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What is Shinto?

Shinto is the native religious tradition of Japan. Its core is the performance of ceremonies (“matsuri”) in sacred spaces (“jinja”) to honour beings of particular importance (“kami”).

Shinto is a part of normal life in Japan. Almost all Japanese visit a jinja at new year to pray for good fortune, and most have attended a jinja for a personal matsuri at least once in their life, most likely for the shichigosan ceremony when they were young children, or to pray for success in entrance exams.

Many of them go to jinja to get small amulets (“omamori”) for general or specific good fortune. The regular annual matsuri of most jinja are major local events, particularly in rural areas, and often draw large crowds. However, very few Japanese people think of these activities as religious.

What do followers of Shinto believe?

Shinto is primarily a matter of what people do, and does not care much about what they believe. It has no founder and no sacred text, and very little to say about either ethics or the afterlife.

There are many kami, but it is not uncommon for people to neither know nor care which kami is enshrined at the jinja they are visiting. Even people with a long-standing connection to their local jinja may be unsure which kami are venerated there.

Similarly, the Shinto community is perfectly happy for the people who perform Shinto rites to also follow another religion, and it is very common for Japanese people to also practise Buddhism. It is, therefore, better to talk about people “practising” Shinto, rather than “believing” or “following” it.

What are jinja like?

Jinja are almost always marked by a torii gate, distinguished by a double lintel at the top. There is normally a building to house the kami, but it may be very small, and people almost never enter it, or even see inside.

There is likely to be another building in which matsuri are performed, but people only enter this for special matsuri. Normally, they pay their respects to the kami from outside, by offering a small amount of money, ringing a bell if there is one, and then bowing deeply twice, clapping twice, and bowing deeply once.

What happens at a matsuri?

It is important to be pure when approaching the kami, and so many jinja have a font of water near the entrance for people to rinse their hands and mouths. Before a formal matsuri, all the participants rinse their hands, and are then ritually purified, a process called haraë.

The matsuri itself invites the kami to attend and offers them food and drink, before the priest offers a formal prayer (“norito”) explaining the purpose of the matsuri. Sacred music and dance (“kagura”) may also be offered.

How can I learn more about Shinto?

Because it has no fixed doctrine, Shinto is extremely diverse, drawing on many traditions from different regions of Japan and beyond. I have written a book, An Introduction to Shinto, that goes into a lot more detail, and I have a Patreon where I write monthly essays about Shinto. Even that, however, does no more than scratch the surface. For a short introduction with slightly more detail than this essay, you could watch the video I made a couple of years ago with Life Where I’m From.