Japanese Beliefs

Kami, Japan’s indigenous religion dated back to the prehistoric times, and foreign Buddhism never quite fused, but a combination of Buddhist and Taoist elements, and the incorporation of shamanistic features of the indigenous religion remained however inextricably linked all the way to the present day, always interacting. Shinbutsu shūgō (神仏習合, lit. syncretism of kami, Japan’s indigenous polytheistic deities and Buddhas), also called Shinbutsu konkō (神仏混淆, lit. jumbling up or contamination of kami and Buddhas), a term which however has a negative connotation of bastardization and randomness, is a defining feature of Japanese religious life up to the end of the Edo period.

An indigenous belief
Chris Ayers for The Wall Street Journal

Kami can be defined as “spirits”, “essences” or “deities”, which are associated with many understood formats.

An indigenous belief

In early Japanese history, the ruling class was responsible for performing propitiatory rituals, which later came to be identified as Shintō, and for the introduction and support of Buddhism. Kami is a difficult concept to translate as there is no direct similar construct in English, but can be defined as “spirits”, “essences” or “deities”, that are associated with many understood formats; in some cases being human-like, in others being animistic, and others being associated with more abstract "natural" forces in the world : mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks. Shintō's kami are collectively called yaoyorozu no kami (八百万の神, lit. eight million kami, many Kami). Shintō practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the The Kojiki (古事記;712 , Record of Ancient Matters, The foundation to written Shintō history) and The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀; 720, Continuing Chronicles of Japan), although archeological records date back significantly further.

The Jōmon period
Chris Ayers for The Wall Street Journal

The development and growth of a sedentary, agrarian society exerted influence on the Japanese people's relationship to the natural world, and developed local beliefs.

The emergence of local beliefs

The Jōmon period (縄文時代; 16,500 BCE – 400 BCE, Jōmon jidai, Japanese prehistory) is named after the first known pottery vessels in the world, known as Jōmon Pottery, dated to the 14th millennium. The manufacturing of pottery typically implies some form of sedentary life because of its fragile nature and thus generally useless to hunter-gatherers who are constantly on the move. In the Early and Middle Jōmon periods, the settlements of the new arrivals from the continent brought new technologies that evolved the incipient cultivation into sophisticated rice-paddy farming, led to the development and growth of a sedentary, agrarian society in Japan. Naturally these changes exerted influence on the Japanese people's relationship to the natural world, and developed local beliefs; a recognition that the ancestors created the current generations and the reverence of ancestors took shape, and the natural spirituality of the people appeared to be based on the worship of nature forces or mono (, an object), and the natural elements to which they all depended.

kofun
Chris Ayers for The Wall Street Journal

A local clan rose to become the Imperial dynasty at the end of the Kofun period. This time period led to the creation of the Yamato culture and development of formal Shintō practices.

The development of formal Shintō practices.

The Kofun period (古墳時代; around 250-538, Kofun jidai, kofun is Japanese for the type of burial mounds) is an era in the oldest era of recorded history in Japan, characterized by a Shinto culture that existed prior to the introduction of Buddhism. Up to this time Shintō had been largely a clan based religious practice, exclusive to each clan, headed by a patriarch who performed sacred rites to the clan's kami to ensure the long-term welfare of the clan. The Kofun period of Japanese culture is also sometimes called the Yamato (大和) period, since this local chieftainship rose to become the Imperial dynasty at the end of the Kofun period. This time period led to the creation of the Yamato culture and development of formal Shintō practices. “Shintō”, to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma,” but those books of lore and history provide stories and background to many Shintō beliefs.

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Reference Columns

    kami
  • Japan's indigenous belief

    Shinto originated in prehistoric times as a religion with a respect for nature and for particular sacred sites. These sites may have originally been used to worship the sun, rock formations, trees, and even sounds. Each of these was associated with a deity, or kami, and a complex polytheistic religion developed.