by Carole Losee © 2005-2020


by Elizabeth Seeger © 1973


Part Five


Izanami and Izanagi create the world.
(Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


The beaten path
Is covered with fallen leaves;
Brush them aside and see
The footprints of the Snow Goddess.


The Japanese people have believed from the beginning of their history to the present day that their beautiful islands are the land of the gods, the first land to be created out of the vast expanse of ocean. After the islands were formed, all created things, including man and a multitude of gods, were born there. For this reason the people have a spiritual kinship with mountains and rivers, rocks and trees, and with all living creatures; for there is no dividing line between them: the only difference is in the degree of consciousness or in the particular part that each one plays in the working of the whole. The islands, in all their aspects and all those who are born there are of one family and the head of this family is the emperor, for they believe that he is the direct and biological descendant of the greatest of all the deities, the Sun Goddess.

When one makes such a statement about the people of any country it must be remembered that it is a generalization, that there are many individuals who believe differently and others who do not believe anything at all. Nonetheless, when people form a community that lasts for hundreds or for thousands of years and when the vast majority of them hold certain beliefs and live by them, it seems justifiable. The religion of the Japanese is called Shinto, and it has been the most powerful influence in their lives.

Shinto originated in the very early days of their history and is therefore expressed in mythical stories, as almost all early beliefs are. The Japanese mythology is rich and detailed and it is still a vital part of the national life. (1)


This is their story of creation:

In the beginning, when heaven and earth began, certain great powers came into being. They were given names, and in a large, vague way, personalities; they symbolized the first movements of creativity and growth. There were six generations of these divine beings, and the seventh produced two much more definite figures: one male, whose name was Izanagi; and one female, Izanami. They were sent down from the High Plain of Heaven by the older gods to create the world.

They stepped out upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven and looked downward. Izanagi said, "Is there not something beneath us?" He thrust down his jeweled spear and found the ocean. When he pulled the spear out, some brine dripped from it and formed an island. They stepped down upon it and lived there.

They built a house for themselves with a central pillar, and when it was done, Izanagi said, "Let us go round the heavenly central pillar, and when we meet at the other side, let us be united in wedlock and give birth to other lands." So they walked round, she to the right, he to the left, and when they met, she said, "How delightful! I have met a lovely youth!" And he said, "How delightful! I have met a lovely maiden!" But then he was angry and said to her, "You should not have spoken first, for you are a woman." For this reason, probably, their first child was ill-formed, and they put him in a reed boat and set him adrift upon the ocean.

Meanwhile, they had gone round the pillar again, and Izanagi had spoken first. They gave birth to the other islands of Japan. They also bore a multitude of gods, some born in the usual way and others in strange ways from almost any part of their bodies. Spirits of rocks, of trees, of winds and waters, of mountains and valleys, of grasses and herbs, appeared. Finally Izanami brought forth the God of Fire, and in doing so, was so badly burned that she died and went to the land of Yomi, or darkness.

Izanagi was so angry with the fire-child that he cut him into three pieces, and eight gods were born of the blood that dripped from his sword. Then he sought his beloved wife in the land of darkness. Izanami came out to meet him. "My lovely younger sister," said he, "the lands that you and I made are not yet finished, so come back!"

"Why did you not come sooner, my lord and husband?" answered his wife. "I have already eaten of the food of Yomi and cannot return. But I will discuss it with the lord of Yomi. Do not look at me!" She went into the lord's palace; but she lingered so long that Izanagi broke off the end-tooth of the comb that he wore in his hair, lighted it for a torch, and went to look for her. When he found her, he saw that her body was already decayed and loathsome and he turned and fled. She was very angry and cried out, "Why did you not obey me? Now you have put me to shame!" She sent the Ugly Women of Yomi to chase him and slay him, and she joined them. He threw down his comb, which changed into bamboo sprouts, and the Ugly Women pulled them up and ate them, and then took up the pursuit again. He threw down his headdress, which turned into bunches of grapes, and again his pursuers stopped to eat them, and he escaped.

When he reached the mouth of the underworld, he rolled a great rock against it and stopped it up. Just then Izanami caught up with him, and from the other side of the rock he said, "Our marriage is ended," "If you divorce me," she answered, "I will kill a thousand of the people of your land in one day." "If you do so," he said, "I will in one day cause fifteen hundred to be born." And these angry words were the last they spoke to each other.

When Izanagi regained the upper world, he said to himself, "I have been in a hideous, unclean land. I must purify myself," and he went to the sea and bathed himself thoroughly. As he washed his left eye, the Sun Goddess was born; as he washed his right eye, the Moon God appeared. The Storm God was born from the washing of his nose; his name is Susa-no-wo-no-mikoto and it means Swift-Impetuous-August-Male-Deity. Izanagi was pleased with these three children. The Sun Goddess was such a radiant and glorious creature that he sent her up to take charge of the High Plain of Heaven. Her name is Amaterasu-O-mi-kami, which means "Heaven-Shining-Great-August-Deity."


[Japanese is a hard language for a foreigner to learn, but it is not hard to pronounce the proper names to oneself and therefore to recognize them. Almost every syllable is made up of one consonant and one vowel: sometimes a single vowel makes a syllable, as in I-sa-na-gi; sometimes two vowels make one sound, as in ai or ei. G is always hard, as in go. If one remembers how the vowels are pronounced and divides the syllables the reading is easy, however long the name may be. There is no accent; all syllables have the same value. It is important to know some of these names, and they have a fine rhythm. The "O-mi-kami" and "O-mi-koto" mean "Great-August-Deity" and may be left out.]


Izanagi gave the Moon God the realm of the night, and said to Susa-no-wo, "You shall rule the ocean." But this god was a troublemaker; he would not rule the seas but wept and wailed continually, till the green mountains were washed bare and the rivers ran dry. His father asked him why he wept so much, and he said that he wanted to go to his mother in the underworld. "Then go, as your heart bids you," said Isanagi, glad to be rid of him.

