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UNIT 5: Early Belief Systems

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VIDEO SEGMENT: Shinto

In the ancient world, animism — the belief that natural objects or forces contained a spirit or consciousness — was common to many societies and often provided the foundation for the later development of other religions. This segment explores early Japanese animistic beliefs that came to be known as Shinto, their effects on the development of Japanese society, and their continuing influence in modern Japan.

Early Japanese beliefs about the supernatural world understood gods, or kami, to be the spirits of the natural world. The notion of kami, however, was more complicated, and could include any person or thing with an unusually strong presence. In order to pacify and please the kami, Japanese animists — like animists all over the world — enlisted the help of shamans, or people who were believed to have special talent for communicating with the supernatural world.

Because of their power to communicate with the gods, Japanese shamans also became political rulers. The first Japanese emperors were also the chief Shinto shamans, who traced their lines through the Sun Goddess. In the nineteenth century, the Meiji emperor proclaimed Shinto as the official state religion — a practice that continued until the end of World War II. Today, Shintoism and Shinto shrines continue to play an important role in Japanese cultural identity.

SELECTED IMAGES AND MAPS


Kunisada II, LURING OF THE SUN-GODDESS AMATERASU FROM THE ROCK-CAVE OF HEAVEN BY PERFORMANCE OF THE KAGURA DANCE (ca. 1870-1880). Courtesy of Murray Warner Collection of Oriental Art/University of Oregon Museum of Art.

Anonymous Japanese, FUJIWARA-NO-KAMATARI AS A SHINTO DEITY (TONOMINE MANDALA) (ca. 1333-1392). Courtesy of WorldArt Kiosk/Kathleen Cohen.


Anonymous Chinese, PAYING TRIBUTE TO SON OF HEAVEN (n.d.). Courtesy of East Asian History of Science Library, Needham Research Institute.

J. R. Liebowitz, SHINTO PRAYER BOARDS (2003). Courtesy of J. R. Liebowitz.



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