Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/December 1894/Shinto, The Old Religion of Japan

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DURING the last twenty years there has been considerable discussion in Japan, both among native and foreign scholars, concerning the real nature of Shinto, the old religion of that country, and this discussion seems to have revolved around two central questions, namely, whether Shinto is a religion or not, and whether it was native to Japan or not. Different answers have been given, and diverse views have been expressed. However, the question whether Shinto was native to Japan or not largely depends upon what do we mean by Shinto, just as the question whether Shinto is a religion or not, depends upon just what we mean by religion. Shinto can not be a religion in the sense that Buddhism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism are, for it has neither code of morals nor system of beliefs, as these systems have. But if we are justified in saying that the rude Hebrews of the pre-Mosaic ages had their religion, and the wandering Arabs of the ante-Mohammedan centuries also had theirs, in this sense at least there can be nothing improper in the statement that our early forefathers too had their own religion, known later in history as Shinto.

What is Shinto, then? one may ask. What does its name mean? How old is it? What is its history? Is the present Shinto different from its primitive form? What will be the best method for investigating it? To answer all these questions with any degree of fullness is not the intention of the present writing—indeed, is not possible in such a paper as this. But the writer will venture to answer some of the above questions by presenting certain results of his personal experiences and investigations regarding this old and yet living religion of his native country.

The name Shinto consists of the two Chinese words shin and to. The word shin may be either a noun or an adjective, as many Chinese words are. As a noun it means god or gods, and as an adjective it means divine. The word to is the same word with the taou of Taouism, and means primarily way or path, and secondarily teaching or doctrine. This is the word by which the Logos of the Gospel according to St. John is rendered in both the Chinese and Japanese versions of the New Testament. Thus, taken by itself, the name Shinto may mean several different things, but as it is applied to the old religion of Japan its meaning is quite definite, and can not but be the "way of the gods." We know that the term shin is plural from the fact that the gods of Shinto are very numerous, and also we know the term to is singular from the fact that Shinto as a religion is but one.

Some writers spell the name Shintō, as it is spelled here, and others spell it without h and write Sintō. Either form is practically good, but strictly speaking neither is correct, for the Japanese tongue does not distinguish the two syllables shi and si, its corresponding sound being something halfway between the two. By some writers this word is written also Shintōism. The addition of the suffix ism has this practical advantage—it gives a clew to the category to which the thing denoted by the word belongs. On the other hand, it makes the word tautological, and hence is not used here. One may ask. Then, is the name Taouism tautological? Certainly not, for there the word taóu or is used in that particular sense which is well known to those who are familiar with the teaching of the founder of that system.

I have just said that the name Shintō consists of two Chinese—not Japanese—words, and hence the origin of this name can not be regarded as native to Japan. But here let me emphasize—because I know there are some foreign scholars who have made the mistake—the fact that the Chinese origin of the name Shintō by no means implies the Chinese origin of the thing indicated by it. Buddhism had already existed for some time before it received its name. Christianity existed before it began to be called by its name. So, after these analogies, we might just as well say that there was the thing Shintō existing before its name was applied to it. The earliest mention of the name Shintō, so far as I know, is found in the Nihongi, the Chronicles of Japan, which was completed in the year 720 a. d. Before the introduction of Confucianism and Buddhism the religion of Japan had no need of being called by any name. But when these foreign systems made their appearance and began to spread, there came, it seems, the necessity of calling the native faith by a particular name by way of distinction. In Japan, Buddhism was called Butsu-dō, the "way of the Buddhas," and Confucianism, Ju-dō, the "way of the sages." To contrast with these, the native religion probably began to be called Shin-tō, the "way of the gods," the of the two former names being the same word with the of the last, only differently pronounced for euphony. At what particular time this happened we have no means of knowing. The name is not found in the oldest extant book of the Japanese language, called Kojiki, the Records of Ancient Matters, which was completed eight years before the Nihongi—that is, 712 a. d.; but as we have already in the Constitution of Prince Shōtoku a passage where Shintō, Confucianism, and Buddhism are called the "three systems," by their respective names, "Shin, Ju, Butsu," and as this Constitution was drawn up by the prince in the reign of the Empress Suiko (a. d. 593-628), we may suppose that the name Shintō was already known toward the close of the sixth century, although ts express mention, as far as I know, first occurs in the Nihongi of 720 a. d.