Before Susa-no-wo departed, he went up to the HIgh Plain of heaven to say good-bye to his sister the Sun Goddess. She knew his character and came out to meet him, armed with a bow and sword. They stood on either side of the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) and as they talked, eight gods were born of their breath. Susa-no-wo convinced his sister that his intentions were pure, and she let him pass, but once he came into her domain, he behaved worse than ever. He broke down the dikes between her rice fields and let the piebald colts of Heaven loose in them; he threw filth into her palace. Finally--worst and strangest of all his misdeeds--while she was sitting in her weaving hall with her maidens, making garments for the gods, he skinned one of the piebald colts and flung it down into the hall through a hole in the roof.

This was too much for his sister. She entered the rock cave of Heaven, closed the door, and left the heavens and the earth in darkness. The gods were horrified. On earth the descendants of Izanagi and the people they ruled over woke in the morning to black night instead of the warm and blessed rays of the sun. The myriads of gods and goddesses met together on the bank of the River of heaven and took counsel. They uprooted an evergreen tree and set it up beside the cave. From its topmost branches they hung a string of jewels, from the center branches they hung a large mirror of polished metal, and from the lower ones, lengths of soft cloth, blue and white. They brought cocks with them which they set to crowing. Then they all gathered outside the cave.

A gay and mischievous goddess kindled a fire; she turned a tub upside down and danced a rather indecent dance on it, drumming upon it with her feet. The gods shouted with laughter. Ama-terasu, inside the cave, thought to herself, "There must be darkness everywhere without. How can they be so merry?" She went to the mouth of the cave and asked them why they were having such a good time.

"There is someone here more beautiful than you," answered the dancing goddess. Ama-terasu, of course, opened the door a crack, and the first thing she saw was her own radiant reflection in the mirror. The god of Strength, who stood close to the cave, seized her hand, pulled the door wide open, and led her forth. Another one drew a rope of rice straw across the opening, so that she could never go back. and all was well.

Susa-no-wo was punished and expelled from Heaven. Again he did not go right away to the underworld, but descended to earth, to the province of Izumo, on the northwestern shore of the island of Honshu. There he met a man and a woman leading a young girl between them, and all were weeping. He asked why they sorrowed. "I had eight daughters," answered the man. "But every year a great serpent comes and devours one of them. This is our last daughter, and this is the time when the serpent comes. It has eight heads and eight tails and is a very fearful beast." Susa-no-wo told them to prepare eight tubs filled with rice wine; he set these out in a row, and when the serpent came, it put each of its eight heads into a tub and drank until it lay in a drunken stupor. Then he cut the heads off, one by one. In the monster's body he found a great sharp sword which he thought so fine that he gave it to Ama-terasu as a propitiatory gift. He married the girl he had rescued and begot many children, but finally took himself off to the land of Yomi and we hear no more of him. His descendants, as well as other gods who were born of Izanagi and Izanami and lived on the islands, are known as the Earthly Kami, while those who dwelt on the High Plain of Heaven are the Heavenly Kami.


Kami is a word that is hard to define; even the Japanese have difficulty doing so. It is usually translated "god," since we have no equivalent for it in English. Yet Kami does not mean god in the Western sense of the word. We think of gods as persons, separate from and above human beings. There is no dividing line between Kami and any living creature; there is only a succession, a great stream, one might say, of created beings, from the highest and oldest of heavenly powers to the sands of the seashore or the herbs of the field. Kami means, literally, high or superior, and any creature may become a Kami if it possesses the superior qualities that make it worthy of reverence and remembrance. Those great beings who made heaven and earth were, of course, Kami. On the other hand, men and women may become Kami, because of some great virtue, as with us they may become saints. In Japan there is one word for the whole spiritual succession; mountains may be Kami. so may great rocks or trees or rivers. Therefore the word will be used where there is no English equivalent for it. 


The heavenly Kami were not pleased to have these precious islands in the hands of Susa-no-wo's descendants, though the latter had become very worthy people, not at all like their obstreperous ancestor. So they decided to send down Ama-terasu's grandson to rule the earth. They first sent one of the gods to see how things stood. He went out upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven and looked down; then he returned and said that the land was full of evil deities that shone like fireflies and buzzed like summer insects, even the rocks, the trees, and the grasses had voices. It was an unruly land and he would have none of it. Then the gods sent another messenger who never returned. They sent down still another; this one married a daughter of the ruler of the land and wanted it for himself, and for eight years they did not hear from him.

After these experiences it seemed safer to sent two envoys. These went directly to the ruler (one of Susa-no-wo's descendants) and asked him if he would yield the country to the grandson of the Sun Goddess. He rather naturally demurred. They made him a more tactful and gracious proposal: that he share the rule with his distant cousin, keeping the spiritual and ceremonial duties in his own hands and yielding the political and military ones to the newcomer. They offered also to build him a beautiful palace. He agreed to this. They expelled the unruly gods and put to silence the herbs, trees, and rocks that formerly had voices, and returned to Heaven to make their report.

Then Ama-terasu-O-mi-kami summoned her grandson, Ninigi-no-mikoto, and said to him, "This land of the Plentiful Reed Plains of Fifteen Thousand Autumns and of Fresh Rice Ears shall be ruled over by my descendants. Proceed thither, my noble grandson, and govern it. Go! and may prosperity attend your dynasty and may it, like heaven and earth, endure forever!" She named five companions to go with him, and finally she gave him the mirror and the string of jewels that had lured her from the rock cave, and the sword that Susa-no-wo had found in the serpent's body and had given to her. "Think of this mirror as my spirit," she said. "Worship it as you would my very presence."

The August Grandchild Ninigi-no-mikoto, left the heavenly rock seat with his five companions; "thrusting apart the myriad-piled clouds of heaven, he clove his way with an awful way-cleaving" and landed on a mountain in the westernmost island which is now called Kyushu. From there he explored the country and found a place that suited him. He built a palace, setting its pillars firmly on the rock and raising its crossbeams to the heavens, and there he dwelt and ruled over the island. 


There is no mention in these legends of the creation of man, for in Shinto man is not all-important and he is not the lord of creation. He came into being with all the other creatures and shares the Kami-nature as they all do. There were "people" in Izangi's time, so there must have been men in the islands under Ninigi's rule. The heavenly Kami intermarried with them and their descendants became the inhabitants of the country. 

