Shintō, which means literally "the Way of the Gods," is the name given to the mythology and vague ancestor and nature-worship which preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, and which continues to exist in a modified form. Referring the reader to the Article on History and Mythology for a sketch of the Shintō pantheon, we would here draw attention to the fact that Shintō, so often spoken of as a religion, is hardly entitled to that name even in the opinion of those who, acting as its official mouthpieces to-day, desire to maintain it as a patriotic institution. It has no set of dogmas, no sacred book, no moral code. The absence of a moral code is accounted for, in the writings of native commentators, by the innate perfection of Japanese humanity, which obviates the necessity for such outward props. It is only outcasts, like the Chinese and Western nations, whose natural depravity renders the occasional appearance of sages and reformers necessary; and even with this assistance, all foreign nations continue to wallow in a mire of ignorance, guilt, and disobedience towards the heaven-descended, de jure monarch of the universe—the Mikado of Japan.
It is necessary, however, to distinguish three periods in the evolution of Shintō. During the first of these—roughly speaking, down to A.D. 550—the Japanese had no notion of religion as a separate institution. To pay homage to the gods, that is, to the departed ancestors of the Imperial family, and to the manes of other great men, was a usage springing from the same mental soil as that which produced passive obedience to, and worship of, the living Mikado. Besides this, there were prayers to the wind-gods, to the god of fire, to the god of pestilence, to the goddess of food, and to deities presiding over the saucepan, the cauldron, the gate, and the kitchen. There were also purifications for wrong-doing, as there were for bodily defilement, such, for instance, as contact with a corpse. The purifying element was water. But there was not even a shadowy idea of any code of ethics or any systematisation of the simple notions of the people concerning things unseen. There was neither heaven nor hell,—only a kind of neutral-tinted Hades. Some of the gods were good, some were bad; nor was the line between men and gods at all clearly drawn. There was, how ever, a rude sort of priesthood, each priest being charged with the service of some particular local god, but not with preaching to the people. One of the virgin daughters of the Mikado always dwelt at the ancient shrine of Ise, keeping watch over the mirror, the sword, and the jewel, which he had inherited from his ancestress, Ama-terasu, Goddess of the Sun. Shintō may be said, in this its first phase, to have been a set of ceremonies as much political as religious. Whether and how far, even at that remote period, unacknowledged spiritual influences emanating from China had made themselves felt, is a curious question. The coincidence of a few myths, together with other scattered indications, seem to point in that direction. The Chinese tincture of the version of the mythology and legendary history preserved in the Nihongi is obvious to the least critical reader, and shows that, in the eighth century at any rate, the idea of endeavouring to preserve the national traditions free from foreign influence was not present to the Japanese mind.
By the introduction of Buddhism in the middle of the sixth century after Christ, the second period of the existence of Shintō was inaugurated, and further growth in the direction of a religion was stopped. The metaphysics of Buddhism were far too profound, its ritual far too gorgeous, its moral code far too exalted, for the puny fabric of Shintō to offer any effective resistance. All that there was of religious feeling in the nation went over to the enemy. The Buddhist priesthood diplomatically received the native Shintō gods in their pantheon as avatars of ancient Buddhas, for which reason many of the Shintō ceremonies connected with the Court were kept up, although Buddhist ceremonies took the first place even in the thoughts of the converted descendants of the sun. The Shintō rituals (norito), previously handed down by word of mouth, were then first put into written shape. The term "Shintō" itself was also introduced, in order to distinguish the old native way of thinking from the new doctrine imported from India; for down to that time, no one had hit on the notion of including the various fragmentary legends and local usages under one general designation. But viewing the matter broadly, we may say that the second period of Shintō, which lasted from about A.D. 550 to 1700, was one of darkness and decrepitude. The various petty sects into which it then split up, owed what little vitality they possessed to fragments of cabalistic lore filched from the baser sort of Buddhism and from Taoism. Their priests practised the arts of divination and sorcery. Only at Court and at a few great shrines, such as those of Ise and Izumo, was a knowledge of Shintō in its native simplicity maintained; and even there it is doubtful whether changes did not creep in with the lapse of ages. Most of the Shintō temples throughout the country were served by Buddhist priests, who introduced the architectural ornaments and the ceremonial of their own religion. Thus w,as formed Ryōbu Shintō,—a mixed religion founded on a compromise between the old creed and the new,—and hence partly (for other causes have contributed to produce the same effect) the tolerant ideas on theological subjects of most Japanese of the middle and lower classes, who will worship indifferently at the shrines of either faith.
