(BBC)A brief overview of Shinto, a traditional folk religion of Japan

January 11, 2022


The essence of Shinto is the Japanese devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers called kami, to shrines, and to various rituals.

Shinto is not a way of explaining the world. What matters are rituals that enable human beings to communicate with kami.

Kami are not God or gods. They are spirits that are concerned with human beings – they appreciate our interest in them and want us to be happy – and if they are treated properly they will intervene in our lives to bring benefits like health, business success, and good exam results.

Shinto is a very local religion, in which devotees are likely to be concerned with their local shrine rather than the religion as a whole. Many Japanese will have a tiny shrine-altar in their homes.

However, it is also an unofficial national religion with shrines that draw visitors from across the country. Because ritual rather than belief is at the heart of Shinto, Japanese people don’t usually think of Shinto specifically as a religion – it’s simply an aspect of Japanese life. This has enabled Shinto to coexist happily with Buddhism for centuries.

  • The name Shinto comes from Chinese characters for Shen (‘divine being’), and Tao (‘way’) and means ‘Way of the Spirits’.
  • Shrine visiting and taking part in festivals play a great part in binding local communities together.
  • Shrine visiting at New Year is the most popular shared national event in Japan.
  • Because Shinto is focussed on the land of Japan it is clearly an ethnic religion. Therefore Shinto is little interested in missionary work, and rarely practised outside its country of origin.
  • Shinto sees human beings as basically good and has no concept of original sin, or of humanity as ‘fallen’.
  • Everything, including the spiritual, is experienced as part of this world. Shinto has no place for any transcendental other world.
  • Shinto has no canonical scriptures.
  • Shinto teaches important ethical principles but has no commandments.
  • Shinto has no founder.
  • Shinto has no God.
  • Shinto does not require adherents to follow it as their only religion.


Note: Because Shinto coexists with Buddhism and Confucianism and their ethical values, it’s hard, and not very useful, to isolate the distinctly Shinto elements in Japanese ethics. Confucian values in particular have inspired much of the Japanese ethical code.


Specifically Shinto ethics are not based on a set of commandments or laws that tell the faithful how to behave, but on following the will of the kami. So a follower of Shinto will try to live in accordance with the way of the kami, and in such a way as to keep the relationship with the kami on a proper footing.

But it’s important to remember that the kami are not perfect – Shinto texts have many examples of kami making mistakes and doing the wrong thing. This clear difference with faiths whose God is perfect is probably why Shinto ethics avoids absolute moral rules.

The overall aims of Shinto ethics are to promote harmony and purity in all spheres of life. Purity is not just spiritual purity but moral purity: having a pure and sincere heart.

No moral absolutes

Shinto has no moral absolutes and assesses the good or bad of an action or thought in the context in which it occurs: circumstances, intention, purpose, time, location, are all relevant in assessing whether an action is bad.

Good is the default condition

Shinto ethics start from the basic idea that human beings are good, and that the world is good. Evil enters the world from outside, brought by evil spirits. These affect human beings in a similar way to disease, and reduce their ability to resist temptation. When human beings act wrongly, they bring pollution and sin upon themselves, which obstructs the flow of life and blessing from the kami.

Things which are bad

Things which are usually regarded as bad in Shinto are:

  • things which disturb kami
  • things which disturb the worship of kami
  • things which disrupt the harmony of the world
  • things which disrupt the natural world
  • things which disrupt the social order
  • things which disrupt the group of which one is a member

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