There are many delightful stories about NInigi, his marriage, and his children; one is especially important. One of Ninigi's sons lost his elder brother's fishhook; he could not find it anywhere. In despair he sat lamenting by the seashore, for his brother was stern and unforgiving. An old man came to him and said, "Do not grieve. Enter the sea and you will find a road that will lead you to the Sea God's palace. Outside the gate is a well, and beside the well, a wide-branching cassia tree. Climb into this tree, and the Sea God's daughter will find you there." The young prince obeyed, and soon the princess came to the well, saw him in the tree, and was astonished by his beauty. She told her father that a stranger was at the gate; he invited Ninigi's son to his palace, feasted him, and eventually gave him his daughter in marriage.

They lived happily there, and a boy was born to them. But, after three years the prince became homesick for the earth and for his family. He could not go back without the lost fishhook. The Sea God summoned all the fishes of the ocean and asked them if they had seen it; it was found at last in a fish that had suffered for some time with a sore throat. So the young prince returned home, taking his sea-born son with him.


The son of this child became the first legendary emperor of Japan. His name was Jimmu; he left Kyushu and took possession of the western part of the great island of Honshu, where most of the early history of Japan occurred. There he married a descendant of Susa-no-wo, and so he united in his person the land and the ocean and the families of the Sun Goddess and her brother, the Heavenly and the Earthly Kami. He is believed to be the founder of the empire, and his date is 660 B.C. though the date, like the man, is legendary. He and his descendants ruled over the central part of Honshu, gradually increasing their territory to include the whole island. The people prospered; they built towns and villages, planted the valleys with rice and vegetables, while the rivers and shores gave them an abundance of fish. 

The present emperor is the direct descendant of the Emperor Jimmu, therefore of Ninigi-no-mikoto and therefore of Ama-terasu-O-mi-kami. There has been no break in the line of descent: every emperor has been a member of the one family. The Japanese are very proud of this fact because it fulfills the words of the Sun Goddess to her grandson, "...may it [your dynasty], like heaven and earth, endure forever!" For this reason he is unique in Japan (the imperial family has no surname, for it need none) and unique among the rulers of the world. It is believed that when he is enthroned (and not until then) he comes into direct communication with his august ancestors, including Ama-terasu-O-mi-kami, and that they work their will through him. As a Western scholar has said, "...the sovereign unites as a whole the Japanese people ...not inhabitants of the Japanese nation, but also in their spiritual relationship with Heaven." (2) The great majority of the people, to this day, look up to their emperor with reverence and devotion and are willing at any moment to lay down their lives for him.

His role is not an easy one. If he is a worthy ruler, he keeps his mind and heart pure and disciplined in order to be an instrument for these higher powers. In addition to all his duties as a constitutional monarch, he is the high priest of the nation and conducts the great ceremonies of the year. His position is very like that of the Chinese ideal: he is the One Man, the Son of Heaven, mediator between Heaven and his people.


There are no sacred scriptures in Shinto, like those of India or China; there are the legends, early chronicles, poems, and ritual. The teaching is mostly traditional. The word Shinto is a Chinese one and means "The Way of the Gods"; in Japanese it is Kami-no-michi, which says the same thing. The teaching and purpose are that everyone shall live in accord with the will of the gods. There are no written commandments, for none are needed. Everyone is born of the gods and possesses the same spiritual nature; therefore one needs only to listen to his own heart and conscience and live as they direct. Purity, uprightness, and sincerity are Shinto virtues; simplicity and cleanliness are outward signs of them. 

The first shrines were simple, small buildings of smooth, unpainted wood where the Kami could come to receive offerings and worship. No image was made of them, but symbols that represented their spirits were kept in the inner recesses of the buildings. Sometimes there was a mirror or a stone, a sword or even a cushion, for the Japanese sit on cushions on the floor, and it denoted that the Kami was present. The shrine itself was too small for public worship; people came to it, bowed, and made their offering. Soon larger buildings were raised nearby for public ceremonies, religious dances, and plays, for the shrine was usually set in an enclosure that had room for several buildings and for fine trees. Festivals were held at the time of the rice planting and the harvest, the time of thanksgiving in November, at the New Year and other occasions.

Prayers that were spoken at such times by the priests have come down to us; they are called norito, and many of them were written centuries ago. The following is one that was spoken in the emperor's palace.

The priest first addresses all the myriad Kami: 

        I humbly declare in the presence of the sovereign gods whose praises

are fulfilled as Heavenly Kami and as Earthly Kami:

        In the second month of this year the Sovran Grandchild [the    

emperor] is graciously pleased to pray for harvest and I, therefore, as

the morning sun rises in glory, offer up his plenteous offerings...of ears a thousand, of ears many a hundred, raising up the tops of the saké-jars and setting in rows the bellies of the saké-jars, in juice and in ear will I present them; of things growing in the great moor-plain, sweet herbs and bitter herbs; of things that dwell in the blue sea-plain, the broad of fin and the narrow of fin, edible seaweed from the offing and from the shore; of clothing, bright stuffs and shining stuffs and soft stuffs and coarse stuffs. With these I will fulfill your praises.

Then he addresses the gods who protect the palace: 

        Whereas on the nethermost rock-roots the palace pillars have been raised stout and high and the projecting crossbeams exalted to the High Plain of Heaven, furnishing a fair abode for the Sovran Grandchild, wherein, finding shelter from the rain and shelter from the sun, he serenely governs in peace the world on all sides, I fulfill your praises by making these plenteous offerings on his behalf.

        Whereas you guard the gates and the four quarters by night and by day, obstructing the passage like manifold piles of rock . . . and guard below against unfriendly things coming from below and guard above against unfriendly things coming from above, I fulfill your praises by making

these offerings.

