Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
SHINTO. We shall improve the space at our command by outlining the features of pure Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, which has exerted so great a political influence upon the empire, which is so enthusiastically studied by Anglo-Japanese scholars, which has given rise to a large portion of modern Japanese literature, including the finest works of erudition in the language, which furnishes the basis of some vigorous polemics against advancing Christianity, and the original scriptures of which have been denominated by Basil Hall Chamberlain "the earliest authentic and connected literary product of that large division of the human race which has been variously denominated Turanian, Tartar and Altaic, * * even preceding by at least a century the most ancient extant literary compositions of non-Aryan India."
—The pure Japanese term for the native religion is Kami no Michi, the Way of the Gods; or, Religion of the Kami. The later and more concise Chinese term, Shinto (Shin god, and to doctrine, i.e., theology), was invented to distinguish it from the Way or doctrine of the Chinese sages, or of Buddha. To in Shinto is the same as the Tau of Lao-tse, or Tauism. It seems no longer doubtful that the Japanese islands were peopled by a race from northeastern Asia, who made their way from the continent through Corea, long before Buddhism entered China, or before Chinese culture had greatly influenced the nations around the Middle Kingdom. The invaders found on the soil the Ainos and other tribes, whom they subdued as they moved northwardly and westwardly. They obtained ascendency, not only by their superior arms and prowess, but by their fetiches and religious beliefs. The political order established by the conquerors resembled feudalism, and of the many shrines, established upon the allotted lands by the victors or their descendants, for the reverence of ancestors, some attained great eminence and renown. The invaders professed to have come originally from heaven, and so called themselves the heavenly race, and their ancestors the heavenly gods, while their serfs or conquered people were the earthly race, and their chiefs the earthly gods.
—Until the introduction of writing from China, in the fourth century, the prayers, odes and traditions of this essentially ancestral cult were handed down from mouth to mouth and were not committed to writing until the eighth century. Upon the introduction of Buddhism, in 552 A. D., which served to spread Chinese literary culture, the superiority of both the religious and the literary forms and codes of India and China were so apparent that native developments were smitten with paralysis, and, instead of originating, the people borrowed wholesale. Ancient Japanese civilization may be compared to the wooden caissons, on which modern engineers build their lofty towers of bridge masonry; for soon after the Kojiki (Book of Ancient Records) 711-12 A. D., and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) 720 A. D., were completed, all that was peculiar to ancient Japan was rapidly overlaid by Chinese institutions and culture in every department of human activity, and the old features of national life and faith faded from view. In 927 A. D. the code of ceremonial law, Englishiki, was reduced to writing, though in reality it contains a ritual older in many portions than the historic period, which latter, in the light of present historical research, can not probably be stretched beyond 400 A. D.
—The Kojiki pictures creation as evolution out of chaos, in which matter existed before intelligence, the first imperfectly formed beings springing like sprouts from the warm mud, and arriving at completed spirit and form only after successive stages of advance. Japan was the first created land, and the first pair, Izanagi and Izanami, furnished the Japanese archipelago with everything needful, and populated it with gods, men and animals. Heaven and earth were still united, but gradually a separation took place. The most famous child of the divine pair was a daughter, who became the sun. Her grandson, Ninigi, was sent from heaven to earth to subdue the turbulent inhabitants, who, in multiplying, became rebellious. Descending from the skies to mount Kirishima in Hiuga, Kiushiu, he subdued his enemies, and his grandson, Hohodémi, born of a dragon mother, set out on a tour of conquest, and fixing his seat of government near Kioto, became the first mikado of Japan, being, many centuries afterward, canonized as Jimmu Tenno. By an ediet of the 123d mikado, Mutsuhito, promulgated Dec. 15, 1872, the date of Jimmu's accession to the throne was fixed at 660 B. C., so that the Japanese year corresponding to 1883 A. D. is 2543d of the Japanese empire. The mikado is thus the personal centre of the Shinto religion, which consists in the practice of the worship of ancestors, of the sun and other forces of nature, of the gods of grain, of the trees, of the watercourses, of the roads, and of various local influences. Even animals, trees, swords and jewels were, in the primeval cult, called kami, and thus deified, though not probably worshiped. Some of the kami were evil, some good.
