Shinto Worship: Traditions and Practices

Child selecting an omikuji at a Shintō shrine.

 MakiEni's photo/Getty Images

Shintō (meaning the way of the gods) is the oldest indigenous system of belief in Japanese history. Its beliefs and rituals are practiced by more than than 112 million people.

Key Takeaways: Shintō Worship

  • At the core of Shintō is the belief in and worship of kami: the essence of spirit that can be present in all things.
  • According to Shintō belief, the natural state of human beings is purity. Impurity comes from everyday occurrences but can be cleansed through ritual.
  • Visiting shrines, purification, reciting prayers, and giving offerings are essential Shintō practices.
  • Funerals do not take place in Shintō shrines, as death is considered impure. 

Notably, Shintō has no holy deity, no sacred text, no founding figures, and no central doctrine, Instead, the worship of kami is central to Shintō belief. Kami is the essence of spirit that can be present in all things. All life, natural phenomena, objects, and human beings (living or deceased) can be vessels for kami. Reverence toward the kami is kept by regular practice of rites and rituals, purification, prayers, offerings, and dances. 

Shintō Beliefs

There is no sacred text or central deity in the Shintō belief, so worship is carried out through ritual and tradition. The following beliefs shape these rituals.

Kami 

The core belief at the heart of Shintō is in kami: formless spirits that animate anything of greatness. For ease of understanding, kami are sometimes defined as deities or gods, but this definition is incorrect. Shintō kami are not higher powers or supreme beings, and they do not dictate right and wrong.

Kami are considered amoral, and they do not necessarily punish or reward. For example, a tsunami has a kami, but being struck by a tsunami is not considered a punishment from an angered kami. Nevertheless, kami are thought to wield power and ability. In Shintō, it is important to placate kami through rites and rituals. 

Purity and Impurity

Unlike wrongful deeds or “sins” in other world religions, the concepts of purity (kiyome) and impurity (kegare) are temporary and changeable in Shintō. Purification is done for good fortune and peace of mind rather than to adhere to a doctrine, though in the presence of kami, purity is essential.

In Shintō, the default for all human beings is goodness. Humans are born pure, without any “original sin,” and can easily return to that state. Impurity comes from every day occurrences—intentional and unintentional—such as injury or illness, environmental pollution, menstruation, and death. To be impure is to separate oneself from the kami, which makes good fortune, happiness, and peace of mind difficult—if not impossible—to achieve. Purification (harae or harai) is any ritual intended to rid a person or an object of impurity (kegare).

Harae originates from the founding story of Japan during which two kami, Izanagi and Izanami, were tasked by the original kami to bring shape and structure to the world. After some struggle, they married and produced children, the islands of Japan and the kami that inhabit them, but the birth of the kami of fire ultimately killed Izanami. Desperate with sorrow, Izanagi followed his love to the underworld and was appalled to see her corpse rotting away, infested by maggots. Izanagi escaped the underworld and cleansed himself with water; the result was the birth of the kami of the sun, the moon, and storms. 

Shintō Practices

Shintō is upheld by adherence to traditional practices that have been passed through centuries of Japanese history.

Visiting Shrines (Omairi)

Shintō shrines (Jinji) are public places constructed to house kami. Anyone is welcome to visit public shrines, though there are certain practices that should be observed by all visitors, including quiet reverence and purification by water before entering the shrine itself. Worship of kami can also be done at small shrines in private homes (kamidana) or sacred, natural spaces (mori).

Purification (Harai or Harae)

Purification (harae or harai) is a ritual performed to rid a person or an object of impurity (kegare). Purification rituals can take many forms, including a prayer from a priest, cleansing by water or salt, or even a mass purification of a large group of people. A ritual cleansing can be completed through one of the following methods:

Haraigushi and Ohnusa. Ohnusa is the belief in transferring impurity froma person to an object and destroying the object after the transfer. When entering a Shintō shrine, a priest (shinshoku) will wave a purification wand (haraigushi) consisting of a stick with strips of paper, linen, or rope attached to it over visitors to absorp impurities. The impure haraigushi will theoretically be destroyed at a later point.

