Shinto Revisited: Japan’s Hidden Treasure


In the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world, a great many foreign concepts flooded into the country. Translators searched hard for their equivalents in the Japanese language. When they couldn’t find any, they created new words. In most cases, they were successful but not all the time. Some word choices were so misleading that they continue to plague us to this day. They remain the cause of misunderstanding between Japan and the rest of the world. The word “God” is a case in point. The word “God” is usually translated as “kami,” and vice versa, but what “kami” represents in Japanese is quite different from what “God” represents in English.

Let us listen to Elizabeth Vining, who served as then Crown Prince’s English tutor in the immediate post-war years. She writes as follows in her famous book “Windows for the Crown Prince” in connection with the so-called divinity of the emperor. “People had told me that even in the days of Emperor worship the Japanese did not mean the same thing by it that we do. They have, for instance, no word for God that means what we mean by God, who is to us the creator and the source of love and truth. Their word is kami, which means simply superior or upper.”

Westerners thought that the Japanese people had to be disabused of a false belief, but their belief was not what Westerners imagined it to be. Mrs. Vining points out, “I think that this Rescript (of January 1, 1946, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Humanity Declaration’ or ‘人間宣言’ by which the emperor dissociated himself from his supposed divinity) was issued more to reassure westerners than to inform the Japanese.” What has changed the Japanese attitude more than the Rescript, Mrs. Vining says, is “the way the emperor came out among the people, … visiting schools, factories, museums, hospitals, coal mines, and a multitude of other institutions.”

In fact, in ancient Japan, people respected not only the emperor but also one another as more than physical, spiritual beings. In “Kojiki” (古事記or the Records of Ancient Matters, which comprises stories of national foundation), even the disobedient in the countryside are referred to as “violent deities (荒ぶる神々).” In fact, every man was regarded as a son of the sun (“hiko” orひこ), while every woman as a daughter of the sun (“hime” orひめ). Everyone was believed to possess sacred nature in themselves. (Hereafter, the word “deities” will be used instead of “gods” to avoid misunderstanding.) When a prime minister’s remarks were translated some years ago: “Japan is a God’s country,” what he really meant was perhaps “Japan is a Shinto country, where people respected one another as integral beings both physical and spiritual.”

In a famous animation film “Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し)” by Miyazaki Hayao, all manner of kami or deities appear. The film gives us visual images of some Shinto deities although they are normally believed to be invisible. One of them is a deity associated with a lake. Humans with no concern for the environment have dumped all sorts of waste into the lake, so the deity is badly polluted. However, thanks to the selfless help of the heroine, he is cleansed of all the sludge he has had to carry over years, and happily flies away. (In Shinto, water-related deities are often represented as dragons/snakes.)

Shinto is remarkable for its tolerance and flexibility. It is to be noted that there has never been a religious war worthy of the name in Japan. Buddhism has been syncretized for such a long time (well over a thousand years) that everyone today feels so natural to follow both Shinto and Buddhist rituals. Moreover, people exchange gifts at Christmas and have western-style wedding ceremonies. Such syncretism is sometimes despised as an unprincipled practice, but on the contrary should be highly valued in today’s world where religious intolerance is causing such havoc.

Traditionally polytheism is seen as a primitive form of faith. True, Shinto does have numerous deities. The oft-cited number is eight million. Even though ‘eight’ in the old days often meant “a great many” rather than the exact number, but certainly are there a huge number of deities. Considering the size of Japan’s population of 4.5 million during the Nara period, when ‘The Records of Ancient Matters (古事記)’ was compiled, one can say that there were almost twice as many deities as people.

Double the number of deities as people may sound like a ludicrous proposition. By no means. In ancient Japan, not only did people respect one another as spiritual beings, but also revered nature, which supported their very lives. They revered elements in nature including inanimate objects like rocks, mountains and rivers as well as living beings. Hence so many deities, who were believed to reside in them. Nature was never an object of conquest but a benevolent benefactor.

Shinto has a lot to offer to today’s world. Religious tolerance and reverence for nature are only a few of them. Characters that appear in the stories of early days of the nation are lively, straightforward and open-hearted. They are in stark contrast with overstressed workaholics today. The Japanese people themselves should become aware of their hidden treasure of Shinto, so that they can share their ancestors’ wisdom with the rest of the world. I would like to study Shinto’s wisdom further to invigorate ourselves and people the world over for a better tomorrow.

MATSUNAGA Daisuke is former ambassador of Japan to Ethiopia. He also served in various posts across the world.