One fact which, although indispensable to the real understanding of this religion, is commonly overlooked, is this, that Shintō has a long history, for it has come down to us from the prehistoric ages of its native land, and during this long history it has experienced different for times and undergone different interpretations. Even at our own time there are at least nine distinct sects, which all go by the name Shintō, but are more or less different from one another, both theoretically and practically. The study of these present sects, their origin and characteristics, will be one of the interesting and instructive subjects of investigation. But for those who intend to study Shintō historically it will be quite convenient to divide the whole history of Shintō into three general periods—ancient, mediæval, and modern.

The ancient period, as I call it, commences with the beginning of the Japanese people, coming down to the close of the sixth century of the Christian era, when the influence of the foreign systems of religion and philosophy began to be strongly felt. This is the period during which Shintō remained almost in the state of original purity, and hence the period may be termed the "period of pure Shintō." The mediæval period of the history of Shintō begins with the seventh century and comes down to the latter half of the seventeenth century. It was during this period that Shintō lost its original purity and became alloyed with the philosophies and religions of China and India. Indeed, we know from history that during this period several attempts were made to amalgamate, in various proportions, these different elements from foreign as well as native sources, and the result was the appearance of diverse compounds thus made. "Ryōbu-Shintō" in the ninth century, "Yuitsu-Shintō" in the fifteenth century, and "Deguchi-Shintō" and "Suiga-Shintō" in the latter half of the seventeenth century, are some examples of these compounds. In fact, this period was not only the period during which Shintō lost its pristine purity, but also the period during which it was made to withdraw itself into the background, leaving the field to its foreign competitors. Its simple and naïve content could never be any match for the learned and orderly teachings of Buddhism and Confucianism. Hence this mediæval period may be called the "period of adulteration and decline of Shintō." The third and last period is the modern period, which covers the present century and the whole of the last. Toward the close of the seventeenth century, several circumstances which I can not enter upon here made a strong reaction against the foreign influences to set in, and the interest in the things primitive and purely Japanese was revived. In the next— that is, the eighteenth—century, this reactionary tendency culminated in what is sometimes called the "Japanese renaissance of the eighteenth century." The scholars like Mabuchi, Motoöri, and Hirata then appeared in succession, whose far-reaching influence must be regarded at least as one of the main causes of the "restoration of 1868," when an end was put to the Shōgunate and the emperor was restored to his proper power and authority. Hence this modern period may be called the "period of the revival of pure Shintō."

It is true that revolution never goes backward. The revived Shintō of this modern period is not that simple and naïve Shintō of the ancient period. In the writings of the chief exponents of this revival we find that speculative or allegorizing spirit which is altogether foreign to the old Shintō; and, moreover, the reason why these men were able to become such exponents was because they were well versed in—not to name other things—the Buddhistic philosophy or the Chinese literature, or both. However, this modern period is the one in which the cry "Return to the things purely Japanese" is emphasized and felt. Especially since the "restoration of 1868" the interest in those things purely Japanese has steadily increased, although not without some temporary hindrances and disturbances.

This knowledge of the fact that Shintō has met these different fortunes and different interpretations, from time to time, is a necessary condition—I might almost say the necessary condition—for a proper understanding of its real nature, and one must keep this fact always before his eyes. Without doing so he is apt to make a big blunder. Sometimes, when one is expected to be talking about Shintō in its primitive state, he is really nothing more than describing its present condition. At other times, and that more often, when one is understood to be explaining the essential nature of Shintō, he is found, even to his own surprise, to be busying himself with the modified Shintō of the mediæval or modern period. The little carelessness of a writer results in the great mistake of many a reader, and such seems to be especially the case with numerous writings of those foreigners who with a positive air sketch in a few strokes "such and such is the real nature of Shintō," notwithstanding the fact that their conclusions are hasty ones based on scanty materials which are gathered from distant and doubtful sources.

