Even as it steps boldly into the twenty-first century with its technological and scientific advances, Japan holds onto its ancient roots. The island nation is famous for long being isolated with its own culture, often having few outside influences. Today, Japan is readily influenced by worldwide cultures, including Western ones, yet the nation hasn't let this deduct its individual personality. One aspect that has shaped Japan for thousands of years, and continues to shape it today, would be its religion of Shinto.
While Japan is known for other religious systems like Buddhism, Shinto has the claim of being much older; it's unknown exactly when this belief system started. Shinto has changed and fluctuated over time, but its core of revering nature and finding peace in the world has remained the same. Japan would not be what it is today without Shinto, and while the religion is scarcely practiced anywhere outside of the island nation, we see its similarities to the beliefs of such people as the Native Americans and ancient Europeans. We also see a new interest in earth-centered belief today. Shinto may not be widely practiced, but it can touch on something all people appreciate: the world around us.
In a time when there has been a resurgence in earth-based spirituality and religions as well as discoveries into renewable resources and other ways to honor the earth while maintaining our modern lives, it is easy to make a connection to Shinto, even for those lacking a Japanese heritage or cultural understanding.
While there are several distinct types of Shinto (including Ko Shinto; Shrine Shinto; Sect Shinto; and Folk Shinto, which includes practices such as divination and shamanism), the various branches are unified in their belief that all things have a kami, a spiritual essence or soul. There are no binding tenets, no defined set of prayers, and no holiest deity or place of worship. 1
A very small portion of world religions can claim a goddess (as opposed to a god) as their central deity. Within Shinto, one of the most important divinities is the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. While she is not worshipped directly, she is said to be the ruler of Takamagahara, the celestial home of the gods, which is connected to earth by the floating bridge of heaven. The very fact that that Shinto is centered on a female deity can be very empowering to women. Amaterasu is frequently symbolized by a mirror; this is to signify that when people see their reflections, they are also seeing the reflections of the kami and of Amaterasu herself, and that all are interconnected. Shrines to Amaterasu are often noticeably empty; this illustrates that decorations are unnecessary: Amaterasu is found everywhere, not just in a shrine.
Like most religions, earth-based and otherwise, Shinto is based heavily on ritual. These prescribed rites and behaviors have in turn shaped Japan. Even sumo, often known simply as a sport to the Western world, is steeped with Shinto practices, including purification with salt. Ceremonies are very popular. Jichinsai, for instance, is the purification of a new building. Part of Jichinsai is honoring the land-kami over which the particular building is being made. There are rituals and ceremonies for many instances, including birth and marriage.
Altars have a place in many religions. Shinto has something very similar to an altar, called the kamidana, which translates roughly as "a god shelf." These small, clean places of reflection often contain such things as plants and ofuda, which are prayer scrolls. It is very important to cleanse one's hands before approaching the kamidana, which is similar to how cleansing and consecrating can be seen in Wicca and other earth-based religions. As in other belief systems, salt is a prime cleanser.
Many western religions have clergies that consist entirely of men, but this is not the case in Shinto. In Japan, "miko," often called "shrine maidens" in English (though occasionally they are called "witches"), are priestesses with a long and colorful history. Easily recognizable by their red and white garments, they take part in such things as ceremonial dances and fortune telling. In much older times miko were known to have trances that were accredited to the kami.
While one of the oldest religions of Japan, Shinto eventually came into competition with other religions, such as Buddhism. However, Buddhism did not unseat the native religion (while Shinto ceased being the state religion after World War II 2, many Japanese feel comfortable practicing both Shinto and Buddhism). Followers of Shinto do not even necessarily feel the need to label themselves Shintoist. Labeling, arguably, can make things fall short of what they are—isn't Amaterasu's mirror supposed to show us everything? Instead of feeling forced to only stick to one system, Shintoists find what works best for them. Even with the advent of science, which proves, for example, the sun is not literally a goddess, the beliefs have not been swept away.
There is no necessity to be of Japanese heritage or cultural understanding to practice Shinto. Being a shamanistic religion with few binding rules and practices, it can be practiced anywhere. Though Shintoists in other parts of the world are lacking shrines in which to worship, Amaterasu and the kami are believed to be everywhere; a person does not need to be in Japan to appreciate Shinto's poetic powers. Shinto can be emotionally touching without a person ever setting foot in Japan. And while Shinto is deemed "Japanese" and indeed has had a great hand in the country's development and societal structure, there are many aspects of it that are worldwide. Reverence for the earth is not solely from Japan. Especially these days, with our worries for the environment's future, taking care of the earth is becoming more and more important to a growing number of people. Finding strength in a goddess like Amaterasu, whether at a literal level (for those who believe she truly exists) to a metaphorical level (for those who believe there is profound analogical meaning in her tales) also has its pull. Some people find Shinto's rituals very soothing, while others may prefer to walk their own path. Shinto is very much a belief system for the individual.
Shinto has managed to make itself the best of both worlds. And while it's authentically Japanese, it's also, at its heart, authentically a help to the world. Even if people don't live in Japan, or don't go to temples, or don't word-for-word hold onto the stories of the kami, there's something there they can take away. They can take away Shinto's versatility, its long life, its meeting of the sacred and the mundane. Shinto, like Amaterasu, can hold a mirror up to us, and show us we're also part of this earth, and how important it is we appreciate this.