In Japan, not many people today declare themselves to be very spiritual. This is mainly due to the influence of modernization, education, technology and a stressful lifestyle. Even so, no one can deny the huge heritage left by different religions in Japan. Their marks on culture and mindsets can be easily observed at all levels of society. Shintoism and Buddhism, followed by Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity, affected the whole history of Japan’s unique civilization in both positive and negative ways. Actually, many different traditions intertwined together in the passing of time. Shinto-Buddhism is the result of that process, as it represents the closest thing to an official religion.
Shinto’s exact date of creation is unknown. The original tales that created the pantheon of gods and other supernatural beings come from the immemorial times of the paleolithic age. Because a written language didn't exist at that time, legends were transmitted orally. This is why so many different versions of particular stories emerged in a luxurious collection of old wisdom and fantasy, comparable with Ancient Greece. The first books recording Japanese folklore were Kojiki and Nihon shoki. They were ordered by the empress Genmei and interpreted by scholars in a way that benefited the state.
Many specialists in Asian studies speculate that the origins of Shinto beliefs can be found in the veneration of the sun. Another common feature that can be found in the Oriental Stone Age is the perpetual idea of cyclicity. Even objects are filled with life and everything that is born will be reborn again. The tragedy of the ephemeral passage of time has been one of the main topics of Japanese literature and art during the last 2,000 years. The sorrow from this revelation can only be surpassed by enjoying and praising the beauty of tiny passing things and the consolation that a new generation will arise.
Izanagi and Izanami are the gods that created Japan and they are the parents of the main deities. They are also related to the first emperor, a mythical figure that probably didn’t exist in real history. In contrast to other polytheistic religion, Shinto gods are weaker. They can be killed and many of them die in order to be reborn again. They don’t know everything and can’t foretell the future, having a more human-like personality, with good and bad traits. Seen from this perspective, Shinto divine creatures are closer to the Celtic and Norse ones.
Although siblings, the three deities didn’t get along. Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi had risen to the sky, but they were jealous of each other’s beauty. This is the reason why Amaterasu appears when it is day, while Tsukuyomi when it is night. Susanoo, the god of the storm, wind and chaos, had violent behaviour and so was despised by his father, Izanagi. Their conflicts almost brought the world to its end. Only the reconciliation of the main deities had the power to save humanity.
Amaterasu was the god of beauty and agriculture and she was the favourite child of Izanagi and Izanami. In contrast, Susanoo was the hated one, always killing innocent people or burning forests. Having some similarities with Plato's concept of how humanity started, the fight between Susanoo and Amaterasu tells us about the main Shinto principle: a united society is essential for survival.
At the beginning, the idea of Hell and Heaven didn’t exist in Shinto. All dead people went to the underworld called Yomi. After repeated contacts with Buddhism, a new vision about the afterlife appeared. Meido is a middle world between Hell and Heaven, a place where humans are judged for their deeds before the gods decide to send them to Jigoku or Tengoku. The judgment meant not only a trial, but also a series of horrific tests, comparable with Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio.
Jigoku is the Japanese word for Hell, a place designated for the ones who were found guilty in the trials of Meido. Some say that Jigoku is even more horrifying, as depicted in mythical descriptions, than the Christian Hell. The main concepts are more similar to the Indian Buddhist Hell and the Chinese Hell Diyu. It is interesting that no matter how grave the sins of the convict are, the sentence to go to Hell is not eternal. We can easily observe here the Shinto’s tenet of no innate good or evil and the philosophy of cyclicity found in all forms of Buddhism.
Tengoku is the Japanese word for Heaven, and is the realm where only good people go after their deaths. It was also imported from Buddhism, but we don’t really have a detailed depiction of it. In some versions Tengoku is in the sky, in others it is on a infinite ocean. Shintoism wasn’t preoccupied very much with the afterlife, and the description of Hell is far more generous because Jigoku was a temporary state before being reborn after you pay for your sins, while Heaven was the end of the journey, the final destination of reaching Nirvana. But then folklore gave us a lot of good creatures and spirits that are worth mentioning.
Yamato Takeru is the main hero in Japanese tradition, with Herculean power and the wit of Ulysses. The legend was also inspired from a real prince. As happens with these kinds of stories, many versions appeared in the course of centuries. He appears in all the major manuscripts from the VIII & IX century.
The American anthropologist C. Scott Littleton thinks that Yamato Takeru is incredibly similar to the myth of king Arthur from Great Britain. He tries to prove that folklore travelled between Asia and Western Europe, with nomadic tribes like Sarmatians and Alans playing a key role. This complex process happened between the second and the fifth century AD.
Japanese folktales are extremely rich, depicting stories full of imagination and creativity. A big part of this richness of creatures and spirits is owed to the Shinto mythology. In a sense, Shinto looks like the pantheist vision of the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. Everything has life and the highest morality is hidden in the most common things. Many of the traditional tales are violent or shocking, having the purpose of educating the general population.
Shintoism borrowed a lot of rituals from the different forms of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, transforming them into a new form of spiritual expression. There are major Shinto festivals almost every month, with some of them celebrated twice a year, each celebration lasting several days. People carry little decorated caravans that represent gods or a sacred act. They march on the streets accompanied by flute and drum music in order to summon the gods and spirits. The ones dedicated to war gods, fertility or the new year are loud and energetic, while the ones that focus on purification are quiet and encourage meditation.