“The heart of the person before you is a mirror.  See there your own.” - Shinto saying
The heart of the person before you is a mirror.  See there your own.
— Shinto saying


Shintoism, once Japan’s state religion, is now the world’s fifteenth largest, with some four million practitioners. The religion emphasizes the worship of nature, ancestors, ancient heroes, and the virtue of living with a “true heart.” The guiding concept of Shinto is that a true heart is filled with sincerity and uprightness, and this is only possible through awareness of the divine.


A number of theories exist about the origins of Japanese Shintoism. Most scholars believe peoples from central Asia and Indonesia migrated to the Japanese Islands, bringing their beliefs with them. Some Japanese nationalists claim that Shintoism has always existed, arising from the ancient mists of the Jomon Age approximately 10,000 years ago.

Some modern scholars assert that Shinto as presently practiced did not exist in the Jomon Age, which should be more properly referred to as kami worship. Shinto actually means “the way of the kami,” or divine way. The religion did not have a name until Chinese Buddhists began appearing in Japan around 500 AD. The name Shinto developed to distinguish between the worship of the kamiand the Buddha. It was not, however, until the late 12th century AD that the term Shinto was used to refer to a specific body of religious ideas.

More probable is that Shintoism developed during the Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD) via immigration from China and Korea. At this time, the agricultural and shamanistic ceremonies of these foreign lands were adapted to the new Japanese environment.

Shintoism is a form of animism that involves the worship of kami gods. Some kami are local and can be regarded as the spirit of a particular place. Others represent major natural objects and processes, like the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Several thousand years ago, each Japanese tribe and area had its own collection of gods with no formal relationship among them. Following the ascendance of the Yamato Kingdom around the third to fifth centuries AD, the ancestral deities of the emperor of Japan were given prominence over others. A story developed to explain this emergence, resulting in the myth found in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) in 712 AD. Legend claimed that the imperial line descended directly from the sun goddess herself.

Early ceremonies are thought to have been held outdoors in front of sacred rocks (iwakura). The kami bore no physical image because they were conceived without form. After the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century AD, the idea of building “houses” for the kami arose, and shrines were constructed for the first time. The earliest examples were built at Izumo in 659 AD and Ise in 691 AD.

In the late seventh and early eighth centuries AD, the introduction of the Ritsuryo System, based on the Chinese system of order, legally established the supremacy of the emperor and great nobles and formalized their relationship to major shrines and festivals. Although clan rivalry led to friction and fighting during the introduction of Buddhism, the worship of kami and the teachings of the Buddha soon settled into coexistence.

Over time, the original nature-worshipping roots of Shintoism, while never lost entirely, became obsolete and the kami took on more tangible physical forms. The kami, though, are not transcendent deities. Although holy, they inhabit the same world as humans do, make the same mistakes, and feel and think as humans would.

Following the Meiji Restoration, Shintoism was made the official religion of Japan, and in 1868 AD integration of Buddhist practices was made illegal. The arrival of Western military ideas and the subsequent collapse of the Shogunate convinced many Japanese that Shinto was an essential tool in unifying the nation around the emperor. It was therefore exported into territories taken by conquest, Hokkaido and Korea being primary examples.

A Ministry of Divinities was formed in 1871. Shinto shrines were organized into twelve levels, with the Ise Shrine at the top and small sanctuaries in humble towns at the bottom. The following year, the Ministry of Divinities was replaced with a new Ministry of Religion that was given the task of educating the population in moral virtue. Shinto priests were then nominated and organized by the state. They instructed the youth in a form of Shinto theology based on the official version of the divine origins of Japan and the emperor.

Shinto was increasingly used to promote Japanese nationalistic solidarity. In 1890, the “Imperial Prescript on Education” became law. Students were required to ritually recite its oath to offer themselves courageously to the state and to protect the imperial family with their own lives. The patriotic role of Shintoism was grounded in mysticism and cultural introversion, which gave the Japanese government virtually unquestioned popular support for the invasions that precipitated World War II. Even when it was clear that Japan could not win the war, a large segment of the populace remained prepared to defend the emperor and their homeland to the death.

After Japan’s unconditional surrender, the emperor issued a statement renouncing his claims to the status of “living god.” After the war, most Japanese people came to believe that excessive pride in the empire led to their defeat. As a result, national devotion to Shintoism declined considerably, while a number of new religions developed, many of them based upon the principles of Shinto or other Eastern and animistic religions.