Finally he speaks to the Sun Goddess:

        More especially do I humbly declare in the mighty presence of the Great- heaven-Shining-Deity who dwells in Ise. Because the Great Deity has bestowed on him the lands of the four quarters over which her glance extends as far as where the wall of heaven rises; as far as where the bounds of earth stand up; as far as the blue clouds are diffused; as far as where the white clouds settle down opposite; by the blue sea-plain, as far as the ships can go without letting dry their poles and oars; by land, as far as the hoofs of horses can go, with tightened baggage-cords, treading their way among     rock-roots and tree-roots where the long road extends . . . therefore will the first fruits for the Sovran Great Deity be piled up in her mighty presence like a range of hills, leaving the remainder for him [the emperor] tranquilly to partake of.

        Moreover, whereas you bless the Sovran Grandchild's reign as a long reign, firm and enduring, and render it a happy and prosperous reign, I bow my head in reverence to you as our Sovran's dear, divine ancestor and fulfill your praises by making these plenteous offerings in his behalf. (3)


One of the most important festivals was that of Purification, which was celebrated twice a year, in midsummer and at the end of the year. It was called the O-harai. It was performed by the emperor and also throughout the country, and by it all sins, committed knowingly or unknowingly, were washed away and annulled.

Part of the norito read on the occasion is this:

        Let him recite the mighty words of the celestial ritual. When he does so, the Gods of heaven, thrusting open the adamantine door of Heaven and cleaving the many-piled clouds with an awful way-cleaving, will lend ear. The Gods of Earth, climbing to the tops of the high mountains, to the

tops of the low mountains, sweeping apart the mists of the high mountains and the mists of the low mountains, will lend ear.

        When they have thus lent ear, all offenses whatsoever will be annulled, from the court of the Sovran Grandchild to the provinces of the four quarters Under-Heaven.

        The goddess who dwells in the rapids of the swift stream whose cataracts tumble headlong from the tops of the high mountains will bear them into the great sea-plain. Thereupon the goddess who dwells in the myriad meetings of the tides of the myriad brine-paths of the myriad ways of the currents of the boisterous sea will swallow them up. Then the     goddess who dwells in the Root country, the Bottom country, will banish and abolish them. (4)


At first reading, this mythology seems to be like any other, as delightful as many mythologies are, but now, like most of the other, a thing of the past. This is not true of Shinto. It has lasted into modern times and has still kept the intimate and early communion with the visible universe and its invisible forces. To many people the legendary Kami have become symbols--of benevolence and watchfulness, of purity and creative power. But to many more they are still individual presences and are honored in hundreds and thousands of shrines, great and small, through the country. Their names are remembered; their stories are dramatized and danced. Shinto individualizes in innumerable Kami the spiritual presence and power that all religions recognize. In addition to the spirits of nature, each village and town has its local deity, called the Uji-gami. At this shrine every child is presented when it is a month old; there offerings of food are made each day and festivals are held at the important times of the year. Each craft has its guardian Kami; each house its guardians of the gate, the well, the courtyard, and the kitchen. In the shrines of the imperial palace the same ceremonies are performed; and the symbols of office of the emperor, like the crown and scepter of European kings, are the mirror and the jewels that were offered to Ama-teraso in her cave, and the sword that Susa-no-wo found in the serpent's body and gave to her.



More will be said later about the present practice of Shinto. But now we must turn to its history; for religions have their history, as all human institutions do, and they are tested by it, as people are by their lives. Shinto was tested by close association with Confucianism and Buddhism, and finally by the challenge of the West.

Japan is a young country compared to China and to India. Before it had a written language, it came into contact with China, whose civilization was already more than two thousand years old. It is first mentioned by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty (220 B.C to A.D. 206) when the Chinese conquered and colonized north and central Korea, which is within easy reach of the island of Kyushu. From that time on, the powerful influence of China seeped into Japan. In A.D. 57 a Japanese mission was received at the court of the Han emperor; the envoys were amazed at the splendor that they saw: the arts and fine buildings, the apparently stable and peaceful government. The Chinese, on the other hand, reported that the people of the islands in the eastern sea were living in a very primitive way, and could not read or write. The younger country was quick and eager to learn; Chinese and Korean scholars, artists and workmen were invited to come to it, and more and more Japanese went to Korea and then to China to learn.

There, of course, they encountered Confucianism and realized that it was the foundation of all that they admired. They did not need its purely religious aspects, for they had their own Kami and would not change their "dear, divine ancestor," the Sun Goddess, for the more distant and abstract idea of Heaven. They, too, honored the powers of nature and had their own ceremonies. But the Way of Heaven was like their own Way of the Gods; they understood it, and those who went to China were much impressed by the order and beauty of its culture. The Five Relationships they took to heart and based their own social life upon them. For they had a strong feeling for family life and for their ancestry, especially those who claimed direct descent from the many Kami. After they learned the Chinese script they, too, put the "spirit tablets," with the names of their forebears, on a special shelf in the house and offered food each day and lighted a guardian lamp at night. Good manners were inseparable from the Five Relationships, as they were from Shinto; the Japanese became as self-controlled, as ceremonious, and as courteous as their teachers on the continent.

They did not take the first relationship--that between ruler and subject--so seriously. In Confucianism one of the first duties of a ruler was to choose wise and able ministers and governors, who might belong to any social class. This the Japanese did not wholly accept, for their society was aristocratic. Besides, the warrior, not the scholar, came first in the social scale; after him came the farmer, the artisan, and the merchant. Japan was already a feudal country; the emperor was always revered, but the land and the power were in the hands of the great nobles. Feudalism remained there until 1868 whereas in China it ended in 221 B.C.

