- Question: What is Shinto?
Shinto is the basis of Japanese culture and customs. From ancient times, the Japanese have believed there are deities in everything, and paid respect by building jinja (Shinto shrines) in places where those deities are believed to stay.
Shinto has long been recognized as the Japanese cultural root, and its practices have been handed down from generation to generation. Unlike Buddhism or Christianity, there are no holy texts, and there is no individual who is recognized as the founder of Shinto.
The ancient Japanese people believed that all natural objects possess spirits, which came to be regarded as kami. Shinto predates Buddhism, which was later imported from abroad and adapted to the Japanese lifestyle.
Nowadays most Japanese people visit both jinja and Buddhist temples.
A Way of Living with Respect for Nature, Living Things, and Our Ancestors
Shinto encompasses a variety of indigenous spiritual activities based in the traditional worship of Kami by ancient Japanese people. These ancient people, and Japanese people today, see nature as something to respect, love, and something of which we are all a part.
Shinto has long been recognized as the cornerstone of Japanese culture and traditional customs. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, or most other religions, Shinto has no holy texts, and there is no individual founder. It is said that Shinto was being practiced for more than 2,000 years. However, because Shinto was not established by a prophet or holy text, but rather developed naturally, cultivated by the wisdom and customs of ancient people’s everyday life, we are unable to pinpoint when exactly Shinto first emerged. If religion is defined by having a founder, scripture, religious doctrine, and/or a clear date which it was established, then Shinto cannot be categorized as such. Furthermore, it is important to consider the etymology of the word Shinto, which is written with the character for “path” or “the way” rather than the character for “teaching” that is used for religion in Japanese. Therefore, Shinto arguably has more in common with other Japanese customs written with the character for “path,” such as Judo (the way of softness), Kendo (the way of the sword), and Sado (the way of tea).
As people who owe much to the grace of the natural world, Japanese people came to recognize nature as divine. Nature is the source of life, fertility, and prosperity - all things come from nature. Recognizing the divinity of this creative power, the ancient Japanese people revered the mountains, rivers, nature itself, as well as natural phenomenon. They understood that every natural object and phenomenon possesses a spirit. Ancestral spirits were worshipped for bringing happiness to their descendants, and those who had made significant contributions to society during life were worshipped as deities as well. Filled with awe and deep reverence, the ancients came to regard all of these spirits as Kami (deities). Over time, jinja (Shinto shrines) were built where these deities were believed to reside. The practices of prayer to these deities, as well as the mindset of harmonious living with divine nature, were handed down from generation to generation, and is today called Shinto, or “the Way of the Kami”.
Traditional Culture Passed Down Through the Ages
Shinto predates Buddhism, which was imported from abroad at a later time and adapted to the Japanese lifestyle. Today, most Japanese people visit both jinja and Buddhist temples. According to recent statistics, there are over 80,000 jinja in Japan. If you add Bunsha / Bunshi (branch shrines), Massha (associate shrines) and Sessha (subordinate shrines), the total would come to about 300,000 jinja. For comparison, there are 77,000 Buddhist temples and 55,000 convenience stores in Japan.
The behavior of Japanese people, who seek harmony and coexistence with nature, other people, and their communities, comes from a lifestyle of believing everything has a spirit. Such a lifestyle in and of itself is “Shinto,” and is the foundation of Japanese culture and customs as we know them. The ways in which respect is demonstrated to the Kami, conceived of by the ancients and passed down through the ages, are Japan’s traditional culture. This is certainly something that we wish to pass on to future generations as well.
The ancient Japanese people’s belief that spirits dwelled in everything was not limited to the sun, moon, water, things you can see with your eyes, nor to things that live and die, but extended also to things such as fated connections between people (en musubi) and bountiful harvests, powers invisible to human eyes. In addition, acknowledging that we are only here because of those who came before us, ancestors were also revered as Kami. Because of this, Kami were clearly too numerous to count, and so people began to describe them as “countless,” written with the characters for 8 million in Japanese.
Now, as we have entered the 21st century, most modern Japanese people say that they do not ascribe to any particular faith. However, they do believe in en or fate, connections decided by Kami. This is an example of how Shinto philosophy has passed into the present. One may also recall how surprised the rest of world was to see the upright and orderly conduct of Japanese people even in the aftermath of one of their worst natural disasters. This behavior, and the culture that fosters it, comes from the importance of harmony and coexistence in Shinto.
As previously explained, Japanese people believe in the divinity of all things, as well as in the existence of countless spirits and gods, and Shinto is more of a lifestyle than a religion. For this reason, when Buddhism was first brought to Japan in the 6th century, it was not seen as being in competition or conflict with pre-existing beliefs and practices, and quickly spread throughout the country. Today, many Japanese people go to both jinja and Buddhist temples to pray and for various celebrations and ceremonies. However, as mentioned above, Buddhism is a religion with a founder and specific teachings. Shinto, indigenous to Japan, having both emerged from and given shape to the way people lived and still live their lives, is more intimately connected to traditional Japanese culture and customs.