Consequently, Shintoism has reverted to the status of a folk religion, culturally ingrained rather than politically enforced. In spite of its smaller base of followers, Shinto continues to serve as an important foundation of Japanese culture.


Shintoism does not have a sacred text per se. The works closest to being considered Shinto scripture are the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan). In addition to their role in Shinto tradition, these works offer historical information about Japan and examples of early Japanese literature.


Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)

Volume 1 (Preface)

I Asmara say: Now when chaos had begun to condense, but force and form were not yet manifest, and there was naught named, naught done, who could know its shape? Nevertheless heaven and earth first parted, and the Three Deities performed the commencement of creation; the Passive and Active Essences then developed, and the Two Spirits became the ancestors of all things. Therefore did he enter obscurity and emerge into light, and the Sun and Moon were revealed by the washing of his eyes; he floated on and plunged into the seawater, and heavenly and earthly Deities appeared through the ablutions of his person. So in the dimness of the great commencement, we, by relying on the original teaching, learn the time of the conception of the earth and of the birth of islands; in the remoteness of the original beginning, we, by trusting the former sages, perceive the era of the genesis of Deities and of the establishment of men...

...In the august reign of the Heavenly Sovereign who governed the Eight Great Islands from the Great Palace of Kiyomihara at Asuka, the Hidden Dragon put on perfection, the Reiterated Thunder came at the appointed moment. Having heard a song in a dream, he felt that he should continue the succession; having reached the water at night, he knew that he should receive the inheritance. Nevertheless heaven’s time was not yet, and he escaped like the cicada to the Southern Mountains; both men and matters were favorable, and he marched like the tiger to the Eastern Land. Suddenly riding in the Imperial Palanquin, he forced his way across mountains and rivers: the Six Divisions rolled like thunder, the Three Hosts sped like lightning. The erect spears lifted up their might, and the bold warriors arose like smoke: the crimson flags glistened among the weapons, and the ill-omened crew were shattered like tiles. Or ere a day had elapsed, the evil influences were purified: forthwith were the cattle let loose and the horses given repose, as with shouts of victory they returned to the Flowery Summer; the flags were rolled up and the javelins put away, as with dances and chants they came to rest in the capital city...

...Hereupon the Heavenly Sovereign commanded, saying: “I hear that the chronicles of the emperors and likewise the original words in the possession of the various families deviate from exact truth, and are mostly amplified by empty falsehoods. If at the present time these imperfections be not amended, ere many years shall have elapsed, the purport of this, the great basis of the country, the grand foundation of the monarchy, will be destroyed. So now I desire to have the chronicles of the emperors selected and recorded, and the old words examined and ascertained, falsehoods being erased and the truth deter..

...Prostrate I consider how Her Majesty the Empress, having obtained Unity, illumines the empire, – being versed in the Triad, nourishes the people. Ruling from the Purple Palace, Her virtue reaches to the utmost limits of the horse’s hoof-marks: dwelling amid the Sombre Retinue, Her influence illumines the furthest distance attained to by vessels’ prows. The sun rises, and the brightness is increased; the clouds disperse, neither is there smoke. Never cease the historiographers from recording the good omens of connected stalks and double rice-ears; never for a single moon is the treasury without the tribute of continuous beacon-fires and repeated interpretations. In fame She must be pronounced superior to Bum-Mei, in virtue more eminent than Ten-Itsu...

...Altogether I have written Three Volumes, which I reverently and respectfully present. I Yasumaro, with true trembling and true fear, bow my head, bow my head.

Reverently presented by the Court Noble Futo no Yasumaro, an Officer of the Upper Division of the Fifth Rank and of the Fifth Order of Merit, on the 28th day of the first moon of the fifth year of Wa-d.

Section 1 (The Beginning of Heaven and Earth)

The names of the Deities that were born in the Plain of High Heaven when the heaven and earth began were the Deity Master-of-the-August-Centre-of-Heaven, next the High-August-Producing-Wondrous Deity, next the Divine-Producing-Wondrous Deity. These three Deities were all Deities born alone, and hid their persons. The names of the Deities that were born next from a thing that sprouted up like unto a reed – shoot when the earth, young and like unto floating oil, drifted about medusa-like, were the Pleasant-Reed-Shoot-Prince-Elder Deity, next the Heavenly-Eternally-Standing Deity. These two Deities were likewise born alone, and hid their persons.