As I am very anxious to avoid any such blunder, and yet as I can not, in this short paper, follow through the whole history of Shintō from its beginning to our own times, I will content myself with a brief sketch of the most important characteristics of this old religion—those characteristics which are common not only to the Shintō of all its different sects, but also to the. Shintō of all ages. The first characteristic I have in my mind is about the objects of Shintō worship. The second is the fact that Shintō is a religion of purity. The third and last characteristic I have to mention is about merrymaking, which plays so prominent a part in Shintō worship of all ages.

The objects which our forefathers worshiped or held in reverence were of different kinds. Among these objects ancestors were most important and are to be mentioned first. Then certain natural phenomena and objects are to be noticed, for certain natural powers, objects, and even animals were called deities and were held in reverence.

The fact that our forefathers worshiped these different kinds of objects is consistent with the meaning of the Japanese word for god—namely, kami. This word primarily means high or above, and is generally used in this primary sense. The upper half of the human body is called kami, in contrast to its lower half, which is called shimo. In our feudal times the governor of a province or district was called kami, being the head of the province or district. Even at the present time the local or central government is often called o-kami in the mouth of a country farmer. No doubt, when the term was applied to a god or gods, it was used in the same sense, meaning something standing high above human beings and possessing powers more than human. Thus a kami is simply an object of worship, and almost anything was regarded by our forefathers as an object of worship, in so far as it was mysterious and suggestive of good or evil influence. To them all their ancestors, who were wise in council or brave in war or even quick in temper, were suggestive of help or harm, and became the centers of myths and legends. To them the sun, which is the source of light and life; the moon, which does "wax and wane as if it were alive"; the fire, which is prone to anger and can consume everything in an instant; the thunder, which peals and roars, often striking men and beast to death; the mysterious principle of life, which propagates itself through and is represented by the organs of reproduction, and the like, are all wonderful and fear-inspiring. The cunning fox, which is peculiarly famous in Japan, was no doubt an object of fear and respect, while the mysterious serpent that "walks without feet" must have been a god also. Thus our forefathers could not help seeing an impressive object almost every where, and each one of these objects was called kami and was worshiped.

This fact is still more plainly seen in the absence in Shintō of any tendency toward idolatry—the tendency, I mean, to assimilate and embody the objects of worship in the visible form of man or beast. This tendency is absolutely lacking in Shintō. I freely admit that in the Koziki, the oldest book of Shintō, there is a very strong tendency to identify most of the objects of Shintō worship with the ancestors of the imperial and other great families; but at the same time I firmly assert that among the Japanese of all ages there seems to have been no tendency to represent their objects of worship in the visible form of man or beast. Even the idea that an object of worship must be embodied or represented visibly is unknown to the Japanese mind. If any such idea or tendency is found at present, it is doubtless due to foreign influences, especially that of Buddhism. To the pure Japanese mind, an idol a simulacrum of god—was unnecessary. Whether the absence of this tendency speaks favorably or unfavorably as to the place of Shintō in the development of religious consciousness in general, is not the point I am aiming at. My point is this: This absence of the tendency toward idolatry in Shintō indicates the absence therein of a more general tendency to assimilate the different kinds of the objects of worship into one type or one kind of objects. To the Japanese mind it was not incongruous or inconsistent to worship all sorts of objects. If certain animals were called kami, certain trees were also called kami, and both were worshiped. If certain ancestors were called kami, the sun and the moon were also called kami, and both were worshiped. Just as the meaning of the word kami is vague and comprehensive, so the objects of Shintō worship were diverse and heterogeneous.

