The mystery of Shinto

Anyone who has taken at least a fleeting interest in Japan, has more than likely come across the word Shinto; however, there is a case for saying that even if it’s a term that is unfamiliar, its presence has certainly been witnessed — albeit unconsciously.

It’s something of an enigma to those outside Japan or of Japanese origin (including myself) but is a subject I personally find incredibly intriguing; spending many hours exploring and trying to understand its significance. With that in mind, my intention is to give a tangible answer to the question: What is Shinto?

What we’ll discover throughout this post is that a clear-cut definition is not entirely appropriate for Shinto, which at times can be interpreted in wildly various manners and often seem contradictory; although, this itself, can be one defining aspect. There are however many characteristics of Shinto that are firmly rooted and universally agreed upon that serve as a solid foundation to its understanding.

Shall we begin?

Defining Shinto

To get us on the right track, to many foreigners, refer to Shinto as a religion. It is Japans oldest belief system that you can trace back roughly 2000 years in its earliest form, and records the veneration of Kami, an element that persists into modern day Japan. There are familiar aspects to other religions such as paying respects, sacred places, and common practices that many adhere to — but that is where the similarities end.

Shinto does not have a founding figure, nor is there any set of writings or teachings that are to be directly followed or reviewed. There is also neither the expectation or obligation, or even opportunity to take part in regular services as one might expect.

Defining Shinto as a religion then might not be the best description.

In fact, many Japanese people attend Shinto shrines, observe Shinto customs, and attend ceremonies, but wouldn’t consider themselves religious. This is because Shinto has become such an engrained part of everyday life, that it’s not considered so.

To quote David Chart, an English translator working with Jinja Honcho that appeared on a YouTube video by ‘Life where I’m from’: “It’s not an identity. It’s something you do, not something you are”.

This gives a great insight into what Shinto is, more comparable to a way of life than a religion. Better yet, David Chart also writes his own blog over at Mimusubi. It’s a great site to visit to gain further knowledge into Shinto from someone with working knowledge of its practices.

To further define what Shinto is we must look closely at a key aspect of Shinto — the Kami.

A large ornate wooden building.
Taisuke.Kasuya, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The translation of Shinto means ‘Way of the Gods’, it is therefore logical to come to the conclusion that a Kami is a divine being; If we consider for a moment the connotations of the word ‘God’ in a common western sense, as that of a singular omnipotent being; this is quite far from the reality of Kami. That being said, Mythological figures such as Amaterasu (also known as the goddess of the sun) are kami, but is not the full extent.

By this definition Kami can be understood as plural not singular. Shinto then is polytheistic.

Kami goes much further than mythological figures. Shinto is also animistic in the way that there is a belief that all things; plants, rivers, weather, etc, all possess a somewhat spiritual essence or soul. Kami are said to have influence over such things or are in fact Kami themselves; however, we can go further still. Kami can also refer to people and animals both living and dead. This can be past ancestors and relatives or influential people such as emperors.

You can begin to see how different interpretations arise.

What is widely acknowledgeable however, is that kami should be respected — whatever form or version that takes. This translates into a common respect and appreciation for much of the world; whether that be streams and rivers, the sun, or the land itself.

This is how Shinto begins to influence daily existence and how it enhances the definition ‘Way of Life’.

Shinto specifics

Having an understanding of Kami allows us to move on to other core features of Shinto such as shrines and practices; topics that should be less confusing that trying to define Shinto itself.

an orange gate leading to a small building.
A Torii gate at the entrance to a shrine
Photo by DEAR on Unsplash

Shinto shrines

Shinto shrines, or Jinja, are places where Kami are enshrined. Across Japan there is approximately 100,000 Jinja, 80,000 of which are affiliated with Jinja Honcho: the association of Shinto shrines. Compared to other ‘religions’, a Shinto shrine is not necessarily a building but a location which is marked in some way to symbolise a Kami, the existence of a Torii gate is most likely the best indication.

At the start I mentioned that most people would have come across Shinto, even unknowingly; this is one of those times. 

The Torii gate has become one of the most iconic symbols of Japan. They are placed at the entrance to Shinto shrines and marks the entrance to the domain of the Kami, or sacred space dedicated to them. Its is common practice to bow before going trough one as a sign of respect.

People will come to a Shrine to pay respects to the Kami or pray for good fortunes for a variety of circumstances. One ancient example is that people may pray to Kami for a good harvest: It could be that you are praying to a kami who influences the land such as Inari (one of the most revered kami in Japan) or to the land itself, either way the intention is the same. As alluded to previously, visiting a shrine does not have to be a regular practice; yet many do, and throughout the year occasions do rise that warrant making an appearance, such as the new year.

When visiting a shrine, many of the buildings are not permitted to be entered and so paying respects to the kami will take place outside; this is due to the innermost space being reserved for the Kami themselves and often house items that are considered sacred.

Shinto practices and procedures

Much of Shinto and the practices that it involves takes place around Jinja; very little takes place elsewhere with the exception being some Matsuri. With that in mind, lets take a stroll though some practices and procedures you can expect to find.

Before going much further after the Torii gate, many shrines will require a form of purification before communing with Kami, this is usually achieved from Harae. This involves visiting a small water station on the site of the shrine in which you wash your hands and mouth with a wooden ladle. This is an incredibly important step that, failing to do, would be shown to be disrespectful.

Even something as simple as walking within the shrine has correct procedures. Walking directly through the centre of a Torii or down the middle of the following pathway, would again be disrespectful; this space would be reserved for the Kami and so instead should walk at the sides.

You can begin to see how the Kami are such a central focus to Shinto.

As you approach the prayer hall or the edge of the inner sanctum this is where you pay your respects. There is a set procedure to follow, which is:

  1. Place a 5-yen coin in the offering box that is present. This is another form of purification.
  2. Pull on the large rope that is attached to a bell to make Kami aware of your presence.
  3. Bow twice, clap twice.
  4. Pay your respects.
  5. Bow again to finish.

Many shrines are much more modest and lack the extravagance of an offering box or a bell, in this case you would skip to step 3.

A shinto purification water station.
A water station for purification
Photo by Gio Almonte on Unsplash

The influence of Shinto

Despite Shinto being generally confined to Jinja throughout most of Japan, its practices and origins have had great influence on life throughout the generations; to the extent that, some daily actions have Shinto roots but are not themselves Shinto activities or recognised as such. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

We mentioned that water purification at a shrine is incredibly important; consequently, you will find that the Japanese people do similar things at other times. Showering before then getting into a bath, washing before entering a hot spring: this is purification before taking part in another activity. Taking shoes off before entering a home is another related activity; this isn’t as uncommon, however, it takes on a new form in Japan. Leaving dirty footwear in the Genkan is essential in many places as it is considered an outside space that is separate to the purity of the space beyond — a similar idea to a Torii.

Itadakimasu is a word that is said by nearly every Japanese person before every meal. It translates as ‘I humbly receive’ in Japanese. It is used to say thanks for the meal that has been provided but doesn’t refer to the chief or the supplier, it refers to the appreciation of the food itself and by association the kami that made it available.

These examples are not practices of Shinto itself, but a representation of how this ‘Way of Life’ has begun to affect so much more.


To answer the question ‘What is Shinto?’: it’s a way of life that that is followed in a flexible manner, but specific in its application. It’s a belief system that is so engrained into the fabric of Japan that it has become almost inseparable to the country itself. Shinto plays a big role in Japan but not in a grandiose kind of way. There is a subtle and contemplative nature, that is built upon the respect of nature itself.