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Anthropology of Religion: Shintoism in Japan

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A person’s religious views, and how they are raised in religion can greatly affect their moral compass, values, and general outlook on life. With over 4,200 religions out there. It is difficult for humans as a society to respectfully understand one another’s beliefs. One of the most misunderstood religions is known as Shintoism which is The Way of Kami (Hirai). 

Shintoism is a religion based in mainly Japan. With over 119 million people following its belief today. People who follow Shintoism mainly focus on the following of spirits known as Kami. These spirits are close to human beings and are said to respond if prayed too. These Kami Earth’s shapes range from different portions of landscapes likes rivers and mountains, to weather such as winds and rains, and even animals, and plants. These Kami spirits are in practically everything that is alive. The Shinto followers believe when Kami are treated with respect, kindness, and prayer, they change the course of a person’s situation and way of living. Either stopping misfortune and pain or even bringing good health and better opportunities. That is a quick basis on why people follow the ideology of Kami. 

A brief history of Shintoism is the religion itself is seen as a fairly older religion even though most of its popularity is through Buddhism. Shintoism began as a primitive religion focusing on nature, which it still does, but it had way less moral ideals. It began a more focused development between 400 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E. in the Yayoi Period of Japan. Where back then, Japan was mainly sustaining itself by growing rice and making materials and weapons out of bronze and supplementary metals (Hardacre 18). The people of Japan began developing these small sites and shrines near waterfalls and rivers. For Kami to enter. Leading to around 450 C.E. Japanese people began building tiny objects near anything of value. Mainly being the rice farms in hopes of good weather for crops to grow in. Along with new homes in hopes of good fertility and health. This small ritual based idea continued until about 700 CE. Eventually, Buddhism started rising in popularity in Japan, and believers of Shinto started picking up some major Buddhists ideals. Having even to this day no real official one founder of the religion. The religion followers didn’t mind changing its objectives as history would move forward. Some of the beliefs that were added on were how funerals would undergo, and how we as people should control our own lust and hatred. As mentioned before Shintoism has a more unique base of philosophy. They believe in many different spirits. With Shintoism having over eight million Kami spirits. All Kami have different practices that show them respect. Yet, if treated with disrespect or greedy intentions these Kami’s may act in rebellion against humans. 

The main two Kami in Shintoism are Amaterasu and Susanoo. Amaterasu being the Sun Kami who is a kindhearted and warm-spirited Kami (Reader, Ian-Tanabe, George Joji, and Tanabe, George J). She is always feuding with her younger brother Susanoo, who is the Kami of storms. The two are in many famous myths. The most famous myth of Amaterasu and Susanoo dates all the way back to 712 CE. Where Susanoo was telling his sister he was being called to go to Heaven; even though their father was always upset with him for causing mischief throughout Japan. His sister being skeptical, and not believing if he was telling the truth about his goodbyes. Lead to Susanoo placing a wager who could make gods out of objects, and if he summed five gods he was telling the truth. Amaterasu was able to bring three women from Susanoo’s Totsuka-no-Tsurugi ( Sword of Length of Ten Fists). While he birthed five men from her beloved necklace. Having Susanoo claiming to be the winner. Even though Susanoo won the bet, he began filling up with rage, and with that rage destroyed his sister’s rice fields and attendees. Out of fear and rage, Amaterasu hid herself in Ama-no-Iwato (heavenly rock cave) causing darkness across Japan. Eventually, she was convinced out of the cave, and Susanoo was eradicated from Heaven and sent to Hell. Where he continued to fight an eight-headed serpent, until it was killed and known and gave Amaterasu the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter Sword), as a way of forgiveness (Hardacre 52). This story is so often referred to even nowadays Japan. Not only for being used in multiple different animes and shows but to demonstrate one must not act in anger and jealousy. Which became a huge ideal in Shintoism, and even more so once combined with Buddhism. 

