-that-be of each era.
From the late Edo period to early Meiji period, one such power, which later became the Meiji Government, turned to European constitutional monarchy for its base of legitimacy, politically used the Emperor, and transformed the original Shinto that had continued from ancient times to State Shinto. Greatly aided by this change, the modernization of Japan surely progressed rapidly. However, the fact that some political and military figures used the authority of the Emperor and State Shinto to rule the country and prosecute wars against other countries from the Meiji period until defeat in the Pacific War is a major reason that many foreign people as well as contemporary Japanese misunderstand Shinto and aspects of Japan's history even today.
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