"A simple and harmonious life with nature and people."
Shinto is considered Japans native religion. A system of simplicity and beauty, the main ideas behind Shinto are rooted not in the after-life, like many other popular belief systems, but rather in finding harmony with your current surroundings in the present. There is no strict dogma or prayer, and no hierarchy of Gods to worship. Rather, Shinto is a collection of rituals and methods to strengthen relationship of living humans and kami, also known as spirits. Some kami can be specific to local customs, others, are larger, shared natural objects such as Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, or Mount Fuji. But the general understanding is that everything contains a kami.
Four Affirmations of Shinto:
- Tradition and the family: The family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. Their main celebrations relate to birth and marriage.
- Love of nature: Nature is sacred; to be in contact with nature is to be close to the kami. Natural objects are worshipped as containing sacred spirits.
- Physical cleanliness: Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouths often.
- "Matsuri": Any festival dedicated to the Kami, of which there are many each year.
A common translation for Shinto is "the way of the Gods," with many of the gods falling in line with the animistic belief system, assigning spirits and souls to animals and plants. This belief is the main source behind the Japanese cultural harmony and appreciation for nature, along with many other cultural traditions. Sumo wrestling, chopsticks, garden design, flower arranging, architecture, and removing your shoes before entering a building, are all said to stem from Shinto.
Photo from Just A Slice
Shinto and Buddhism
The system of Shinto went through some changes with the adoption of Buddhism after it's introduction in the 6th century. It wasn't until this time that a name was actually created in order to distinguish it from that of Buddhism. The way of life, and belief system, that was encompassed by that traditional religion, became known as Shinto. The two systems have largely, but not without the usual purification attempts by some, coexisted and combined and become seamless with Japanese culture.
Shinto and Color
While color is not talked about too much in regards to Shinto, or at least not talked about on the Internet, there are two colors that are reoccurring and prevalent. The most prevalent color in Shinto is red, and the meanings behind the color is seen in the dress of gods and spirits, whose purpose is to ward off evil spirits and disease. Some believe that the close association to disease may have had something to do with the color choice itself, red; being the color of smallpox, Scarlett fever, tuberculosis, and the measles.
Vermillion (red-orange) is also a prominent color seen at the entrance of every Shinto shrine as you walk through the Torii, the main gates that purify each person before the reach the shrine.
More About Shinto Color Mythology
In Japan, the color red is associated closely with a few deities in Shinto and Buddhist traditions, and statues of these deities are often decked in red clothing or painted red. There are many clues that underpin the red association. The most compelling clues involve demon quelling and disease (e.g., smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, measles). According to Japanese folk belief, RED is the color for "expelling demons and illness." The rituals of spirit quelling were regularly undertaken by the Yamato court during the Asuka Period (522 - 645 AD). Centered on the fire god (a red deity), these purification rites were designed to purify the land by sending evil spirits to the Ne no Kuni. This association with evil segues easily into other links with child mortality, protection against evil forces (sickness), fertility, the caul (embryonic membrane covering the head at birth), and other child-birth imagery. The red bibs, red robes, red scarfs, and red caps found frequently on certain Japanese deities lend strong support to this interpretation.
Briefly, the Japanese god of smallpox -- Housou (Hoso) Kami 疱瘡神 -- is intimately associated with the color red in Japan. The first record of smallpox in Japan appears in the Nikon Shoki (日本書紀, approx. 720 AD). But the disease reached Japan much earlier, around the time of Buddhism's introduction (circa 550 AD). The disease was very dangerous. If the ill person's skin turned purple, it was considered serious. But if the skin turned red, it was believed the patient would recover.
Photo from e-chan
This early association between demons of disease and the color red was gradually turned upside-down -- proper worship of the disease deity would bring life, but improper worship or neglect would result in death. In later centuries, the Japanese recommended that children with smallpox be clothed in red garments and that those caring for the sick also wear red (smallpox details here). The Red-Equals-Sickness symbolism quickly gave way to a new dualism between evil and good, between death and life, between hell and heaven, with red embodying both life-creating and life-sustaining powers. As a result, the color red was dedicated not only to deities of sickness and demon quelling, but also to deities of healing, fertility, and childbirth.
- Copyright Mark Schumacher
Header image by jpellgen
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