Sharing Shinto

Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion

I. Shinto in the Nihon shoki

The word Shinto is commonly taken to mean Japan’s indigenous religion and to have had that meaning from fairly early times. It is difficult, however, to find a clear-cut example of the word Shinto used in such a way in early writings. The intellectual historian Tsuda Sõkichi has studied the occurrences of the word Shinto in early Japanese literature and has divided its meaning into the following six categories:

1) “religious beliefs found in indigenous customs passed down in Japan, including superstitious beliefs”; 2) “the authority, power, activity, or deeds of a kami, the status of kami, being a kami, or the kami itself”; 3) concepts and teachings concerning kami; 4) the teachings propagated by a particular shrine; 5) “the way of the kami” as a political or moral norm; and 6) sectarian Shinto as found in new religion.

From these it is clear that the word Shinto has been used in a great variety of ways. Tsuda maintains that in the Nihon shoki Shinto means “the religious beliefs found in indigenous customs in Japan,” the first definition, and that it was used from that time to distinguish “Japan’s indigenous religion from Buddhism.” He also claims that this basic definition underlies the meaning of Shinto in the other five categories.

It is far from conclusive, however, that the word Shinto was used in early times to denote Japan’s indigenous religion, and for that reason Tsuda’s analysis of examples in the Nihon shoki should be re-examined. The following three sentences are the only instances of the word Shinto in the Nihon shoki:

1) The emperor believed in the teachings of the Buddha (Buppõ or hotoke no minori) and revered Shinto (or kami no michi). (Prologue on Emperor Ydmei)
2) The emperor revered the teachings of the Buddha but scorned Shinto. He cut down the trees at Ikukunitama Shrine. (Prologue on Emperor Kdtoku)
3) The expression “as a kami would” (kamunagara) means to conform to Shinto. It also means in essence to possess one’s self of Shinto. (Entry for Taika 314126)

In examples one and two it is possible to interpret Shinto as distinguishing “Japan’s indigenous religion from Buddhism,” but that need not be the only interpretation. Tsuda himself indicates that in China the word Shinto originally meant various folk religions, or Taoism, or sometimes Buddhism, or even religion in general.7 Therefore, the word Shinto is actually a generic term for popular beliefs, whether of China, Korea, or Japan, even though in examples one and two it refers specifically to Japan’s ancient customs, rituals, and beliefs, regardless of whether they were Japanese in origin.

Since the Nihon shoki was compiled with a knowledge of China in mind, it is hard to imagine that its author used the Chinese word Shinto solely to mean Japan’s indigenous religion. Though there may be some validity in what Tsuda says, the word Shinto by itself probably means popular beliefs in general.

In examples one and two Shinto is used in contrast to the word Buppo, the teachings of the Buddha. Tsuda takes this to mean “Japan’s indigenous religion,” but there are other possible interpretations of this without construing it to be the name of a religion. For example, it could mean “the authority, power, activity, or deeds of a kami, the status of kami, being a kami, or the kami itself,” Tsuda’s second definition of Shinto. In fact, during this period the character do or to, which is found in the word Shinto, meant not so much a road or path but rather conduct or right action. Hence, Shinto could easily refer to the conduct or action of the kami.

In example three there are two instances of the word Shinto. While it is not unthinkable to interpret them as “popular beliefs in general,” Tsuda’s second definition, “the authority, power, activity, or deeds of a kami. . . ,” is perhaps more appropriate, since the word kamunagara in the quotation means “in the nature of a kami” or “in the state of being a kami.” The sentences in example three were originally a note explaining the word kamunagara as it appeared in the emperor’s decree issued on the day of this entry, and according to Edo period scholars it was added sometime after the ninth century when the work was transcribed. Therefore, it is not reliable as evidence for what Shinto meant at the time the Nihon shoki was compiled. Even if it were, it is more likely that the compiler did not use the same word in two different ways but rather applied the same definition, “the authority, power, activity, or deeds of a kami. . . ,” in all three examples.

Another possible interpretation of Shinto in the Nihon shoki is Taoism. Based on recent studies, it is clear that Shinto was another term for Taoism in China during the same period.1 Moreover, as Taoist concepts and practices steadily passed into Japan between the first century A.D. and the period when the Nihon shoki was compiled, they no doubt exerted a considerable influence on the ceremonies and the beliefs of communal groups bound by blood ties or geographical proximity and on those which emerged around imperial authority.

Among the many elements of Taoist origin transmitted to Japan are the following: veneration of swords and mirrors as religious symbols; titles such as mahito or shinjin (Taoist meaning-perfected man, Japanese meaning-the highest of eight court ranks in ancient times which the emperor bestowed on his
descendants), hijiri or sen (Taoist-immortal, Japanese-saint, emperor, or recluse), and tennd (Taoist-lord of the universe, Japanese-emperor); the cults of Polaris and the Big Dipper; terms associated with Ise Shrine such as jinga (Taoist-a hall enshrining a deity, Japanese-Ise Shrine), naikfi (Chinese-inner palace, Japanese-inner shrine at Ise), geka (Chinese-detached palace, Japanese–outer shrine at Ise), and taiichi (Taoist-the undifferentiated origin of all things, Japanese-no longer in general use, except at Ise Shrine where it has been used since ancient times on flags signifying Amaterasu Omikami); the concept of daiwa (meaning a state of ideal peace, but in Japan used to refer to Yamato, the center of the country); and the Taoist concept of immortality.

Early Japanese perhaps regarded their ceremonies and beliefs as Taoist, even though they may have differed from those in China. Hence, it is possible to view these teachings, rituals, and even the concepts of imperial authority and of nation as remnants of an attempt to establish a Taoist tradition in Japan. If that is so, Japan’s ancient popular beliefs were not so much an indigenous religion but merely a local brand of Taoism, and the word Shinto simply meant Taoism. The accepted theory today is that a systematic form of Taoism did not enter Japan in ancient times,12 but it is not unreasonable to think that over a long period of time Taoism gradually pervaded Japan’s religious milieu until medieval times when Buddhism dominated it completely.

Three possible interpretations of the word Shinto in the Nihon shoki have been presented above. It is not yet possible to say which of these is correct, but that should not preclude certain conclusions about Shinto. What is common to all three is that none view Japan’s ancient popular beliefs as an independent religion and none use the word Shinto as a specific term for such a religion. Also, there is no evidence that any other specific term existed. Moreover, when Buddhism was introduced into Japan there was a controversy over whether or not to accept it, but there is no indication that these popular beliefs were extolled as an indigenous tradition. Hence, Shinto need not imply a formal religion per se, and it need not indicate something which is uniquely Japanese.

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