Shinto is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people and it is as old as Japan itself. Today it remains Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism and Christianity. Most people who have any interest in Japanese culture are aware of this, but how many people actually know the intricacies that make up Shinto and its beliefs? In this post I hope to convey a bit more on what Shinto is all about and where the beliefs came from and what makes it what it is today. But don’t worry, this won’t be too terribly boring – we’ll try and make things fun.

What is Shinto?

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The customs and values of Shinto are inseparable from those of Japanese culture. Many Japanese activities have their roots in Shinto. Elements of Shinto can be found in ikebana, traditional architecture, and even sumo wrestling. Also, a lot of Japanese pop culture, especially anime and manga, draws from Shinto for inspiration.

Shinto doesn’t really have a founder or sacred scriptures or anything like that though. Religious propaganda and preaching are not common here either. This is one of the things that sets Shinto apart from most of the popular religions today. Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and their traditions, so practices like conversion don’t exactly go along with what Shinto is.


Since Shinto is very Japanese by nature and does not try to press others to join them, the percentage of Shintos living in this world is very small, with pretty much all of them residing in Japan. I think that’s nice though. Shinto is inherently Japanese, and its just another one of those things that you can really only get the full experience and understand while in Japan.

Instead of sacred texts, Shinto bases most of its beliefs on four ancient books. These books are the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) which is the foundation to written Shinto history, the Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan), the Rikkokushi (Six National Histories), and the Jinnō Shōtōki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history).

Shinto Beliefs

okami-amaterasuShinto is all about the kami. Kami (sacred spirits) are the “gods” in Shinto. They take the form of many things such as animals, plants, lakes, and rivers. As such, Shinto is a form of animism. Humans become kami after they die and are honored as ancestral kami with some families actually having little shrines in their homes. The Goddess Amaterasu is widely considered to be Shinto’s most famous kami and she was even the star of her very own video game, Ōkami (see above).

There are no real absolutes in Shinto – everything is kind of grey. They don’t believe in absolute right or wrong and they acknowledge that nobody is perfect. They view humans as fundamentally good, with the evils in the world being caused by troublesome and devilish kami. As such, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits. This is achieved by purification, prayers, and offerings. It sounds like a pretty laid back religion to me. I like that.


Shinto teaches that people should want their sins cleansed for one’s own peace, not because sinning is inherently wrong. It’s natural. Shinto does have some freaky beliefs too though. Those who die holding a grudge strong enough to keep them attached to the physical world will become evil, revenge seeking kami, as seen in The Grudge and many other Japanese horror movies. So, Shinto has its easygoing ups as well as its terrifying downs.

Shinto Rituals

shinto-ceremonyPurification rituals are an essential part of Shinto. New buildings constructed in Japan are frequently blessed by a Shinto priest during the groundbreaking ceremony, and many Japanese cars are blessed at some point in their assembly. I wonder if they get a little sticker or certificate saying they were blessed. Hmm… Anyway, many Japanese businesses built outside Japan often get Shinto rites performed on them as well.

Both men and women can become Shinto priests, and they’re even allowed to marry and have children. Some even live on site with the shrine they’re in charge of. Priests are aided by young women known as miko during Shinto rituals and performances. Miko wear white kimono, must be unmarried, and are often daughters of the Shinto priests.


Followers of Shinto can seek support from kami in many different ways. They can pray at the shrines in their homes or visit a local public shrine. There are also millions upon millions of little charms and talismans available to give people good health, good grades, good business, and more.

A large number of Japanese wedding ceremonies today Shinto ceremonies. I think Christian weddings are up there too though. Death on the other hand is considered a source of impurity, so Japan lets the Buddhists deal with all that. If you want to learn more about it, you can check out my post on What Happens After You Die in Japan. Because of this there really aren’t any Shinto cemeteries, just shrines.

While I don’t really ascribe to the beliefs of Shinto myself, I still think it’s pretty cool and a unique aspect of Japanese culture. While we were over there, we got to see a lot of Shinto shrines and they were really cool. They felt very calm and usually had a lot of nature going on around them. Shinto’s okay in my book.