Harmony and the Environment
While Shinto is distinctly Japanese, its aim to live in harmony with nature is no more limited to country, language, or culture than enjoying the warmth of the sun or the fruits of the earth. Anyone may practice. After all, every person is in the midst of divine nature and every person receives its blessings. What we do at ceremonies is pay our respects, show our appreciation, and communicate our wishes to nature.
One of the most important elements of Shinto practice is seeking harmony and coexistence, not only between people and nature, but also among the people of our families, communities, and world at large. In today’s society, the need to strive for these goals has become more apparent than ever before. The lifestyle of Shinto offers a timeless, harmonious spirit to draw upon as we work for a peaceful world for all living things.
May the Shusse Inari Spirits be with you!
Shusse Inari Shrine of America holds various events introducing the traditional Japanese eco-conscious way of life
so that future generations can enjoy nature as we do.Please come and enjoy our events!!
- Question: What is a jinja?
- Answer: A jinja is a Shinto shrine. Jinja house kami, and ceremonies are performed there. The architectural style of jinja is different from Buddhist temples. When you visit a jinja, you pass through a gate called a torii, indicating that you are about to enter sacred space. The jinja lies inside that sacred space.
Japanese people usually visit jinja during seasonal events and to receive blessings. People also come to pray to the kami for their happiness, success, good fortune, etc.
- Question: Who can practice Shinto?
- Answer: While Shinto is distinctly Japanese, anybody may practice Shinto and have faith in the kami. After all, every person is in the midst of divine nature and every person receives its blessings, such as the fruits of the earth and the warmth from the sun.
- Question: What is the fox at an Inari shrine?
The fox is NOT the deity of Inari. The Inari deity is principally Uka-no-Mitama-no-Kami. The fox is the messenger of the Inari deity, like an angel.
- Question: What is “Itadakimasu”?
- Answer: Before we eat, we say "Itadakimasu" with our hands put together. Why do we do this, and what does it mean? "Itadakimasu" expresses appreciation for several things:
• Appreciation for the person who made the meal
• Appreciation for the life we took to sustain our own lives
• Appreciation for deities who provide food and products to us
In Shinto, we believe everything has a spirit, including plants and animals. However, many other spirits make our meals possible as well. These include the spirits of nature, the sun, wind, and water. Without the sun and water, we can't have plants. Without wind, we can't have harvests. Without fire, we can't cook. And to make fire, we need wood and natural resources…
When we say "Itadakimasu", we appreciate and respect all of these things.
- Question: How do I offer tamagushi?
- Answer: When you visit a Shinto shrine, you may have the opportunity to perform Tamagushi Hairei (offering Tamagushi to the enshrined deity). At Shusse Inari Shrine of America, sodai members attending ceremonies may present tamagushi to Shusse Inari no Ōkami. We have prepared a video demonstrating how to do so.
- Question: How do I offer osonaemono to Kami-sama, and what offerings are appropriate?
When you visit a Shinto shrine, you may see envelopes, boxes of sake, bags of rice, etc. as shown in the photos. These are offerings to Kami-sama that are generally referred to as Osonaemono. Offerings also have specific names based on the type of item:
Sake: 御神酒 (Omiki)
Rice: 献米 (Kenmai), 御初穂(Ohatsuho)
Cash: 御初穂 (Ohatsuho) or 御初穂料 (Ohatsuho-ryō) or 初穂料 (Hatsuho Ryo) or 御玉串料(Otamagushi-ryō)
Mochi, Kagamimochi, Vegetable, Fruits, Fish, Seaweed: お供え(Osonae)、お供物(Osonaemono)、供物(Kumotsu)、献饌(Kensen)
Torii, Komainu, Kistune statue, Mask, Taiko Drums etc: 奉納(Hono)
When preparing your offering, please affix noshi paper onto the item (except mochi, fish, fruit and vegetables unless they are in the box). On the noshi paper, write what kind of item you are offering on top (e.g. “御神酒” for sake) and your name on the bottom.
If offering cash, please put it in a noshi-bukuro (if you cannot find this, then a regular envelope is acceptable). On the noshi-bukuro or envelope, write “御初穂料” (for Inari) on top and your name on the bottom.
Usually cash is the offering for gokitoh (private ceremony). In addition, if you enter the worship hall for prayer only, or to attend a service as a member, representative an offering of cash is also the custom.
A cash offering is a donation, so there is no rule for the amount. Usually though, it is at least 5,000 yen/$50 for gokitoh, or 3,000 yen/$30 if you are only having prayer in the worship hall.
When do I give the offering to the shrine?
You should present your offering as soon as you meet the shrine staff or priest. They will place your offering on the offering table and let Kami-sama know that you made the offering.
We see many people present the offering after the gokitoh or service. Although there is nothing wrong with this, it is better for it to be presented beforehand so that Kami-sama can make the connection with you through your offering during the ceremony or gokitoh.
You can download noshi paper and noshi-bukuro here:
More Q&A will be coming!