If you ask an English-speaking Japanese person about religion, you will probably be told something like this: “I am not religious but I practice Buddhism and Shinto because that is my tradition.” This leads many people to conclude that Japan is not a very religious country. After all, most Americans would claim to believe in Christianity, even if they never go to church.
Things aren’t necessarily that simple. We need to allow for cultural differences in how people talk about religion and what religion means to them. The “non-religious” Japanese person may actually spend more time in religious activities than the typical American Christian. And any anime fan who is paying attention will have to agree that there is vastly more religious content on Japanese TV than there is on American TV. Religious sites and artifacts appear constantly. Clerical characters such as monks and mikos are regularly included in the cast. (Imagine if a high percentage of American TV shows included a nun with supernatural powers.) Ordinary characters routinely pause to engage in some sort of religious observance.
Sometimes the religious elements aren’t obvious to outsiders. Most Americans who watch My Neighbor Totoro would never think of it as a religious movie, yet it is loaded with Shinto symbolism (and to a lesser extent, Buddhist symbolism.) Shinto in particular is so different from what Americans think of as a religion that references to it are sometimes overlooked.
Even those Japanese who do not think of Shinto as literally true tend to think of it as a key part of their national and cultural identity. One reason that anime characters are so often shown visiting or praying at a Shinto shrine is that this is an easy way to establish that they are Japanese and proud of it, without invoking nationalistic symbolism that might be seen as militaristic and controversial.
Even secular symbols of the nation often show a Shinto influence. The Japanese flag for example features a red disk, representing the sun goddess Amaterasu, on a white field representing purity.
The Shinto Worldview
Shinto is a type of “animism”, the belief that all things in nature have unique spirits (anima in Latin, kami in Japanese). In fact it is broader than that, since even man-made objects are sometimes though of as having kami. The popular anime Kamichuu!, which presents Shinto beliefs in a whimsical but respectful manner, even shows us kami for obsolete video disc formats. The Kanda Shrine in Akihabara offers ceremonies to purify cell phones, which implies that they must have kami of their own.
Though any spirit might be considered a kami, the word is usually reserved for the very pure spirits that have shrines dedicated to them. Lesser spirits, which may be mischievous or malevolent, are usually referred to with terms like youkai, bakemono, or yuurei (ghosts).
The concept of purity (meijouseichoku) is central to Shinto. Purity is thought to promote happiness and good fortune, while impurity (kegare) leads to the opposite.
Purity and impurity are not quite the same as good and evil. One might support a bad cause with a pure heart; indeed this would be more admirable that halfheartedly supporting a good cause.
In order to promote purity one should live a simple life in harmony with nature, honor traditions and one’s family, maintain physical cleanliness, and avoid contact with impure people and things. Since this is not always practical, much of Shinto practice is devoted to purification rituals.
The most common purification rituals involve water. This may be as simple as a shopkeeper splashing water outside the entrance of her shop to keep out impure spirits. Anime often shows images of a more extreme practice in which white-clad worshipers stand praying under a mountain waterfall. (I would be reluctant to try this, but I am sure that any participant who did not suffer a heart attack would feel very pure afterward.)
In principle any kind of bathing might be considered a purification ritual, which helps explain the culture’s obsession with cleanliness and is one of the main reasons why anime characters are so often shown taking baths. (The other reason, of course, is fan service.)
Other techniques include throwing salt at an impure spirit, or chanting prayers while waving a oonusa (a wand with paper streamers) at the thing to be purified, as shown here.
Most of Shinto worship is centered around shrines, which may be anything from an ornate box at the side of the road to a huge complex with many buildings. Shrines serve a dual purpose: to protect a kami from the impurities of the surrounding world, and to allow worshipers to approach the kami to ask its assistance and be purified themselves.
When entering the grounds of a shrine you should always walk through the torii or sacred gate. This serves to purify your spirit and also keeps out any impure spirits that might be following you. Larger shrines usually have a pair of komainu (lion-dog) guardians for additional protection.