Misogi Harai. Like Izanagi, this method of purification is done traditionally by submerging oneself completely under a waterfall, river, or other body of active water. It is common to find basins at the entrance of shrines where visitors will wash their hands and mouths as an abbreviated version fo this practice.

Imi. An act of prevention rather than purification, Imi is the placing of taboos on certain circumstances to avoid impurity. For example, if a family member had recently died, the family would not visit a shrine, as death is considered impure. Likewise, when anything in nature is being harmed, prayers are said and rituals are performed to appease the kami of the phenomenon.

Oharae. At the end June and December each year, oharae or the ceremony of “great purification” is performed in shrines around Japan with the intent to purify the entire population. In some circumstances, it is also performed after natural disasters.

Kagura (Ritual Dances)

Kagura is a type of dance used to pacify and energize kami, particularly those of recently deceased people. It also is directly related to Japan’s origin story, when kami danced for Amaterasu, the kami of the sun, to coax her out of hiding to restore light to the universe. Like much else in Shintō, the types of dances vary from community to community.

Prayers and Offerings

Prayers and offerings to the kami are often complex and play an important role in communicating with the kami. There are different types of prayers and offerings.

Norito

Norito are Shintō prayers, issued by both priests and worshippers, that follow a complicated structure of prose. They usually contain words of praise for the kami, as well as requests and a list of offerings. Norito is also said as a part of purification by the priest over visitors before entering a shrine.

Ema

Ema are small, wooden plaques where worshippers can write prayers for the kami. The plaques are purchased at the shrine where they are left to be received by the kami. They often feature small drawings or designs, and prayers often consist of please for success during exam periods and in business, health children, and happy marriages.

Ofuda

Ofuda is a amulet received at a Shintō shrine that is inscribed with the name of a kami and is intended to bring luck and safety to those who hang it in their homes. Omamori are smaller, portable ofuda that provide safety and security for one person. Both need to be renewed each year.

Omikuji

Omikuji are small slips of paper at Shintō shrines with fortunes written on them. A visitor will pay a small amount to randomly select an omikuji. Unrolling the paper releases the fortune.

Ceremonies and Festivals

Participating in Shintō rituals strengthens interpersonal relationships and relationships with the kami and can bring health, security, and fortune to a person or group of people. Though there is no weekly service, there are various rites of life for worshippers.

Hatsumiyamairi

After a child is born, he or she is taken to the a shrine by parents and grandparents to be placed under the protection of the kami.

Shichigosan

Every year on the Sunday nearest November 15, parents take sons aged three and five and daughters aged three and seven to the local shrine to thanks the gods for a healthy childhood and to ask for a fortunate and successful future.

Seijin Shiki

Each year on January 15, 20-year-old men and women visit a shrine to give thanks to the kami for reaching adulthood.

Marriage

Though increasingly uncommon, wedding ceremonies traditionally occur in the presence of family and a priest at a Shintō shrine. Typically attended by the bride, the groom, and their immediate families, the ceremony consists of exchanging vows and rings, prayers, drinks, and an offering to the kami.

Death     

Funerals rarely take place in Shintō shrines, and if they do, they are only to appease the kami of the deceased person. Death is considered impure, though only the body of the deceased person is impure. The soul is pure and free from the body. 

Sources

  • “Religions: Shinto”. BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation, 7 October 2011. Bragg, Melvyn. “Shinto”. Audio blog post. In Our Time. British Broadcasting Corporation, 22 September 2011.
  • Chart, David. “Harae.” Mimusubi, 8 October 2013. 
  • McVay, Kera. All About Shinto. Delhi: University Publications, 2012. Print. 
  • Toji, Kamata. “Shinto Research and the Humanities in Japan.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 51.1 (2016): 43-62.
  • Virata, Ruth. “Shinto”. Audio blog post. Arts of Japan Documentary Series. Asian Art Museum. 2 July 2009.