Birth of Shintō Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Shintō faith developed out of Japanese traditions, rituals, and customs intermingled with legends and myths of ancestors and heroes. Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist influences from Korea and China and the establishment of an imperial hegemony by the Yamato clan contributed to the organization and final form of Shintō.

Summary of Event

The origin of the Shintō faith and even the approximate date for its foundation are matters of conjecture among historians. Shintō has no recorded founder and no true set of doctrines. Even the term “Shintō” is of Chinese derivation and was not applied to the indigenous Japanese religion until centuries after Shintō practice had become rooted and established. Most scholars link it to an archaeological period known as the Jōmon, which derives its name from the rope pattern (jōmon) pottery found at the sites connected to this early Japanese culture. However, there is also great disagreement among scholars over the dates for the Jōmon period (c. 10,000-c. 300 b.c.e.). Some estimates place its beginning as early as 10,000 b.c.e., some as late as 2500 b.c.e., with a vast variety of speculative dates in between those years. Most scholars place the end of the Jōmon period and its supercession by the Yayoi period around 300 b.c.e. The advent of Shintō also cannot be coupled with the emergence of the Ainu, who have maintained a separate religious and cultural tradition of their own. Shintō originated as a purely ethnic religion—or group of religions—of the Wajin (as the Ainu labeled the ancestors of the modern Japanese). Jimmu Tennō Himiko

There is even more contention over exactly when Shintō was organized into a national faith encompassing all those people who came to be classified as Japanese. The most extreme view holds that Shintō should not be considered as an organized religion at all, but rather as a conglomeration of diverse cults gradually brought together over centuries and ultimately consolidated by the government of an emerging Japanese state as a method for achieving unity.

Shintō was adapted to strengthen the pretensions of the Yamato clan as it began to extend its hegemony from its base on the northwestern coast of Honshū island, eventually claiming the imperial throne of Japan. Veneration of the emperors and empresses of the semidivine Yamato Dynasty became a significant part of Shintō practice.

By the fifth century c.e., Korean and Chinese influences on the ruling and educated classes effected a transformation of traditional Japanese societal structures and ideas. Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist beliefs all made appreciable inroads, and some scholars suggest that Japanese consciousness of having unique religious traditions arose out of the threat that these traditions might be overwhelmed by imports from the Asian mainland.

The name Shintō comes from the Chinese shen-dao (shen-tao) and has been rather misleadingly translated as “the way of the gods.” The Japanese term kami-no-michi, “the way of the kami,” is a more accurate description. The concept of kami is not exactly the same as “god”; it is a much broader term, encompassing local spirits, animating forces in natural phenomena, and extraordinary, legendary heroes and heroines of half-human, half-divine status as well as gods in the strict sense. The idea of a code of ethics is at best vaguely expressed. The closest the Shintō religion comes to the endorsement of an abstractly ethical principle is through the concept of makoto, “truthfulness.” Proper purification, correct ritual procedure, veneration of the kami and of ancestral spirits, correct deportment, and respect for tradition are all significant features of Shintō—particularly early Shintō before the inroads made by the major Asian mainland faiths.

The best-known manifestations of Shintō worship are the torii, which serve as entrance gates to the numerous shrines to the kami located all over Japan. Ritualistic cleansing by bathing or by rinsing one’s mouth and the magical exorcism of one’s soul by priests are considered essential to appease the kami and attain harmony with the elements in nature.

The various mythical accounts preserved in oral tradition seem to have been set to writing in the seventh and eighth centuries c.e., at a time when the Yamato clan was solidifying its control and when the educated classes were forging a Shintō-Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist synthesis (or at least coexistence). These sacred texts included Kojiki (712; Records of Ancient Matters, 1883) and Nihon shoki (compiled 720 c.e.; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to a.d. 697, 1896).

The myths center around the interrelationships between the various kami as they set about creating the earth out of the primeval chaos, and then the islands that form Japan itself (or the Luxuriant-Reed-Plain-Land-of-Fresh-Rice-Ears). Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, took a particular interest in Japan and sent her descendants to live and rule there. According to the Records of Ancient Matters, Amaterasu’s great-great-great-grandson Jimmu Tennō was the first of the Yamato Dynasty and became Japan’s first emperor in 660 c.e., ruling until his death in 584 (traditional dates). However, the first known historical individual in the dynasty is a queen and priestess named Himiko, who ruled over the territory of the Yamatai during the third century c.e. What is known for certain is that after the solidification of Yamato control and the acceptance of a compromise between Asian mainland religion and philosophy and Shintōist tradition whereby these elements could act in concert with one another, the imperial Yamato family was elevated to kami status and, until after World War II, accepted as such by the population at large.


Though its origins are clouded in uncertainty, the Shintō faith, especially achieving a flexible synthesis with Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, proved to be a formative and enduring influence on Japanese civilization and on the values of the Japanese people themselves. State Shintō, which set up the emperors as demigods, played a crucial role in kindling militaristic sentiment, and the other manifestations of Shintō, such as Shrine, Domestic, and Sectarian, continue to function as cornerstones of Japanese culture and belief.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, John, and Mark Teeuwen. Shintō in History: Ways of the Kami. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. A collection of essays that constitutes one of the most comprehensive of the recent studies on aspects of Shintō.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kitagawa, Joseph M. On Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Attempts to resolve controversial issues regarding the origins and initial influence on Japanese beliefs and spirituality.
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    xlink:type="simple">Littleton, C. Scott. Understanding Shinto: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. London: Duncan Baird, 2002. A concise introduction to contemporary Shintō, written by a comparative mythologist. Discusses how the historical development of the beliefs and practices of Shintō affect the form of contemporary Japanese society.
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    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Peter. The Chrysanthemum Throne: A History of the Emperors of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. Focuses on the imperial family as a catalyst for many Shintō practices.
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    xlink:type="simple">Morton, W. Scott. Japan: Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. Advances its own theories as to when early Shintō emerged and speculates on a later date for the Jōmon era.
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    xlink:type="simple">Picken, Stuart D. B. Historical Dictionary of Shintō. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Entries cover major rituals, myths, and deities, as well as the relationship between Shintō and the other Japanese religions, Shintō’s relationship to Nō drama, and much else. Intended to provide a comprehensive, convenient guide to the key words and names of the Shintō tradition for researchers, students, and the general reader.
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    xlink:type="simple">Schwade, Arcadio. Shintō Bibliography in Western Languages. Boston: Brill, 1997. Useful resource for further research.
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    xlink:type="simple">Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984. Highly useful placement of Shintō into the overall Japanese cultural context. The formation of the Shintō faith is effectively brought into context of what is known about Japanese historical development, including the reign of Queen Himiko and the impact of Asian mainland ideas.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Jimmu Tennō; Jingū. Shintō

Categories: History