In the beginning was the rainbow. According to the Shinto creation story, the divine couple - Izanagi and Izanami - sat atop it stirring the ocean below with their pearl-studded spear. When they withdrew their spear from the primal brew, drops of water fell to earth and created the islands of Japan.
The couple bore children, among them the sun goddess Amaterasu. As legend has it, the lineage of the Japanese imperial family can be traced all the way back to her, making Japan's current emperor, Akihito, a direct descendant. His father, Hirohito (1901-1989), was revered as the emperor god until the end of World War II.
The mythical genesis of the Japanese people has been passed down through the generations in ancient narratives, having been preserved on paper by Japan's rulers in the eighth century when the Chinese writing system was introduced. Nonetheless, Shinto - literally, "the way of the gods" - has no sacred scriptures or formalized teachings. There are no concepts of original sin or salvation; Shinto focuses on life on earth and the uniqueness of the Japanese people.
Japan has some 80,000 Shinto shrines, including the Hiraoka Hachimangu shrine in the old imperial city of Kyoto. Each fall followers celebrate a festival, or matsuri, to honor the gods. The name testifies to the official character of the very first such festivals - the term matsurigoto also denotes government affairs in Japanese. In the past, the Japanese Shinto cult and political class were closely intertwined, with the clan's elder frequently doubling as head priest for its deity.
The priest Shunsuke Sasaki (50) has slipped off alone into the deepest recesses of the sanctuary. From the wooden structure with its peaked gable, the faithful listen to the monotone chanting in ancient Japanese, which hardly anyone understands today. The intonations vary from shrine to shrine. But with the prayers passed down from generation to generation, the priest speaks exactly as his ancestors did.
Understanding his words is not crucial. In Japan, priests don't preach fire and brimstone or demand that the congregations repent their sinning ways. Priests are simply a medium to beseech the benevolence of the gods. Among the gods - each shrine pays homage to its own - priest Sasaki naturally counts the tenno, or emperor. But he also invokes natural elements, such as the camellia plant, which brings good luck. Like primitive nature religions, Shinto venerates trees, animals, rocks and mountains - including Mount Fuji, Japan's highest peak. The "way of the gods" leads the Japanese not to an afterlife but instead guides them throughout their lives on earth. The goal is to live in harmony with nature and to cleanse the soul with nature's help. For this reason, the ritual at the Hiraoka Hachimangu shrine recalls a party. The sacred rice wine flows and peals of laughter resound. And no one minds if the priest lights up between ceremonies.
The main festival begins after the priest has quit the sanctuary. If the weather is fine, a gold-ornamented litter, home of the divinity, is carried from the shrine. In symbolic terms, the deity is mingling with the people. This year, it rained. But that itself was no tragedy, just what nature had in mind all along. The drummers simply pummeled their taiko drums with even more enthusiasm, extending a rowdy invitation to the spirits of good.
Next come the sumo matches, perennial crowd-pleasers. Sumo wrestling's Shinto origins are still visible in Tokyo, where the main arena has a shrine-like roof. At the Hiraoka Hachimangu shrine in Kyoto, half-naked young men grapple in the ring: a consecrated circle of sand. But these matchups aren't truly competitive; the wrestlers are performing a dance for the gods.
Festivals like the one at Hiraoka Hachimangu occur throughout Japan. The Japanese have matsuri for every season and occasion. The festivals shape their routines and mindset. At these celebrations, the heavily urbanized, hi-tech country rediscovers its ancient roots. The world's second industrial nation suddenly reverts into a sprawling collection of village communities anchored in the Shinto shrines.
Shinto is unique in other ways as well. Asked about their religious affiliations, few Japanese will venture that they are exclusively Shinto. For most of them, the "way of the gods" is a tradition, not a faith. They uphold this tradition passionately, but feel no need to turn it into a religion. Japanese parents bring their children to a shrine and pray for their good health: sons at the age of five and daughters at three and seven.
And the same Japanese who maintain Shinto traditions so fervently think nothing of being married in a Christian ceremony or burying their dead according to Buddhist rites. Because the Japanese follow many religions at the same time, the faithful outnumber the total population in statistical terms.
Religious Pragmatism with Historical Roots
This religious pragmatism has historical roots. Once Buddhism migrated to Japan from China and Korea in the sixth century, both traditions existed side by side. Small Shinto shrines can still be found today next to Buddhist temples. During certain periods Japan's rulers proclaimed Buddhism the state religion, notably in the sixth century, when Japan reorganized its government and administration along Chinese lines.
