Religious Beliefs

How does Shinto tradition relate to the use of violence?

Many readers will be most familiar with three violence-related themes popularly associated with Shinto tradition. First, the Samurai tradition based on a code called Bushido (way of the warrior) is actually a blend of elements from three religious traditions: Confucian conservatism that tended to favor the aristocracy, Buddhist serene focus allowing one to submit to the inevitable, and Shinto patriotism and unquestioning loyalty. The Samurai code became especially important in Feudal Japan under the Minamoto Shogunate during a time of diminished centralized imperial emperor authority.

Second, the kami-kaze tradition, whose name means “Divine Storm Blast”, a term that so many World War II films brought into relatively common English usage. The Japanese began to use the term during the Middle Ages in reference to how the kami fended off the Mongol invaders led by Kublai Khan in 1280, a descendant of Ghengis Khan. During World War II, the Japanese air force resorted to a desperate tactic when the tide began to turn against Japan. Pilots willing to commit suicide for their nation’s honor aimed their explosive-laden dive bombers at enemy warships and went down with them. Ever since then, popular usage has referred to any self-immolating tactic or maneuver born of desperation as a “kamikaze mission.”

Third, a form of ritual suicide called hara-kiri or seppuku has sometimes been associated with Shinto by way of the Samurai code of honor. The principle behind taking one’s life has been that one can be cleansed of shame incurred through bad judgment or ill will by means of suicide. Hara-kiri means literally “belly cutting,” a grim ritual in which the subject disembowels himself with a short blade while kneeling. His “second” then dispatches the subject by decapitating him with the longer samurai sword. There have been few publicized instances of the ritual, also called by the preferred and more polite term seppuku, in recent times. Surely the most famous such act was that of celebrated novelist Yukio Mishima in 1970. Most people no longer consider ritual suicide in any way laudable or virtuous and certainly do not think of it as part of Shinto religious belief.

All three themes do indeed have undeniable links to Shinto, but they do not by any means fully represent the ethical core of the tradition. To identify Shinto narrowly with a warrior code, desperate acts such as those associated with kamikaze pilots, or ritual suicide, is to miss out entirely on an overwhelmingly peaceful and beautiful tradition at whose core is the celebration of life and the sacred riches of creation.


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