Shinto is the most common religion in Japan today, and has been practiced for centuries by the samurai class of warriors.
Shinto has no central founder, no sacred scriptures, no clearly defined moral code, and no ruling body. It is considered to be the earliest religion in Japan, and yet still continues to be the most common religion among the Japanese today.
Around 500 AD, Shinto went through a period of rapid growth and popularization. Before that, it had existed as an ambiguous philosophy combining animism, hero worship, fertility rites and nature worship. One thing that still perseveres today in Shinto is a joyful acceptance and closeness to nature.
Shinto is a Chinese term meaning, "Way of the Gods," derived from two Chinese words shen (gods) and tao (way). This term came into widespread use as Japanese adherents sought to distinguish themselves from Buddhism and Confucianism, which had spread into their country after the sixth century. From the beginning Shinto was a religion of military groups living in spartan surroundings.
A rich mythology exists in Shinto, and it is one that expresses an upbeat and optimistic view of life. Nevertheless, the actions of the kami, or gods of nature, still mirror the more widely known crude and jealous antics of the Olympian gods from Greek mythology. One Shinto myth tells how Izanagi (god of the sky or heaven) and Izanami (the goddess of the earth) together formed the Japanese islands as their children. Izanami died, however, giving birth to the last island, and she flew to the Nether World. She became enraged when Izanagi pursued her, looking upon her decayed and infested body. He fled the Nether World and washed his defilement into the sea. From this ritual act of purification were born Amaterasu (sun goddess), Tsukiyomi (moon god) and Susano (storm god).
This strong sense of myth and legend still exists in Shinto today, and is seen in the many shrines and the forms of worship. In fact, it is precisely through festivals and rituals that adherents to Shinto worship. This worship is enacted to express gratitude to the gods and to ask their continued blessings and good favor. Shinto worship commonly has two aspects: communion between the gods and the people, and communion among the people themselves.
Worship generally consists of three stages. The first is the preparatory stage, when people avoid taboo acts. They may also undertake to ritually cleanse themselves. The second stage of worship is when the people offer gifts of food, clothing and incense to the gods. They also participate in prayers, usually given by the Shinto priest. The prayers are followed by a literal (or sometimes figurative) feast, symbolizing feasting with the gods. The third and final stage is the joyous celebration and transport of the kami. The kami is spiritually seated on a portable shrine, or mikoshi. The people then carry the chair throughout the village or town so that the kami may bless the people and land. Accompanying this transport are many festivities, such as sumo wrestling, dancing, theatrical performances and boat races.
Shrines and temples are found literally everywhere in Japan, and are always kept spotlessly and ceremonially clean. To separate the godly from the mundane world, there is usually a graceful red arched gateway, or torii, at the entrance to every temple.
In contrast to China, where the educated gentleman was at the top of the social ladder, the Japanese people have always considered the military class to be the most powerful and influential group of people. This class was called the samurai class, and has always been most influenced by Bushido, or the code of the warrior. This code of chivalry and honor has become a large part of the tone and attitude in Japanese religion today.
The first duty of all samurai has always been loyalty to the emperor. Second to the emperor is the lord whom the warrior directly serves. The other basic tenets of Bushido are as follows:
1) Gratitude and courage - A samurai willingly and gladly gives up his or her life in the service to their lord. An honorable death in the defense of one's master is a great blessing. To die of old age in bed is a great shame.
2) Justice - One's duty above all.
3) Truthfulness - A samurai never lies to avoid harm or misfortune.
4) Politeness - A samurai is taught to be polite to everyone, even one's enemies. This is considered the mark of a strong and worthy man.
5) Reserve - One should never allow feelings to show.
6) Honor - A samurai always carries two knives. One to fight his enemies, and a smaller one to take his own life in the event he is disgraced or dishonored.