Shinto is the native religion in Japan with its roots stretching back to 500 B.C., and is a poly-theistic one venerating almost any natural objects ranging from mountains, rivers, water, rocks, trees, to dead notables. In other words, it is based on animism. Natural wonders make the Japanese believe, out of an awe or reverence, that such wonders are created by the mighty, super-natural powers, and the ghost of a deity dwells in such objects. Also great warriors, leaders and scholars are often divinized. Thus anything, even a rotten head of a sardine, can be deified, so goes a cynical saying. To dedicate to those diverse deities, shrines were erected in a sacred spots throughout Japan. Among the natural phenomena, the sun is most appealing to the Japanese and the Sun Goddess is regarded as the principal deity of Shinto, particularly by the Imperial Family. We Japanese call our nation 'Nippon' in Japanese. It literally denotes 'the Origin of the Sun'. The Japanese national flag is simple, one red disk in the center, and it symbolizes the sun.

The Japanese mythology relates that there was the goddess of the sun and the ruler of the heaven named Amaterasu who was believed to be the legendary ancestor of the current Imperial Family. It asserts that she was once so offended by the misdeeds of her brother that she came down to the earth and hid in a cave. The universe was plunged into pitch darkness and evil thrived. The gods and goddesses gathered near the cave to talk about how to get her out. They held a party and a goddess began to dance in front of the cave, causing the crowd to roar with delight. As she whirled about, her clothes fell off, drawing cheers from the other gods. Curious about the fuss, Amaterasu peeked out from behind a jumbo rock blocking the cave's entrance. The dancing goddess held up a mirror and said, "We are dancing to celebrate for a new goddess."Amaterasu came out to see the new goddess, but what she saw was her own reflection. A powerful god grabbed her out and told never to hide again.

Today's Emperor Akihito is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Emperor Jinmu {gin-moo}, Japan's legendary first emperor and a mythical descendent of Amaterasu. Though not often referred to today, the Japanese calendar year starts from 660 B.C., the year of his accession. The reigning emperors were considered to be the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and revered as a living god at one time or another. When the Pacific War was imminent in 1940, the fascist government was boasting it was the year of 2600 to exalt the national prestige, and it even made a song cerebrating the 2600th year.

With the introduction of Buddhism from China in the mid-sixth century, however, Shinto began to be overshadowed by Buddhism. Greatly affected by the new religion, Imperial Prince Shotoku {sho-tok} (574-622) institutionalized Buddhism as a state religion and built many great temples such as Horyuji in Nara Prefecture and Shiten'noji in Osaka. Many Buddhist temples today have a hall in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined in homage of his achievements. As a matter of fact, his portrait had been printed on the 10,000-yen bills until recently.

Entering the medieval ages, emperors and Shinto lost the reigning power and the nation was gradually controlled by the military rulers. The process of blending Buddhism with Shinto progressed, and in the Heian Period (794-1185) Shinto deities came to be recognized as incarnation of the Lord Buddha. The case in point was emerging of the syncretic school that combined Shinto with the teachings of the Shingon sect Buddhism. The basis of the school's belief was that Shinto deities were manifestation of Buddha divinities. Most important was the identification of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu with Buddha Mahavairocana or Dainichi Nyorai in Japanese (the Great Sun Buddha). The well-known Japanese eclecticism in religion was already extant at this stage.

In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), however, Shinto was emancipated from the Buddhism domination by the military dictators, and Shintoist claimed that Shinto divinities were not incarnation of the Buddha but that Buddha himself was rather manifestation of Shinto deities. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine used to be a typical mixture of Shinto and Buddhism elements and a prime example of syncretism as Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Shrine, was in the lineage of the Imperial Family.

After the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, the Emperor restored the sovereignty, and the new government institutionalized Shinto as the official state religion while implementing restrictive policies against Buddhism and other religions including Christianity. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine had to remove or thrown away all of its structures and objects associated with Buddhism. The Emperor turned living god, and those who dared to gaze directly at the divine Emperor were subject to arrest. Some critics say it was more fascistic than today's North Korea since Kim Jong Il is not divinized yet. Today's emperor is no longer a god, of course, but a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, according to the Constitution. Shinto, however, continues to be the Imperial Family's religion, and traditional Shinto rituals are taking place in the Imperial Palace regularly. Its influences can be seen on the Japanese national holidays, many of which originate in Shinto rituals.

In general, Shinto has no canon of written scriptures like the Bible or the Koran, though ceremonial prayer called norito (a formulary statement addressed to the deity) is chanted by shrine priests. Nor is it iconolatrous. Most of Shinto shrines house sacred objects such as mirrors (the symbol of the Sun Goddess), swords and jewel (those three objects are the imperial regalia) on the altar where the gods are believed to reside, and the objects serve as spirit substitutes for the gods.

There are as many as 80,000 Shinto shrines in this country consecrating to one of the Shinto pantheon, but four are predominant: Hachimangu, Tenjin (also called Tenmangu), Inari and Jingu.

More about Shinto

* Shrine architecture
A full-fledged Shinto shrine is made of two-part structure as represented by the famous Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture: one is the oratory called Haiden, before which worshipers say a prayer, and the other is the inner sanctum called Honden, the main dwelling of the deity built behind the Haiden. In contrast to Buddhist temples, Honden contains no statues but houses symbolical and sacred objects of worship such as mirrors and swords, in which the spirit of the deity is believed to reside. As its nature of sanctuary shows, the laity can never get access to the sacred Honden. Haiden is more spacious than Honden as it is used for rituals and ceremonies.

* Torii gate
Shrines always have symbolic gates called torii. Worshipers will pass under this sacred gate, which demarcates the sacred area of the shrine. Because of its sacredness, it is difficult to deal with it.

* Purification
For a Shinto worshiper, purification is essential before offering a prayer and it is performed through exorcism called Harai , cleaning one's body with water. It is called Misogi , and abstention from defilement or Imi . In a large shrine, there is a stone wash-basin and visitors are required to rinse their mouth and hands for Misogi before approaching the deity.

* Komainu, or guard dogs
In front of shrines, there are a pair of dog-statues facing each other. They are guardian dogs and identical to Deva of Buddhist temples, one on the right always has its mouth open and as if to say 'ah' while the other has its mouth closed and looks like saying 'um.

* Method of prayer
The method of prayer before the alter at shrines is quite distinct from that of Buddhist temples. As part of prayer ritual, worshipers bow twice, clap their hands twice (to make sure the god is listening?), bow once more and then (or before the prayer) throw coins into a wooden offertory box.

* Kagura, or Shinto music and dancing
Kagura is a ritual dances accompanied by music called Gagaku . Gagaku is the traditional music of the Japanese Imperial Court, and standard instruments include sho (a reed-free mouth organ made of 17 bamboo), biwa (a short-necked lute), hichiriki (a double-reed pipe like a small oboe) and taiko (drums). The Imperial Household Agency has the Imperial Ensemble and its musicians are hereditary dating from the ninth century. One of them is the Togi family and they are now employees of the Imperial Household Agency. Kagura and Gagaku are thought to help provide communications between the god and worshipers.

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