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Shinto, the national religion of Japan, is one of the oldest of all the world's religions. It is unlike other religions inasmuch as it is basically not a system of beliefs. It has been variously defined.
Shinto is purely a Japanese religion, the origins of which are buried in antiquity. The Japanese name for their country is Nippon, which means "sun origin." Until the end of World War II, Japanese children were taught at school that the emperors were descendants of the sun-goddess, Ama-laterasu. Amaterasu had allegedly given the imperial house the divine right to rule. In 1946, in a radio broadcast to the Japanese people, Emperor Hirohito repudiated his divine right to rule.
Shinto's history can be divided into a number of stages. The first period was from prehistoric times to A.D. 522 when Shinto reigned supreme among the people of Japan without any serious competition.
In A.D. 522 Buddhism started gaining in popularity among the Japanese people. In the year 645, the Emperor Kotoku embraced Buddhism and rejected Shinto.
From 800 to 1700, Shinto combined with other religions, mixing with both Buddhism and Confucianism and forming what is called Ryobu Shinto, or dual-aspect Shinto. Shinto, by itself, experienced a considerable decline during this period.
Around 1700 Shinto experienced a revival when the study of archaic Japanese texts was reinstituted. One of the most learned Shinto scholars of the period was Hirata, who wrote:
The two fundamental doctrines are: Japan is the country of the Gods, and her inhabitants are the descendants of the Gods. Between the Japanese people and the Chinese, Hindus, Russians, Dutch, Siamese, Cambodians and other nations of the world there is a difference of kind, rather than of degree.
The Mikado is the true Son of Heaven, who is entitled to reign over the four seas and the ten thousand countries.
From the fact of the divine descent of the Japanese people proceeds their immeasurable superiority to the natives of other countries in courage and intelligence. They "are honest and upright of heart, and are not given to useless theorizing and falsehoods like other nations."
Japanese Emperor Meiji established Shinto as the official religion of Japan in place of Buddhism. However, since the people continued to embrace both religions, in 1877 Buddhism was allowed to be practiced by the people, with total religious liberty granted two years afterward.
Meaning of Shinto
The word Shinto comes from the Chinese word Shen-tao, which means "the way of the gods." This term was not applied to the religion until the sixth century A.D., when it became necessary in order to distinguish it from Buddhism. A major feature of Shinto is the notion of kami. Kami is a difficult term to define precisely but it refers basically to the concept of sacred power in both animate and inanimate objects. Ninian Smart elaborates upon the idea of kami in the following manner:
Shintoism displayed, and still displays, a powerful sense of the presence of gods and spirits in nature. These spirits are called kami, literally, "superior beings," and it is appropriate to venerate them. The kami are too numerous to lend themselves to a systematic ordering or stable hierarchy, but among them the sun goddess Amaterasu has long held a central place in Shinto belief.
Although Shinto does not consider any one volume as the wholly inspired revelation on which its religion is based, two books are considered sacred and have done much to influence the beliefs of the Japanese people. The works are Ko-ji-ki, the "records of ancient matters," and Nihon-gi, the "chronicles of Japan." They were both composed around A.D. 720 and because they report events occurring some 1300 years earlier in the history of Japan, they are considered late works.
The basic place for worship in Shinto is at one of the numerous shrines covering the country of Japan. Although many Shintoists have built altars in their homes, the center of worship is the local shrine. Since Shinto has a large number of deities, a systematic worship of all such deities is impossible. The Shinto religious books acknowledge that only a few deities are consistently worshipped, the chief being the sun-goddess, Amaterasu.
The fact that the highest object of worship from whom the divine ancestors arose is a female rather than a male deity makes Shinto unique among the larger world religions.
Shinto and Christianity
The religion of Shinto is in opposition to Christianity. In its purest form it teaches the superiority of the Japanese people and their land above all others on earth and that is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Bible. According to the Bible, the Jews are God's chosen people through whom He entrusted His words.
Then what advantage has the Jew? or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God (Romans 3:1,2, NASB).
However, though the Jews are God's chosen people, they have never been designated better than any other people (Galatians 3:27) and they have never been taught that they were direct descendants of the gods, as Shinto teaches its people.
Shinto fosters a pride and a feeling of superiority in the Japanese people. This type of pride is condemned by God, who says, "There is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10, NASB). The same lesson was learned by the apostle Peter who concluded: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:34, NASB).
Since Shinto teaches the basic goodness and divine origin of its people, there is no need for a Savior. This is the natural consequence of assuming one's race is of celestial origin.
Christianity teaches that all of us need a savior because our sins need to be punished. God, through Jesus Christ, took that punishment on Himself so that all mankind could be brought back into a proper relationship with Him.
Furthermore, the Ko-ji-ki and Nihon-gi, as the basis of the Shinto myth, are found to be hopelessly unhistorical and totally unverifiable. The stories and legends contained in these works are a far cry from the historically verifiable documents of both the Old and New Testaments.
The concept of kami is both polytheistic and crude, surrounded by much superstition. This is in contrast to the God of the Bible whose ways are righteous and beyond reproach. Immorality abounds in the stories of Shinto while the Bible is quick to condemn acts of immorality.
Shinto finds little acceptance apart from Japan since everything of Japanese origin is exalted and that which is non-Japanese is abased. Shinto is a textbook example of a religion invented by man to explain his ancestry and environment while taking no consideration of anyone but himself.
See Who is Jesus?