So what are your thoughts on the Shinto religion and their practices? How do their religious views compare to your own? Share your thoughts and ideas down in the comments!

Sites Referenced:

  • Zach Walz

    I took a Japanese sociology class in undergrad, and one of the things that really stuck with me was a description of kami from a 17th century Japanese philosopher as anything that is “awe-inspiring.” It doesn’t have to necessarily be good or evil, big or small, strong or weak, just “awe-inspiring.”

    I always thought this description really helps Westerners understand the difference between Shinto kami and gods of Western religions. In Western religions, Gods are big, huge and powerful, and kami don’t necessarily have to be. It also helped me wrap my head around why Western religions emphasize big and grand cathedrals and mosques while Shinto places of worship are sometimes the simplest and most plain locations–the simplicity can inspire awe in it’s beauty.

    I think the most interesting thing for me when I visit Japan is how interwoven Shinto is with the culture. My friends who live there don’t necessarily think of Shinto as a religion as much as something just ingrained in their culture. Also a very different concept from Western thought, where religion is almost always separated from everyday life and you are very aware when you are doing something “religious.” I would feel very odd going into a church without wanting to learn more about the religion or beliefs, so the concept of going into Shinto shrines and participating in the rituals felt very sacrilegious to me. But it wasn’t! I found that absolutely fascinating.

  • NihongoCake

    Oh thank you John! I knew Shinto was there but I didn’t know what it meant or did … I think it’s absolutely beautiful but those nature things don’t really work for me since we all know why there is summer and winter, how trees grow or whatever nowadays :)

  • HongVan

    Very interesting and helpful article. There are some point of Shinto familiar with my country ancient belief such as animism, sacred spirit, good spirit and evil spirit…and a Goddess is considered to be most famous spirit as well.

  • zoomingjapan

    I do prefer Shinto, but you’ll very often find a mix of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan.
    I like both, shrines and temples, but if I have to choose, I think it’s always going to be the Shinto shrines!

  • Hamyo

    Shinto is the origin of Japanese beliefs, But i’m still confuse about the concept that both of men and women can becomes shinto priest moreover they able to married but why the daughter from shinto priest can’t be able to married?? this rule is not fair at all i guess…….

  • Jay Sanders

    Really not that different than western spirituality. Greeks and Romans believed in a lot of spirits we just pay attention to the big ones. Jesus even shows us everything has some spirit when he rebuked the sea or a tree or talked of rocks crying out.

  • Michael

    Just seems really supersitious to me, not meaning to disrespect it though.

  • Ben Nichols

    “Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism and Christianity”

    Umm… in what way is Christianity a major religion in Japan? Most estimates place it at about 2% of the population or less.

    Shinto and Buddhism are much more prevalent, but at the same time, as you hinted at here, most Japanese view these beliefs more as culture than “religion.” In fact, official sources may put Shinto/Buddhist membership at 80%+, yet 84% of Japanese people professed having no personal religion. You can read more at the Wikipedia article “Religion in Japan”.

  • John

    It depends how you look at the data. By some studies, Shinto is about even with Christianity, but no matter how you look at it, Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity are definitely the big 3. Assuming you don’t count “non-religious”.

  • Ricardo Caicedo

    It’s hard for the average foreigner to distinguish between Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, thanks for the post.

  • John

    The daughters can get married, just not if they want to be a miko.

  • John

    Yeah man, I totally agree with you!

  • Britt Olinder-Stevens

    So in life a Japanese person will practice Shinto, but then seek a Buddhist to handle the death and the funeral? It seems odd that the Shinto religion would elect to ignore such a significant event that is encountered many times in one life, and happens to everyone without exception. I am aware of the ceremony and traditions for festivals and prayers, but leaving death out of it seems disconnected. I also feel that experiences surrounding death are disconnected from life in America, but this only contributes to the event being more disruptive and unnatural, when in Biological terms, it is anything but.