A traditional grass rope called a shimenawa is often seen draped over entrances or wrapped around a sacred tree to keep out impurities.
In anime the shimenawa often has another use, as in this image where it is wrapped around a stone to keep an impure spirit sealed inside.
All but the smallest shrines include a temizuya which worshippers are supposed to use to purify their bodies before approaching the kami. (Your spirit was purified when you entered the shrine, but you need to be totally pure to approach the god.)
The procedure is as follows (read right-to-left like a manga):
- Hold the dipper in your right hand and pour some water over your left hand.
- Hold the dipper in your left hand and pour water over your right hand.
- Pour some water into your cupped palm; transfer it to your mouth; rinse and spit on the ground.
- (Not shown.) Tilt the dipper so the remaining water will flow over the handle, thus purifying it for the next person.
Though this ritual can be seen constantly at any busy shrine, I have only seen it shown once in anime, and then only to make a joke that the character did not know how to do it right. Let’s just say that it is a horrible gaffe to drink from the dipper.
Now purified in body and spirit, the worshiper is ready to approach the kami. The usual procedure is to swing the rope back and forth vigorously to ring the bell, toss a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap twice, hold your hands together while praying silently, then bow a final time before withdrawing.
Small children particularly like the bell-ringing part and will beg their parents for coins so that they can do it. A typical donation is a 100 yen coin, but children can get away with a 5 yen coin (comparable to an American nickel) which is considered lucky because it has a hole in it.
Someone with more serious concerns may purchase an ema, a wooden card with some sort of logo or picture related to the shrine. (The word literally means “picture of a horse”, a reference to a time when those who could afford to would donate a horse to a shrine.) The supplicant will write a prayer or wish on the card and hang it on a rack for the kami to read.
At the Washinomiya shrine, which was used as the model for the shrine in Lucky Star, hordes of crazed otaku have hung thousands of ema expressing their devotion to the characters, and in some cases their desire to marry them. (Source: Brickmuppet.) This is a very ancient and important shrine and some people have complained that these are not suitable kami for people to be worshiping there, but the shrine has attempted to accommodate the fans by including the characters in its annual festival. (Link, site is NSFW.)
Shrines also sell omikuji or paper fortunes. These are folded strips of paper that say things like “good fortune”, “bad fortune”, “medium fortune”, “very bad fortune”, etc. If you get a good one you should take it home with you. If you get a bad one you are supposed to tie it to a tree or wire rack at the shrine for the kami to take care of. (The kami, being a very pure spirit, should have lots of good fortune to share.)
To deal with common life problems, shrines sell a variety of omamori or protective amulets. Typical omamori provide for things like safe childbirth, safe driving, finding a good spouse, good health, business success or passing one’s school exams.
I can’t leave the subject of shrines without mentioning the mikos or shrine maidens who are often seen at busy shrines selling charms or fortunes or giving directions to visitors. These are among the most popular character types in manga and anime, beloved as embodiments of purity and credited with supernatural powers for fighting evil.
“Miko” is sometimes translated as “priestess”, but this is misleading. (There are some female priests, but they are relatively rare.) A miko has much less religious training and authority than a priest. A miko is an unmarried young woman who volunteers or works part-time at the shrine. Mikos perform routine non-spiritual tasks and also assist priests in performing rituals. Sometimes mikos perform a kagura, or ceremonial dance.
In past eras the miko had a more central role in the religion. The kagura was used for divination; the dancing miko would go into a trance, be possessed by a spirit and make oracular pronouncements (as shown in Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon). This is rarely done today.
Shinto and Japanese History
The Joumon Period
It is generally believed in Japan that Shinto dates back to the stone-age Joumon culture that existed in Japan from about 14,000 to 300 BCE. This is impossible to prove; the archeological evidence just doesn’t provide that level of detail. However there are some similarities between Shinto and the shamanistic practices of various indigenous peoples of northern Asia and North America.
In particular there are some similarities to the religious practices of the Ainu of the northern island of Hokkaido, who are considered modern descendants of the Joumon culture. Kamui, the Ainu word for “god”, sounds an awful lot like the Japanese kami, though the languages seem in other respects unrelated.
