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Shintoism is a Japanese religion whose name is derived from Shinto, meaning literally "way of the gods." The term was first used in the Nihonshoki, a chronology compiled in A.D. 720 in response to an imperial ordinance. The appearance of the word in such a document suggests Shinto's relationship to the imperial system.

Shintoism is animistic in origin. Its deities are the natural world, spiritual powers, rulers and heroes, and ancestors. The Shinto term for god is kami but it does not necessarily mean a transcendent being. Anything worthy of respect (a rock, animal, plant) can be called kami. (In regard to the origins of kami, the term Kojiki is also of interest).

Shintoism does not have an articulate theology, although it is doctrinally influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism. It does, however, have concepts of heaven, eternal world, sin, defilement, and cleansing. Anything associated with death is considered "defiled." So while Shinto weddings or purification rites of children, for example, are common, Japanese funerals are usually a Buddhist ceremony.

Throughout its history Shintoism has almost always been closely identified with the imperial system. In 1867 the government finally made Shintoism the state religion. Twenty-three years later it issued an "Edict on Education," which was to become the doctrine of state Shintoism. The edict supported the "holy" imperial system founded by legendary imperial ancestors, and demanded that people give their lives to the emperor should an emergency arise. The state Shinto system and the edict eventually made the emperor a kami. It was actually taught that the emperor was a "manifest god" until he made a public denial of his deity in January 1946, after World War II.

People in Japan and throughout Asia, especially Christians, suffered unbearable agony under the state Shinto system. People were forced to visit shrines to show their allegiance to the emperor. There was a law forbidding the use of irreverant words and behavior against the imperial family and the Ise Shrine, which enshrines the mythical Sun-goddess, the professed ancestor of the emperor. Many people were arrested on charges of violating the law. Prosecuted Christians were forced to answer the question, "Who do you think is greater, Christ or the Emperor?" and the answer determined their fate.

Shintoism was deprived of all its privileges at the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945. However, in the late 20th century there was a revival of the Shintoistic traditions in Japanese society, exemplified by the call for nationalization of the Yasukuni Shrine (which enshrines the war dead "who laid down their lives for the emperor") and the incorporation of Shinto ideology into the public education system. It was cause for concern to Christians. -- HY

See also Patriotism.

Author(s) Hiroshi Yanada
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Yanada, Hiroshi. "Shintoism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 15 Aug 2022.

APA style

Yanada, Hiroshi. (1989). Shintoism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 August 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 820. All rights reserved.

©1996-2022 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.