- A Sino-Japanese term meaning simply 'gods' or 'spirits' (shin/kami) or the way, conduct, power or deeds of the kami. In China the term shen-tao written with the same characters as Shinto referred to spirits and spirit-worship, especially non-Buddhist rites; for example it could mean Taoism. In medieval times in Japan Shinto was understood as part of the Buddhist world and seems to have meant 'matters pertaining to kami'; localised spirits, as found in most Buddhist cultures. 'Shinto' is not a term used or understood much in ordinary speech in Japan and the meaning of the term has varied in different periods of Japanese history. There is little consensus on the meaning of Shinto in books by Western or Japanese scholars and in fact the term 'Shinto' has taken on a rather misleading aura of solidity and concreteness in Western writings that it has not enjoyed in Japan. This dictionary is a good example of the reification of Shinto, forming as it does part of a series on 'religions' such as Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam etc.! The typical English translation of Shinto as 'The Way of the Kami' reads too much significance into the '-to' (tao, way) element, which is almost redundant in Japanese. Some scholars suggest we talk about types of Shinto such as popular Shinto, folk Shinto, domestic Shinto, sectarian Shinto, imperial household Shinto, shrine Shinto, state Shinto, new Shinto religions, etc. rather than regard Shinto as a single entity. This approach can be helpful but begs the question of what is meant by 'Shinto' in each case, particularly since each category incorporates or has incorporated Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, folk religious and other elements. The same issues arise in understanding 'schools' or lineages of Shinto such as fukko shinto, watarai shinto, ryobu shinto, suiga shinto, yui-itsu shinto, yoshikawa shinto etc.. In each case the term 'Shinto' has to be understood differently. Since the eighteenth century the word 'Shinto' has increasingly been used by its proponents (such as representatives of kokugaku and modern Shinto theologians) to mean an ancient, pure and enduring Japanese national tradition or expression of the national 'spirit' which predated the introduction of Buddhism, was temporarily subsumed under Buddhism (for 1300 years...) and was revived in the Meiji period when it was 'separated' from Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri). The idea of such a tradition however originated in the activities of the kokugaku scholars of the late Tokugawa period and was first propagated widely as part of the system of emperor-worship which underpinned Japanese nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hence its wide currency today. It assumes that ancient pre-Buddhist Japanese religion was 'Shinto' to which we can somehow 'return' (see Fukko-Shinto). Many elements of modern Shinto certainly have archaic or archaic-seeming roots whose resonances can be appreciated and consciously celebrated, but the view that Shinto as we know it now somehow predates Chinese and other continental influences can be maintained only by ignoring the facts of Japanese religious life before shinbutsu bunri in 1868, and indeed the overwhelmingly syncretic or combinatory approach of ordinary Japanese people in religious matters manifested again since the advent of religious freedom in 1945. The term 'Shinto' should therefore be approached with caution. (In this it resembles most other abstract terms such as 'Buddhism', 'democracy', 'Christianity' etc.!)See also the Introduction to this dictionary.
A Popular Dictionary of Shinto. Brian Bocking.