This exhibit from the Ainu museum at Porotokotan shows an Ainu shaman using something that might be considered a prototypical oonusa.
The Yayoi Period
Around 300 BCE the Joumon culture was displaced by a new culture based on wet rice farming and metalworking, which must have come from China or Korea. Japanese history books tend to prefer the notion that a small number of settlers from the mainland taught the people how to grow rice and use metal, while leaving the original language and religion mostly unchanged. Foreign historians tend to assume that a large invasion from the mainland mostly displaced the aboriginal people, killing them or driving them north toward Hokkaido.
The first written records of Japan are Chinese accounts dating back to the 1st century CE, describing what they called the “Land of Wa”, written with a character that could be interpreted as “short people”. According to the Chinese, the Short People were divided into independent clans who often fought each other. They clapped their hands while praying and tattooed their faces .
Chinese records report that by the 3rd century CE a number of the clans had united into a kingdom called Yamatai, ruled by a high priestess called Pimiko or Himiko who used magic tricks and mystical mumbo-jumbo to keep the fractious male clan leaders in line. Himiko attracted an unusual amount of foreign attention, sending embassies to the Chinese kingdom of Wei and the Korean kingdom of Silla. As a result we know more about her than any other Japanese leader of that period.
However our knowledge of her is still quite fragmentary. We can’t even be sure whether “Himiko” was her real name or a title of office. It might have meant something like “Priestess of the Sun” or “Noblewoman” or “Noble Priestess.”
Himiko was unmarried; that was part of her mystique. When she died with no heir the clans started fighting each other again. Finally a young female relative named Iyo was placed on the throne and order was restored. Apparently only a woman could wield enough mystical authority to keep the clans united.
UPDATE: For more about the Yayoi Period see my visit to the Yoshinogari Site.
The Yamato Period and the Rise of the Emperors
Between Himiko’s reign in the 3rd century and the time the Japanese themselves began to use writing in the 7th century Yamatai expanded into a larger kingdom called Yamato. The ruling high priestess was replaced by a male high priest who is called the tennou (“heavenly ruler”) in modern Japanese, or “the Emperor” in English.
Two books called the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, compiled in the early 8th century based on earlier oral traditions, describe the origin of the state as follows: The gods created the Japanese islands as a paradise for the Japanese people. The sun goddess Amaterasu-oomikami  sent down her grandson Ninigi to rule over them. Ninigi taught the people how to plant rice, and his great-grandson Jimmu united the clans under his rule and became the first Emperor in 660 BCE. All subsequent Emperors, including the present one, are descended from Jimmu.
The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki are the central holy books of the Shinto religion and this story is the traditional official Pilgrims-and-Indians-at-Thanksgiving story of the origin of the Japanese nation. However it is not consistent with the best available evidence. Notably there is no mention of Himiko, though the role ascribed to the sun goddess might be due to the vestiges of a tradition that the nation was founded by a woman.
Even if it is not 2670 years old, the Japanese Imperial family is unquestionably the world’s longest surviving royal dynasty. The same family has held the throne for at least 1400 years, or possibly more than 1700 if we assume it is descended from Himiko’s family.
The main reason for this longevity is that for as far back as we have reliable records the Emperor has not been a military or political leader. Instead he has been a religious leader who spent his time conducting religious rituals while the real political power was exercised by courtiers or military leaders or (in modern times) government ministers and bureaucrats. This has allowed all factions to assume that the Emperor was really, at heart, on their side. Over the centuries there have been many rebellions and uprisings, but their goal has generally not be to overthrow the Emperor, but rather to “free the Emperor from his evil councilors.”
The Influence of Buddhism and Other Religions
By the middle of the 6th century missionaries from Korea and China began arriving, bringing a Chinese version of Buddhism, which was itself heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. They built temples and monasteries and quickly gained a following in the Imperial Court, which had completely converted to Buddhism by the early 7th century, though acceptance by the common people took longer.
