The Shinto understanding of kami does not incorporate any sense of an Absolute, omniscient Supreme Being. And yet the polytheism of Shinto is the kind “where all the kami are thought of as working together harmoniously, so that in effect the universe is just as unified as in the religions claiming to be monotheistic.”1
Among the chief Shinto kami are Amaterasu Omikami (“Heaven Shining Great August Deity,” or Sun goddess), Tsukiyomi (Moon god), and Susanu (“Impetuous Male,” or Storm Cloud god). All three were created by the sky father Izanagi (“Male Who Invites”) after the death of his sister-wife, the Earth mother Izanami (“Female Who Invites”). This primeval pair, still popular in modern Japan, with the help of certain phallic rites, also begot the Japanese islands and the kami, until the fire kami burned his mother’s birth canal, killing her. From earliest times, phallicism was even more prominent in Japan than in India, and stone and wooden phalluses as tall as seven or eight feet were common sights in the countryside until 1868, when the Meiji government decided they were bad for tourism.
According to the Kojiki, Amaterasu magically produced a son, Ho Mimi, whose son Ninigi no Mikoto (“Prince Rice-ear Ruddy Plenty,” or God of the Ripened Rice Plant) descended to Earth with a whole entourage of priests and nobility and founded the Imperial Dynasty. (In all likelihood, the Heaven from which Ninigi and company descended referred to Korea to the north and west.) His great-grandson, Jimmu Tenno, became the first ruler of the Yamato, the powerful clan that dominated central and south Japan. Jimmu may have been a historical figure who lived c.40 BC; Tenno (“Heavenly Sovereign”) is the title attached to all subsequent Japanese emperors, who are more commonly referred to by Westerners as the Mikado. The Yamatos became both rulers and the chief priests of the nature religion, and legends about them formed the basis for popular belief in the divine origin and superiority of the Japanese race.
The emperors were endowed with the Three Sacred Treasures, symbols of power which were given to Ninigi when he descended to earth: a mirror, a sword, and the jewels. The mirror was a symbol of Amaterasu, the sword was won by her brother Susanu, and the jewels were said to number 500. The Treasures were passed on from ruler to ruler, and without them the emperor or empress could not occupy the throne. The same dynasty has ruled Japan continuously for 2,000 years, probably the oldest active dynasty in the world; their claim of descent from the Sun goddess was a major part of the Japanese war effort in the 1930s and ’40s, right down to the image of the sun on the national flag. Implicit in this Japanese nationalism was the ancient belief that Japan is the center of the world, and that it was the Japanese mandate to spread its religion to all mankind.
Shinto’s detractors point to the disastrous role the state religion played in herding the Japanese people toward a blind allegiance to the emperor and the Japanese war machine, forgetting that Christianity and Islam have served much the same function in the past, and that the divine right of kings was essentially a Christian concept. Meanwhile, Shinto’s supporters claim that it is “the natural religion of humanity,” unencumbered by assertions of divine revelation or theologically convoluted concepts of the nature of God. They point with regret to the Meiji period, when Shinto was seized upon by government advisers as a device for promoting nationalist fervor, and disavow the excesses committed under that delusion.
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1. Floyd Hyatt Ross, Shinto: The Way of Japan, Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.