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Shintō Fundamentals (Japanese Religion): Philosophy and Myth

Brought to Japan in the second half of the first millennium CE, Buddhism is a major religion in Japan as it is in many Asian countries. However, long before Gautama’s teachings of enlightenment and detachment came to the shores of Japan, the people had their own rich conception of the spiritual world, populating it with an incredible array of gods, goddesses, and genii loci. The collected spiritual and religious traditions of Japan are called Shintō, and we’ll be examining this religion in a series of articles, starting with the basic philosophy and myths.


Purity, Pestilence, and the Pantheon

The “to” of Shintō is like the “to” in sadō (tea ceremony), kyudō (archery), judō and bushidō, and it refers to a path or a way of being. The “shin” means “the gods,” making Shintō literally “the way of the gods,” and in fact much of Shintō focuses on humanity’s relationship with the gods: how to propitiate them, earn their favor, respect their power, and avoid their ire. The Japanese call them the eight million gods (yaoyorozu-no-kami), and they make Japan the “country of the gods.”

Unlike Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, Shintō does not concern itself too strongly with what is wrong or right. Nor is it a moralizing faith, for it has no pillars, jewels, or commandments. It is perhaps this lack of prominent ethical dimension that has allowed Shintō to exist in such excellent harmony with Buddhism.

Purification ceremonies, or harai, using fire (left) and water (right)

However, what Shintō does focus on is the dichotomy of purity versus defilement. It is described as a “religion of youth and vitality,” and what is pure is in many ways what is full of life. Conversely, the greatest impurity in Shintō stems from death and the things of the dead, though the souls of the dead themselves are not impure, and ancestral spirits are worshipped and revered. It’s the trappings of death (disease, corpses, and physical rot) that are spiritually unclean, and exposure to them requires purification, which is the purpose of lot of many Shintō rituals. These purifications are most often held at shrines using water, fire, or salt. One funerary practice in Japan has mourners cleanse themselves with salt before they return home after attending a funeral.

Left: a bowl of salt left at an entrance to ward off evil; right: salt for post-funeral purification


In the Beginning…

The most famous act of cleansing in Shintō mythology, which also illustrates the importance of purity in the religion, is found recorded in the Kojiki. It begins with the five primordial deities, who gift their youngest members, Izanami and Isanagi, with a jeweled spear. The pair stirs this spear through the formless brine of the world and, when withdrawn, droplets from its blade form the land of Japan. After the two descend to the island to wed, their coupling produces a brood of gods. However, the last one is a fire deity, who burns her terribly during the birthing. In time she dies of her wounds, though the even the effluent of her sickness and death populates the deific world.

Izanagi with Izanami as he plunges the jeweled spear, by Kobayashi Eitaku

Izanagi slays his son in anger and grief but misses his dead wife so keenly that he goes to the land of the dead to retrieve her. Though he finds her in the darkness of Yomi (the Japanese Hades), she says she must consult with the rulers of the underworld to see if she can leave and adds that he must not look upon her while she does so. However, Izanagi becomes impatient, and when he strikes a light to see her, he sees she is rotten and maggoty.

He runs away from the fallow land of the dead and his corpse-like wife, but she chases after until he finally escapes by blocking the entrance to Yomi with a boulder, thus sealing the realm of life from the realm of death. Having returned to the land of the living, he now must purify himself of the pollution of death, for just as the gods of Shintō can die, they are also defiled by contact with death.

Susanoo fighting the eight-headed snake in the mortal realm, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

He goes to a river to cleanse himself, and in casting off his garments and purifying his body he creates yet another host of gods. Two highly-significant deities came from the final stage of Isanagi’s ablutions when he washes his eyes and his nose: Ameterasu, the goddess of the sun and progenitor of the emperors of Japan, and Susanoo, the god of storms and the sea. The latter was an irascible character who was exiled from the heavens to the mortal realm after causing his sister such grief that she hid in a cave away from the light of the world.


These are simply the early myths of Shintō, and the gods that appear in them are only the smallest taste of the richness of Shintō. In the next article, we’ll examine a few of the gods most apparent in modern Japan as well as the ways in which Shintō influences everyday Japanese life.

Related: Shinto Fundamentals (Japanese Religion): Popular Deities

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About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry