Shintoism is the traditional religious beliefs of the Japanese people
A brief introduction and historical background of Shintoism
In truth, "religion" is a misnomer to define Shintoism. In fact, we have no official sacred texts or actual dogma. Japanese believers and practitioners are not bound by any rules and regulations and are free to live their spiritual intimacy as they see fit. In particular, it is not uncommon for many Shintoists to practice other religions such as Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, the latter being particularly widespread in the Land of the Rising Sun. Thus, we can observe a certain flexibility and homogeneity in the Shinto sphere, united and reinforced by the typical Japanese curiosity, which pushes them to contact the outside world, constantly learning new things and merging them with their own customs.
Be that as it may, Shintoism appears to have spread during the latter stages of the Jōmon period (roughly 1000 BCE to 300 BCE). Over the centuries, Shintoism played a key role in giving identity and history to Japan, which sought to establish itself as a country with a rich history of myths and legends. This was because it aspired to become a military and political power entitled to supremacy precisely because of its divine origin. Therefore, together with "Kojiki" and "Nihongi" (a collection of ancient memoirs and chronicles), Shinto doctrines contributed to the cultural and social unification of the nation, to the expansion of philosophical knowledge by integrating the study of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, and to the legitimization of the power of the all-powerful figure of the emperor.
The essence of Shintoism: kami - the concept of the sacred and nature
But what does Shintoism consist of? Let's start with the meaning of the word. The word "shin" means "deity" and "to" (in modern language it would be "do") translates to "path". Thus, Shintoism is the way of the gods. What does that mean, and who are these gods? According to mythology, the universe was ruled by five primordial entities, from which Izanagi and Izanami were born. These two, brother and sister respectively, created an island and many archipelagos - Nihon, Japan. After their descent to earth, they gave birth to hundreds and hundreds of beings like them - "kami" (gods), among whom Amaterasu, the sun goddess and one of the most powerful spirits of cosmogony, along with Tsukuyomi and Susanoo, must be mentioned. The imperial lineage is believed to be descended from the offspring of Amaterasu herself, so the offspring and figure of the emperor are sacred. This at the same time makes the "kami of the day star" the most revered and important of all.
Thus, we are confronted with the term "kami." It is difficult to translate, especially because of the spiritual concept inherent in us Westerners. However, "kami" denotes something that is very close to god, to a supernatural presence. According to Shintoism, these beings are invisible and live in the same world as us, but on a different level of being. Like the Greek pantheon, they have fully human senses and are receptive to prayers and offerings addressed to them. Many of them are identified with natural places or atmospheric phenomena, hence the Japanese view of nature as sacred.
Since kami are present almost everywhere, for Shintoists the whole world in which we live is sacred. Trees, rivers, mountains, insects, people, and rocks are honored and regarded as elements of the divine. It is no coincidence that most Shinto places of worship are located in natural or green areas. After all, nature is harmony and purification, the bright and positive side of life.
Shinto practitioners and feelers
The peculiarity of the followers and practitioners of Shinto teachings is that a person does not seek absolute truth. One lives according to personal exploration of the senses and with respect for one's neighbor. Great emphasis is placed on family and honoring ancestors (who in turn become independent kami, in this case "ujigami"). Many families, if possible, have a small garden that is tended, since, as mentioned, the color green reminds one of divine harmony. In addition or as an alternative, they have plants, one of which is a home bonsai.
In light of what has been said, we can note the threefold essence of Shintoism: animistic, because it respects nature; spiritual, because it honors kami and ujigami; and nationalistic, because it values Japan's territory. With regard to the last point, it is important to reemphasize and recall how Shintoism has helped Japan gain identity and assert itself. Even in times of war, as was the case during World War II, Shintoism became the state religion, strengthening the emperor and making any of his orders and will unquestionable.
From a practical point of view, the main place of worship is the "jinja," a temple where prayers and offerings can be made. In front of this structure is torii - a sign portal (usually red in color), denoting the entrance to the sacred place, and the path leading to the altars must be passed as a sign of purification. Once there, a person drops a coin into a box, rings a bell, claps his hands twice to attract the kami's attention, recites a prayer or makes a request, and finally claps his hands again.
There are also special days of celebration called "matsuri" when kami and ancestors are worshipped in the streets, amid parades, processions and general excitement. And privately, kamidanu - shelves with altars on them where deities can be prayed to by lighting incense and offering water, salt or rice - can be set up.
Since 1946, Jinja Honcho (an association of Shinto temples) has run what is now a full-fledged hierarchical church, and is responsible for the preservation and cultural and historical development of the country's most widespread and significant religion.