Section 23 (The Nether-Distant-Land)[The Deity Great-House-Prince spoke to him] saying: “Thou must set off to the Nether-Distant-Land where dwells His Impetuous-Mate-Augustness. That Great Deity will certainly counsel thee.” So on his obeying her command and

arriving at the august place of His Impetuous-Male-Augustness, the latter’s daughter the Forward-Princess came out and saw him, and they exchanged glances and were married, and [she] went in again, and told her father, saying: “A very beautiful Deity has come.” Then the Great Deity went out and looked, and said: “This is the Ugly-Male-Deity-of-the-Reed-Plain,” and at once calling him in, made him sleep in the snake-house. Hereupon his wife, Her Augustness the Forward-Princess, gave her husband a snake-scarf, saying: “When the snakes are about to bite thee, drive them away by waving this scarf thrice.”


Shintoism is a form of animism, the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, and may be regarded as a type of shamanist religion. Shinto beliefs are deeply embedded in the subconscious fabric of modern Japanese society. The afterlife is not a primary concern in Shinto, and much more emphasis is placed on fitting into this world as opposed to preparing for the next.

Shinto has no binding set of beliefs, no holiest place of worship, no person serving as holy leader, and no defined set of prayers. Rather, Shinto is a collection of rituals and methods meant to mediate the relations of living humans to kami. The kami are born, live, die, and are reborn like all other beings in the karmic cycle. These beliefs have evolved organically in Japan over a span of many centuries and have been influenced by Japan’s contact with the religions of other nations, especially China.

The nearest equivalent to the core beliefs in Shinto are the Four Affirmations incorporated into the daily religious traditions of Shinto practitioners. These are:

Devotion to family and ancestral traditions.

Reverence and love for all living and inanimate objects found in nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, sand, or merely an oddly shaped rock might be regarded as a kami. Kami also may be charismatic persons or abstractions such as growth or fertility.

Ritual bathing to spiritually and physically cleanse before entering a shrine to worship the kami.

Matsuri, the worship and honoring of gods and ancestral spirits.

Proper observation of Shinto ritual is more important than whether one truly believes in the ritual. Therefore, even practitioners of other religions may be venerated as kami after their deaths, the caveat being that there are Shinto believers who wish them to be.


With the introduction of Buddhism and its absorption by the Imperial Court, it became necessary to distinguish between native Japanese beliefs and Buddhist teachings. Indeed, Shinto did not have a name until it had to be differentiated from Buddhism.

One Buddhist view of the Japanese kami explained them as supernatural beings still caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth. Buddhists believed that the kami played a special role in protecting their religion and allowing its teachings to flourish within Japan. Kukai, the founder of the True Word School of Buddhism in Japan, went further. He saw the kami as different embodiments of the buddhas themselves.

Buddhism and Shinto coexisted and were amalgamated as the Shinbutsu Shugo. Kukai’s synergetic views were widely held until the end of the Edo Period in the late nineteenth century AD. At that time, Japan enacted a closed country policy, and that isolationism generated renewed interest in “Japanese studies” (kokugaku).

Earlier in the eighteenth century, various Japanese scholars, in particular Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801 AD), tried to distinguish the “real” Shinto from various foreign influences. This attempt was largely unsuccessful.

To understand the different focuses of emphasis within Shinto, it is important to designate how Shinto is structured.

Shrine Shinto, the oldest and most prevalent of the Shinto types, has always been a part of Japan’s history and constitutes the main current of Shinto tradition. The Ise Shrine, Shinto’s most sacred site, is considered too important to preserve and is torn down every 20 years. Shinto priests model this demolition on nature. They replace the shrine with a new one, a re-creation, rather than a replica. It contains three legendary items dating back 2,000 years: a mirror, a string of jewels, and a sword.

Sect Shinto is comprised of thirteen groups formed during the nineteenth century. They do not have shrines but conduct religious activities in meeting halls. Shinto sects include the mountain-worshiping sects that venerate mountains like Mt. Fuji; faith-healing sects; purification sects; Confucian sects; and Revival Shinto sects. Konkokyo, Tenrikyo, and Kurozumikyo, although operating separately from modern Shinto, are considered forms of sect Shinto.

Folk Shinto includes the numerous but fragmented folk beliefs in deities and spirits. Practices include divination, spirit possession, and shamanic healing. Some of these practices are adopted from Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, and others come from ancient local traditions.