  • Ben Nichols

    So you mean that relative to other religions, Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity are the biggest three? As in, Christianity is not “big”, but it’s bigger than the other minority religions? I know the data can very often be misleading in Japan, because if you ask most people about “shinto” they wouldn’t tell you much, but if you ask them about going to the temple or some festival, a majority would say they go or have gone. And again, even if they don’t profess it as a religion, their worldview and values may be shaped by Shinto, among other influences.

    If you have a source saying that Christianity is bigger than I thought, I would really love to see it. I was a missionary there and plan on going back in the next few years.

  • Joel Alexander

    Sooo… while it’s true that Shinto is based on the animism that existed in Japan before the first arrival of scholars from China, Shinto as it stands today is somewhat more recent. When the Buddhists first came to Japan, they went “so, you worship kami? That’s ok, they’re just Buddhas, come to you in a form you can understand” – so from the beginning of recorded history in Japan, it had basically been subsumed by Buddhism (the process is called “syncretisism”).

    During the Meiji restoration, however, the new Meiji government, who were in need of a state religion that was different to the Buddhism that had been used by the Tokugawa Shogunate before them, split Shintoism from Buddhism, and basically went “Look! It’s our traditional religion, that we’ve all been following all along, remember?”

  • Joel Alexander

    You’ve managed to put your finger right on one of the great tensions in Shintoism – that it celebrates life, but things still die. I’m having trouble finding the paper I had that talks about this, though, so… I got no insightful comments for you. =)

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Yes, it’s common knowledge now. Trees grow from seeds, the seasons are caused by the tilt of the planet, the sun travels across the sky because Amaterasu throws a long pass to Ra in the eternal football game of the cosmos.

  • John

    Haha! Very informative. Thanks!

  • Jon

    Wasn’t there some sort of religious war in Japan more than a thousand years ago? I could swear it involved Shinto, Tao, and/or Buddhism. I’m pretty sure it was two of those, but I didn’t find anything when I searched it just now. All I can remember is that the two sides were at war until they realized that they could actually co-exist and keep society more or less the same.

    I might be mistaken, though.

  • Jesse Cadd

    It is interesting to understand how the Japanese understanding of certain Judeo-Christian words is quite different. Even if you are not a Jew or a Christian, if you’ve grown up in the West you have probably been shaped by a particular understanding of words that, when used in Japan, may have different nuances than you imagine.
    This blog post ( contains some interesting discussions on the topic, even if you are not a Christian. Here is the essence of the video’s content:
    神 GOD
    かみ, kami
    “The only term for god in Japan. A kami can be a beautiful sunset, a beautiful rock formation, a lake, a feeling of harmony with nature… Whatever stimulates harmony with the natural world… It is visible and it is impersonal, there is no concept in Japanese culture of a personal invisible God who loves and made the world.”
    罪 SIN
    つみ, tsumi
    “It means an act of breaking the norms or violating the expectation of your family, or of your company, or of your community, or of your society at large. There is no personal God to whom you are accountable and therefore sin is a horizontal breaking of a social relationship of some kind… it is not the rupture of a vertical connection with God.”
    恵 GRACE
    めぐみ, megumi
    “Favors offered and received back and forth. I do something good for you and now the obligation is on you to repay… and so you repay the obligation now its back on me and it goes back and forth. There is no such thing in Japanese culture as undeserved bestowal of favor with no expectation of anything in return, simply doing it because you love that person and doing it unconditionally.”

  • Kyo

    There are quite some problems with ‘Shinto” and even the term religion itself in Japan. Shinto as we know it is a Meiji government invention (invented tradition) because at the time western nations had a (state) religion and the Japanese though that was what Japan missed. They were seen as monkeys so they had to defend themselves in some way. In the same period Genji Monogatari and such works were ‘rediscovered'; “Look what we have had all along! We’re no less than western nations!”

    Shinto and Buddhism has been the same thing all along, even today, how many ‘Buddhist” temples are there with ‘Shinto” Torii’s protecting them?

    You might want to read this, if you have access via a university.

    Kuroda Toshio, “Shinto in the history of Japanese Religion”, Journal of Japanese Studies VII-1, 1981, pp. 1-21.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Incidentally, I just learned 神道 and 神社 from WaniKani today. Clearly, this is the work of the kami of weird coincidences.

