Shinto (神道, pronounced shintō) is the native religion of Japan. It involves the worship of kami, or nature spirits. Some kami are very local and can be regarded as the spirit or genius of a particular place, but others represent major natural objects and processes, for example, Amaterasu, the Sun goddess.

Shinto is one of those religions that defy classification. As a highly sophisticated form of animism, deeply embedded in Japanese society, it could be regarded as a primal religion. One could discuss its use as a legitimising ideology in the militaristic phase of recent Japanese history. To the extent that most of the Japanese "New religions" since the end of the second world war have shown Shinto influence, it is a contemporary phenomenon. And one could even make a case for discussing it under the heading of Buddhism, for these two have exercised a profound influence on each other in Japanese religiosity.

The most immediately striking theme in the Shinto religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphic forms, with a formidable corpus of myth attached to them. The kami, though, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word - although divine, they are close to us; they inhabit the same world as we do. Thus, Shinto, from a combination of two Chinese words (神道) meaning "the way of the spirits" came into being.

The principal worship of kami is at a public shrine, although home worship at small private shrines (sometimes only a high shelf with a few ritual objects) is also common. While a few of the public shrines are elaborate structures, most are small buildings in the characteristic Japanese architectural style. Shrines are commonly fronted by a distinctive Japanese gate (torii) made of two uprights and two crossbars. There are well over 100 000 of these shrines in operation today, each with its retinue of Shinto priests. Kami are invoked at such important ceremonies as the construction of a new building, weddings and entry into university. The kami are commonly petitioned for quite earthly benefits; a child, a promotion, a happier life. Funerals, on the other hand, tend to be monopolised by the Buddhist side of Japanese spirituality (the same is true in China). Worship intensifies during the many Shinto festivals.

The most widely worshipped of all kami is the sun-goddess Amaterasu. Her main shrine is at Ise, but many lesser shrines are dedicated to her. Within the shrine, she is often symbolised by a mirror. Alternatively, the inner sanctum may be empty. Until the end of World War II, the emperor was believed to have been descended from Amaterasu, and was therefore a kami himself (an ikigami or "living kami"); this divine status was popularized during the Meiji restoration. This did not prevent military governors (Shogun) from usurping power, but the emperor was always seen as the true ruler of Japan, even when his rule was only nominal. Although emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status in 1946 under American pressure, the imperial family remains deeply involved in the Shinto ritual that unifies the Japanese nation symbolically.

Purification rites are a vital part of Shinto. These may serve to placate any restive kami, for instance when their shrine had to be relocated. Such ceremonies have been adapted to modern life: a ceremony was held in 1969 to hallow the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. A more personal purification rite is the purification by water. This may involve standing beneath a waterfall or performing ritual ablutions in a river-mouth or in the sea. A third form of purification is avoidance, that is, the taboo placed on certain persons or acts. For example, women were not allowed to climb Mount Fuji until 1868. Although this aspect has decreased in recent years, religious Japanese will not use an inauspicious word like "cut" at a wedding, nor will they attend a wedding if they have recently been bereaved.

The influence of Shinto on Japanese culture can hardly be overestimated. Although it is now near-impossible to disentangle its influence from that of Buddhism, it is clear that the spirit of being one with nature that gave rise to this religion underlie such typically Japanese arts as flower-arranging (ikebana) and traditional Japanese architecture and garden design. A more explicit link to Shinto is seen in sumo wrestling: the purification of the wrestling arena by the sprinkling of salt and the many other ceremonies that must be performed before a bout can begin are definitely Shinto in origin.

See also: Culture of Japan, History of Japan, Oomoto, Yasukuni Shrine, Shinto music