Shinto is the indigenous “religion” of Japan. It is not a “full” religion in that it has no written scriptures and is not a way to explain the world. Shinto teaches ethical practices but has no commandments.  Shinto: Way of the Spirits was originally presented by Allen Reed for White Oak Grove CUUPS September 2, 2018.  ©2018 Allen Reed

There is no founder of Shinto. There is no requirement that Shinto be a practitioner’s only religion. Also, since Shinto is tied into the land of Japan it is not practiced very much outside of Japan. Instead what matters are rituals that speak to “kami”. Kami are invisible spiritual beings. Kami are not gods per se but are spirits interested in human beings and want them to be happy. When asked properly kami will help humans out.

Since most Shinto practices and rituals are related to local kami the Japanese easily accepted Buddhism when it was introduced to Japan in the 6th century CE and integrated it into their religious practices.

Kami are spirits that reside in the landscape or are forces of nature. Kami do not reside in a supernatural universe but are part of the human world. Kami are not omnipotent like the gods of other religions and can make mistakes. There are both good and evil kami. Kami are not just spirits that inhabit an object but can be the object itself. Kami can be mountains, streams, trees and powerful forces of nature such as storms or earthquakes.

There are three types of kami; those related to nature, the “ujgami” which are ancestors and protectors of the clans and the third type are the souls of the dead who had outstanding achievements during their life.

Meoto Iwa (Married Rocks) photographed by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Shinto “Gods”


In Shinto what are called gods are very powerful kami that mostly represent a force of nature. They still reside in the real world rather than on some mountain top or in another world separate from humans.

“Izanagi” and “Izanami”- the creator god and goddess. They created the lands, oceans and other gods. Izanami died giving birth to “Kagutsuchi”, the Fire God. When Izanagi went to the Underworld to rescue Izanami she said she could not return since she had already eaten food in the Underworld. She then became Queen of the Underworld. When Izanagi came back from the Underworld he cleaned himself off. While doing this he produced “Amaterasu” (the Sun Goddess) from his left eye, from his right eye he produced the Moon God “Tsukiyomi” and from his nose “Susanowo (the God of the Sea).

“Amaterasu”- Goddess of the Sun. Of all the gods/kami Amaterasu is the most venerated and most prominent. Her sum symbol is seen on the Japanese national flag. She is said to have been born from a tear leaked from the eye of Izanagi. Stories of Amaterasu, and her fellow gods and goddesses, are chronicled in two books, “Kojiki” (Records of Ancient Matters) and “Nihongi” (Chronicles of Japan), on the myths/stories of the powerful kami/gods. The Emperors of Japan are said to descend from Amaterasu so she is both a powerful nature kami and an ancestor kami.

“Tsukiyomi”- the God of the Moon. Brother and husband to Amaterasu.

“Susanowo”- the God of the Sea. He also controls the rain, thunder and lightning. He was banished to the Underworld after a fight with Amaterasu during which she hid in a cave keeping the sun from rising. Susanowo is considered something of a trickster god since he fought with Amaterasu.

There are other important gods/goddesses in the Shinto pantheon: “Uzemochi” the Goddess of Fertility and Food. “Uzeme” the goddess of Joy and Happiness, she danced in front of the cave where Ameterasu was hiding to get her to come out so the sun would shine again. “Ninigi” the grandson of Amaterasu who went to earth to rule over it. He is considered to be the great-grandfather of the first emperor of Japan. “Hoderi” was an enchanted fisherman. “Inari” the god of foodstuffs who is a shape shifter. His messenger is the fox. So statues of foxes are at shrines dedicated to Inari.

Amaterasu emerging from the cave. 


Shinto Demons


As mentioned previously not all kami are good. There are a number of kami that are evil and to be avoided if at all possible.

“Kiyohime” a young women scorned by her lover who turned into a serpent and chased the lover into a temple where he hid under a bell. She found him by his scent and coiled around the bell. She then breathed fire into the bell melting it and killing the lover.

“Yuki-onna” (Snow woman) She appears to her victims in snow storms and freezes them to death with her breath and then sucks out their souls through their mouth.

“Yamauba” (Mountain ogress) these kami appear as old women who live in the mountains and eat human flesh.

“Tengu” These are impish mountain goblins. They are known to start fires and kidnap children. Offerings are made to the tengu to keep them from causing mischief.

“Aka Manto” (Red Cloak Woman) this demon hides in women’s bathrooms and asks women if they want a red or blue cloak. If the answer is red the demon tears the flesh off the woman’s back. If the answer is blue the demon strangles the woman to death.

Cow demon mask photograph by Maarten Heerlien



Purity is an important part of Shinto practices. Humans are considered to be born pure and only become polluted during life by sinning in various ways. This pollution or “tsumi” can be physical, moral or spiritual. Not all “sins” can be controlled by humans. Sins or impurity can be cleansed by using purifying rituals. Death is considered particularly polluting so funerals in Japan are held using Buddhist practices.