Some of the main practices to be good in the Kami’s eyes including Amaterasu and Susanoo is going to a Jinja. “Where one or more Kami are enshrined.” Which is basically a Japanese shrine for specific or many variations of Kami. With over 100,000 recognized Jinjas in Japan. With some of the largest being Ise Grand, Izumo Taisha, and the Meiji Shrine. Shintoism, unlike Christianity and Judaism, don’t have weekly meetings at their shrines. Usually, people arrive when they want, and meetings, if held at all are the 1st and 15th dates of the month. What mainly is done when going to a Jinja is when approaching the building the person will approach the symbol known as the Torii (bird perch), and one must show respect to the Torii and the symbol of whichever Kami the Jinja is for. Since the Torii’s represent you are passing regular land and entering holy land. Once someone passes the Torii they should be grateful for the blessing of Kami and their ancestors. They may pray or meditate quietly, but mainly people are just to be at peace with oneself, and appreciate where one is in life do the Kami ’s. Yet, Shintoism isn’t limited to that one ideal, it continues in many different branches. Some of the most important values and concepts that must be followed in the practice of Shintoism is one is constantly impure. Leading to every person should always be trying to purify ourselves. Whether it be physically at Shrines with holy water, or through prayer to Kamis. A person shouldn’t be dwelling on grudges or hatred. Letting it go helps purify the soul. Since, once a person dies, Shinto followers believe we become Kami. If you were constantly filled with anger, jealousy, and hatred your soul after it leaves your body, will turn into a mischievous evil Kami. Always seeking revenge on the living for eternity in the land of Yomi a place similarly described as the Greek Hades. Which is a place separating the real world and Yomi through a river (Littleton 88). Never being allowed to visit the real world again unlike to Kami’s that are free to travel Heaven and the real world as they wish. While the good Kami with pure souls are also celebrated constantly and given gifts at the shrines they may inhabit. Most of the Shinto holidays are used to celebrate and give admiration to Kamis. One of these festivals is Daijōsai Matsuri known as their Fire Festival and dates back all the way to 794 CE. Which is held around January 15th every year, depending on the Lunar Calendar. Where the Japanese light big bonfires, and burn writings of calligraphy, in hope for it to fly to the mountains where Daijōsai, the spirit of stones lives. In response, Daijōsai usually gives the people a lucky new year without pain, disease, and blocking evil spirits with his mountains. Then as a community, all Shinto followers would get together and have a huge meal in the Jinja. 

Another huge holiday that was adapted into the religion is Obon. Celebrated from August 13th through August 15th. Originally Obon is a Buddhist holiday to celebrate the return of the dead. Yet, the Shinto religion does add their own spin on Odon, especially in modern day times. Normally, people visit their families ancestors graves and clean them, and say prayers for the departed. Additionally, Shinto believers would partake in the Odori which is a dance to honor the deceased (Littleton 80). To show they are still thought about, loved, and knowing they had great lives. After leaving the cemetery most families burn these candles in a paper like boxes and set them to float in lakes, to end the celebration as a goodbye till next years celebration. A final holiday is different from community to community. It is known as a Taisai. Which is a big festival of the entire town to celebrate that town’s local Kami. Usually celebrated in early spring (Littleton 83). Children carry and show to their neighbors a small Mikoshi, and in the evening the Kanusshi which is similar to a priest for Shintoism purifies the local shrines. Then a local festivities continue into the night with food, dance, and overall gratefulness. 

Overall, Shintoism is a quite beautiful and peaceful based religion. A religion full of spirits and humans attempting to live this life on Earth, as a pure one. Attempting to fix problems and make amends. To clear mistakes, and to minimize impurities. The Shinto community starting from all the way back in 400 BCE is filled with celebrations and connections that unify the community from the start of the new year and its new blessings. To the final farewells, and passings of loved ones into the Kami realm. Shintoism is a religion similar to other religions our societies believe in. With a base understanding that one should live with good morals, and not focus on one’s ack off, but all that we should be grateful for. That is something that unifies almost all religions and is something that should be understood more often by us humans then bicker about which way is the right way. 


  • Hardacre, Helen. Shinto: a History. Oxford University Press, 2017. Littleton, C. Scott. Understanding Shinto Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. Watkins Publishing, 2011. 
  • Hirai, Naofusa. “Shintō.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 31 Oct. 2018, 
  • Pecorino, Philip A. “Philosophy of Religion Chapter 2. Religions of the World Section 7 . Shintoism.” What Is Philosophy?, 2001, 
  • Cali, Joseph., et al. Shinto Shrines a Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion . University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2013. 
  • Reader, Ian-Tanabe, George Joji., and Tanabe, George J. Practically Religious Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 1997. 

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Anthropology Of Religion: Shintoism In Japan. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from
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