Let's kick back and have a little chat a bit about The religion of Shinto
Specifically, I am interested in one question: Can Shinto be considered a "world religion" like Christianity or Islam, where people of any
nationality are accepted? Or is it closed off to Japanese people only? It is a complex and thorny issue, with strong opinions on either side.
Before we get into that, a little background will follow in this thread. Feel free to skip this post if you are already familiar with these
First, "Shinto" is not a monolithic phenomenon, and the understanding of "what it means to be Shinto" differs internally among different sects and
locations, as well as historically over time.
A brief historical sketch follows.
Shinto started out as the indigenous religion in Japan. In its earliest form, it was practiced in woodland clearings and involved elaborate
purifications and trance-inducing rituals. This makes it very close to Siberian and Korean Shamanism in character, although it was perhaps a bit more
elaborate in terms of ritual, etc. It featured Miko
, who were kind of like female Shamans who could "channel" various spirits. In its
earliest form, it had no rigid doctrine or sacred texts. 2,000+ years ago, Japan was organized into various Uji
or "clans." Each one had its
own main deities and practices...so in a sense the very earliest "Shinto" was not really a single religion but many dozens of religions that
sometimes had overlapping beliefs, sometimes not.
Eventually, the Yamato Clan (which remains the ruling Imperial House of Japan) succeeded in unifying most of the country, and its head Goddess
(Amaterasu-Omikami -- the Sun Goddess) became the sort of head of Japanese Shinto overall. It is at this point we begin to see more doctrinal fusion
and unification as a single religion.
When Buddhism was introduced in earnest into Japan in the 6th century AD, it touched off a kind of short civil war, with the pro-Buddhists ultimately
winning. However, they did not eliminate Shinto, and the two religions have existed (often uneasily) besides one another ever since. In response to
the theological and intellectual challenges of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, Shinto also began to develop its own texts and sacred writings, as
it sought to create a more as a more fleshed-out theology and corpus of thought that could stand alongside these ancient continental religions.
In the medieval period, there was a movement to blend Shinto and Buddhism, known as Honji
This remained relatively popular for almost 1,000 years in various forms, but eventually the government mandated a strict separation
between Shinto and Buddhism, and this type of practice and theory was outlawed and died off completely.
Why did the government do this? There are lots or reasons, but one was to prevent the religions from becoming too politically and economically
powerful ("divide and conquer"). The Shoguns wanted to avoid a situation like such as that in medieval Europe, where the Pope held political power
over secular lords and kings. In Japan, this was never allowed to happen. Shinto and Buddhism went their separate ways again, although they were not
considered mutually exclusive. Each was given roles to play in society: Shinto involved in weddings, for example, while the Buddhists handled
funerals. Through this and other forms of strict control, the secular government kept the religions from becoming too politically powerful.
Later, when Japan began modernizing and opening itself to the world in the 1800s, the government began to favor Shinto over Buddhism (although
Buddhism trundled on, and certain of the more militaristic strains, like Rinzai Zen with its stoic lifestyle plus archery and swordsman skills, was
also given strong state support). It was at this point that the govt of Japan began to truly exert control over Shinto, trying to lock down a more
standardized doctrine with the Emperor at the center. They tried to standardize the various practices of thousands of rural shrines and institute
national education (in Buddhist temples as well as secular schools) that the Emperor was both central and divine in the Shinto sense of the word.
The result is what is usually called State Shinto
, which was extremely nationalistic and
Emperor-centric. The basic idea was that the Emperor is a "holographic entry point" to universal divine power through the so-called Kokutai
This latter word is difficult to translate in English, but think of it as a mass of protective energy that encompasses all of Japan and flows through
every Japanese individual. By participating in Emperor Worship, the State Shinto practitioners could fuse with this energy. The Emperor was seen as
the direct descendent of the ancient Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-Omikami. Dying for the Emperor in foreign wars (versus China, Russia, South-East Asia,
Korea, Taiwan, and later the US, etc) and dying in service to the emperor was seem as the ultimate honor for a soldier, because his soul would then
fuse completely with the sacred power of the Emperor and his sacred nation of Japan. The dead soldier's family would also acquire a sort of elevated
status as a result.
One can see how this doctrine could be used to mobilize a population for war. All dissent was ruthlessly quashed, and during the early 20th century,
this became the only truly acceptable form of Shinto.
After defeat in WWII, Shinto experienced yet another transformation. The Emperor was forced to declare himself human, not divine, and the State Shinto
control apparatus was dismantled. Shinto itself lives on, and is currently branching out in numerous directions as it struggles to deal with its long,
conmplex, often-changing (and often self-contradory), and confusing history.
(Please see following post)