Buddhism came by the same route, but later. In the year 552, tradition says, the ruler of one of the Korean kingdoms, allied with Japan, sent to the emperor a gilded image of Buddha, together with some learned men and some Buddhist monks. The new doctrine was welcomed gladly and spread with extraordinary speed and thoroughness. In the seventh century it was ordered that in every Japanese house there should be a Buddhist altar and that food and worship be offered there. Not long after that another order stated that every province should be given a sixteen-foot image of the Buddha; monasteries and nunneries and seven-storied pagodas must also be guilt. Emperors and nobles vied with one another in rich gifts of land, buildings, images, bells, and gongs. The form of Buddhism that came into Japan was the Mahayana, filtered through China

Buddhism brought much to Japan. Shinto is mostly concerned with earthly life; it does not look beyond into what may happen after death, and it does not imagine any higher state of consciousness than that of a happy life in the world. Buddhism brought the idea of reincarnation and karma, and the easier doctrine of Amitabha (Amida in Japan) and the Pure Land. It offered the possibility of enlightenment and the vision of the peace and bliss of nirvana, which surpasses all earthly consciousness. It brought its great and voluminous literature and its arts, which inspired those of Japan. Like Confucianism, it was a far more highly developed religion than Shinto had had time to be. The keen minds of the Japanese delighted in its philosophy, its doctrines, and the beauty of the images and architecture that it brought from China. They added their own delicacy and grace to the Chinese models as they carved the lovely images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. One of the most beautiful statues in the world is that of the Buddha who is yet to come, who is now a Bodhisattva. It was carved out of wood in the seventh century and is now in a small building on the grounds of the Horiuji temple in Nara. The gleam of lamplight upon these figures, the incense, the chanting of the monks, gave them something quite different from the simplicity of the Shinto shrines.

In the twelfth century a Japanese monk brought Zen Buddhism from China. It was very congenial to his countrymen: the belief that the Buddha-nature (like the Kami-nature) is in all creatures and that it can be realized in a flash of intuition, the discipline and simplicity of the monks' lives, had an immediate appeal. Zen flourished and developed in Japan, which is now the world center for the study and practice of that teaching. 

The followers of the Buddha have adapted their teaching to the needs and the natures of the people of different lands. Since the Dharma had spread over the greater part of Asia, it had to meet other creeds, and if any of them were too strong to do away with, the Buddhists included them in their own doctrine. The monks knew that Shinto was too strong to give way completely to the new faith, so they met it halfway. The chief Shinto gods were said to be manifestations of former Buddhas; Ama-terasu was identified with an important Buddha who was originally a sort of Sun God.

The result of this policy was an adjustment between the two religions, which was called Two-fold or Double Shinto. Buddhist priests moved into the Shinto shrines, bringing their images, their rites and music; they took part in the many festivals, side by side with the Shinto priests. Funeral services were not held in the shrines because of the general dislike and horror of death. The Buddhists took charge of all such things, including services and intercession for the spirits of the dead. Shinto shrines became larger and more elaborate; temples dedicated to the two faiths often stood side by side, and it was hard to tell the difference between them. But Shinto was always the more universal and the stronger of the two because it embraced the whole land and all the people; every child was born into it. And the emperors, although some of them were devout Buddhists, never forgot their divine ancestry or ceased to honor Ama-terasu. In spite of their great influence, Buddhists were always a minority.

The great path has no gates;

Thousands of roads enter it.

When one passes through this gateless barrier

He walks freely between heaven and earth.

            --Zen poem



At about the time that Zen was brought into Japan, a change took place in the government, which must be noted because of its bearing on later events. The emperor had gradually become a figurehead, a sacred person living in the charming city of Kyoto, mainly concerned with religious ceremony, both Shinto and Buddhist.

The powerful nobles fought each other for land and power. At the end of the twelfth century one family, the Minamoto fought its way to the top; its leader called himself shogun, or generalissimo, and took over the government, always in the emperor's name. From that time until 1868, the country was ruled--sometimes well and sometimes ill--by shoguns, and the emperors reigned but were powerless. Japan was still feudal: it was divided into territories, some as large as provinces, some small, owned by nobles, who were called dimyo. [pronounced dime-yo] Each of them had an army of warriors, or samurai. It was a strong shogun who could keep them all in order. There was continual fighting which at times amounted to civil war.

It was during a time of turbulence, in 1542, that the first adventurous Portuguese ships arrived in Japan. Others followed and Jesuit missionaries, led by Saint Francis Xavier, came with them. The Japanese welcomed these people cordially, glad to trade with them and always eager to hear a new doctrine. Christianity did not seem strange: the Jesuits preached salvation by faith, as the Amidists did; their ritual was very like that in the Buddhist temples, and the images of the Madonna were like those of Kwanyin. They made many converts and built churches. Spanish and Dutch merchants followed the Portuguese, and trade was lively. It went on for nearly a hundred years.

Gradually, however, the shoguns began to distrust the foreigners. The European merchants were competing fiercely for the rich Eastern trade and told terrifying stories about each other. The indiscreet pilot of a Spanish ship told Japanese officials, "Our kings begin by sending missionaries to the countries they wish to conquer. They induce the people to embrace our religion; then troops are sent who combine with the new Christians and our kings have little trouble in accomplishing the rest." The Christian priests made a point of converting the daimyo, for then all the people on the feudal lands could be ordered to change their faith whether they wanted to or not. The shoguns saw that the foreigners were, indeed, beginning to take possession of the countries they traded with.

Meanwhile an extraordinary man became shogun in 1603; his family name was Tokugawa. He was a mighty warrior and, in addition, a great statesman. He organized the government so firmly and so cleverly, with such detailed regulations, that the country remained at peace for two hundred and fifty years under the rule of his descendants. He made Yedo--the present Tokyo--his military capital.

The third Tokugawa shogun, in the 1630's, made a momentous decision. He expelled all foreigners from Japan, and forbade any Japanese to leave the country. No ship could be built large enough to leave the shore for any distance. The Christians had been cruelly persecuted for many years; now there were almost none left. Japan was shut off from the rest of the world; only the Dutch, who had made no trouble, and a few Chinese were allowed to come once a year to the tiny island of Deshima in the bay of Nagasaki. They could not leave it except to make a formal visit to the shogun, to present gifts. This was a most extraordinary decision for a nation to make; Japan lived completely apart from the rest of the world for two hundred and fifteen years.

The long years of peace gave men time for thought. The Tokugawa shoguns and their ministers wanted order, stability, and loyalty, and for those things they turned to the Chinese Classics. But scholars also began to be interested in the history and the religion of their own country. A great daimyo, grandson of the first shogun, collected many books, assembled scholars at his court, and compiled the first history of Japan, in many volumes. Learned men, monks, and Shinto priests looked into the tales of the gods, the early poems and chronicles, the norito and the ceremonies, and found great beauty and value in them.

