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Shintosim, Buddhism, & the Formation of Japanese Culture through Religions

Updated on December 5, 2015
Buddhist Prayer Flag
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The formation of Japanese culture, especially modern pop culture, found a significant starting point by the early eighth century BC. Historically, by this time, Buddhism was practiced as an alternative to Confucianism because it allowed worshippers to find peace in their eternal existence by way of harmony in nature. At the same time, Shintoism became an acknowledged religion, though it had been practiced since as early as the second century in Japan and offered many of the same precepts and ideologies as Buddhism. Shintoism has been largely ignored by many modern theorists, but as many texts agree, Shintoism has been a part of Japanese culture since the Japanese first formed the coherent thought about the formation of culture itself. With that said, a close look will be taken into both Buddhism and Shintoism to illustrate how each played a role in the formation of modern Japanese culture and to illustrate which religion had greater significance overall.

To begin with, “the religious and philosophical foundations of Japan consist of Shintoism, Buddhism, and the writings of the Chinese sage Confucius” (Rarick 219). For its part, Confucianism had little to do with the culture of Japan, but it, like Buddhism, found greater dimensions by following and adding to the tenets of Shintoism. More, though there are many people who practice Buddhism in Japan, the overall influence of the religion to Japan’s culture has been largely superficial and based, in all actuality, on the formation of Shintoism.

Buddhism found its roots in the middle sixth century, but was not practiced openly and considered an official religion until the eighth century. By this time, Shinto kami emerged to “interpret Shinto from a Buddhist viewpoint” ( The Shinto kami were viewed as gods, ranked “highest in the Realm of Ignorance…[and] thought to be incarnations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas” ( Of course, the Buddha himself was the founder of Buddhism in the fifth century and sought to impart the religious belief of enlightenment and of finding Nirvana with one’s soul, but Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are believed to be the reincarnated spirits of people who not only found this enlightenment, but who lived lives of absolute sacrifice, giving to others without shame, and giving to others of themselves with the purpose of spreading well being and harmony. The Shinto kami were of the same design, only their main purpose was to, like modern Missionaries, spread the word of Buddhism, and protect its sacred tenets at all costs.

By the early sixteen-hundreds, Confucianism found the need to interpret Shintoism, much like the Buddhists before them, and formed a new sect entirely dedicated to this purpose known as Neo-Confucianism. The idea was unity between the two religions and became so popular with the Neo-Confucianites that the study of both religions became mandatory practice for warriors ( In this regard, this division of sects was the only impacting moment for Confucianism on the culture of Japan, though it continued to play a large role in the political and defensive ideology of the country.

Not long after, by the late sixteen-hundreds, Shintoism went through a restoration period in which attempts were made to allow neither Buddhist nor Confucian thought to interpret Shinto beliefs. A philosophical leader named Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) founded and started the new school and his “emphasis was on the belief in musubi (the mystical power of becoming or of creation), which had been popular in ancient Shinto, and on a this-worldly view of life, which anticipated the eternal progress of the world in ever-changing mutations” ( For the first time in history, Shintoism found a foothold as a religion outside the interpretation of Confucianism and Buddhism and began its own reformation of ideals and thought. By the early Meiji period (1868-1912), Shintoism branched into two separate sects, the Shrine Shinto (Jinja) and the Sect Shinto (Kyoha) and an “Imperial Rescript on Education made it the formal foundation of the state” ( This new education focused on the “divinity of the emperor” and was founded on “Confucian concepts of loyalty to the emperor and the state” ( In altering the religion in this manner, Shintoism became more than simply a philosophy and understanding between nature and man. For the first time, Shintoism was present in all aspects of human society and culture and became the founding premise for Japan’s culture as it is known today.

Shintoism, also known as the “Way of the kami” or the “Way of the Gods” was completely ingrained in Japanese society by the early nineteen-hundreds and continues to hold a major presence in the culture and society today. Unlike most Japanese religions, Shintoism has no founding father, sacred texts, or even date of establishment—but most texts agree that Shintoism has been around as long as the idea of a culture has existed, before Buddhism and even before Confucianism, and was readily practiced by the Japanese as early as the second or third century B.C.

