Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Religious beliefs and observances native to and preeminently practiced in Japan. Shinto beliefs and practices are found in a variety of forms. Shrine Shinto (Jinja Shinto), previously associated with the state, has a priesthood associated with Shinto shrines. Sect Shinto (Kyoha Shinto) refers to several sects in the Shinto tradition that arose in the nineteenth century. What might be termed Folk Shinto (Minzoku Shinto) refers to a host of beliefs and practices with no formal structure associated with Shinto tradition. Shinto has no formal doctrine but is composed of an assortment of beliefs and practices, including veneration of ancestors and spirits.

Early Japanese religious practice was not called Shinto until Buddhism was introduced to Japan (officially in 552 C.E.). The name Shinto means way of the kami , as distinguished from Butsudo , or the way of the Buddha. Kami , loosely translated, refers to one of an assortment of spirits that range from deities to deified clan founders, warriors, leaders, and forces of nature. Early Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist thought had considerable influence on Shinto practice. However, the precise extent of this influence on native Japanese belief and practice is unclear, as no known record of Shinto beliefs antedates the introduction of writing by the Chinese. Two early recordings of Shinto myths, the Kijiki (Record of Ancient Matters, dating from around 712) and the Nihonshoki Chronicles of Japan , dating from about 720, while not delineating dogma, are considered somewhat sacred texts in Shinto.

Shinto practice fell out of official favor during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868; see Bellah 1985). During this time, Buddhism and neo-Confucianism were adopted by the Tokugawa regime as guiding ideologies. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Buddhism was disestablished. In the 1880s, religious freedom was guaranteed by the government, but Shrine Shinto was established as a nominally secular institution used by the state to transform Shinto shrines into foci of loyalty to the state.

Currently, most Japanese practice a combination of Shinto and Buddhism. Special Shinto observances are common for such important life events and rites of passage as births, weddings, and attainment of adulthood. While most Japanese participate in Shinto rituals for these events, only about 10% perform Shinto funerals, most preferring Buddhist rites. Shinto rites are performed for other important events, such as the dedication of building sites or launching of ships. There are Shinto rites for spring and harvest festivals and for other special days and times through the year.

Social scientific interest in Shinto goes back at least as far as Max Weber (1958, 1978), who examined the importance of the institution of nineteenth-century Shinto as the state religion, with its legitimation of the emperor after 1868, and as an example of a religion with a priesthood but no doctrine in the Western sense. Current social science literature has emphasized the relationship of Shinto to the state or has examined details of religious belief in Japan (e.g., Takayama 1988, Kaneko 1990).

Edward F. Breschel


R. N. Bellah, Tokugawa Religion (New York: Free Press, 1985 [1957])

S. Kaneko, "Dimensions of Religiosity Among Believers in Japanese Folk Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29(1990):1-18

K. P. Takayama, "Revitalization Movement of Modern Japanese Civil Religion," Sociological Analysis 48(1988):328-341

M. Weber, The Religion of India (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

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