Why is the Sun such an important icon in Japan? Why did Japan begin to censor sexuality and gender identity? What does it mean that Shinto praises simple living? You may find some of the answers to these questions throughout this article.
At the end of 2016, The Agency of Cultural Affairs conducted a survey in Japan. According to this survey, from Japan’s total population, many of them practiced Shinto and other spiritual paths, such as Buddhism.
At the time, these results caught the attention of several people around the world. How was it possible that some individuals practiced more than one religion? Maybe this was just a technical error?
That was, in fact, not the case. If anything, it is only surprising for people with a Westernized perspective on spirituality.
This has to do with Shinto being an open practice rather than a doctrine. Actually, the word Shinto can be translated as The Way of Gods. It is not limited only to the worship of kami — Japanese deities.
Shinto never attempted to answer “Why do things happen?” In fact, Shinto is about living the moment rather than digging deeper into affairs out of human control. This practice is not about trying to control energies, but how to live and deal with those that already exist around you.
Later on, Norinaga Motoori — a Japanese theologist of the 18th century — induced peoples to “[a]sk nothing and blindly follow the divine providence.” This heinous teaching hit hard in 1945, when the attack on Hiroshima and Nagaski occurred. The scarce answers Shinto provided at that time to Japanese people made them grow apart from it. After a catastrophe like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is only natural that humans turn to look for meaning for the amount of pain they suffered. The support offered by Shinto here wasn’t straightforward. One has to be extremely spiritually elevated to turn that level of trauma and look inward for mastery through consistent repetition.
There is also no common consent in regards to how Shinto should be practiced. And this is so because Shinto has almost no structure. Does this mean you can do whatever you please and consider yourself a Shinto practitioner? Not exactly. There are some foundations to be found in Shinto. Let’s begin our journey into this simple —yet puzzling— way of Gods.
A Brief History of Shinto and Its Foundations
Shinto is not so much a religion as much as it is a way to experience one’s spiritual path. “Religion” is more of a colonialist concept. The concept of “religion” involves regulated behavior and ceremonies, which are not fundamental in Shinto.“Everything that has a physical body has a metaphysical counterpart,” says W.G. Aston in his book Shinto, The way of the Gods. He adds: “(…) all of our emotions and thoughts have a physical counterpart.” Shinto is about how inner energies affect the surroundings and how, in turn, the environment affects us all.
Now, consider that every action has a reaction. This causes some other thing to act back in response. This will result in a choir of energies composing a spiritual score. Every action would add its unique sound to the spiritual symphony. This is how energy dynamics are founded in Shinto.
Shinto is usually connected to the concept of Performance. In this practice, rituals are based on repetition. There is a fixation of energies repeating a simple, specific action.
However, when I say repetition, I don’t mean leading a monotonous lifestyle. Shinto isn’t about going about every single day in exactly the same way. Such a thing is impossible.
Repetition means performing a simple task, such as meditating, the same way daily. You repeat the same position, time, place, and so on.
One of those repetitive rituals, which plays a fundamental role in Shinto, is the cleansing ritual. Indeed, it is the first and most important stage in a Shinto ceremony.
For example, there is the oharae cleansing ritual. In order to perform oharae, the parishioner uses a piece of flax tied to a sakaki branch to sweep the energies away from someone or something. Another cleansing ritual is misogi, which uses fresh water or salt as the principal ingredient.
In Ancient Japan, Shinto bore no name until Buddhism gained popularity. Then, Japanese people decided to name the spiritual practice that predated Buddhism. They did this so as to preserve their beliefs as a distinct practice, and to avoid the dominant culture to absorb it.
Before Buddhism grew in popularity, Shinto had no established rules. Shinto was simply about the Japanese perspective on life and nature. This grants Shinto a flexible nature on how to practice it. Shinto was influenced by Buddhism and many other religions, such as Confucianism and Christianism.
Shinto had to build a structure to differentiate itself from the others. Then, Kojiki and Nihon shoki were written to compile the new —and some of the old— practices Shinto had at that time.