On the whole, Shintoism has had a greater impact on the formation of the modern culture in Japan. While it can now be considered an organized religion, its roots before Buddhism even came into being were of a way of life for the people of Japan. Shintoism can be viewed as a way of living with the greater ideals of being at one with nature. For Shintoism, philosophy is expressed by living in tune with nature and having no fear of it (Shood). Shintoism also entails that “nature has to be perceived as a living organism and respected as such. Life and its mystical power are to be revered. Deep feelings for life and an inspiring attraction towards its mystical power makes everything exist as such” (Shood).

Shintoism has not only become important to the culture of modern Japan itself, but it has symbolically become understood as integral to the culture as well. In many ways, “Shinto could be considered integral…because it is part of the spiritual geography of traditional Japan, blending in with nature in ways which make it impossible to say where religion stops and nature starts” (Stibbe 14).

Moreover, “Shinto symbols are made from natural materials and gain their meaning from their particular location in a natural setting—a rock, a waterfall, a tree, the top of a mountain” (Stibbe 14). It is part of life itself and “may be representations of kami (gods/spirits), but…there is no dividing line between kami and nature” (14). Kami are as intertwined with nature as the religion itself is a part of life. As quoted from Boyd and Nishimura, 2004, Shinto “understands the whole of life, including both humans and nature, as creative and life giving…to experience the kami presence of any one of these aspects of nature requires an aesthetically pure and cheerful heart…an emotional, mental, and volitional condition that is not easily attained” (Stibbe 14). The most basic understanding of Shintoism is that humans are all descended from kami, the “deities that inhabit the rocks, trees, and other natural elements of Japan…[and thus] all humans are tied to nature” (Irasshai).

Even more, Shintoism is more than a religion, even when the kami and tenets are considered. As far back as history dates, so to do Shinto practices. In many ways, Shinto can be translated as the historical heritage of Japan, as every element set in the early second century have now become honored traditions that every family in Japan practices—even if they do not acknowledge Shintoism as their official religion (Alumini.ox). Traditional architecture, garden design, and even sumo wrestling came about as a result of conventional Shinto customs.

In the modern sense, Shinto history has become the founding force for the pop culture stories of anime and manga which include Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens, Hell Girl, Spirited Away, and Amatsuki. Perhaps due to the inspiration of the traditional aspects of Shintoism, or perhaps due to the mystic quality held by traditional Shinto stories, anime and manga have become the single most popular aspect of Japanese culture, even being held in high regard in England and America.

Both anime and manga (representing all genres of fiction, from sci-fi to historical romance) have grown from their basic forms of comics into television and internet phenomena. When each story is looked at individually, the roots of Shintoism can clearly be seen. Characters interact with their world with great respect, even paying homage to the kami directly, or becoming kami, in some form, themselves.

What Shintoism has brought to the world as a whole is a cultural aspect that most people are unaware of. In truth, Shintoism is all around, even in the United States and is practiced as the way of life by any who hold the basic belief in their heart that nature is part of the whole, and that each human being will someday be part of that whole. Essentially, taking a walk to enjoy the beauty of nature, to let the beauty infuse one’s soul, is to understand the basic tenet of Shinto philosophy.

Overall, though both Confucianism and Buddhism are often the only religions discussed and hypothesized by theorists both found their roots long after Shintoism became acknowledged by the Japanese. In truth, Shintoism is the founding force behind both the way of life and the modern culture in Japan. Shintoism is much like the people themselves: it has been around as long as the Japanese have formed the coherent thought for culture, and it is inherent in every aspect of the culture that is known today.


Alumni.ox. Shinto (Japanese, “Way of the Gods”). 2009. <>.

Irasshai. Buddhist or Shinto? Expand Your Horizons, 2008. <>.

Rarick, Charles A. “The Philosophical Impact of Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism on

Japanese Management Practices.” International Journal of Value Based Management 7.1 (1994): 219-226. Shinto, Shintoism. Religion Facts Online, 2009.<>.

Sood, B. R. Shinto: the Way of Kami in Japanese Thought, Shintoism. Global Oneness, 2009.<>.

Stibbe, Arran. Zen and the Art of Environmental Education in the Japanese Animated Film Tonari no Totoro. Cheltenham, England: Equinox Publishing, 2007.


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