—The Japanese mythology is abundant, fanciful, extravagant, and far from being harmonious in its statements. Three cycles of myths are distinguished by Mr. Chamberlain, having their origin respectively in Kiushiu, Yamato and Idzumo. All the deities of Shinto were once men, and the chief of them are now worshiped by the leading noble families of the imperial court as their ancestors. It is to be noticed, that while ideas or expressions from the Chinese classics are to be detected in the Kojiki, the ancient liturgies are in pure Japanese. In addition to these monuments of the archaic speech, special prayers and hymns are still composed on great occasions, a notable instance being that in Kioto, in 1868. On this occasion the mikado took an oath to form a parliament for the discussion of national affairs, and the most solemn invocations were made to the Heavenly Gods to ratify the august vow which became the foundation of the new government. Yet, notwithstanding its impressive ritual, Shinto, in comparison with Buddhism or the system of Confucius, lacks dogma and formulated codes; teaching no ethics, unless reverence to the dead and unquestioning submission to the mikado's will may be called ethics. Most of the elements composing positive religion are absent, such as precise doctrines, casuistry, a polemic propaganda, and distinctly marked ministers of religion. In its unpainted and ungilded shrines, severely simple, and built on the type of the dwelling house of ancient Japan, are no idols, or emblems, except the notched strips of white paper—the economical substitute for the ancient offerings of white silk. Closets may contain written prayers, and vases the same or folded paper, while offerings of fruits, grain and fish, are made at stated seasons. The ancient torii (bird rest), or perch for the sacred chanticleers, have now become the holy archways through which worshipers approach the shrine. In stone or wood, red or unpainted, these "gateways" are as striking objects in the landscapes of Japan as are spires in northern christendom. Ancient sacrifices, as the liturgies show, consisted of rice-beer, grain, fine cloth, coarse silk, brocade, and boars and cocks, which latter, however, were never slaughtered. Actual lustrations and prayers for cleansing were frequent, and now survive in the washings of the hands and rinsings of the mouths of worshipers. Indeed, the radical idea of offenses was that of defilement, and that of amendment purification. The religious distinction between "good" and "bad" was, in general, "clean" and "unclean." Mr. Ernest Satow, in "The Mythology and Religious Worship of the Ancient Japanese" (Westminster Review, No. ccxxvii., p. 25), says that of the two classes the Asiatic invaders were agriculturists, while the primitive inhabitants were hunters or fishermen, and that the "heavenly" offenses mentioned in the rituals were those peculiar to an agricultural class living among a people pursuing different hereditary occupations, while the "earthly" offenses were more general in their nature.
—Left alone by itself, Shinto might have developed into a perfected system, with all the appurtenances of a religion properly so called. This, however, was not so to be. Instead of resisting Buddhism, it became, in contact with it, weaker and weaker in the struggle for existence. It was not only overlaid by Buddhism, but, in the ninth century, it was practically absorbed by the India cult through the Philo-like irenicon of Kobo, a Japanese priest, learned and perhaps unscrupulous, who, after a professed revelation from the kami, proclaimed that all the chief gods of Shinto, the native heroes and patriarchs, were but previous imperfect manifestations of Buddha to Japan before his avatar as the perfect teacher to India. The native myths, legends and doctrines were explained according to Buddhist ideas, the old gods were baptized with Buddhist names and titles, and henceforth Shinto, as a religious system, except in a few obscure temples, and among a few noble families, among which its purity was sacredly maintained, disappeared from view, and was utterly forgotten by the mass of the people. When, however, in the seventeenth century, the political genius of Iyéyasu gave "the peace of absolutism," after centuries of civil war, and scholars had leisure for research, a school of zealous Shinto scholars arose. The ancient texts were unearthed, deciphered, edited and lectured upon with literary acumen and polemic zeal. Shinto was again set forth in its primal purity, appealing alike to patriotism and the religious instinct. The logical consequences followed. The conviction flashed itself upon the minds of those who especially hated the despotism of the Tokugawa rulers at Yedo, that if the mikado was the descendant and representative of the Heavenly Gods of the Divine Country (Japan), he ought, by virtue of his divine descent, to reign as emperor, as well as pope, and rule his people without a lieutenant between himself and them. Reverence for the mikado and hatred of the usurper increased, forming a public opinion hostile to the duarchy. When the revolution of 1868 broke out, the most potent moral force behind the cannon balls of the imperialists was the belief in the divinity of the mikado and in his right to govern in person, and expel the alien from the polluted Land of the Gods (Japan). The shogunate was abolished, and duarchy ceased. No sooner was the new government established in Tokio than the Buddhist emblems and ritual war purged from the ancient Shinto temples, and in place of incense, gilding, images and altars, were seen the austere simplicity of virgin wood, white paper and natural offerings. A vigorous propaganda throughout the empire ensued, and for a time it seemed as though Japan was to be led back to the ideas and mental attitude of a world that had passed away fifteen centuries before. But such a miracle was not to be wrought. Experience soon showed the mikado's ministers that in the nineteenth century men could not be born again into the primitive barbaric age. The foreigners refused to be expelled.
—With the revolutionary movement came the multifarious demands of complex government, foreign relations and popular rights. Practical politics jostled state religion aside, and the ancient Council of the Gods of Heaven and Earth (Jin-gi Kuan) which had once outranked the Council of the Great Government (Dai-jo Kuan) was reduced first to a department, then to a bureau, again to a sub-bureau, and finally, in 1880, abolished utterly. Nevertheless, Shinto is still a living force with millions of the Japanese: and the grave problem now before the minds of earnest patriots is the transmutation of the old popular reverence for the throne and person of the mikado as divine, into the new loyalty of intelligent respect. The period between the disintegration of old sanctions and motives and the inrooting and growth into strength of new political habits of thought, is always a period fraught with peril, but it is to be hoped that with the decay of the old may come a purer and stronger religious faith as well as new political theory and fabric, and that the throne of the oldest living dynasty on earth may find even a securer foundation than the stilts of myth, when resting upon constitutional foundations "broad based upon the people's will."
—LITERATURE. Nearly all the best writing upon Shinto is found in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, by Ernest Satow and Basil Hall Chamberlain. See also Westminster Review, July, 1878, and The Mikado's Empire, New York.
WM. ELLIOT GRIFFIS.
Return to top