This does not mean that Shinto was displaced. Both religions continued to be practiced and each strongly influenced the other. To appeal to the common people, Buddhist temples adopted many Shinto practices, to the extent that it is sometimes hard for an outsider to tell the difference between a temple and a shrine. Shinto shrines adopted some elements of Buddhist architecture and enshrined many Buddhist and Taoist deities as kami.
The Court’s interest in Buddhism helped to keep Shinto a fairly decentralized religion. Aside from the 22 major shrines under the direct control or patronage of the Imperial Family, most of the remaining 80,000 or so shrines were free to follow their own local traditions with little oversight from the central government.
The rise of the warrior samurai class, and the resulting decline of the power of the Imperial Court, also contributed to this. Samurai rulers were much more interested in promoting Buddhism and Confucianism than Shinto. The Tokugawa Shogunate went so far as to require everyone to use Buddhist rather than Shinto funeral rites. However the common people remained strongly attached to Shinto traditions.
The architects of the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1867, sought to use the authority of the Emperor to eliminate Japan’s semi-feudal institutions, abolish the traditional privileges of the samurai, and establish a modern centralized state that would be strong enough to resist the threat of foreign domination. Naturally they faced strong opposition and they saw in the Shinto religion a way to unify the nation and marginalize their opponents.
The formerly independent Shinto shrines were placed under direct government control. Previously Buddhist temples had often doubled as Shinto shrines; now they were forced to separate. (Though even today it is common to find a temple and a shrine right next to each other for one-stop spiritual shopping.) The government imposed central control over the shrines’ religious practices. Mikos were marginalized and their practices of ecstatic dancing and trance mediumship were suppressed.
Shrines were given the important civil function of maintaining family registers, requiring people to deal with a Shinto priest in order to get married or name their children.
Shinto religious instruction was introduced in the schools. Students were taught that Emperor was a living god, with the implication that all Japanese owed his government unquestioning obedience. As militarism took hold in the early 20th century it became increasingly accepted that a nation fortunate enough to have a divine ruler must surely be destined to rule over all other nations.
Under the American occupation following World War II, State Shinto was abolished and Japan adopted a new constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion and the separation of church and state (though temples and shrines often receive subsidies from the Ministry of Culture, something that would not be permitted in America.)
The Emperor was required to issue a declaration renouncing the idea that he was a living god (though not the idea that he was descended from the sun goddess.) Some claim that the Japanese text of the declaration is more ambiguous than the English translation and leaves open the possibility that the Emperor might be worshiped as some sort of god. However in practice only a few right-wing nationalist fanatics openly worship the Emperor.
The family registers were transferred to local government offices, though many shrines continue to keep unofficial registers on the theory that all local residents are under the protection of the shrine’s kami (whether they believe in Shinto or not.)
Perhaps due to a revulsion against the excesses of State Shinto, there is a tendency today to view Shinto more as a cheerful cultural tradition than a serious religion. Characters in manga, anime and television dramas may routinely visit shrines, but if they suffer a crisis requiring serious spiritual counseling they are much more likely to seek the advice of a Buddhist priest or monk.
Major Shinto Holidays
New Year’s Day
(Jan 1) This is Japan’s most important holiday, a time for families to get together, eat traditional New Year’s food and even watch traditional New Year’s television shows. Children look forward to gifts of money from their adult relatives. A visit to a shrine to pray for a prosperous new year is almost mandatory. Even minor shrines are crowded. Because the holiday is so universal, any anime set in Japan that runs long enough is bound to have a New Year’s episode.
(Feb 3 or 4) Originally the day before the first day of spring in the lunar calendar, this day is devoted to driving away impure spirits called oni by throwing roasted soybeans at them. The linked video shows an event hosted at a popular shrine where priests and celebrities stand on a balcony and throw soybeans to the crowd below. Children are particularly enthusiastic. However there are some spoilsports who insist that it is a cruel tradition.
Girls’ Day/The Dolls Festival
(Mar 3) This involves setting up a group of dolls dressed as a Heian Period Emperor and his court.