The third period in the history of Shintō began about the year 1700, and continues down to the present day. It has been termed the period of the "revival of pure Shintō." During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, under the peaceful government of the Tokugawa dynasty of Shōguns, the literati of Japan turned their eyes backward on their country's past. Old manuscripts were disinterred, old histories and old poems were put into print, the old language was studied and imitated. Soon the movement became religious and political,—above all, patriotic, not to say chauvinistic. The Shōgunate was frowned on, because it had supplanted the autocracy of the heaven-descended Mikados. Buddhism and Confucianism were sneered at, because of their foreign origin. Shintō gained by all this. The great scholars Mabuchi (1697-1769), Motoori (1730-1801), and Hirata (1776-1843), devoted themselves to a religious propaganda,—if that can be called a religion which sets out from the principle that the only two things needful are to follow one's natural impulses and to obey the Mikado. This order of ideas triumph ed for a moment in the revolution of 1868. Buddhism was disestablished and disendowed, and Shintō was installed as the only state religion, the Council for Spiritual Affairs being given equal rank with the Council of State, which latter controlled things temporal. At the same time thousands of temples, formerly Buddhist or Ryōbu-Shintō, were, as the phrase went, "purified," that is, stripped of their Buddhist ornaments, and handed over to Shintō keeping. But as Shintō had no root in itself,—being a thing too empty and jejune to influence the hearts of men,—Buddhism soon rallied. The Council for Spiritual Affairs was reduced to the rank of a department, the department to a bureau, the bureau to a sub-bureau. The whole thing is now a mere shadow, though Shintō is still in so far the official cult that certain temples are maintained out of public moneys, and that the attendance of certain officials is required from time to time at ceremonies of a semi-religious, semi-courtly nature. Hard pressed to establish their raison d'être and retain a little popularity, the priests have taken to selling cheap prints of religious subjects, after the fashion of their Buddhist rivals. Some private scholars, too—Dr. Inoue Tetsujirō, for example—have recently attempted to infuse new life into Shintō by decking it out in ethical and theological plumes borrowed from abroad. One of these visionaries, a Mr. Sakamoto, has urged the establishment of an association which should inculcate, under new Shintō names, the seven cardinal virtues (Confucian), the doctrine of cause and effect (Buddhist), and that of a trinity in unity (Christian). But of course such cut flowers, having no vital sap left in them, wither at once. A larger measure of success has attended the establishment of two new quasi-Shintō sects, the Tenri-kyō and Remmon-kyō, which, while claiming to represent the genuine national cult, mingle therewith shreds of superstition borrowed from various sources, and (if they are not greatly belied) an abundant measure of licentiousness. The founders of both these sects were ignorant peasant women.
The lover of Japanese art will bear the Shintō revivalists ill-will for the ridiculous "purification" which has destroyed countless gems of Buddhist architecture and ornament, not for the sake of a grand moral ideal, as with the Puritans of Europe, but for an ideal immeasurably inferior to Buddhism itself. On the other hand, the literary style of their writings outshines anything produced by the Buddhists; and their energy in rescuing the old Japanese classic authors from neglect is worthy of all praise. The Shintō temple (yashiro or jinja) preserves in a slightly elaborated form the type of the primeval Japanese hut, differing in this from the Buddhist temple (tera), which is of Chinese and more remotely of Indian origin. Details of the names and uses of the various temple buildings, together with other matters, will be found in the Introduction to Murray's Handbook for Japan. It may suffice briefly to indicate here a means of distinguishing from each other the temples of the two religions. The outward and visible signs of Shintō are,—first, a wand from which depend strips of white paper cut into little angular bunches (gohei}, intended to represent the offerings of cloth which were anciently tied to branches of the sacred cleyera tree at festival time; secondly, a peculiar gateway called torii. Another difference is that the Shintō temple is thatched, whereas the Buddhist temple is tiled. Furthermore, the Shintō temple is plain and empty, while the Buddhist is highly decorated and filled with religious properties. (See also Articles on Architecture and on Torii.)
Books recommended. Murray's Handbook, just mentioned, for a brief résumé of the subject. The following treatises are much more elaborate:—The Revival of Pure Shintō, by Sir Ernest Satow, forming the Appendix to Vol. III; The Shintō Temples of Ise, by the same, in Vol. II; Ancient Japanese Rituals, by the same, in Vols. VII. and IX; Ancient Japanese Rituals, by Dr. K. Florenz, in Vol. XXVII; Introduction to the Kojiki, by B. H. Chamberlain, forming the Supplement to Vol. X., and Tenri-kyō, by Rev. Dr. Greene in Vol. XXIII., of the "Asiatic Transactions."—Occult Japan, by Percival Lowell.—A work on Shintō by W. G. Aston, which should be authoritative, is in the press.