During the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, a succession of scholars revived the early Shinto literature and wrote in praise of it. It was collected and organized into a body of scripture that could stand beside the Chinese and Indian books. They deplored the adoption of Confucianism and Buddhism, forgetting what both had done for the development of their country. Many daimyo and samurai, who had no fighting to do, turned to learning and to the arts. Shinto roused their pride and turned the attention of the samurai beyond their feudal lords to the country and to the emperor. It was his ancestor who had been sent down from Heaven to rule the land. Was it not he who should be ruling it? Many of them resented the power of the shogun who, after all, was one of themselves.

During these centuries of seclusion much had been happening in the rest of the world. While the East was concerned with its arts and philosophies, the West had accomplished wonders with science and technology. The European nations were conquering more and more of Asia with the power of their firearms. Foreign vessels came into Japanese ports, asking for trade, but they were turned away. Russian and American vessels passed within sight of land.

Finally, in July, 1853, a fleet of four American warships, well armed with cannon, steamed into a port at the entrance of Yedo Bay. The commander, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, brought gifts from the President of the United States and a letter asking that Japanese ports be opened for trade and for the refueling of foreign vessels. The country was panic-stricken and so were the shogun and his court, for they were sensible enough to know that they could not fight against these ships. The letter was accepted; Perry said that he would return the next spring for the answer, and the "black ships" disappeared. When he came back the next February, a treaty was signed, opening two ports and allowing a foreign consul to live in Japan. As soon as this treaty was granted to the Americans, the Europeans came demanding the same rights, and could not be refused.

The opening of Japan and its incredibly quick conversion from a medieval country to a highly efficient modern one is a magnificent story. For ten or twelve years there was seething excitement. Violence broke out between those who wanted to drive out "the barbarians" and those who knew that it was impossible to do so and who, besides, longed to see the world and to do the very things that these barbarians were doing. The latter, of necessity, won, and the following events occurred.

In 1867 a boy of fourteen came to the throne, who proved to have both character and intelligence. He has gone down in history as the Emperor Meiji. In that same year the shogun resigned and his office was abolished, for it was clear that in this crisis there must be one government, not two. The next year, the young emperor left Kyoto, where his ancestors had lived for a thousand years, and moved into the shogun's palace in Yedo, which was renamed Tokyo, or the eastern capital. A few months afterward, in the presence of his ministers, he took what is known as the Charter Oath, in which he promised that deliberative assemblies would be held, that the "uncivilized customs of former times" would be abandoned, and that "knowledge and wisdom shall be sought for in all quarters of the world." In this same momentous year Shinto was made the state religion, and all Buddhist images and symbols and their priests were removed from the Shinto shrines. A tremendous effort must be made by the whole people to meet the crisis, and only Shinto could unite and inspire them.

The willing resignation of the shogun while he was still in power was an extraordinary act. Others followed. In 1869 the four most powerful daimyo, who held vast lands on Kyushu, sent a document to the emperor offering him all their territory, their possessions, and their men. "The place where we live is the emperor's land," it said, "and the food that we eat is grown by the emperor's men. How can we make it our own?" The example of these men was soon followed, and two hundred and forty daimyo offered the emperor their lands and their revenues. This voluntary giving up of power and possessions has scarcely been equaled anywhere or at any time. The emperor now had not only the supreme power but also enough money to run the country. The daimyo were given one tenth of their former incomes, but they no longer had the great expense of maintaining their vast estates and households and supporting hundreds and sometimes thousands of sumurai. The samurai were released from their service and had to seek other and unfamiliar occupations.

This series of events is known as the Meiji Restoration and the date given is 1868.

After the emperor's Charter Oath, hundreds of men were sent abroad to observe and to study, and hundreds of foreigners were invited to Japan to teach, to direct new industries, and to help the people to catch up with the most powerful and advanced nations. For as the Japanese looked out on the world, they found that the Spanish pilot's warning, three hundred years before, was a true one. Most of Asia had been conquered by the European nations, and they were now closing in on China, which was helpless before them.

The Japanese would not be conquered or helpless, nor would they be inferior to anyone on earth. Their pride and honor were touched to the quick. In order to defend themselves and to equal the Western nations, everything in the country had to be changed from top to bottom. A new government, universal education, mechanized industry in all its branches, and modern armaments must be introduced. This stupendous task was accomplished in one generation from the time of the Restoration. In 1895 Japan made war on China and easily defeated its old master. In 1905, with warships made in its own shipyards, it defeated Russia; it was the first Eastern nation to defeat a Western one. Success in war won the respect of the West, and Japan was accepted as an equal, one of the "great powers."


Shinto played an important part in this transformation. The work was done by a galaxy of brilliant young samurai, most of whom came from the great feudal domains of Kyushu. These were like small states, and they had been run by the samurai; on a modest scale, these men had experience in government. Now they gave themselves with single-hearted devotion to the service of their country. It was easy, not only for them, but for all the people to turn their loyalty from one province and a feudal lord to the whole beloved land and to the person of the young Emperor Meiji, who was proving himself worthy of his high station. The throne, the dynasty, "coeval with heaven and earth," was the inspiration for these amazing deeds. In a time of turmoil and change it was the one firm and unchanging element, the symbol of unity, the rock on which the new society was built. The unquestioning loyalty of the whole people came from the belief that the emperor was the direct descendant of Ama-terasu-O-mi-kami and that her descendants will continue to rule the land of the gods as long as heaven and earth endure. Whether everyone believed this, who can tell? But, in 1887, a cabinet minister came to Ise, the Sun Goddess's shrine, dressed in Western clothes and full of Western ideas. He trod with his hard shoes on consecrated ground and pushed aside with his cane a curtain beyond which no one was allowed to go. He was assassinated a few days later and his assassin became a popular hero; in fact he was considered a Kami.


A few decades later, Shinto was again invoked, falsely this time and for a deplorable purpose. Japan took its place in the modern world in an unhappy century, for less than ten years after its victory over Russia, World War I broke out. In the 1930's a clique of officers of the army and navy, with ministers who favored them, came into power. Wiser and more liberal men were assassinated or silenced by the police and by censorship, and the military men held all important government positions. (The same thing was happening at this time in Europe.) They undertook the disastrous venture of World War II, through which they proposed to set up a great empire in eastern Asia, ruled by Japan.

