The Shinto Religion and the Root of Japanese Culture

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Shintōism is frequently portrayed in art from all over the world, especially in Japan. The Shintō religion is at the root of Japanese culture and history and therefore has a profound impact on its popular culture today, from manga and anime to film to video games. The references are pervasive and have significant bearing on modern Japanese life among younger generations. Shintō is most present in the genre of fantasy, its themes easily embedded in the tales of heroism and magic. One such work that will be examined for Shintō themes is Journey to Agartha, an enchanting Japanese anime film from Makoto Shinkai.Shintō (Japanese for “the way of the gods”) is a religion indigenous to Japan, originating in prehistoric times and occupying an important national position for long periods in the country’s history (Pecorino). 

Belief and worship are centered on a vast pantheon of spirits, or kami, which are mainly divinities that personify aspects of the natural world (Hammer). (Kami is the Japanese pronunciation of shin, the Chinese character for god.) In a broader sense, kami means “any divine being or anything in the world or beyond that can inspire in human beings a sense of divinity and mystery” (Barrish). Shintō worship is traditionally shown through rites, which include prayers of gratitude, offerings of valuables, and ablutionary purification from corruption and crime (Bernard; Hammer). Journey to Agartha, formerly Children Who Chase Lost Voices, is a 2011 Japanese anime film created and directed by Makoto Shinkai, who is often linked to Hayao Miyazaki with popular, dreamlike works, such as Your Name and 5 Seconds Per Centimeter.

One of the first prominent references to Shintō in the film is when Morisaki recounts to Asuna’s class the myth of Izanagi, which originates from the early chapters of the Kojiki, one of Shintō’s major sacred texts. Shintō does not have a singular, formal written record as in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., but much of its practices and beliefs are based on ancient Japanese writings that recount the mythological origins and traditions of the people and the Kami and Imperial Household (Barrish). 

One such text, called the Kojiki, ‘Record of Ancient Matters,’ is one of the oldest pieces of writing in the Japanese language, its creation spanning from around 682 CE to 712 CE (Barrish). Other writings came later, most notably the historically-angled Nihongi (“Chronicles of Japan”), but the Kojiki remains more influential because it emphasizes the role and importance of the Kami (Barrish). Despite the lack of official scripture, it is possible to construct Shintō doctrines from interpreting the various myths and religious practices within these compilations of history, literature, etc.

According to the Kojiki, when heaven and earth came into being, five Kami were born in the entire universe, from which further Kami proliferated, including the principal characters of the myth: Izanagi no Mikoto (the Male Who Invites) and Izanami no Mikoto (the Female Who Invites) (Hirai). The first Kami, at the center of creation, Ame no Minakunishi, ordered the younger Kami to model the universe on the values of Truth, Reason, and Principle; Izanagi and Izanami conceived several islands (these islands make up Japan, but it can mean the whole world), as well as other Kami, the last being the Kami of fire, whose birth caused Izanami to become sick and die (Hirai; Barrish). 

Overcome by grief and unable to let her go, Izanagi followed her into the underworld, Yomi no Kuni (or simply Yomi, “land of the dead”), but she soon began to decompose (Barrish). Izanami instructed him not to look at her, but he ignored her, and horrified at her decaying state, Izanagi ran away; and Izanami, enraged, chased him to the entrance of the underworld where he quickly blocked it off with a large stone (Barrish).The film as a whole can actually be seen as a symbolic reenactment of the creation myth, since the plot is largely concentrated on Asuna and Morisaki’s escapades in Agartha, as Morisaki tries to resurrect his wife–just as Izanagi travels to Yomi to retrieve Izanami after she dies in childbirth. Morisaki had previously mentioned “Yomi of the Japanese” in his lecture, so it is clear Agartha is meant to be a parallel (Shinkai). 

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Morisaki had also listed some other destinations of the dead, but Agartha is more evocative of Shintō Yomi than, for example, the Christian Heaven/Hell, Islamic Jahannam/Jannah, Hindu Naraka/Svarga, Egyptian Ammut (demon who devours unworthy souls)/Field of Reeds, Norse Hel/Valhalla, Celtic Dubnos/Albios, and many other traditions that espouse an afterlife based on one’s conduct during their earthly life (Mark). Even though the Ancient Greeks have the underworld (or Hades, after the patron god), the mythology also mentions other places for souls that are especially wicked (Tartarus) or righteous

(Elysium). Shintō Yomi most closely resembles the afterlife of the Mesopotamians, who did not believe in an otherworld that was demarcated into good and bad souls; it was simply a land where those who were deceased went (Choksi). Yomi is similar; all humans are believed to possess kami, or spirit, and that energy is simply released upon death and into Yomi. Agartha functions like that, as well. Morisaki’s wife is not described as having been righteous or not, and her passage to Agartha seems like one that naturally comes with having died.Another Shintō theme in the film is shown when Asuna and Morisaki travel from their world to Agartha, or Yomi. 

They are transitioning from a mundane realm to a spiritual realm where spirits and gods reside. In Shintō shrines, tall gates called torii mark one’s passage into a sacred place (Hirai). As such, the portal Asuna and Morisaki go through represents torii, a gateway to the world of kami. Furthermore, the portal is constructed with water. Water is critical to Shintō, especially in rituals; a cleansing natural element that can be used to counteract kegare(pollution), water plays a significant role in purification rites called harai (the rite using water is misogi harai), which are performed to “reestablish order and balance between nature, humans, and deities” (Bernard; Barrish). 

Like most Shintō practices, there is an origin in the Kojiki. After Izanagi fled from the underworld, the land of pollution and death, he had bathed in the Tachibana river to cleanse himself completely of the decaying presence, and this act of ritual washing is the beginning of the idea of misogi, the prototype of the Shintō harai, of which there are many forms today (Barrish). As mentioned previously, the concept of kami occupies an integral role in Shintō thought and are either seen as gods or spirits themselves or as spiritual energies that embody every living thing. Journey to Agartha is therefore rife with examples of kami, from the animals Asuna encounters to the monstrous creatures in Agartha. The most pointed instance of kami in the film

are the Quetzalcoatl. As Morisaki explains, the Quetzalcoatl, behemoths appearing as various extinct lifeforms, are primordial gods that had guided humankind, and, once they were no longer needed, withdrew to the subterranean realm of Agartha where they currently preside over the dead. Another example of kami is Asuna’s pet cat, Mimi, who has strange red markings on her fur, indicating that perhaps she is not a typical animal. As the film progresses, Mimi shows sentient qualities, pointing the characters in the right direction, as if she is human or all-knowing. 

This theory is confirmed when Mimi sacrifices herself to the Quetzalcoatl. Like Manna’s grandfather said, Mimi is a “yadoriko,” or semi-divine being tasked with guiding and watching over people; and this demonstrates kami residing in all living things and the importance of spirit guides in Shintōism (Shinkai). Animals, especially cats, as spirit guides is a very common motif in Japanese art. Once the role of guardian has been fulfilled, Mimi dies and her spirit is released into Yomi, to “become one with the Quetzalcoatls and live for eternity” (Shinkai). 

This reflects the belief that once any living thing dies, the kami, the energy within them, is released and rejoins the otherworld. In addition to kami, sacred texts, shrines, and rituals, objects are also critical to Shintōbeliefs and practices. The crystal fragment that Asuna uses–or “Clavis” as it’s called–is likely representative of shintai, physical objects worshipped at Shintō shrines as they are viewed as symbolic repositories which make kami accessible to humans; kami “inhabits” them (Hirai; Hammer). The Clavis certainly has spiritual and otherworldly qualities, with its bright glow and use as a key to open the gates of the underworld. 

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