The Shinto Agenda is like the Queer Agenda: It’ll Take Over the World (for Legal Reasons, This is a Joke)
There are some stains to be found in Shinto history. It is not uncommon in human history that sometimes politics takes over spirituality as a tool to ensure the obedience of citizens.
As Shinto began to be regulated, emperors took advantage of that. Some of them claimed to share their bloodline with some well-known kami. In modern days, it is usually heard that Japanese royalty are descendants from the great kami Amateratsu Omikami. This kami is the femme-presenting Deity of the Sun. In no time, the Luminary became Japan’s insignia. Actually, Japan is written in their native language as ??, which are the Sun ? and origin? kanji. When you place them together, this means the origin of the Sun.
Holtom’s book, The Political Philosophy of Modern Shinto, says that some time later, the Emperor became a figure who amounted to the same as a deity. He was the center of the physical realm. Herein, this Great Spirit expressed the need to expand his domain all over the world.
During the Edo era —1603 to 1868— Norinaga Motoori claimed that people should follow the divine providence without asking questions. His statement settled so deep in Japan’s population that during World War II, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki island got attacked, people found no comfort in spirituality.
Shinto is a flexible spiritual practice. This makes it easy for influential people to deceive practitioners —especially beginners. This is a reminder to always be careful when starting out any new spiritual practice, especially within an institution or group. There are tricksters everywhere. You could end up joining a dangerous scheme if you don’t do your homework before joining a spiritual organization.
Kami can be understood as “upper height.” We could simply say that kami is synonymous with deity. However, the concept of deity is more of a Western concept. Let’s not forget that kami comes from an Eastern cosmovision.
There is a slight difference, then, between the concept of “Deity” and the concept of “kami.”
In Aston’s book, I found an elaborated/comprehensive explanation on how deities are conceived according to the Japanese perspective. We can find two different ways to understand them. These, in plain words, are:
- Personification: This is an object from the physical world gets human abilities —e.g. a river who provides wealth and cleansing to villagers
- Deification: These are based upon legends on a human being raising them to be enshrined as a powerful being.
Therefore, there are some sacred objects that generate confusion. This is so because we do not know if they belong to some important entity or because of its own properties. For example, a sword can be praised by its cutting properties or because it belongs to an almighty warrior.
In regards to objects of devotion, things are not worshiped by the spirit that lies in it. Their own existence is enough reason to praise it. There is Mount Fuji, for example, which is considered a kami by its simple existence rather than the magic that may lay in it.
As to historical figures, bewitching landscapes on ancient family relics, a local river, or ancestors that passed away, can be considered as kami in Shinto. Let’s put it this way: if some people find that some icon is worthy of devotion, then it would become a kami.
There are some important kami for Japan’s lore. A non-exhaustive list includes:
- Izanagi and Izanami,
- Amateratsu Omikami, or OInari
The first pair was the couple —and siblings— that created Japan. They belong to the seventh generation of deities. They descended from the Sky to an island they made. Then, they got married there.
Izanami made the inappropriate mistake of speaking out loud. For this, she was condemned to give birth to monsters and kami. The first one was Amateratsu, the solar kami. Her parents sent Amateratsu to the Sky, from where she provided the vital energy that nourished the first living beings.
Eventually, she got back to Earth and taught people in Japan how to sow, raise animals and weave.
As to OInari, they are the nonbinary deity of rice, wealth, health and trickery. Here’s another, more detailed post I wrote about here if you want to delve further into who this kami is.
Shinto in Modern Days
Shinto began to merge with Buddhism. This is the natural consequence of these beliefs coexisting on the same land. Thanks to this syncretism, today we may not find much distinction in regards to worshiping the kami, Buddha or Bodhisattvas (people who seek enlightenment through Buddha’s path).
As I have already said, Shinto is more of a performance than a doctrine. Frequently, people fuse other spiritual practices, or even full-on religions with their Shinto practices.
Shinto’s concerns about earthly and present events in life — or what we perceive as real —. On the other hand, some other practices can provide answers where Shinto cannot. For example, there are no established ceremonies for funerals in Shinto, but there are some options available in Buddhism. For this reason, people say that the Japanese are born into the earthly land of Shinto to end their life journey into Buddhism.
