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The ancient religion of Japan, Shinto, also known as Kami-no-Michi, can be translated as the way of the gods.
At the core of the Shinto religion is the belief in the forces of nature called kami, meaning the sacred spirits or divine beings that exist in all things. According to Shinto beliefs, kami resides in mountains, waterfalls, trees, rocks, and all the other things in nature, including people, animals, and ancestors.
The universe is filled with these sacred spirits, and they are also seen as the Shinto deities.
When considering the Shinto symbols, the distinction should be made between the two types:
- The Symbols of The Kami – This includes men, animals, objects of nature, sacred vessels, crests, charms, and others.
- The Symbols of The Faith – This group of symbols includes Shinto equipment and structures, sacred music, dances, ceremonies, and offerings.
In this article, we will dive into some of the most notable Shinto symbols, of both categories, and take a closer look at their origins and meanings.
Humans as a Symbol of the Kami
The original symbolic meaning and use of these symbols has either been greatly altered or lost. However, these figures played an important part in Shinto and are considered to be a connecting link expressing the people’s love towards kami.
According to modern scholars, the ancient Japanese society was mainly matriarchic. It was common to have female rulers and leaders. The superior position of women in their society is indisputable because of the position they held in Shinto. Some women were at the center of the kami worship and were called Miko, which means the child of the kami.
Only women considered the purest could become Miko, and they partook in sacred food offerings, which was the most divine act in Shinto rites.
Today, the Miko are merely assistants to the priests and shrine maidens, selling postcards, charms, performing sacred dances, and serving teas to the guests. Their robe and position are just the relics of the original Miko.
After the matriarchic period had passed, men assumed the leading roles in Shinto. Miko or the priestesses of kami were replaced by Kannushi, meaning shrine caretaker or the one who offers prayers.
As the name suggests, Kannushi was a priest who was thought to possess special powers over the world of spirits. They were also believed to be the representative or the substitute of kami.
- Hitotsu Mono
Hitotsu mono refers to a child riding a horse ahead of the shrine’s processions. The child, usually a boy, chosen for this position, purifies his body seven days before the festival. On the day of the festival, a priest would read magic formulas until the child falls into a trance.
It was believed that during this state, the child summons prophets. In some cases, the child was replaced by gohei or a doll on a horse saddle. The hitotsu mono represented the sacred spirit or kami dwelling in a human body.
Animals as Symbols of the Kami
In early Shinto, it was believed that animals were the messengers of the kami, most commonly doves, deer, crows, and foxes. Typically, each kami would have one animal as a messenger, but some had two or more.
- The Hachiman Dove
In Japanese mythology, Hachiman was worshiped as the divine protector of Japan and the god of war. He was also honored as the god of agriculture by peasants and fishermen.
The Hachiman dove is the symbolic representation and the messenger of this deity, the so-called Hachiman, or the God of Eight Banners.
- The Kumano Crow
The three-legged crow is depicted at various shrine locations, including the Abeno Oji Shrine on the Kumano road and the Yatagarasu Jinja in Nara.
The legend of Yatagarasu, or the crow-god, says that a crow was sent from heaven to guide the Emperor Jimmu on his journey from Kumano to Yamato. Based on this legend, the Japanese interpreted the crow as the symbol of guidance and the divine intervention in human affairs.
The famous charms of Kumano Gongen depicting the crow are still offered today.
- The Kasuga Deer
The symbol of the kami of Kasuga Shrine in Nara is the deer. The legend says that the Fujiwara family asked the kami of Hiraoka, Katori, and Kashima to urgently come to Kasugano and find a shrine there, after the capital moved to Nara.
Allegedly, the kami went to Kasugano riding a deer, and since then, deer were honored as the messengers and symbols of Kasuga. These animals were regarded as so sacred that Emperor Nimmei issued an edict forbidding deer hunting in the Kasuga precincts. It was a crime punishable by death.
The deer remained a symbol of spiritual superiority and authority. They are also symbols of regeneration because of the ability of their antlers to grow back after they fall off.
- The Inari Fox
Foxes are worshiped as kami and are the messengers of the rice-god, Inari. The kami of food, specifically grains, is the chief deity of Inari shrines. Therefore, the Inari fox is the symbol of fertility and rice. Foxes are often seen at the entrances of shrines as guardians and protectors and are considered to be the sign of good luck.
Natural Objects as Symbols of Kami
Since ancient times, the Japanese regarded natural objects of extraordinary appearance as the forces of nature and divine manifestations. Mountains have often been looked upon with a certain awe and respect and were the common objects of worship. Small shrines can often be found at the summit of mountain peaks. Similarly, unusually formed rocks and trees are also seen as the dwelling places of the kami.
- The Sakaki Tree
Since nature worship is an essential part of Shintoism, the sacred trees, called shinboku, play an important role in kami worship.
Unquestionably, the Sakaki tree is the most common Shinto tree symbol. These evergreens, native to Japan, are usually planted around shrines as a sacred fence and divine protection. Sakaki branches decorated with mirrors often serve to demonstrate the godly power and are used to purify a ritual site.
Since the Sakaki trees are evergreen, they are also seen as the symbol of immortality.
Generally, all trees of a magnificent appearance, size, and age are revered throughout Japan.
Shrine Buildings and Structures
The simple and straight lines of the shrine structures and buildings of Shinto are said to retain the perfect charm of nature, and it’s believed that they mark the boundaries of the residing place of the kami.
The most recognizable Shinto symbols are the awe-inspiring gates at the entrances of the shrines. These two-post gateways, called Torri, are made of either wood or metal andhave deep religious significance.