(May 5) Originally called “Boy’s Day” but renamed by government edict in 1948. This traditionally involves activities celebrating valor, such as displaying warrior dolls or flying kites shaped like a carp.
Nagoshi no harae
(June 30) The “Great Purification.” People go to shrines and purify themselves by passing through large rings of reeds.
(July 7) Also called the “Star Festival”, this is basically the same as the Chinese festival called Qi Xi, though the name “Tanabata” may come from an earlier Shinto ritual in which a miko wove a sacred cloth to ensure a good rice harvest. Vega and Altair are called Orihime (“The Weaver Princess”) and Hikoboshi (“The Cowherd Star”) in Japanese. These are two bright stars on opposite sides of the Milky Way. According to legend they are lovers separated by the River of Heaven, who are allowed to reunite once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. Children write wishes on strips of paper addressed to Orihime and Hikoboshi and tie them to bamboo branches.
(Nov 15) Literally “7-5-3”, this is the day to bring boys aged 3 and 5, and girls aged 3 and 7, to their local shrine to be blessed. The children are dressed in their best clothes; girls in particular wear colorful kimonos if their parents can afford it. This is a joyous occasion and images of it are often used in anime to establish that a character had a happy childhood.
In addition to the standard festivals, most shrines have their own local festivals once or twice a year. Most anime series manage to work in a matsuri episode which generally emphasizes girls wearing yukatas, carnival games and fireworks. Religious observances usually include a parade in which the kami is taken on a tour of the neighborhood in a portable shrine, while cheering crowds line the streets. This video shows the famous Sanno Matsuri in Takayama which features elaborate carts with puppets. Sometimes there are ceremonial dances which vary a lot depending on local traditions.
Some of the local customs can get rather strange. During the Hodare festival in Tochio a giant wooden phallus is carried through the streets and girls are hoisted up on it to ensure that they will be able to have children. (NSFW.)
The Dark Side of Shinto
Shinto may seem charming to outsiders, but its emphasis on purity can sometimes have ugly consequences. The worst abuses involved the burakumin or “Japanese untouchables” of feudal times. These people were considered inherently impure and were required to live in special ghettos and to engage in “impure” occupations that involved handling dead bodies (butchers, tanners, undertakers, executioners, etc.)
The caste was legally abolished as part of the Meiji reforms in 1871, but the descendants of the burakumin are still subject to social and employment discrimination. They look and speak just like any other Japanese people, but anyone who can get hold of someone’s family register can probably figure out if their ancestors lived in one of the ghettos.
Other abuses of the purity concept are funnier but still potentially disturbing. Consider the rigid rule that the heroine of a shounen manga must be a virgin. This can get ridiculous. The heroine of the manga Kannagi is a 1000-year-old goddess, yet fans reacted with outrage when it was suggested that she might have prior sexual experiences.
Even more absurd is the case of the manga B Gata H Kei, an ecchi farce about a girl who ineptly and unsuccessfully tries to lose her virginity. When it was implied that she might finally succeed, the author and publisher received death threats.
At a darker level, it seems that all the emphasis on purity can sometimes lead to a perverse fascination with defilement. For every manga or anime episode in which a heroine defeats some monster or evil spirit by means of the purity of her heart, there is probably at least one hentai doujinshi in which the same character is overpowered and raped by a monster with tentacles. In fact this idea has become such a cliche that even mainstream anime often includes joking references to it, with the heroine being tied up by snakes or threatened by an octopus.
Encyclopedia of Shinto. Probably the most authoritative English-language source.
Wikipedia article. The usual caveats about Wikipedia apply.
 The character can be given a more insulting interpretation, such as “subservient dwarfs.” In the 8th century the Japanese insisted on replacing it with a character that means “peace, harmony.” Written this way wa is still used on modern Japanese to mean “Japanese tradition”, e.g. wafuku for traditional Japanese clothing.
 Facial tattooing was a custom shared with the Ainu, who continued it well into the 19th century.