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The Heart of Japanese Culture, Part 1

By Janet Houck     April 19, 2007


Rurouni Kenshin
© N/A

You can’t take the Shinto out of Japanese culture, thus it plays a frequent and visible role in many anime and manga series. Yet many otaku are in the dark over just what is exactly Shinto. This isn’t helped by the fact that the religion has become so entwined with Japanese culture that it’s rather hard to make a clear and clean separation between the two. I’m a real geek when it comes to religion, so this will become a multi-column topic. First, we’ll look at the history of Shinto. 

Shinto is based on the worship of kami (gods). The name comes from the Chinese characters for spirit or god (shin) and a philosophical path (to). Hence Shinto is literally The Way of the Gods. Some kami are local; others are national. Some are spirit-like and associated with a particular place or object. Others are the spiritual personification of a natural process or object, such as Fuji-sama (Mount Fuji) or the sun goddess Amaterasu. 

No one is certain on when “Shinto” began, as it clearly grew out of primitive animism and shamanism, with each tribal unit having their own set of kami, which includes family ancestors. (We can see this today in the continued existence and reverence of local kami at local matsuri (shrine festivals).) This changed with the rise of the Yamato Kingdom in 300-500 AD, when the Emperor of Japan and his family’s ancestral kami became the ruling kami over all others. It became a state-enforced belief that the Emperor and his family were descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu, who became the deity for Japan as a whole. This is reflected in common usage of calling Japan the Land of the Rising Sun, and the general use of the sun symbolizing Japan. 

Until the arrival of Buddhism in around 600 AD, kami had no physical representation, being thought as formless and pure, and worship was held outside at sacred stones. (Hmm...makes me think of Stonehenge.) These rituals borrowed heavily from Chinese Taoism and Confucianism. It was Buddhism, however, that introduced the idea of spirit houses for kami, which took the form of shrines in Japan. Buddhism also led to the establishment of a unified set of Shinto beliefs, recorded in anthologies, which aimed to solidify the position of the Emperor and high status nobles and their connection to Amateresu and her servitor deities, and the major shrines and their associated matsuri. Politically speaking, the Emperor had little true control of the majority of the land that he claimed, and rival ethnic groups, such as predecessors to the Ainu, sought to stop the growth of the Empire. These documents of faith and religious mythology aided in proving the worthiness and divine mandate of the Emperor and his family to rule Japan. 

It would seem that Buddhism and Shinto would be at odds, with one focused on ancestor and nature worship, the other on achieving a higher state of consciousness, but the two faiths somehow managed to merge together in Japan. In practice, Shinto isn’t much different from Buddhism, as the true focus is on maintaining harmony between people and kami, akin to Buddhism’s search in each person finding harmony with the Universe. In fact, most Japanese view themselves as both Shinto and Buddhist, practicing rituals in both faiths and seeing them as complementary. Repeated attempts over the centuries have been made to separate the two in Japan, in particular after the Meiji Restoration when State Shinto was enforced and Buddhism banned, along with any other religion. Most anime set in the Meiji Era contains some reference to the growing intolerance by the nationalist government, such as Rurouni Kenshin and Samurai Champloo. Even the light-hearted Steel Angel Kurumi illustrates a state that picks and chooses which religious elements it wishes to respect.  

In an interesting instance of history repeating, State Shinto was used as a unifying force meant to give the Japanese people some stability while rapid Western modernization occurred. Families were registered at Shinto shrines, the priesthood became a public office, and children were taught the official divine history of Japan and the Emperor. Increasingly, State Shinto became state propaganda, with veneration of the Emperor’s portrait and a mandatory oath to protect the Emperor, along with the state. This frenzy ended with the Allied occupation at the end of WWII, when the Americans brought over the policy of the separation of Church and State. It also helped that the Emperor renounced his claim to divinity and that people generally came to believe that hubris led to their defeat. Although most people claim not to be religious, many have a Buddhist or Shinto altar in their home, or carry an omamori protection amulet. The Emperor worship element has vanished (it only remains in the level of reverence we reserve for royalty in general), but the focus on calling on kami (ancestors included) to help ordinary people have better luck and more money continues. To summarize, less people describe themselves as Shinto practitioners, but the same amount of people attend shrines and festival, seek fortunes and wear charms. Shinto has reverted back to its origins as a culturally engrained folk tradition. People do it because...well...it’s what they’ve always done, and who couldn’t use a little good luck? 

Next time, we’ll take a look at Shinto beliefs and practices, using examples from anime!

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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LAgrrl 4/19/2007 3:38:33 AM
Wow. That was a good read. Just one little thing, so I don't look like a complete dork is it possible to put in english pronunciation keys for Japanese words? or do you or anyone know of a Japanese-English audio dictionary? and please don't anyone say Wiki, they're hopelessly unreliable on word pronunciation. Anyhoo, can't wait for part 2, very interesting read Janet!
nadiaoxford 4/19/2007 5:47:56 AM
What I find interesting about Shinto are its paralells to Judaism (excepting things like multiple-deity worship, of course). I really recommend volume 10 of "Phoenix" by Tezuka, which focuses a lot on the strife between Buddhism and Shinto way back when.
Krasch 4/19/2007 10:21:41 AM
LAgrrl, actually I'd imagine Wiki to be pretty accurate in this case, as Japanese lacks the numerous permutations of pronounciation that English has. For example each of the vowel sounds in Japanese is only pronounced one way. If you see an "o", it's going to sound the same regardless of what word it's in or where it is in the word. A longer held version of the vowel sound is about as far as it gets.
LAgrrl 4/20/2007 2:15:29 PM
Wow Krasch I didn't know that, thanks. I didn't mean Wiki itself was unreliable btw, I meant looking up the pronounciation of Japanese words on Wiki was hit and miss. Sometimes they include the pronounciation sometimes they don't, which drives me crazy! I think there should be some law that pronounciation should be in brackets right next to the Japanese word. So you're saying that there's a consistant english pronounciation pattern to all Japanese words? Can you point me to the article or tutorial on that please Krasch? That'd make my life less dorkish. I think. I don't want a repeat of when I went around pronouncing Manga like an Italian chef would. heh.
glyph 4/20/2007 6:00:37 PM
If you're one for podcasts, JapanesePod101.com is an excellent resource.
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