  • Savannah

    Most Japanese people are not full fledged Shinto or Buddhist, rather they do a little of both. This is actually a good example of this religious “fusion” in Japan. The Shinto religion places heavy influence cleanliness and ritualistic bathing, death is considered unclean, thus they leave funerals to Buddhism. That being said, it’s not like Shinto is leaving out death and in fact many dead ancestors and family members are thought to be Shinto kami after they die, and many Japanese have ancestral shrines even right in their house. And like I mentioned before many Japanese adhere to both religions, and visit both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples during their lifetime, so it’s not so much that they’ve been a full-fledged Shinto follower their whole life and then suddenly sought out a Buddhist priest for a funeral ceremony, but this is rather a perfect example of how most Japanese practice both religions.

  • Joel Alexander

    And eclipses are caused by the dog god Pluto making an intercept?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Close, recent research has shown that Pluto is actually a dwarf god.

  • Chester

    I have never, ever heard the word “Shinto” spoken by a Japanese person and, as far as I can tell, it is a thoroughly Western idea meant to categorize Japanese beliefs and fit them into the Western ideas of what religion is and ought to be.

    Japanese religion certainly IS complicated, and very few Japanese people actually have a sense of belonging to a religion. Something this article skips completely (though some articles on the site Green Shinto and some of my own personal experiences and observations) is that “Shinto” is a syncretic religion with deep ties to mainland Asia and Oceania.

    This is, of course, something that most Japanese people (and, naturally, weeaboos) don’t really like to talk about or even acknowledge. Japan is a “homogenous” country, everyone wants to believe – except, no, it isn’t. Their deepest beliefs (“Shinto”) can be directly tied to Indonesia, China, Polynesia. It’s all a big cultural family, and Japan is a part of it. Japanese religion is a mish-mash of all kinds of different cultural traditions.

    “Followers of Shinto” is an inherent misunderstanding of how Japanese religion works. As the article said, which is 100% correct, Shinto IS Japanese culture. It is their folk beliefs about how the world works, what the world is. It is their most ancient superstitions – but superstition is a far better descriptor than “religion.” Few Japanese people REALLY think that anything about Shinto is true – but they all know that ghosts are freakin’ real and you need to purify that shit. It’s a really interesting thing. People kind of pick and choose which bits of Japanese tradition to believe in.

    For example, few Japanese people could name the god enshrined in their local shrine – but they all know that a good-luck charm (o-mamori) from that shrine will help them pass a test. If you ask how, or why, they usually give you a blank stare. How and why aren’t questions they ask – they just know that THAT’S HOW IT IS – an o-mamori will help you. It just IS, and that is perhaps the hardest thing to explain or put into words about Japanese religion – it just IS, and everyone KNOWS it is, but no one really devotes any energy to thinking about how or why.

    Which is why I love Japanese religion – it doesn’t waste your time trying to convince you that it’s true. It just…is. And if you like it, accept it and do it. And if you don’t like it, there are no social sanctions on Japanese people for NOT-going to a shrine, or not-worshipping. It’s a buffet of religion – free to opt in and free to opt out – nothing on the list is mandatory, yet everything is free for the taking.

    Another cute article from Tofugu, but just…missing the point pretty badly. I know, I know, “If you could do better, why don’t you write it?” I’m sorry, but for me, Shinto is wonderful specifically BECAUSE I can’t put into words what it is. The difference between “religion” as we know it in Euro-America (“the west”) and Japanese “religion” is such a fundamental cultural difference that we just don’t have the words for it. And that right there is a wonderful and beautiful thing.

    If you want to understand Shinto, I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to come to Japan and experience it for a few years, and then you might – might – start to get an idea of what it is.

  • Chester

    You’re getting downvoted, but you’re more correct than you realize. As Kyo pointed out above, “Shinto” as a religion is really just an invented tradition, and is in truth just a collection of Japanese superstitions.