As to the worship of "Heaven" in the sense of one active and benevolent principle of Nature, which has been said to be the essence of Shintō, there is no proof of its existence in our old historical records, the earliest of which was compiled in the beginning of the eighth century of the Christian era. Such an abstract and refined conception of Nature and its God no one can expect from any of the primitive peoples of the world. However, even in the "ancient period" of Shintō there was not wanting a certain tendency to make one deity—specially Amaterasu, the sun-goddess—supreme over all other deities. Later, when Chinese philosophy made its way to Japan and began to assert its influence, our forefathers probably for the first time came to have some conception of Heaven as the all-present and all-seeing, and as the punisher of the wicked and the rewarder of the good.

The physical purity or cleanliness of the Japanese people is unique and almost proverbial. The reason for this fact is found in the very nature of Shintō, which is a religion of purity, and which demands the utmost physical purity and cleanliness of its believers. Its rites and ceremonies for avoiding all sorts of uncleanness are numerous. For example, blood was considered to be unclean, and so anything stained with blood was also unclean. Thus the woman in her monthly courses or for some time before and after a childbirth, was regarded as unclean. Uncleanness in these cases means liability to dangers. Thus the woman just before a childbirth was confined to a "parturition house," in order to keep her separate from the rest of the family to avoid the spread of danger by contagion. More than birth, death was feared because of its accompanying uncleanness. The dead body and anything which came in contact with it were regarded as unclean and dangerous. How much the uncleanness of death was feared is plain from a very singular custom among the early Japanese of abandoning the old house together with the dead body whenever a death occurred in it. This explains the reason why coffin-carriers, grave-diggers, as well as butchers, were classed among the outcasts and were called "not-men."

The reason why the idea of uncleanness was associated with the idea of dangerousness was, in my opinion, because uncleanness was thought to be the enemy of the gods, and the gods can not be where any uncleanness exists. The gods are clean and pure, and those who are not clean and pure can not but forfeit the protection of the gods. Those who are not protected by the gods can easily be attacked and injured by the evil and unclean spirits, and hence the idea of danger came to be associated with the idea of uncleanness. This is perhaps made plainer by some concrete case. When I was a young boy, the custom of eating beef began to spread. As blood was regarded as unclean, and also as Japan had been a strong agricultural country, there was a very deep-rooted disinclination to eat beef. In this, of course, one has also to recognize the influence of the vegetarian principle of Buddhism. But to anybody who had ever tasted beef, it was so delicious that he could hardly control his natural appetite by his religious scruple. My father was one of those who knew its taste, and so now and then we used to treat ourselves to beef. But where did we eat it? We did not eat it inside of the house. We cooked and ate it in the open air, and in cooking and in eating we did not use the ordinary utensils but used the special ones kept for the purpose. Why all these things? Because beef was unclean, and we did not like to spread this uncleanness into our house wherein the "gods-shelf" is kept, and into our ordinary utensils which might be used in making offerings to the gods. The day when we ate beef my father did not offer lights to the gods nor say evening prayers to them, as he did usually, for he knew he was unclean and could not approach the gods. Then my mother, who did not and could not eat beef till very recently, did these things; and I, who used to partake of the new dainty dish, often went to bed feeling as if I was unclean and subject to dangers.

As the gods hate uncleanness, temples, temple utensils, and all other things which were connected with the gods were carefully kept clean that is, away from any unclean things. For this purpose the shimé-nawa, or clean rice-straw rope, is used in many cases to mark off the sacred objects. If one travel in Japan even at present he will find many things thus marked off, especially in temple precincts. Here he may find an old tree with the shimé-nawa around its trunk. There he may see an old well marked off in the same manner. Thus, if he find anything with the shimé-nawa, he never does wrong to conclude that some kind of superstition, fear, or reverence is entertained by the people toward that object. Especially the unclean people are afraid of coming in contact with any object thus distinguished, because they believe they may thus incur some evil or punishment for defiling the sacred object.