History of Shinto


Before Buddhism was introduced there was no formal Shinto. Practices were local with stories, myths and rituals developed to make sense of the world. When Buddhism was introduced in the 6th C. CE the government saw benefits in combining Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian practices. Some Shinto shrines became Buddhist. Buddhism was used to support the growth of a centralized government. During the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the emperor was restored to full power, Shinto became a national religion. Buddhism was separated from Shinto and the emperor was established as the preeminent Shinto practitioner in Japan. The emperor was not a god himself but was said to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. As a descendant of the Sun Goddess the emperor had the divine right to rule over Japan and the whole world. The emperor was to carry out certain Shinto rituals to make sure the kami preserve and protect Japan. After World War II the occupying powers dismantled Shinto as a national religion. It was said the Shinto was cleansed of the evil of political influence.

Itsuku-shima shrine photograph by Ruth Hartnup


Shinto Festivals and Rituals


A “matsuri” is any offering of thanks and praise to a kami at a shrine. It means “to entertain” or “to serve”. Matsuri also refer to Shinto festivals. Shinto rituals combine solemn rituals with loud, joyful celebrations.

Festivals center on kami who are treated as the guest of honor. They are very physical events that involve processions, performances, sumo wrestling and eating lots of food. The processions carry a “mikoshi” (divine palanquin) with the kami or its image. These are considered portable altars or shrines. Most festivals are based on the farming season.

Among the national festivals are Adult’s Day (“Seijin Shiki”). This is held annually on the second Monday in January. Anyone who reached their 20th birthday in the previous year goes to a shrine to give thanks, 20 is the legal age in Japan.

“Aki Matsuri (Autumn/Harvest Fest) is celebrated at the national level on November 23rd but local shrines may celebrate it on separate dates. This is a celebration of the rice harvest and none of the newly harvested rice is to be eaten until the festival takes place.

“Rei-sai” (Annual Festival) are yearly festivals for a particular shrine to celebrate the local kami. The kami are carried through the village, town or district. The parade includes dancers and musicians.

“Oshogatsu” (New Year’s Festival) celebrated on January 1st each year. This is the largest festival in Japan when millions of visitors will visit major shrines in Tokyo. The tradition is to thank the kami for the good fortune of the previous year and ask for good luck in the coming year.

“Haru Matsuri” (Spring Festival) Local shrines hold this festival on different dates between January and May to celebrate the planting of new crops for the year.

“Risshun/Setsuban is celebrated on February 3rd to start the spring season. During this festival roasted soy beans are thrown at members of the family wearing a demon mask as they try to enter the home. This is said to drive away evil spirits for the year. This part of the festival is also done at shrines to keep the evil kami away.

“Sichi-Go-San” (the Seven-Five-Three Festival) Held on November 15th this is to celebrate boys of ages three and five and girls of ages three and seven. The kami are called upon to thank them for the health of the children and to bring them good fortune during the rest of their lives. The festival is named for the ages of the children; “Sichi (seven), “Go” (five) and “San” (three).

There are also many local festivals some of them ancient and some very modern.

Shinto Offerings photograph by Jasmine Halki


Shinto Shrines


Shrines are where kami live. Every village, town and district has a shrine for local kami. The large “tori gate” at the entrance to a shrine separate the real world from the sacred world of the kami. A “shimenawa” (a rope of twisted straw) is also often tied between the uprights of the tori gate to help separate the two worlds. Shrines are built to be part of nature. No statues of kami are in a shrine. The statues of foxes and horses seen in a shrine represent the kami’s helpers. There are also sometimes paired statues of lions or dogs that guard the shrines from evil spirits.

At the entrance to every shrine is the “jemizuya”, a place to purify yourself by washing your face and hands before entering the shrine. Within each shrine there are three buildings or rooms (depending on the size of the shrine). These are the “honden” where the kami live (only priests are allowed in this space), “haiden” worship hall, and the “heiden” offering hall. Most often offerings of money are left outside this hall in a trough provided near the door.

The “shintai” is where the kami is present. It is marked by a symbolic object that may be a mirror a rock or other object. Often this object is wrapped, and has been for so long, that no one even knows what it is. A “heihaku” is a stick with streamers that also marks the presence of a kami.

There are no set days or dates when a Shinto practitioner must go to a shrine. It is when the person wants to call upon the kami who resides there for help or to thank them for help previously given.

Shinto Shrine photograph by Jeffrey and Shaowen Bardzell


Shinto Worship


Shinto worship is highly ritualized. The rituals follow strict conventions and are meant to satisfy the senses.

Many homes have a “kami-dana” or a kami shelf where offerings of flowers and food are left, meat is never used as an offering in Shinto. On the kami-dana there is often a replica of the local shrine, a mirror to help connect to the kami, lucky amulets or those to drive off evil. Any items bought at a shrine will be put on the shelf as well.


Shinto: Way of the Spirits was originally presented by Allen Reed for White Oak Grove CUUPS September 2, 2018.  ©2018 Allen Reed