Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures like the sutras or the bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions.
"Shinto gods" are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto's most important kami.
In contrast to many monotheist religions, there are no absolutes in Shinto. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits. Consequently, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers and offerings to the kami.
Shinto shrines are the places of worship and the homes of kami. Most shrines celebrate festivals (matsuri) regularly in order to show the kami the outside world. Please read more on our special information pages about shrines and festivals.
Shinto priests perform Shinto rituals and often live on the shrine grounds. Men and women can become priests, and they are allowed to marry and have children. Priests are aided by younger women (miko) during rituals and shrine tasks. Miko wear white kimono, must be unmarried, and are often the priests' daughters.
Important features of Shinto art are shrine architecture and the cultivation and preservation of ancient art forms such as Noh theater, calligraphy and court music (gagaku), an ancient dance music that originated in the courts of Tang China (618 - 907).
The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century was followed by a few initial conflicts, however, the two religions were soon able to co-exist and even complement each other. Many Buddhists viewed the kami as manifestations of Buddha.
In the Meiji Period, Shinto was made Japan's state religion. Shinto priests became state officials, important shrines started to received governmental funding, Japan's creation myths were used to foster an emperor cult, and efforts were made to separate and emancipate Shinto from Buddhism.
After World War II, Shinto and the state were separated.
People seek support from Shinto by praying at a home altar or by visiting shrines. A whole range of talismans are available at shrines for traffic safety, good health, success in business, safe childbirth, good exam performance and more.
A large number of wedding ceremonies are held in Shinto style. Death, however,is considered a source of impurity, and is left to Buddhism to deal with. Consequently, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, and most funerals are held in Buddhist style.
Buddhism originated in India in the 6th century BC. It consists of the teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. Of the main branches of Buddhism, it is the Mahayana or "Greater Vehicle" Buddhism which found its way to Japan.
Buddhism was imported to Japan via China and Korea in the form of a present from the friendly Korean kingdom of Kudara (Paikche) in the 6th century. While Buddhism was welcomed by the ruling nobles as Japan's new state religion, it did not initially spread among the common people due to its complex theories.
During the Nara Period, the great Buddhist monasteries in the capital Nara, such as Todaiji, gained strong political influence and were one of the reasons for the government to move the capital to Nagaoka in 784 and then to Kyoto in 794. Nevertheless, the problem of politically ambitious and militant monasteries remained a main issue for the governments over many centuries of Japanese history.
During the early Heian Period, two new Buddhist sects were introduced from China: the Tendai sect in 805 by Saicho and the Shingon sect in 806 by Kukai. More sects later branched off the Tendai sect. Among these, the most important ones are mentioned below:
In 1175, the Jodo sect (Pure Land sect) was founded by Honen. It found followers among all different social classes since its theories were simple and based on the principle that everybody can achieve salvation by strongly believing in the Buddha Amida. In 1224, the Jodo-Shinshu (True Pure Land sect) was founded by Honen's successor Shinran. The Jodo sects continue to have millions of followers today.
In 1191, the Zen sect was introduced from China. Its complicated theories were popular particularly among the members of the military class. According to Zen teachings, one can achieve self enlightenment through meditation and discipline. At present, Zen seems to enjoy a greater popularity overseas than within Japan.
The Lotus Hokke or Nichiren sect, was founded by Nichiren in 1253. The sect was exceptional due to its intolerant stance towards other Buddhist sects. Nichiren Buddhism still has many millions of followers today, and several "new religions" are based on Nichiren's teachings.
Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi fought the militant Buddhist monasteries (especially the Jodo sects) at the end of the 16th century and practically extinguished Buddhist influence on the political sector.
Buddhist institutions were attacked again in the early years of the Meiji Period, when the new Meiji government favored Shinto as the state religion and tried to separate and emancipate it from Buddhism.
Nowadays about 90 million people consider themselves Buddhists in Japan. However, the religion does not directly affect the everyday life of the average Japanese very strongly. Funerals are usually carried out in a Buddhist way, and many households keep a small house altar in order to pay respect to their ancestors.
The great philosopher Confucius (Kong Fu Zi) lived in China from 551 to 479 BC.
Confucianism is one of the three traditional Chinese religions besides Taoism and Buddhism. According to early Japanese writings, it was introduced to Japan via Korea in the year 285 AD. Some of the most important Confucian principles are humanity, loyality, morality and consideration on an individual and political level.
Neo-Confucianism (especially Chu Hsi Confucianism) was the most important philosophy of Tokugawa Japan in government and education. Its influence on Japanese society has been intensive which is still obvious today.
Today, about one to two million Japanese are Christians (about 1% of Japan's population). Most of them live in Western Japan where the missionaries' activities were greatest during the 16th century.
A few Christian customs have become quite popular also among the non-Christian population. Such customs are the wearing of white dresses at weddings or the celebration of St.Valentine's Day and, to a certain grade, also Christmast.
In the year 1542, the first Europeans from Portugal landed on Kyushu in Western Japan. The two historically most important things they imported to Japan were gunpowder and Christianity. The Japanese barons on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade especially because of the new weapons, and, therefore, tolerated the Jesuit missionaries. The missionaires were successful in converting quite large numbers of people in Western Japan including members of the ruling class. In 1550, Francis Xavier also undertook a mission to the capital Kyoto.
Towards the end of the 16th century, the Jesuits lost their monopoly position in Japan when Franciscan missionaries arrived in Kyoto despite a first banning edict by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious banning edict and executed 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki as a warning. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors continued the persecution of Christianity in several further edicts.
The main reason which led to the complete extinction of Christianity in Japan by 1638 were the government's intentions to excert absolute control over its people. This would not have been possible with the interference of an aggressive and intolerant foreign religion like Christianity of that time.
In 1873 after the Meiji restoration, freedom of religion was promulgated, and especially since World War II the number of Japanese Christians is slowly increasing again.