For this purpose and with the most modern weapons, these men invoked the ancient authority of Shinto. The emperor Jimmu, according to tradition, had said, "The imperial rule shall be extended to all the cardinal points and the whole world shall be brought under one roof." The militarists took this saying as a slogan for their conquests: "All the world under one roof" justified their purpose. They also held that, since the remote ancestor of the emperors had been sent to earth by Ama-terasu, he alone was fit to rule the world.

It was a sad perversion of a faith that a Western scholar had once called "a religion of love and gratitude." By "the whole world" Jimmu had obviously meant the islands of Japan, which were all that he knew and which he was at that time laboriously conquering. The Sun Goddess had been quite definite about the country she was giving to her Sovran Grandchild: it was "The Plentiful Reed-Plains of Fifteen Thousand Autumns of Fresh Rice-Ears," that is, the same lovely islands.

The war ended in catastrophe and defeat. After the surrender, when Japan was occupied by the Allied Powers, one of their first orders was that Shinto must cease to be the state religion. The government must no longer support the shrines; Shinto doctrines must not be taught in public schools; no one must be required to take part in the rituals or to visit the shrines. The order was a very stern one and stated that its purpose was to wipe out the idea that the nation, its ruler, and its people were superior to any others and must therefore rule the world. Shortly afterward, on January 1, 1946, the emperor issued a proclamation about the reconstruc-tion of the country, in which he said, "The bonds between us and our not originate in myth and legend. They do not have their basis in the fictitious idea that the emperor is a manifest god."


After 1945 Shinto became what it had been before the Restoration: a national but not a state religion. It is not supported by the government or taught in the public schools, but it is alive and active in a hundred thousand shrines and in the hearts of millions of people.

The most important of the shrines, the holy of holies, is that of the Sun Goddess at Ise, on the Shima peninsula on the southern shore of Honshu. It stands in a great park of tall evergreen trees which hide all the low buildings of unpainted, weathered wood until one is close to them. These trees remind an American immediately of redwoods; they are not nearly so tall, but they have the same straight, massive trunks, the same small branches that allow them to grow close together, and the same ancient dignity.

One enters the grounds of the shrine by a handsome, slightly arched bridge over a small river. At either end of the bridge there is a sacred gateway, a torii, which is made of two smoothed and rounded tree trunks joined near the top by a crossbeam; another beam lies across the top and projects beyond it and it is often tilted up at both ends. A torii always marks the approach to a Shinto shrine. From the bridge one walks on a broad graveled path to the shore of the bright, shallow little river, where everyone dips his fingers and rinses his mouth with the water, as a ritual of

purification. Then the curving path leads deeper into the silence and the beauty of the forest. Finally one comes to a flight of broad,

A close-up of the Shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise.
(Consulate General of Japan, New York)

stone steps that lead to a gateway in a solid wooden fence. The gate is open, but a white curtain hangs across it and beyond that no one may go except the high priests, the emperor, or his representatives. The worshiper bows before the curtain, claps his hands twice, says whatever prayer is in his heart, throws a coin on a cloth that is spread below the gate, and goes happily away.

The shrine itself is hidden behind three more fences and one sees no more than the top of its roof. Fortunately there are photo-graphs of it. It is a small house, no larger than a fairly large room, like the very early shrines. It is raised from the ground on posts and has a balcony running around it reached by a flight of steps. It has a thickly thatched roof, cut very close and even at the edges. At each end the rafters are longer than the others and project in an X-shape above the point of the roof. A long beam lies between them resting on the cross of the X, and across this beam lie ten short logs to hold it down. The effect is solid, simple, archaic, and beautiful. There is no trace of Chinese or Buddhist influence. It is made of carefully chosen white wood, smoothed until it is like silk, but there is not a drop of paint or any decoration on it. Every twenty years it is taken down and a new shine in built on an empty space adjoining it. The same pattern is used in thousands of shrines, large and small. Like the torii, the crossed rafters are the mark of a Shinto place of worship.

Inside this small building is believed to be the mirror that Ama-terasu gave to her August Grandson. It was kept in the royal palace until 92 B.C., when the emperor thought it would not be safe there. He entrusted it to his daughter and it was finally placed at Ise. It is not seen even by the emperor, for it is wrapped in layers of silk and placed in a box. A priestess is always in charge of the shrine, and she always belongs to the imperial family. At every large shrine there are also young girls, daughters of priests or of worthy citizens; they are dancers and musicians; they serve as secretaries or as attendants to honored guests. They dress in a while upper garment with loose flowing sleeves, and a long scarlet skirt; their black hair is tied at the nape of the neck and hangs down the back. They are not nuns or vestal virgins; when the time comes for them to marry, they leave and others take their place. The priests, too, are not monks; they marry and live with their families, wearing their white robes only when officiating at the shrine.

Three or four miles away, but in the same great forest, is the shrine of the Kami of Food, also a female figure. She is much honored and is closely associated with Ama-terasu.

To these shrines, especially that of the Sun Goddess, millions of people come each year and at all times of the year. The great seasonal festivals are held there: the one in early spring when prayers for a good harvest are offered; the later one in June with prayers for the emperor, the nation, and the world; the offering of the first ripened grains of rice; the thanksgiving for the harvest in November, and still more. Besides the small hidden shrine, there are other buildings at Ise, which are open to everyone; there is one for religious ceremonies, a large one for sacred plays and dances and music. On great occasions a platform or pavilion is sometimes raised out of doors so that all may see and hear, for always the best dancers, actors, and musicians bring their skills to Ise.

At these times the emperor sends his representative with offerings, often lengths of cloth, reminiscent of those hung on the tree outside the goddess's cave. He does not come himself because, as high priest, he performs these rites in his own place of worship. There he has a copy of the mirror and of the sword of Susa-no-wo, which is in the shrine of Atsuta in the city of Nagoya; the original string of jewels is said to be in his possession. When any important event happens in the nation or to the imperial family, a messenger from the emperor reports it in the shrine at Ise; when the crown prince was married a few years ago, he and his bride went there themselves to announce their marriage.