These gates stand on their own or are incorporated in the sacred fence called kamigaki. The Torri is seen as a barrier, separating the kami’s sacred dwelling place from the outside world full of pollution and distress.
They are also regarded as a spiritual gateway. A shrine can only be approached through the Torri which cleanses and purifies the visitor of the pollution from the outside world.
Many of them are painted in either vibrant orange or red. In Japan, these colors represent the sun and life, and it’s believed that they remove bed omens and negative energy. Only a clean soul that passed through these gates can get closer to the kami that lives inside the shrine.
Equipment and The Sacred Vessels
Many articles are used for conducting Shinto worship and rituals. These include tokens of the kami or decorations that are called sacred vessels or seikibutsu.
These articles are considered sacred and are inseparable from Shinto. Here are some of the most significant ones:
Himorogi, or the divine enclosure, consists of a Sakaki tree branch decorated with paper stripes, hemp, and sometimes mirrors, and is usually fenced in.
Originally, it signified sacred trees that protected the kami or a place where the kami dwelt. It was thought that they captured the sun’s energy and were called The Sacred Trees of Life. Today, himorogi are the altars or the sacred places used in ceremonies to invoke the kami.
Tamagushi is a small branch of an evergreen tree, most commonly Sakaki, with zigzag paper stripes or red and white cloth attached to its leaves. It’s used in Shinto ceremonies as offerings of the people’s hearts and spirits to the kami.
The evergreen branch represents our connection to nature. The zigzag white rice paper or shide represents the spirits and the connection to the spiritual world. And the red and white cloth, called asa, was considered sacred fiber, representing the formal dressing of the spirits and hearts before the offering to the kami.
Therefore, tamagushi symbolizes both our hearts and spirits and the connection to the physical and spiritual world.
The Japanese believed that they could summon the kami within the trees, so they would attach pieces of paper called shide to serve as a guidance for kami.
The lightening-shaped zigzag white paper is commonly found at the entrances of shrines today, as well as inside the shrines to mark the borders of a sacred place. Sometimes they are attached to wands, called gohei, and used in purification ceremonies.
There are different meanings behind the shide’s zigzag shape. They resemble white lightening and are thought to represent the infinite divine power. The shape also suggests the elements for a good harvest, such as lightning, clouds, and rain. In this context, shide was used in the prayers to the gods for a fruitful harvest season.
Shimenawa is a twisted straw rope to which shide, or zigzag folded paper, is usually attached. Etymologically, it stems from the words shiri, kume, and nawa, which can be interpreted as off-limits.
Therefore, the rope was used to indicate boundaries or barriers, used to distinguish and separate the sacred world from the secular, and prevent its pollution. It can be found in shrines in front of the altars, Torri, and around sacred vessels and structures. It’s used to fend off evil spirits and as a protection of the holy space.
- Mirror, Sword, and Jewels
These are known as Sanshu-no-Jingi, or the three sacred treasures, and are the common Imperial Emblems of Japan.
The mirror, also known as Yata-no-Kagami, was considered holy and a symbol of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Japanese believed that the imperial families are direct descendants of Amaterasu’s lineage. It was thought that the evil spirits were afraid of mirrors. Due to its virtue to reflect everything without fail, it was considered to be the source of honesty becauseit couldn’t hide good or bad, right or wrong.
The sword, or Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, was considered to possess divine powers and was a symbol of protection against the evil spirits. Due to its features such as determination and sharpness, it was thought to be the source of wisdom and the kami’s true virtue.
The curved jewels, also known as Yasakani-no-Magatama, are Shinto talismans symbolizing good fortune and evil repellent. Their shape resembles an embryo or a mother’s womb. Therefore, they were also the symbols of the blessing of a new child, prosperity, longevity, and growth.
As a token of respect, offerings were regarded as a universal language manifesting people’s good intentions to the kami. Offerings were made for many reasons, including requests, prayers for future blessings, removing a curse, and absolving from wrongdoings and impurities.
There are two types of offerings: shinsen (food offerings), and heihaku (meaning cloth and referring to clothing, jewels, weapons, and others).
Food and drink offerings to the kami usually include sake, rice, cake, fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, candy, salt, and water. These foods are prepared with special care and are consumed after the ceremony by both priests and worshipers.
These offerings represent a positive contribution and are the symbols of good luck, prosperity, and long life.
Since cloth was considered the most valuable object in the primitive Japanese society, heihaku became the primary offering to the kami. It usually consisted of either hemp (asa) or silk (kozo). Due to their great value, these offerings were a token of the worshipers’ highest respect toward the kami.
Shrine crests, also known as shinmon, are emblems depicting different traditions, history, and deities connected to a particular shrine. They are usually of a circular shape enriched by grains, phonetics, blossoms, and other motifs associated with a shrine’s tradition.
Many shrines use tomoe, or swirling commas, as their crest. Tomo was a piece of armor that protected the warrior’s right elbow from arrows. For this reason, tomoe was adopted as the crest of Hachiman shrines, and was particularly appreciated by samurai. Its shape resembled swirling water, and as such, it was also considered to be protection against fire.
There is a wide variety of tomoe, featuring two, three, and more commas in the design. But the triple swirl tomoe, also known as Mitsu-tomoe, is most commonly associated with Shinto, and represents the intertwining of the three realms – earth, heaven, and the underworld.
To Sum It Up
Although it’s a long list, the symbols covered in this article are just a fraction of the rich Shinto tradition. No matter the religion, everybody who has respect for nature and environment is welcome in these beautiful shrines saturated with charming artifacts of vivid symbolism and history. Shinto shrines are places that bring deep spirituality, inner harmony, and calming energy to everyone who visits, from the magical Torri gate to the sacred temple itself.