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Shinto, the Way of the Gods

W. G. Aston

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Chapter subjects include: Materials for the Study of Shinto; Personification; Deification of Men; Functions of Gods; Myth; The Mythical Narrative; Nature-Deities; Man-Deities; The Priesthood; Worship; Morals, Law, and Purity; Ceremonial; Magic, Divination, Inspiration; and, Decay of Shinto.

This book has 230 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1905.

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Excerpt from 'Shinto, the Way of the Gods'

Prehistoric Shinto.--Ethnologists are agreed that the predominant element of the Japanese race came to Japan by way of Korea from that part of Asia which lies north of China, probably by a succession of immigrations which extended over many centuries. It is useless to speculate as to what rudiments of religious belief the ancestors of the Japanese race may have brought with them from their continental home. Sun-worship has long been a central feature of Tartar religions, as it is of Shinto; but such a coincidence proves nothing, as this cult is universal among nations in the barbaric stage of civilization. It is impossible to say whether or not an acquaintance with the old State religion of China--essentially a nature-worship--had an influence on the prehistoric development of Shinto. The circumstance that the Sun was the chief deity of the latter and Heaven of the former is adverse to this supposition. Nor is there anything in Japan which corresponds with the Shangti of the ancient Chinese.

There are definite traces of a Korean element in Shinto. A Kara no Kami (God of Kara in Korea) was worshipped in the Imperial Palace. There were numerous shrines in honour of Kara-Kuni Idate no Kami. Susa no wo and Futsunushi have Korean associations.

Until the beginning of the fifth century of our era, writing was practically unknown in Japan. It is certain, however, that a considerable body of myth, together with formal rituals, was already in existence, having been transmitted from generation to generation by the Nakatomi and Imbe, two hereditary priestly corporations attached to the Mikado's Court. We hear also of Kataribe, or corporations of reciters, who were established in various provinces, especially in Idzumo, a primæval centre of Shinto worship. They are mentioned in the Nihongi under the date a.d. 465, and were still in existence in the fifteenth century. Unfortunately we know little about them beyond the circumstance that they attended at the capital, and delivered their recitals of "ancient words" on the occasion of the Mikado's coronation. These must have helped to furnish material for the written mythical and quasi-historical narratives which have come down to us.

Kojiki.--The oldest of these is a work entitled the Kojiki, or 'Records of Ancient Matters.' It was compiled by Imperial order, and completed in a.d. 712. The preface states that it was taken down from the lips of one Hiyeda no Are, who had so wonderful a memory that he could "repeat with his mouth whatever was placed before his eyes and record in his heart whatever struck his ears." English readers may study this work in an accurate translation contributed by Mr. B. H. Chamberlain to the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan in 1882. It is preceded by a valuable introduction.

Nihongi.--The mythical narrative of the Nihongi, or 'Chronicles of Japan,' also an official compilation (a.d. 720), is not quite so full as that of the Kojiki, and it has the disadvantage of being composed in the Chinese language. But it has one feature of great interest. The author, or some nearly contemporary writer, has added to the original text a number of variants of the current myths, thus enabling us to correct any impression of uniformity or consistency which might be left by the perusal of the Kojiki or Nihongi alone. These addenda show that there was then in existence a large body of frequently irreconcilable mythical material, which these works are attempts to harmonize. A translation of the Nihongi by the present writer forms Supplement I. of the Transactions of the Japan Society (1896). Dr. Florenz's excellent German version of the mythical part of this work may also be consulted with advantage. It has copious notes.

Kiujiki.--A third source of information respecting the mythical lore of Japan is the Kiujiki. A work with this name was compiled a.d. 620, i.e., one hundred years before the Nihongi, but the book now known by that title has been condemned as a forgery by native critics. Their arguments, however, are not quite convincing. The Kiujiki is in any case a very old book, and we may accept it provisionally as of equal authority with the Kojiki and Nihongi. It contains little which is not also to be found in these two works. Unlike them, the Kiujiki makes no attempt to be consistent. It is a mere jumble of mythical material, distinct and conflicting versions of the same narrative being often dovetailed into one another in the most clumsy fashion. It has not been translated.

Idzumo Fudoki.--This work, a topography of the province of Idzumo, was compiled about a.d. 733. It contains a few mythical passages.

The Kogoshiui was written in 807. It adds a very little to the information contained in the Kojiki and Nihongi.

Shôjiroku.--In this work, which is a sort of peerage of Japan (815), the descent of many of the noble families is traced from the deities of the Shinto Pantheon.

Yengishiki.--Our principal source of information for the ceremonial of Shinto is the Yengishiki, or 'Institutes of the Period Yengi' (901-923). It gives a minute description of the official Shinto ritual as then practised, together with twenty-seven of the principal prayers used in worship. These prayers, called norito, were now, so far as we know, for the first time reduced to writing, but many of them must be in substance several hundreds of years older. Some have been translated by Sir Ernest Satow for the Asiatic Society of Japan (1879-81), and the series is now being continued by Dr. Karl Florenz, whose translation of the Ohoharahi (1899) is a notable addition to the English reader's means of studying Shinto.

Motoöri and Hirata.--The writings of the native scholars Motoöri, Hirata, and others during the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth are an indispensable source of information. No part of this voluminous literature has been, or is likely to be, translated. The English reader will find a good account of it in Sir Ernest Satow's 'Revival of Pure Shinto,' contributed to the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan in 1875. By "Pure Shinto" is meant the Shinto of the KojikiNihongi, and Yengishiki, as opposed to the corrupt forms of this religion which sprang up under Buddhist influence in later times.

The above-named works contain fairly ample materials for the study of the older Shinto. They have the advantage of showing us this religion as seen by the Japanese themselves, thus leaving no room for the introduction of those errors which so often arise from the unconscious importation of modern European and Christian ideas into the accounts of other rudimentary cults. It should be observed that it is the State religion to which these records chiefly relate. Of the popular beliefs and practices at this time we are told but little.

The Nihongi, and, to a lesser extent, the Kojiki, are somewhat influenced by Chinese ideas; but this element is generally recognizable. Buddhism was introduced into Japan towards the middle of the sixth century, and was widely propagated under the regency of Shôtoku Daishi, who died a.d. 621; but there is little or no trace of it in the older Shinto. For a long time there was a marked antagonism between the two religions which served to protect the latter from such adulteration.

The Fūzoku Gwahō, a modern illustrated magazine, is a rich store of information respecting modern Shinto and the folk-lore and superstitions which are associated with it.

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