Nowadays there are four major classifications on Shinto:
- Jinja (Shrine) Shinto: It exists since the beginning of this practice.
- Kokka (State) Shinto: It is founded on religion and state identity. It holds an intimate relation with the Japanese Imperial family.
- Kyoka (Sect) Shinto is a movement organized in 13 major sects which originated around the 19th century. It went on to encompass some that were founded after World War II.
- Minzoku (Folk) Shinto: It is the Shinto of ordinary people, the Shinto of common folk. It has no formal organization and it is based on worshiping small roadside images and local rituals from small rural towns.
LGBTQIA+ Community in Shinto Practices
Japan and Shinto were really ahead of their times in regards to sexuality and gender identity. Yet, during the Meiji era, Western influence managed to censor and punish this element of Japan’s culture. Nowadays, LGBT+ community is reclaiming the spaces taken away by patriarchal customs. And even some historic figures are being acknowledged as part of gender diversity.
Japanese is a really interesting language. This year, I began to study it. My sensei taught me that many words do not have grammatical gender or number.
For example, the word kami can refer to one or many, and either to a femme-presenting or masc-presenting deity. Of course, Japan is still a patriarchal deeply stained by cis-centric and heterocentric beliefs. It is to be expected that, in the culture, we’ll still find a marked hierarchy regarding gender.
There are some honorific titles given, such as -hime (princess) or -hiko (prince), which address the gender of the kami. However, there are many other kami names that lack any hints as to their gender and leave it open to our conception of them.
LGBTQIA+ erasure is common in the records of human history. Some Japanese historical figures that can be considered as part of the Queer community are venerated as kami.
There are some examples of samurais that were in the habit of having homosexual relationships (Oda Nobunaga and Ranmaru would be two notable example). There are even documented legends of a trans samurai —Uesugi Kenshin.
Besides historical figures, let’s not forget that people’s ancestors may also be praised as kami. Among the loved ones that passed away, there surely are many LGBTQIA+ people. Kami are worshiped as who they were in life as a whole, including their gender and sexual identity, even if they may have been discreet about this side of themselves during their lifetime.
This lack of definition on the kami in regards to gender and sexual identity hurts no one. Having positive visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community in one’s folklore makes the path for Queer practitioners smoother.
A spiritual practice should be a safe space for anyone regardless of their identity. What does spirituality grant, if not tools to help us deal with the earthly —and sometimes cruel— life? And any Queer person will tell you that the world isn’t nice to them, except perhaps for the Gen Z in a progressive culture. And I am not entirely certain even them can say that confidently.
As Shinto is broadly practiced around the world with no widespread, universal rules, each shrine will have its own unique regulations. There is nothing that forbids LGBTQIA+ people to attend a Shinto ceremony or ask for some ritual.
Some shrines are so Queer-friendly that would perform a marriage ceremony on a LGBTQIA+ couple. It is also known that, in some places, trans woman would dress in the miko —the sacred clothes of a female priestess— and perform as such. However, I would still recommend finding out if a Shinto shrine is LGBTQIA+ friendly before visiting it.
Leading Your Way to Kami
In conclusion, Shinto (like all spiritual practices) lies in human hands. This means you need to be careful if you are trying to start practicing it. There are some cults within Shinto that aren’t pleasant to interact with.
Don’t forget to be respectful to the culture where Shinto was born! It is a foreign practice, so be careful not to disrespect its roots. If you feel the call from kami, then do your research to follow their Way in the most respectful, sensible, and safe manner.
Did you learn something new about Shinto? Tell us in the comments!
Aston, W.G. Shinto: The Way of the Gods. Longmans, Green, 1905.
Norinaga Motoori. “Chapter 8: Shinto–Japan’s Search for God”. Watchtower Online Library.
I want to thank the author of this beautiful post. I enjoyed reading it very much. I learned about another culture. I find it useful in my life to know to take to my life practice about issues related to these topics. Thanks again.
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