Shinto cannot be traced to its beginnings, because until the 5th cent. (when Chinese writing was introduced into Japan) the myths and rituals were transmitted orally. The written record of the ancient beliefs and customs first appeared in the Kojiki [records of ancient matters], prepared under imperial order and completed in A.D. 712. From those first Japanese accounts of the religion of times then already far past, it can be seen that a worship of the forces and forms of nature had grown into a certain stage of polytheism in which spiritual conceptions had only a small place. Nor was there any clear realization of a personal character in the beings held to be divine, and there were practically no images of the deities.
There was no one deity supreme over all, but some gods were raised to higher ranks, and the one who held the most exalted position was the sun goddess, known as the Ruler of Heaven. The emperors of Japan are said to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, in unbroken line beginning with the first, Jimmu, who ascended his throne in 660 B.C. Thus the emperor was looked upon as divine, even while living; by divine right he was the chief priest, and as such he presided over ceremonies of foremost importance. Aside from this his religious responsibilities were delegated to others.
A Shinto shrine, unaffected by other religious influences, is a simple unpainted wooden building, having some object within it that is believed to be the dwelling place of the kami. After Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th cent. A.D., it had some influence on Shinto. In many shrines Buddhist priests serve, and worship under their direction is more elaborate than pure Shinto.
Beginning in the 17th cent. a vigorous effort was made to revive the old ways and ideas. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, the ancient department of Shinto rites was reestablished, giving Shinto much of its structure and identity as a religion. In 1882 all Shinto organizations were divided into two groups, state shrines (supervised and partially supported by the government) and sectarian churches. The ancient mythology was used to glorify the emperor and the state, and state Shinto became a powerful instrument in the hands of the militarists, who used it to glorify their policy of aggression.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.