In many cases, however, men can not avoid coming in contact with unclean things, and hence there are several means of purification in Shintō. Purification by washing with water is the commonest method. Sprinkling salt is another common method, and purification by fire is also common. Purification is performed at any time when it is necessary, either privately or publicly. The length of the time required for purification differs in different cases and degrees of uncleanness. Often one purifies himself, but sometimes he asks the help and intercession of the priest. There are two semiannual national acts of purification—one on the last day of the sixth month and the other on the last day of the twelfth month—when all the sins committed and impurities incurred by the whole nation during the past half year are purged away. These are called the "Great Purifications," and even now are performed at the great temples of Ise by the Emperor in deputy.

To the Shintōist the essential character of sin is impurity or uncleanness, and it has more of a physical than of a moral nature; for with the early Japanese, as with any primitive people, morality, if there was any, was more external than internal, more physical than spiritual. Many an act was regarded as unclean, not because it was morally and intrinsically wrong, but more because it caused physical uncleanness and made the parties concerned liable to the anger and curse of the gods. If anything is meritorious in Shintō, this strong emphasis of physical purity and cleanliness is one; and there can be no doubt that this Shintō teaching of physical cleanliness has had much influence upon the progress of moral cleanliness of the Japanese nation.

How the meaning of purity and cleanliness passed from external or physical to internal or spiritual, and how strong the practical influence of such a transference of the meaning was, can be seen from many facts. The great Shintō scholar Motoöri, who lived during the latter half of the last century and was one of the leaders of the Japanese renaissance of the eighteenth century, boldly asserts: "Human beings, having been produced by the spirit of the two creative deities, are naturally endowed with the knowledge of what they ought to do and what they ought to refrain from. It is unnecessary for them to trouble their heads with systems of morality. If a system of morals were necessary, men would be inferior to animals, all of whom are endowed with the knowledge of what they ought to do, only in an inferior degree to men." Hence he concludes that, as the Japanese have and need no system of morals, they are superior to the Chinese, who have and need such a system. Some eight hundred years earlier than Motoöri there flourished another great exponent of Shintō, whose name was Michizané. Michizané was a patriot, statesman, scholar, and poet, and even at present he is one of the most extensively worshiped gods of Shintō. This hero has a short poem which is expressive of the old religious spirit of the Japanese nation, and which, being helped by the influence of his strong and noble personality, has had a very marked influence among our countrymen. The poem, if I may venture to translate it, is this:

"Only if our inner heart is
In harmony with the true way,
The gods will protect us,
Even though we do not pray."

The meaning of these lines is unmistakable. According to Michizané, religion can have no real existence apart from morality; but, on the contrary, if one live a pure and divine life, there is already in his life the reality of religion. If his heart is not in harmony with the heavenly way, and if he does not live his prayer in his life, mere verbal prayer is of no account, because the gods care more for the real purity of our heart than for the empty prayer of our mouth.

The other important characteristic of Shintō is that this system is a religion of naïve optimism. Our early forefathers seem to have been remarkably happy and cheerful in their temperament. "To live happy with gods and men" seems to have been the long and short of their religion as well as of their life. If any misfortune happened, they ascribed it to the anger and curse of the gods, and by offerings and festivals they tried to appease the gods and to restore their favor. If everything went well, and especially when the annual produce of the soil was plentiful, again they ascribed this to the favor and mercies of the gods, and by offerings and festivals they praised the gods and rejoiced themselves. Thus there are numerous festivals of the Shintō gods all over the country. These festivals may be classified as public and private, and also as regular and occasional. The greatest annual festivals naturally come in autumn that is, our harvest time. It is in these festivals that the saké, the "Japanese rice beer" that "cheereth gods and men," plays such an important part that no festival can be complete without it. The kagura is also indispensable in these festivals. It is a theatrical performance, where music and dancing come together to entertain the gods as well as men. Many other religious dances of both comical and dignified natures are also performed. The wrestling too was at first a part of a religious festival. Of course, during these festivals many and generous offerings are made to the gods to show gratitude, while at the same time alms and gifts are very freely given to the poor. Thus it is plain that in the mind of the early Japanese the gods were not very different from them nor very far from them. The gods and their worshipers lived together, enjoying each other's company. The festivals were as much for gods as for men. The offerings were not for the poor, as in Christianity, but they were real and actual offerings to the gods themselves. The music was not* merely to praise the gods, but was mainly for the purpose of pleasing them.

