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  Shinto is a Chinese corruption of the Japanese expression kami no michi (‘way of the kami’), and is a descriptive rather than prescriptive name for the religion of Japan. Kami is often translated as ‘gods’ in the West, but in fact derives from the word for ‘higher’, ‘lifted up’ or ‘more special’ beings, with no particular supernatural implications. Kami refers to the power in everything in creation which makes it uniquely itself, the immanence of each object. There are thus kami of places, stones, natural phenomena such as storms, and qualities such as mercy or anger. Ancient Shinto teachers said that there were eight million million kami, and that each deserved respect if not reverence. Thus, in worshipping the kami, a human being is in fact responding to and helping to sustain the harmony of the universe, in which everything has its allotted place and function.

Although Shinto is bound up with the gods and spirits of the most ancient Japanese religion, of itself it has no founder, specific creed, sacred scripture or prescribed system of worship. (Its festivals and ceremonies are either adapted from other systems, particularly Buddhism and Daoism, or are 19th-century creations intended both to evoke and to codify traditional religious practices of the past.) In essence, since kami are everything and everywhere, simply to accept the world as it is is a form of worship. In practice, there are innumerable shrines, each with its own indwelling kami, and prayer and sacrifice are offered at each of them. Three particular kinds of kami are worshipped in particular. First are the ujigami (‘clan-ancestors’). The oldest of these are Amaterasu, the Sun-goddess, and Izanami and Isanagi, the male and female creator-spirits. Second are the takami-musubi and kami-musubi, creative powers responsible for such things as growth, ‘straightening’, ‘twisting’ and so on, the omoikani-kami which gives wisdom, and the kami of natural objects, animals and insects. Third are the souls of past leaders and sages: human beings who because of their outstanding powers have become important figures in the spirit world, and who take an interest, benevolent or malevolent, in events of the here-and-now.

Although Shinto, as an essentially personal religion, is fluid and undogmatic, its philosophy and public practice are subject to periodic reassessments and recodifications. The most important took place in the 8th century, when two books, the Kojiki (‘Records of ancient matters’) and Nihongi (‘Chronicles of Japan’) were compiled. These set out the earliest myths and beliefs of Japan, and hence of Shinto, with an aura of comment and speculation which set, so to speak, the philosophical and intellectual agenda of Shinto. The books, though not canonical, are still regarded as the most important of all Shinto writings. A second major reassessment of Shinto occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was hauled into line not merely as a religion but as the foundation of the entire Japanese state. Central to this process was a belief that each emperor was divine, a direct lineal descendant of Jimmu, the (mortal) great-grandson of Amaterasu herself. Thus, the Imperial family, and through it every person in the state, was directly linked to the most vital force in the universe, in a way which lent itself to hierarchies and forms of etiquette of every kind. Continuity and order in human affairs had always seemed a paradigm of harmony in the universe, and when this idea was married to precise forms of ritual, centred on the Emperor\'s person and to specific holy places, sacred and secular became inextricably entwined—or so it seemed. The possibilities in such a belief for social structuring are obvious, and go a long way to explain the huge public sense of despair when Emperor Hirohito was stripped of divine status, and state and religion were divorced forever, after World War II.

Japan is now officially a pluralist society, and Shinto fulfils a largely ceremonial and theatrical role in public affairs. But at a local and personal level, the sense of cohesion which Shinto gives to families and to the people in general, no less than the prayers and visits to shrines which are so much part of ordinary Japanese life, make it still a major and a vital force in Japanese life. KMcL

Further reading W.G. Aston, Shinto: the Way of the Gods; , Jean Herbert, Shinto: at the Fountainhead of Japan.



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