History and Sources

What is Shinto and what are its origins?

“Shinto” derives from two Chinese words—shen, meaning “deity,” and dao, meaning “way.” The Japanese reading of the Chinese expression comes out kami no michi, the “Path of the Kami.” Since at least several centuries B.C.E., the Japanese have acknowledged the sacred presence and power of numinous entities called kami, “high or superior beings.” Until about the middle of the sixth century C.E., the Japanese people evidently did not think of their ancient religious traditions as a separate system. So organically integrated were those traditions with their entire culture and heritage that worship of the kami was largely assumed as the Japanese way. Only with the arrival of Buddhism, called in Japanese “the Way of the Buddha” (butsu-do), did it become necessary to give the indigenous beliefs and practices a name to distinguish them from this imported tradition.

Unlike many other major traditions, Shinto had neither a founder nor a single foundational figure who represents concrete historical origins. In a sense, Shinto is as old as Japan itself, somewhat the way Hinduism is as old as India. At its core, the Way of the Kami enshrines profound insights into the sacred character of all created nature. Shinto calls people to a deep awareness of the divine presence suffusing all things, to the challenge of personal and corporate responsibility for the stewardship of the world that is home, to unending gratitude for all that is good, and to a willingness to seek purification and forgiveness for humanly inevitable but avoidable lapses. Observe worshippers at a Shinto shrine—as Buddhism has temples, Shinto has shrines—and there can be little doubt of the sincere devotion that moves so many people to prayer and ritual expression of their beliefs.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App