Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan and unique to this country. It is based on the practice of worshipping gods which exist within everything in the natural world including rocks, mountains and trees. Shinto is the existence of a force which surrounds us and so, in turn, requires that we live in harmony with our surroundings.
Engelbert Kaempfer, a German naturalist and physician, visited Japan at the end of the seventeenth century staying for two years to study local plant life. He went onto write The history of Japan which was translated by John Gaspar Scheuchzer (1727). It is through this book that the Western world was offered its first glimpse of Shinto. Kaempfer, however, had little interest writing, “Uncommon respect is paid by the adherents of the Shinto religion to these sacred relicks…the whole system is such a lame ridiculous contexture of monstrous unconceivable fables”.
Kaempfer was clearly not a convert, yet despite the lack of formal doctrine in Shinto – there are no special religious texts or even an official founder – it has existed for centuries in Japan as a respected part of the country’s culture. Originating from Japan’s ancient mythology, the earliest recordings of Shinto practices date back to the eighth century. Shinto is still a part of Japanese people’s lives today whether it is through a Shinto wedding ceremony, New Year’s Day celebrations, or prayers to ancestors at small shrines in family homes. Perhaps it is this absence of prescribed moral codes and sacred texts to analyse and interpret which explains why Shinto has always lived peacefully side-by-side with Japan’s other religion, Buddhism.
Some of the most famous Japanese Shinto shrines are found in Tokyo. Yasukuni Shrine is highly controversial since this is where Japan’s war dead are buried and visits to pay one’s respects can spark outrage. On a lighter note, Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo, is the place to be at midnight on New Year’s Eve – you will be queuing for a long time in the cold before you get the chance to stand at the shrine, clap your hands and ring the bell before saying a quick prayer to the gods.
Japanese people will often say they are not religious and live life performing a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto practices from the registration of their birth at a local Shinto Shrine to their Buddhist funerals. Although Kaempfer did not approve, Shinto forms the backbone of Japanese culture and will continue to exist peacefully in the minds of the Japanese for centuries to come.