Thus, Shintō is a religion of merrymaking, a religion of enjoying this life to its utmost extent. I say "this life," but this does by no means imply that Shintō denies the future existence of the soul. Surely it implies the belief in such an existence. On this point a great mistake was made by some. No error can be more superficial than this, but, strange to say, even some missionaries fell into it! Plainly enough Shintō does not expressly teach the eternal existence of the soul or the doctrine of.eternal punishment. It does not know the immortality of the soul, as we have it in Christianity. Such a dogma is foreign to Shintō, as the Buddhist doctrine of transmigration is foreign to it. But the fact that Shintō implies and even teaches some kind of future existence is indisputable from the very fact of ancestor worship, which necessarily implies the belief in the existence of the now deceased ancestors somewhere.

This belief, however, must have been very vague and indefinite. Our early forefathers did not believe their religion in order to be saved from tortures in the next life. To them religion was something of more immediate concern. They did not care much for the next world. All that they cared was to enjoy this present life as best they might. To this end they did what they could, and were happy and satisfied. But they were mortals and could not help dying. No doubt death was not pleasant to them, and they did not like it. Yet to them death did not have any associations of a hideous nature, such as going to hell, eternal torments, and the like. They thought probably that after death one will continue to live somewhere else than here, on this earth. Even there was a custom of the retainers following their deceased master to the grave, being buried alive. This indicates the naïveté of their thought, and at the same time the recognition of some sort of future existence. They also thought that the deceased have some interest in the affairs of their friends and relatives who are still living on this earth. This belief is still quite common among the Japanese, even among the educated classes; and who can say that it has nothing rational and helpful in it?

The fact that the early Japanese were remarkably optimistic in their temperaments and dispositions is to be properly emphasized. Here, in conclusion, I will cite only two facts which confirm this statement. In the first place, it is true that Buddhism pessimized Japan, but at the same time it is also true that Japan optimized Buddhism. This is, of course, too big a subject here to enter in any detail. However, if any one carefully compares the Japanese Buddhism with Buddhism of any other country, he will surely find out that our Buddhism is more optimistic than that of anywhere else. The cause of this, it seems to me, lies in the natural tendency of the Japanese mind to see the bright side of things. The hare in the moon, instead of pounding drugs as a punishment, as a Hindu legend has it, is described in a Japanese legend as making mochi or rice pastry—the national cake of Japan—which represents the joy and happiness of the new year. The other fact is this: Some time ago an American lady who was in Japan for many years told me the following incident, which is almost an everyday occurrence in Japan. While the lady was in that country, one of her Japanese friends, who had recently married, died. So the lady made a call to condole the family deprived of its head, when she was surprised by the young widow, who thanked the American lady, expressing her sentiments by words like these: "I am sure that my husband must be glad to have your company here to-day, and be thankful for your kindness." This was quite a new experience to the American lady, who never expected such cheerful words from a bereaved young widow, and who never had happened to see the belief in the future life from such a point of view.

Thus, to the Japanese, especially to their early ancestors, the utmost enjoyment of this earthly life—that is, to be happy with gods and men—was the final object of their existence. To them religion was nothing but the very means of accomplishing this end. This is evident from the fact that in our olden times all festivals were religious, there being no distinction between religious and secular. By eating, drinking, singing, and dancing, which form the main elements of these festivals, they wanted to be happy with gods and with men. Therefore I say that Shintō may be defined, from this aspect, as a religion of merrymaking.