Shinto is uniquely Japanese, yet embodies a once-universal animistic religion of wind and fire, gods and animal spirits.
To connect Shinto to any form of ‘universal religion’ would appear to be a fool’s errand. After all, as any guidebook to Japan will tell you, Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan and only Japan, apart from a scattering of Shinto shrines in countries with large Japanese immigrant or expatriate populations.
At the same time, Shinto is considered to be, at least in its origins, one expression of animism, the world’s oldest religion. Thus, we are left with Shinto as both a religion unique to Japan and an expression of the world’s oldest faith.
The word animism is derived from anima in Latin, which literally means ‘breath’, with an extended meaning of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. Animism recognises the potential of all objects – animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather-related phenomena, deceased human beings, even words – to be animated and alive, possessing distinctive spirits. As such, animism is considered to contain the oldest spiritual and supernatural perspectives in the world, dating back to the Palaeolithic Age when humans were still hunter-gatherers.
Viewed from the standpoint of today’s organised religions, animistic religions can seem ‘primitive’ and are often dismissed as containing nothing more than superstitious beliefs and practices. This belittling if not antagonistic attitude toward animism has been particularly strong among the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For example, in the United States it was not until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 that indigenous peoples gained the legal right to practise their traditional animistic faiths.
Given this, as one of the world’s last still-flourishing animistic faiths, Shinto can provide a gateway to better understanding the origins of certain universal paradigms found in today’s organised religions.
A Shinto shrine can reveal how remnants of ancient animistic practices, as embodied in contemporary Shinto, can survive in the organised religions of the contemporary world. However, today’s Shinto should not be confused with ‘State Shinto’ (or kokka-shintō in Japanese). The latter was a 19th-century political programme created by the Japanese government to effect national unity and obedience by promoting the divinity of the emperor, a programme that existed right up until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.
On entering a Shinto shrine area, the initial ritual practice is the cleansing of one’s hands and mouth. This is an abbreviated version of the full-body immersion that continues to be practised in Shinto, typically by standing under a waterfall. In both instances, flowing water is recognised not only as a physical cleansing agent but as a spiritual one as well. To be clean in body and mind is required prior to approaching Shinto deities known as kami. Shinto is, of course, not alone in viewing water as a spiritual cleansing agent.
Remnants of this Shinto practice can be seen in the use of ‘holy water’ upon entering a Roman Catholic church, or the partial and whole-body immersion during baptism, which is practised by nearly all Christian denominations. Muslims meanwhile engage in the ritual cleansing of exposed body parts – hands, face and feet – prior to entering a mosque. And in Judaism, a mikveh is a bath used for ritual immersion in order to achieve spiritual purity.