Shintoism

World war II saw a setback within Shinto ("the Way of the Gods") Japan. Emperor worship began to decline as Western presence and values began to reshape the post-war country. But religious tradition dies hard and there exists many factions of Shintoism in Japan today.

Appreciation and communion with the natural world are among the noble virtues of Shintoism. Japanese nature poetry, often short, expresses the Japanese affection for creation:

"E'en in a single leaf of a tree
Or a tender blade of grass,
The awe-inspiring Deity
Manifests itself." (1)

A part of community and Japanese culture, nature festivals such as the Insect Hearing Festival occur seasonally. Thousands of Japanese will sit outdoors for hours in the fall, listening to the music of the insects. In early spring, shops are closed occasional during the cherry blossom season that the Japanese people can go outdoors to drink in of the lush pink beauty. Others stare for hours at the moon or contemplate the beauty of a garden (Japanese gardens are famous) or even study the intricacies of a leaf. The Shinto affection for all things natural has brought the creative side out in the Japanese who have a keen sensitivity even to the various pitches of running water. Rocks are arranged within streams to arrive at the desire musical effect.

Another virtue of Shintoism is its provision to the Japanese people an ethos of community. All for one and one for all. Social responsibility is apparent in Japan with a healthy attending respect for family. The land and the people of Japan are considered sacred by Shintoists in that the Chronicles of Japan (the Nihongi) and The Records of Ancient Matters (the Kojiki) reveal this to be true. The Japanese feel a sense of destiny as they consider the islands of Japan and its people descended from the gods and chosen by them to rule the earth.(2) This idea reached the extreme borders of fundamentalism in Kamikaze (3)an early form of terrorism in which one makes the supreme sacrifice of life for the good of the community.

Japanese sense of loyalty to their country, government and fellow citizens is admirable, though taken to extremes at times. Loyalty per se implies, surrender, a virtue in anyone's book. We humans tend to be out-of-balance kinds of creatures. On balance, one might ask which is worse: too much loyalty? -Or, a narcissistic sense of independence some westerners feel? Healthy community implies loyal connection within it.

The Japanese have shown a willingness to learn, forsaking the practice of Emperor deification, for example. They have learned from Chinese Buddhists and Confucianists, but the national ethos remains Shinto, "the way of the gods." Two hundred years ago a Japanese scholar observed, "It is because the Japanese were truly moral in their practice that they required no theory of morals, and the fuss made by the Chinese about theoretical morals is owing to their laxity in practice." St. Paul lauded "those Gentiles who have not the law, do by nature the things in the law, these, not having the law, are a law unto themselves" (Romans 2:14).

The Japanese do not have the Western idea of personal sinfulness and their worship is more one of thanksgiving and praise than "confession." Shame, and the idea of personal, wormlike unworthiness is more a western than an eastern idea. The Japanese are willing to "take the best and leave the rest" regarding other religions. What Shintoism lacks in belief in the afterlife, Buddhism fills the void for many Japanese. The Shinto ethos does not allow for dualism and the average Japanese does not segregate the sacred from the "physical," seeing the sacred in all created things. Without giving explanation, the Japanese view the quality of the divine within each person, a view shared by the Christian apostle John (John 1:9). Seeing the divine in each individual life provides a general regard for the dignity of all life.

Though Shinto worship involves a plurality of gods, an idea alien to the western, Christian mind, perhaps it is more important to ask, "What is the nature of these deities?" Some Christians are offended at the idea of more than one god, but in a sense, the Christian Trinity presents a God in Three Persons, so the distinction may be slight. Many morally reprehensible things have been done in the names of these Christian personalities. The "nature" of deity is far more important than the "name".

Early Shintos, as did early Israelites, engaged in animal sacrifice though they have moved passed this. Many today have embraced Christian ideas of education and worship, some focusing on a central, all powerful, universal God. Some even espouse faith healing. The Japanese with a spiritual life finds satisfaction in taking life as it is and appreciating its wonders and opportunities.

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(1)A History of Japanese Literature, W.G. Aston
(2)At first glance, this seems preposterous to the western mind. But is the concept any more odd than Aryan notion of "super-race"? Or the Christian fundamentalist notion of a "born again elect"-and everyone else "Left Behind"? The Japanese would not be the first peoples to claim divine favor.
(3) Japanese: "Divine Wind." Originally, the term described a typhoon that destroyed Kublai Khan's fleet, foiling his invasion of Japan in 1281. Later, the term was applied to Japanese pilots and aircraft that crashed onto American ships during WW2.