    One interesting thing about Shinto is that it is different in every. single. shrine you visit. One shrine will say this, the next shrine – literally down the road – will say another thing. Each shrine has its own festival that is, in many cases, completely unrelated to the festival of the shrine down the road.

    Shinto IS a collection of superstitions – the thing is, that DOESN’T make it bad or wrong. Again, it’s just that Japanese religion DOESN’T fit our conceptions of what religion is or ought to be, and therefore “superstition,” as negative as it seems, is the closest word we have for describing it.

    People are downvoting you because they simply don’t understand that our culture lacks the specific concepts of Japanese religion, so we don’t have words to really describe it well. “Superstition” is the best English can do. I mean, I guess…”folk beliefs” is slightly better? But, basically, you are 100% correct.

  • Chester

    It’s hard for Japanese people to distinguish between Shinto and Buddhism. I know. I’ve asked them. Very, very few people have any idea that there even IS a difference.

    It’s not a “foreigners only” thing. Japanese people have no clue, either. They really don’t.

  • Chester

    I mentioned above that Japanese religion is a buffet – free to opt in and free to opt out. Japanese people are almost all “Christian” in the sense that they opt into Christianity for the wedding traditions – they LOVE Christian weddings – but that’s about it. Aside form some Christian symbols (cross necklaces) they have no interest in Christianity.

    Japanese people rarely, if ever, define themselves as one religion or another. VERY few people would ever even USE the word Shinto, let alone define themselves as Shinto. And Buddhism is incredibly casual here. So, I mean, by what definition are we saying Japanese people are “Buddhist”? No Japanese person I’ve ever met has said that they are Buddhist. They just don’t bother with that. Are they Buddhist because they go to Buddhist funerals?

    Well, then, if that’s the case, why aren’t they all Christians, since they go to Christian weddings? In Japan, these definitions just don’t stick. Most Japanese people are just as Christian as they are Buddhist.

    One stumbling block here is the myth that Japan is homogenous. Even ethnically and linguistically, the Japanese themselves are not one, single, unified group. But their culture is intensely syncretic, borrowing from a vast number of Asian and European traditions. Not even Shinto is “pure” – I’ve been to Japan’s most sacred shrine (Ise) and guess what? The architecture there? Thoroughly Indonesian. It’s all borrowed from other parts of Asia. It’s all imported, it’s all mixed, it’s all syncretic. It’s all mixed.

  • Joel Alexander

    Yeah, I made similar points in my comment earlier. Amusingly, I did so reading the same paper. =)

  • John

    This is the website I was looking at that put Christianity “equal” with Shinto ( But it is tricky to collect accurate religious data on Japan. I would say Christians account for maybe 1-11% of the population from what I’ve read. So, it’s definitely not a large percentage, and I probably shouldn’t have referred to it as part of the “big” three since Shinto and Buddhism would be the big two, Christianity is just what comes up the most after that for whatever reason.

  • John

    Yeah, totally. It also doesn’t help that the college we went to when we studied abroad was a Christian college with a church in it and everything, so that has probably put the idea in my head that it’s more of a thing over there than it really is, haha.

  • John

    Minus the syncretic religion thing (something I have to look into more, I think) that’s more or less what I was trying to get across in this article. I was just trying to give a very basic primer on Shinto so people could have a general idea of what it is. This article was mostly for people who had no idea about Shinto in the first place. It’s a primer. And I tried to make it clear in the article that Shinto is very cool about people believing in it piecemeal and being pretty casual about it since they don’t try to convert people, etc. I also mention that Shinto is something you can only really experience while in Japan, definitely a lot longer than while I was there – so that’s why I didn’t go super in depth here and try to make it look like I fully understood something that’s not mine to understand. Like I said, Shinto is ingrained in Japanese culture and I didn’t grow up there or live there long enough to say that I really got the full Shinto experience. This article was meant to just give people a brief overview of what it’s all about without being too long or getting into a whole lot of details. I know there were areas I could have expanded on (and in some cases maybe should have, gauging from some of the responses on here) but I was just trying to represent it at a very high level. Hopefully this helps you understand a bit more where I’m coming from. And thanks for the feedback, it’s always appreciated.