Japan is a land of festivals, for Shinto is a happy faith. It celebrates life; its prayers are for the good things of this earthly life, and to assure them there must be a close communion with the divine powers. There is probably one festival or more, somewhere, every day of the year, for there are more well-known celebrations in a year than there are days, and innumerable small ones. Every shrine, however small, holds its own holiday at least once, and each occupation must worship and thank its protective deity. The occasions are therefore joyous ones.

The large shrines (Ise is an exception) usually stand in a wide enclosure where there are spacious courts, paved or graveled. Here, as well as in the buildings, plays and dances are held to entertain the Kami; some are stately and serious, like the Noh plays; some are comic; some, historical. There are jugglers and wrestling matches, horse races or archery contests, bonfires or boat races. Some festivals last for a day or for two or three days; some, like the great Gion celebration in Kyoto, last for a week. The whole population of that city (which was the imperial capital for a thousand years) takes part in it, and visitors come from all over the country to see it.

A feature of almost every such occasion is a procession, often a most spectacular one. The Kami rarely has an image--he is more a spirit than a person--but in every shrine there is a symbol of his presence. It is a very sacred object and, like the mirror of Ama-terasu, it is not seen even by the priests, for it is wrapped in silk and enclosed in a box. But at festive times the box is put into a palanquin and carried out in a procession, the priests leading and the people following. The palanquin is like a large chest and is usually elaborately carved, lacquered, and gilded; its domed cover has upcurling corners hung with silk tassels, and a gilded phoenix on top. It is set on horizontal poles and carried on the shoulders of strong young men. A small palanquin may be carried by four or eight men, but there are large ones that need twenty or thirty sturdy carriers. In small villages the purpose of the procession may be to bring the Kami's blessing to the fields or the seashore, or to show him his domain, or merely to give him pleasure.

In the great cities these pageants are a fine sight, for in addition to the palanquin there are huge floats, sometimes two or three stories high and surmounted by a spire. These are lavishly decorated, and riding on them are dancers and musicians; they are mounted on enormous wheels and drawn by dozens of men in handsome livery. They often carry figures that dramatize old stories or portray historic characters; this used to be done by actors, but now the figures are life-sized dolls. There are processions of warriors dressed in ancient costumes, or of men and women in the court dress of olden times. There is no end to the variety and splendor of these joyous festivals.

There are other holidays, celebrating the cherry blossoms and many other flowers in the spring, the iris and lotus in summer, the chrysanthemums and the bright leaves in autumn. There are Buddhist festivals, the most important being the three-day one in midsummer, when the spirits of the dead visit their families and their former homes, when every house hangs out its lantern to guide their steps and send them away with the same soft, multitudinous lights. In addition to the many public festivities each Shinto family has a Kami-shelf in the house, where there are three objects of worship; a small shrine like that at Ise, in the center; the ancestral tablets on one side; and on the other, some indication of the local deity, the Uji-gami. Before these, offerings are made each day, and the local shrines are often visited for personal reasons. Beside the Kami-shelf there is often a Buddhist altar, for Buddhism has been restored to its old place and is a strong spiritual influence.

Most public celebrations are Shinto and in them is lasting proof of the value of the old traditions. Next to Ise in importance, on the opposite coast of Honshu, is the shrine of Izumo, where Susa-no-wo fought with the serpent and made his home. The present handsome building, of the same pattern as that at Ise, is believed to stand on the very site of the palace that was built for Susa-no-wo's descendant, who gave up the land to Ninigi-no-mikoto. His name is O-kuni-nushi, which means "great lord of the land," and he is much honored. On January 3 the emperor celebrates the descent of Ninigi; the accession and the death of the Emperor Jimmu are remembered in the shrine dedicated to him.

The great Gion festival in Kyoto is in honor of Susa-no-wo; many shrines pay homage to him, and his encounter with the serpent is a favorite subject for plays. These and innumerable other mythical and historical figures still live and play their part in the life of Japan. The details of the ritual are also a reminder, especially of Ama-terasu's sojourn in the cave. The dances that the maidens perform, and which are now very decorous and stately, are in memory of the dance of the little goddess on the tub. In the silence of the forest of Ise one hears the shrill crowing of sacred cocks. A rice-straw rope, sometime a foot thick in diameter, hangs across the door of every shrine and is used in many other ways; and pieces of paper cut in rectangular shapes are reminiscent of the offerings of cloth hung on the evergreen tree. Many other ceremonial details have their origin in the old tales.


To those people who believe that myths are an important part of the collective thinking of mankind, it is a joy to find them still vital and fresh in the life of a nation so modern and so efficient as Japan. But the great value of Shinto lies in its memory of the sources of our being, both earthly and spiritual. It insists that everyone should remember and live in harmony with these sources, in daily life and in acts of worship. The purpose of the many festivals is to draw people into communion with nature and with the Kami and consequently with one another. In many parts of the world there are hardly any communal celebrations left, and their loss is a sad one. Japan is one of the few civilized countries where they are still held, with joy and beauty.

On the temple bell

A butterfly,

Fast asleep.





1. These stories are retold, not quoted, from the two early scriptures of Shinto: the Kojiki and the Nihongi. The Kojiki was translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain (J.L.Thompson and Company, 1932). The Nihongi was translated by William George Aston (Kegan, Paul, 1896).
2. Joseph W. T. Mason, The Meaning of Shinto (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1935), p. 160.
3. William George Aston, The Way of the Gods (London, Longmans, Green, 1905), pp. 281-284.
4. Ibid., pp. 301-302. 

Ninomiya's "The beaten path..." is from Sources of Japanese Tradition, edited by William Theordore de Bary (New York: Columbia university Press, 1958). The Zen poem "The great path has no gates;..." is from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writngs, compiled by Paul Reps (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Anchor Book).


Seeger, Eastern Religions, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 157-195; Photos: Izanami and Izanagi create the world appears on p. 156; the Shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise appears on p.187.