Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Are there Shinto hierarchical structures?

Like so many other religious traditions, Shinto community structures often reflect the belief that human life mirrors divine life. Just as there is at least an implicit hierarchy among divine beings, human society needs a certain degree of structure. Long-standing Japanese tradition, much influenced and reinforced by Confucian teaching over the centuries, lays great emphasis on knowing one’s place in society. Each individual stands in a relationship of higher-to-lower, or vice versa, with his or her fellow human beings, and basic etiquette requires that one be aware of social subordination in every context. Everyday Japanese speech, with its various levels of polite address, reflects that awareness. Although contemporary Japan is a democratic society, with all the political institutions needed to support a democracy, hierarchy runs deep in the culture and so too in Shinto belief and practice. Everything, from ranks within the network of shrines to division of labor among ritual specialists, mirrors that awareness of multilevel structure in society at large. For several centuries in the early history of Shinto, four groups were responsible for most Shinto rituals. The Nakatomi family oversaw rituals generally, the Imbe family were concerned with maintaining ritual purity, the Urabe family focused on divinatory rituals so as to know the divine intentions in all matters, and shrine musicians performed the “divine entertainments.” Other powerful clans or families held and relinquished positions of power and influence over subsequent centuries.


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