Japanese - Shintoism and Its Impact on Japanese Culture, Part 1

Shintoism, known as simply Shintou (神道) in Japanese, is essentially the native religion of Japan. At the same time though, the word "religion" doesn't exactly do it justice. It's got certain religion features, history, and well-known deities, yes, but it's also a unique blend of culture, folklore, and customs just the same. It's important to note that it is also, of course, not the only belief system in Japan either, but it's still one of the most important. This is the first part of a series on the beliefs and basics of Shintoism.

The Origins and Basics of Shintoism

The exact origins of Shintoism aren't exactly clear, as early documenation was lacking. Unlike other religions, there is no clear founder or clear doctrines, it is almost a mish-mash of beliefs from both the past and the present. As do all religions, the ideas of Shintoism have evolved over time as the times change.

Commonly Seen Beliefs, Themes and Aspects of Shintoism

While belief is a somewhat good word to use in describing some of the themes, myths, and stories to Shintoism, it's a bit more practical to also use the words "themes" and "aspects" that are usually observed in individual, regional, and countrywide adaptations of Shintoism. First we'll examine the basics behind the Shinto creation myth, and then go on to look at more general aspects of Shintoism.

The Japanese Creation Myth

The word for these supernatural deities that popualted the world is kami, (神), though we will see this doesn't exactly always refer to an all-powerful deity like we might picture a god with our concept of one. There are also a few myths about some of the 神 which are well-known amongst Japan. We don't want to get too detailed here, but we do want to quickly go over the ones that essentially led to the creation of Japan and subsequent gods.

Zouka no sanshin (造花の三神) - This is the name givent to the three creator "gods", but they weren't really "gods" as their forms were indistinct and their genders were unknown. Of the kami, Ame no Minaka meshi no kami (天之御中主神) was the first and highest of the gods, who was the "supreme" god. Takami Musuhi no kami (高御産巣日神),also written as takagi no kami (高木神) was the god of conquering and ruling . Kami musuhi no kami (神産巣日の神) was the god of creation. Since " no kami" just means "the god of", we'll just call them "Ame no Minaka", "Takami Musuhi" and "Kami Musuhi".

The Other Two-At any rate, these three gods existed and created the land, which described the young land forming as "similar to a jellyfish" in texture. Eventually, from this jellyfish-like land that was slowly forming, came out a magical reed which gave birth to the two gods Umashiakabihikoji no kami (宇摩志阿斯訶備比古遲神), who we'll call "Umashi" for short, who represented fertilization, life, and growth, and "Amenotokutachi no kami" (天之常立神), who we'll call "Amenotoku" for short, who represented the eternal nature of the heavens, some saying that he was similar to "Ame no Minaka".

As we said, details are very unclear from this time period, and not much is written about them aside from the fact that they were all part of the original creation of the land. The five of them together are said to form the group of Kotoamatsukami (別天津神), which literally means "Different Heavenly Gods", or, if you're looking at more antiquated meanings of the characters, something like "The Gods Separated In Heaven".Not much was written about what they did, aside from the fact that they didn't have a noticeable sex (which later gods do have) as well as their classification of being "single kami" who didn't never have a corresponding kami of the opposite sex that later kami did, and obviously that they had roles in the creation of the land. After their actions were done, nothing has been discovered about them, and then the myth gives way to "The Seven Generations"

The Seven Generation Kami (神世七代)- Collectively known as the Kamiyonanayo (神世七代), literally meaning "Seven Generations of Kami", this was a total of 12 gods, with the latter 10 of these being kami that were more close to what we what consider gods instead of indistinct beings that created the land. There is a lot to cover, too much in fact, for the particulars of each one here, but we are going to pay special attention to the last pair of them, who are named Izanagi and Izanami because they are the parents of important kami of the future, many of which are still vigorously worshipped to this day.

Izanagi (伊弉諾) and Izanami (伊邪那美命) - While there were the other gods previously involved in the creation of the world, these two can be viewed as a kind of "father" and "mother" kami respectively who created both the eight islands of Japan as well as several later kami. They were said to have descended on a rainbow bridge (a motif which can be seen in many Japanese works), and created much life. However, when giving birth to her son, the "mother goddess" Izanami died in the process, and Izanagi chose to follow her into the world of death (known as yomi, 黄泉) against her warning. When he descended back into the regular realm, he brought back corruption, disease, and death into our realm with him. Knowing he did wrong, he vowed to create life to fight death back, creating a balance of life and death that is a central "aspect" of Shintoism. Following the death of Izanami, Izanagi took up an elaborate purification ritual which created his three "children gods", Amaterasu, Susano-o, and Tsukiyomi.

Amaterasu (天照) - often referred to more politely referred to as 天照大御神 (Amaterasu Oomikami) is one of the major goddesses in Shintoism. If you've ever played the game "Okami" or any of its sequels, you may be well familiar with this name. She is one of the main and most important goddesses, associated with the Imperial Family, and represents the ideas of the sun, light, kindness, truth, and divine order. She in enshrined any many places, though two of note are the famous Isei Grand Shrine in Isei (Mie prefecture), and the Amanoiwato Shrine in Takachiho (Miyazaki Prefecture).

Susano-o (須佐之男) - is considered to be the evil younger brother of Amaterasu, the kami of storms and the one in charge of earth. An important story in Shintoism involves how he ashsamed Amaterasu through several evil deeds, including repeating his father's mistake of visiting the dead and bringing impurity upon the pure world. He made Amaterasu so ashamed that she went into a cave to hide out, causing darkness upon the world as she essentially removed the sun. Other kami gathered around and tried to get her out, which they did successfully, and it eventually led to reconciliation between the two, with Susano-o realizing he was wrong and seeking out purification, creating the basis for harai (祓い), which we'll cover in a bit. Unfortunately, after his deeds, he was banned from the heavens.

Tsukiyomi (月読) - is the kami of the moon. He is not involved in the harai (祓い)story, but also had the distinction of angering Amaterasu over killing another kami. This caused them to be separated by anger, never seeing each other, which is an interpretation of why the moon is never seen with the day.

A lot to digest about how Japanese tradition says the world was made, isn't it? We'll continue to examine the roles of other kami in future articles, and how it led to the imperial family of Japan, but we also want to explore the religion in general a bit more and we don't want to overwhelm you. Here are some other important themes in Shintoism:

Important Themes in Shintoism

Periods of Good and Bad- This is a very strong and fundamental Shintoism view, that is, the contrast between order and disorder still existing today, and that in there, there is also a constant struggle between two forces that leads to some big event which sets a new kind of order or disorder. This can extend to many kinds of rivalries, like earth and divine, male and female, land and sea, etc. There is a bit of a passive acceptance implied as well, treating the events of the world as natural.

Coexistence with Kami- Another important belief is that kami are still around in differing forms, there is a certain need for harmony with them. This is the basis of rituals and festivals (known as 祭り), and takes place in shrines which are demarcated by the presence of the famous big red torii (鳥居) gates separating the kami from the average person. These are done primarily to communicate with the deities and strive for harmony and peace. Purification rites, which we touched on briefly with our discussion of Susano-o, are known as harai (祓い) and are an essential part to this, a symbolic way of making up for past wrongs.

The Importance of Nature- As hinted above, with many of the culturally significant places with connections to kami all being within Japan, there is a certain reverance for the native soil and territory of Japan and a desire to be at harmony at nature. We will explore this theme more in future articles.

Whew! What a lot of material! So hopefully now that you know a bit about the Japanese creation myth, you'll have a new apprecation for the sun, the moon, storms, rainbows, jellyfish, and festivals!

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