What is Shinto?
Shinto (神道 Shintō) is a nature-based faith of Japan. The term ‘Shinto’ is composed of the two kanji 神 (Shin or Kami – meaning the divine) and 道 (To/Do or Michi– meaning the way, method or path). Therefore ‘Shinto’ means ‘The way of the Kami/Divine’ and is also known as ‘Kami-no-Michi’.
Shinto is an ancient faith and has existed even before there was a name for it. It appears to have originally been a mix of native Japanese folk beliefs and various aspects imported from elsewhere in Asia. It is a belief system based around nature (Great Nature) and how ancient humans related to it.
Shinto is an animistic faith and believes that spirits (known as kami) are present in everything. Shinto does not offer to provide an understanding of how nature and the world work – it instead encourages us to explore the divine for ourselves through ritual and experience.
You can read more about Shinto beliefs here:
- Belief and reverence of Great Nature: Shinto is a nature-based faith and so nature is incredibly important to the daily lives of its followers. We see the beauty in all things and are aware of the balance and harmony in nature. We believe that it is when things become unbalanced that disasters can occur.
- Belief in Kami: Kami are spirits/forces of nature which exist in everything that is natural. They are not the same as the Western idea of a god, though this is often used to translate the word kami. Kami can also be good or evil. They possess the same qualities of humans and are as reliant on us as we are them.
- The Concept of Purity: We believe that spiritual impurity can be caused by various things, but most often pollution (physical, moral or spiritual), disease, disaster or contact with the dead. We regularly purify ourselves through prayer to the kami and a ritual bath called misogi.
- The Importance of Ritual: Shinto ceremonies and ritual are considered sacred to the kami. By performing ritual and norito (prayers), we show our appreciation and reverence to the kami.
- Sincerity (Makoto): Sincerity is at the heart of Shinto belief. As long as we are sincere and honest, then the kami will help us.
- The Universe is a Single Unified Creation: We believe that spirit exists in the same world as us and is not separated. There is however, considered to be a visible world (kenkai) and an invisible world (yukai). The invisible world is considered to be an extension of the visible world and not a separate realm.
Do you need to be Japanese to be Shinto?
Absolutely not! Shinto is a faith which is open to all, regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality or background. Although there are some individuals who do believe Shinto should be just for the Japanese, this is seen as being against the core principles of the religion and is an outdated opinion. In fact there are several International groups dedicated to spreading information about Shinto and many shrines outside of Japan itself.
Do you need to speak Japanese or have visited Japan to be Shinto?
Of course not! Japanese is a very complicated language and not everyone has access or the time to learn. Although many norito (prayers) are performed in Japanese, they often are accompanied with an English translation in books. If you do want to read the norito in the original Japanese it is possible to simply learn the pronunciation of the syllables – most norito are available written in romanized Japanese (romaji). Japanese pronunciation is very simple to learn and you can also listen to many of the norito recited on Youtube to get an idea of what they sound like.
Visiting Shinto shrines in Japan is the dream of many of us non-Japanese Shinto followers but unfortunately this is an incredibly expensive goal! Many of us visit Japan at least once every few years, but others may go through their whole lifetime without being able to visit. Although Shinto is heavily centered in Japan, you can of course be a member of the faith without visiting shrines. Thankfully with resources such as YouTube, English-language books and many websites and blogs (like this one!) it is fairly easy to get as much information as Shinto and Japan as possible without visiting the country itself.
How can I obtain a kamidana, ofuda etc?
The absolute best place to obtain ritual items is at a Shinto shrine. Not all shrines carry items, but most sell at least ofuda (paper ‘tablets’ that contain the essence of the shrine’s kami) and omamori (charms). Larger shrines also sell kamidana and other shrine objects such as fox statues. If you know someone who is visiting Japan, maybe you can get them to pick something up for you!
For those who have no access to buying directly from a shrine in Japan (and many do not have English language pages or ship internationally), there are alternatives:
Tsubaki Shrine of America http://www.tsubakishrine.org/
Sell kamidana, ofuda, omamori and other items. They ship internationally!
Shusse Inari Shrine http://shusseinarishrine.org/
Inari shrine based in California. They sell kamidana, ofuda, omamori etc specifically for the kami Inari-Okami.
There are also other places you can purchase from who ship international, though it is advised to at least get the ofuda itself directly from a shrine.
Amazon.jp: Amazon sell various Shinto items if you know what to look for! A knowledge of Japanese would be an advantage but it is also possible to navigate the website in English by clicking the small language bar icon.