The Essence of Shinto

The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart  is an introductory book written by Motohisa Yamakage. In this post I summarize some of the ideas that were novel or interesting to me. I try to present the ideas as the author wrote them, without adding external information nor my own interpretations.

It was very interesting to know that in Shinto there is not sacred book, not formal doctrine as, for example the Bible for Catholics. There are two ancient books that are important for Shinto: the Kojiki (the Ancient Chronicles of Japan) 712 and the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) of 720. In these texts myths are intertwined with historical facts and political artifacts in a literary language.

The fountain of Shinto is a reverence of nature. Shinto originates from a sense of awe and gratitude toward the mysteries of nature. According to Yamage, the main concerns of Shinto are how each person contacts the spirit of Kami; how each person shows gratitude and respect toward Kami; and, how each person grows spiritually, by acquiring qualities that are the result of his or her contact with and reverence toward Kami.


praying at a shrine


Kami is the sustaining life energy emanating from nature. Everything in nature is the transformation and creation of Kami. Kami have been classified in three ways: amatsukami (heavenly Kami), kunitsukami (earthly Kami) and yaoyorozu no kami (myriad other Kami). Kami are not necessarily deities but have a wide variety of spiritual powers and attributes. All Kami interconnect and spring from a single source. Kami are both many and one, both individual entities and parts of a whole.

The way to venerate Kami is through myth and ritual. The traditional local festivals and the practice of immersing the body in water are central rituals for Shinto.  Teachings and views about life have been embedded in each of the ritual actions and have been passed down throughout generations (for more on one of these festivals, see my previous post about the Aki matsuri).


aki matsuri


Neither it exists an ethical code. In Shinto there is no concept of sin.  Human error is contained in the action itself. Sin does not follow the person around forever if purification is obtained. Shinto conceives of good and evil in aesthetic terms, likening them to straight and curved lines. A curved spirit is the origin of our own evil.  Good behavior is associated with balance of mind, body, and spirit.

Shinto is not about salvation or liberation. Although, it proposes a way of spiritual development in the human realm. Also, Shinto understands that spiritual development continues after life. The goal is to become a Kami.

One cannot become Kami simply through natural growth. People need spiritual training and exercises such as misogi (purification rituals) and chinkon (a form of meditation). To love and to practice charity is also necessary to develop a clean and pure character.




The afterlife is similar to earthly life, although the spiritual world is more bright and lucid in character. Even in the highest level of existence, each Kami works and strives. In the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, Kami are depicted doing different forms of labor.

The book explains in more detailed these notions and provides some contextual historical information. Yamage explains the different forms of purification and a method of spiritual training, among other subjects. It is a good reading. I will write later other post to present other ideas in the book.


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