Shinto is the native religion of Japan. It can be described as an animistic religion i.e. all life and natural forces are animated by a divine spirit, or kami. Kami is a hard to define term. People, even inanimate objects can contain kami. The wind and rain can contain kami. Shinto has no founder, like the Budda or Jesus. It does not have an acknowledged set of texts. One writer describes it as a set of folk customs and beliefs that slowly evolved into an organized religion. Rituals and festivals are numerous and varied. Shrines are most important, for they symbolize the meeting point of the earth and the divine.
In the 6th century AD the name Shinto was created for Japan's religion to distinguish it from Buddhism and Confucianism which had been introduced to Japan from China. Buddhism overshadowed Shinto and Buddhist priests controlled Shino shrines. Over the years the very ancient practices of Shinto almost disappeared and only a few shrines were maintained. However in the 18th century, Shinto was revived as nationalism took hold of Japan. The native religion was seen as a reaction to foreign influences. In 1867 the emperor was restored to the head of the government who ruled by divine right as he was believed to be a direct descentant of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. The Japanese, through Shinto doctrine, were superior to other people because of their descent from the gods. Shinto became coupled with nationalism and military expansion. These beliefs were promoted during the 20th century, especially during World War II. This "State Shinto" was the official government cult. The government build many shrines and financially supported the priests. The entire country and its people were considered sacred. The emperor was worship as a god. Following Japan's defeat in World War Two, State Shinto was banned and government financial support of the religion was banned. The emperor was ordered to issue a statement renouncing his claims to divinity.
However Shinto did not cease to exist as a religion. Sectarian Shinto flourished and is still practiced today. There are at least 13 major and many minor sects. The sects have over 180,000 priests and over 80,000 shrines.
Shinto emphasizes the harmony of nature with reality. Its many rituals celebrate purity, careful ritual and contact with natural forces. The idea of 'kami" is most important. Kami defies full description but generally it means spirit. Kami can be animate--in people or animals. It can also be in inanimate things, like mountains, trees, rocks, and buildings. Japan's many festivals derive from Shinto beliefs--the change of seasons, celebrations of the new year, the construction and completion of a construction project. When one enters a Shinto shrine, he is leaving the world of the finite and entering the world of the infinite where a kami resides.
Shinto pervades everyday Japanese life, but it is not an exclusionary religion. Most Japanese follow Buddhism and Shinto. It is not in conflict with other faiths. In accordance with Shinto, the Japanese stress cleanliness, reverence toward nature, family, and individual ritual purity. The many matsuri, or festivals which may seem strange to Western eyes, have great meaning and importance. The festivals always honor a kami, or spirit.
Above all, Shinto is a very ancient religion and over the many centuries, has become ingrained in everyday Japanese life.