OWL Magazine Korea

Shinto: Japan’s Indigenous Belief System and Shrines

Japan stands out as a country with a highly developed indigenous belief system, particularly among other Asian nations. Uniquely rooted in the Shinto faith known as “Shintō,” Japan is characterized by the establishment of shrines based on this belief. Unlike other countries densely populated by Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam, Japan houses its distinctive Shinto faith.

Shinto, represented by the iconic vermilion pillars called “torii,” is a significant part of Japanese culture. This symbolism has been effectively utilized in the storytelling of animations, such as those directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

“Shinto in Japan: Shrines Rooted in Indigenous Beliefs”

Throughout Japan, shrines based on Shinto beliefs can be found. The officially recorded shrines within Japan alone number around 80,000, and when including lesser-known ones, the count reaches approximately 300,000.

Shinto, considered a representative religious facility, differs from other religions in that its primary focus is on venerating gods, with little emphasis on missionary activities. However, during the imperialistic period of Japan, there were instances of establishing shrines in colonized territories. Some remnants of these can still be found in places like the stairs leading to the present-day Namsan Cable Car in South Korea, where “Joseon Shrine” once stood. In Busan’s Yongdusan Park area, which also hosted a former Japanese shrine, all structures were dismantled after Japan’s defeat.

“The Entrance Gate to a Shrine, Torii (Dorii)”

Japanese shrines are typically constructed in wooded areas, and a prominent feature is the torii gate, the entrance gate leading to the shrine. The torii gate is not only a symbol of the shrine but is also recognized as a symbol of Japan itself.

The word “torii” is speculated to have originated from the Chinese characters meaning “a place where a chicken stays,” which relates to the Shinto belief that considers the chicken as a messenger of the gods. Another speculation links it to the Japanese phrase “通り入る” (doriiru), meaning “to pass through,” signifying the gate’s role as a boundary between the divine realm and the ordinary world. Despite unclear origins, the torii gate is perceived in Shinto as a door or boundary that separates the sacred and mundane.

“Shrines You Can Find in Japan”

Shrines are prevalent throughout Japan, and one notable but controversial shrine is Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. This shrine honors individuals who contributed to the Meiji Restoration, including those involved in World War II. However, it includes war criminals, leading to international disputes. Due to potential safety concerns, especially for Koreans, visiting such controversial shrines is advised against.

For those interested in the general process of paying respects at a Japanese shrine, the steps below provide an overview:

  • Bow once lightly in front of the torii gate.
  • While walking on the approach (sacred pathway) to the shrine, stay to the side instead of the center.
  • Make noise while walking on the gravel to announce your presence.
  • Upon reaching the “temizuya” (water ablution pavilion), wash your hands and rinse your mouth.
  • Upon reaching the offering hall, bow twice and clap twice, followed by another bow.
  • Make your wishes to the deity, then bow once more before leaving.

“Ema: Writing Wishes on Wooden Plaques in Japanese Shrines”

Another common sight in Japanese shrines is “ema,” wooden plaques where people write down their wishes and hang them. Ema are placed at shrines for those making prayers or expressing gratitude when their wishes come true.

The link below provides more detailed information on ema and their significance in Japanese shrine culture:

“Omikuji: Fortune-Telling in Shrine Culture”

Within shrine culture, there exists a practice known as “omikuji,” a form of fortune-telling where individuals draw written fortunes from boxes. This tradition originated from the historical practice of consulting the gods during crucial national events, using fortune-telling as a confirmation method. Omikuji papers often include numbers, a brief description of the fortune, and details on various aspects of life.

The following link offers more insight into the culture of omikuji:

In conclusion, Shinto culture is deeply ingrained in Japan’s indigenous beliefs, and gaining a basic understanding of it before visiting the country can minimize cultural misunderstandings. It’s essential to approach different cultural and religious practices with respect, even if they may contain elements that are unfamiliar or potentially controversial to us.