(1)  State Shinto was the result of the downfall of the Shogunate. Reformers attempted to purify Shinto by purging it of many Buddhist and Confucian ideas, thus emphasizing the divinity of the emperor. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, state Shinto was abolished, and the emperor was forced to renounce his divinity. Some Shinto practices and teachings, once given prominence during the war, are neither taught nor practiced today. Others remain as secular activities ingrained in the culture but disembodied from religious origins.


It is difficult to distinguish between the culture of Japanese business ethics in general and distinctly Shinto business ethics because each is tied to the other.

Speaking of all matters, the Oracle of Amaterasu at the Kotai Shrine says: “If you plot and connive to deceive people, you may fool them for a while, and profit thereby, but you will without fail be visited by divine punishment. To be utterly honest may have the appearance of inflexibility and self-righteousness, but in the end, such a person will receive the blessings of sun and moon. Follow honesty without fail.”

In the specific matter of commerce, Shintoism translates as three distinct concepts: diligent effort, group primacy, and reciprocity in relationships.

Diligence is the first principle. Members of Japanese society often feel compelled to work hard because, by doing so, they unify their individual spirits with the larger cosmos. This gives workers either a feeling of being at peace with the world or the hope that they can come to that peace if they work harder.

This same metaphysical process is strong in Japanese business at the macro-level. The secular interpretation is that Japanese ethical norms assume that people will work tirelessly to contribute to the greater causes of their companies. The work ethic is both an expression of religion and a process of self-actualization. Through the sacrifice of diligent work, the individual can connect himself with the greater, pooled life force and comply with society’s ethical expectations.

The second principle is group primacy. This orientation profoundly affects Japanese society and leaves a deep imprint on business ethics. In Japan, workers are expected to subordinate themselves to their companies, and companies are expected to subordinate themselves to the nation. Each group owes deference and allegiance to the next larger group in the chain. If a subgroup violates the expectations inherent in this hierarchy, it will be ridiculed or punished.

From a Western perspective, the group ethic can create problems. If a worker has personal concerns regarding a new policy, he or she is likely to refrain from expressing an opinion. The Japanese word for “economy” (keizai) is derived from a set of words meaning, “to rule society and save people.” The melding of ruling and saving is so strong in Japan that workers are expected to exhibit total obedience to their managers. Submission and inaction may perpetuate unethical or uninformed decisions on the part of the management. Further, since many workers rely on the moral judgment of their superiors, they do not feel a strong responsibility to think about ethical behavior.

It also must be noted that Japanese group ethics apply only to groups inside Japanese society. Workers or managers do not feel compelled to uphold native standards when dealing with “alien” groups—that is to say, rival corporations, foreign nationals, or different countries. Such a dichotomy between the value of things Japanese and non-Japanese provides a rationale for behaviors that outsiders may consider amoral.

The third principle is reciprocity. The Japanese believe that long-term, give-and-take relationships are the hallmark of a harmonious society. That makes relationships a key element in business ethics. Business relationships in Japan require participants (firms, employees, government, society, et cetera) to strike a balance between benefits and sacrifices.

Participants are expected to work diligently and rationally to create mutually beneficial business transactions. If one participant shirks his or her responsibility or otherwise fails to provide his or her expected contribution, the transgressor will be ostracized.

Reciprocal business relationships in Japan can best be understood as a series of revolving “ethical debts.” A sacrifice by entity A incurs a sacrifice by entity B that incurs a sacrifice by entity C, ad infinitum. If a company or institution does not fulfill its obligations to its stakeholders or business partners, it violates the ethics of reciprocity.

An excellent example of the ethics of reciprocity can be seen in the actions of Japanese executives during poor business conditions. While many Western executives might lay off employees during a recession or when sales are down, Japanese executives do everything in their power to maintain their employees’ jobs. Japanese executives will reduce their own pay, sell assets, cut wages, and/or reduce dividends before they will lay off workers.

The executives believe the company owes workers the obligation of employment in return for their allegiance and hard work. The workers recognize this sacrifice and thus push themselves to work harder and more efficiently. By attempting to balance the benefits and sacrifices in such a manner, both parties comply with the ethics of reciprocity.

Shinto cannot be separated from Japan and the Japanese. Many Japanese managers question Western motives of putting shareholders’ earnings as a first priority and then engaging in downsizing, mergers, and acquisitions. In the Japanese mind, employees and companies are inextricably linked. They are mutually dependent and must work together in reciprocal business relationships to achieve long-term success. From the Japanese perspective, these value-enhancing policies and other actions commonly practiced in the West are myopic and unethical.