In addition to Buddhism, the nation has been influenced by another Chinese religion, Confucianism. Japan's military rulers, the Shogun, based their power on the traditional Confucian values of loyalty and obedience. They came to power in Edo, today's Tokyo, in the 17th century. The emperor lived in the remote city of Kyoto. His role was restricted to confirming the new leader.
In the mid-19th century, Japan opened itself to the West, and Shinto was turned into a national cult. During the Meiji Restoration of 1868, reform-oriented warriors overthrew the Shogun and installed the emperor god Meiji (1852-1912) in his rightful position as sovereign. They introduced Western ways that modernized the country. But they used Shinto myths to cement imperial rule.
For a short period, Buddhism was considered an import and therefore repressed. The new government placed Shinto shrines under state supervision and turned priests into civil servants. At this point, the Japanese were expected to pay homage to the divine emperor rather than their assorted local deities. At school, they prayed to the picture of the tenno. And in subsequent wars, heroic imperial soldiers met their deaths crying "Tenno banzai" - "10,000 lives for the Tenno."
In 1869, the Japanese army and navy built the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. At this sanctuary, warriors are honored as Shinto deities who sacrificed their lives for the tenno. A towering gate, constructed of steel rather than the usual wood, dominates the entrance - symbolizing the perversion of the gentle "way of the gods" into a martial ideology during the Meiji period.
Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Yasukuni shrine was downgraded to a private religious body. But it has preserved its military character: despite being executed in 1948, Japan's war criminals are honored there as Shinto gods. Politicians, even former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, make pilgrimages to the shrine, sparking protests among Japan's neighbors.
Capitulation after World War II also ended an era for the Japanese monarchy. Under pressure from the victorious United States, Emperor Hirohito explicitly renounced his claim to divinity in 1946. The postwar constitution - effectively dictated by the American occupiers - maintains separation between religion and the state. Officially, the emperor is seen as a symbol of both the state and the unity of the Japanese people.
At his Tokyo palace, the tenno still acts as Japan's highest-ranking Shinto priest. In accordance with tradition, he plants rice in his palace garden and regularly dispatches envoys to the country's largest shrines. Of the emperor's insignia - the sacred mirror, sword and jewels - the mirror is kept at the Ise shrine in the Mie prefecture. This shrine is devoted to the sun goddess; a member of the imperial family serves as the high priest. Japanese prime ministers traditionally visit this Shinto sanctuary at the beginning of the year.
The tenno reaffirmed his lineage from the sun goddess at his coronation in 1990, although his part of the ritual was kept from public view. The emperor spent several hours alone inside two specially built wooden halls, sacrificing rice wine and sanctified dishes to his primal ancestor. Each hall was equipped with a bed, on which - according to tradition - the tenno communes with the sun goddess and is reborn in the process.
If the patriots in the governing Liberal Democratic Party had their way, Shinto would feature more strongly in efforts to slow the decline of traditional morality in modern Japanese society. Japan is a "country of the gods with the tenno in the center," former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori declared in 2000. At the time, his comments drew protests. But today, calls to anchor Shinto myths in school textbooks and thus promote national allegiance are meeting with growing approval.
Notwithstanding these appeals to nationalism, Shinto bears little relevance to politics in the eyes of many Japanese; they are more interested in preserving its traditions. During the New Year holidays, millions of people of all ages visit Shinto shrines to beseech the gods for protection. Visitors pray for themselves, their families and even their companies. An entire workforce may come together to pray for good business and high profits. In a simple ritual, they jiggle a rope with little bells attached and toss their alms into a wooden offering box.
There are Shinto spirits for almost every wish and malady. Located a stone's throw from the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the Kabuto shrine attracts investors and brokers who pray for good stock prices. The Kitano Tenmangu shrine in Kyoto is favored by students and their relatives, who are hoping for good grades or places at top universities.
The Togo shrine in Tokyo is also very popular. The sanctuary, which attracts Japanese seeking relief from all manner of problems, is located in the middle of the fashion district, Harajuku, the city's young scene. Many dye their hair bright yellow or glowing red, and don bizarre outfits, like revelers heading to a Halloween party. Few look as though they give a damn about tradition. The shrine's patron saint is Heihachiro Togo (1847-1934), a legendary admiral who commanded the imperial navy in the Tsushima Strait in 1905, where he destroyed the Russian Baltic fleet and effectively vanquished the czarist empire.
The young Japanese in Harajuku know little and care less about the history. But they still pour into the shrine in droves. In their minds, Togo is an ancestor turned god who will make their most secular, indeed carnal dreams come true. And so they buy little wooden prayer boards bearing the image of the bearded admiral, inscribe their wishes on them, and hang them up. Then they stand in front of the shrine, bow twice, clap their hands twice and bow once again. They are following the call of tradition, as generations of Japanese have done before them.