  • Hamyo

    i agree with you :D actually, fushimi inari taisha prove that. :)

  • Gavin Williams

    Great to see Okami getting some love, what an amazing game! I’m off to Japan for a month in July for the second time (the first was Tokyo for a week a few years back) and was wondering if it’s expected you take part in the shrine rituals when you visit them. I know that they’re pretty simple and don’t want to come across as some disrespectful tourist!

  • Ben Nichols

    I personally would disagree with the idea that having a western-style wedding and calling it Christian makes people “just as Christian as they are Buddhist.” I understand your point that there are no clear labels of religious identity. I’ve been there and I know that’s true. But I think a Buddhist funeral is more overtly religious than wearing a tuxedo and white dress and hiring a priest when getting married. I see the Christian wedding phenomenon as more of a cultural import than a religious activity per se. Again, this is my opinion.

  • Ben Nichols

    Thanks for the link. Since your last comment I also checked this wikipedia page:

    It shows Shinto at 3% in 2008, and Christianity at 1%–then in 2011, no category for Shinto, but “Other Religions” at 3%, and Christianity at 2%. Other commenters have mentioned this as well, but if you classify people by whether they attend festivals, pray for exams, visit shrines on holidays and throughout the year, many more people would be considered “Shinto.”

    In case you’re interested, there is some sign that Christianity may be bigger than previously thought: Shows a possible 6% total, and up to 7% of young people claiming to be Christians, according to a large-scale Gallup survey. I’ve had no luck getting more info, however, so we’ll have to wait and see if more comes out later.

  • Steven Morris

    I used to think Shinto was -laid back- as well. Then I discovered that it’s just another way to make money for people. Shinto ceremonies can cost a lot! But you have to keep those “bad spirits” away. “Better safe than sorry”. How can I pay- rice, sake, or cash? How about all of the above. In some neighborhoods/areas it’s a kind of “giri-participation”, if you know what I mean.

    However, I don’t discount it as an important aspect of Japanese culture.

  • John

    Yeah, one thing’s for sure – it’s hard to pin down numbers for this sort of thing, haha.

  • Amaterasu

    Is Koichiben a Shintoist or a Buddhist? Also, Tofugu needs an equivalent article in Zen Buddhism!

  • Kazuya Suzuki

    Meiji government thought Japanese society and culture should be like western one, if they want make strong country like western nations. -for example, some scholars claimed Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana should be replaced with Alphabet- So, I think they intended to transform shinto to semi-monotheism.

  • Britt Olinder-Stevens

    Thank you for your comment. I hear that in Shintoism ancestors are thought to become kami after death, likely with
    powers or personalities that reflect their power or lifestyle. (The last
    part is my own supposition.) However, none of this replaces my claim of disconnection and further serves to inform characteristic societal norms. I do not believe the claim that the split is 50-50 in terms of adherence to either Buddhism or Shintoism. I have had gleaned that most festivals and holiday traditions, or life celebrations- if you will, are rooted in Shintoism, local custom, and borrowed customs without any religious relevance, but Buddhism and the roots of these other traditions have all served to create the extensive mythology that include the kami and other stories.

  • Britt Olinder-Stevens

    Very interesting! If you ever get your hands on it, I hope you share. Thanks.

  • Joel Alexander

    Think it’s From Rice Cultivation to Mind Contemplation: The Meaning of Impermanence in Japanese Religion (Steven Heine, History of Religions, Vol. 30, No. 4 (May, 1991), pp. 373-403). You’ll probably need to be a member of some academic institution in order to access it, though…

  • Jo Somebody

    Sounds like *all* religions to me, except some are more organized and strict in the superstitions their believers must follow than others…

  • Joe

    Why doesn’t the video work?

  • hi

    i like the picture

  • Bagges

    can you plz post some things about shinto ceremony clothing?

  • Ember

    I like wrighting books and you sounded like you know alot about the shinto religion. Could you maby send me some more information or even just give me some good wevsites.
    My email is
    It would be muchly appreciated.