In Shinto, a religion indigenous to Japan, the concept of salvation is based on the belief that all living things have an essence, soul or spirit known as "kami." Rather than living in a glorified Heaven, kami live among us. Some kami are more powerful than others. Some are even deified. But all kami must be honored. People who die violently, lead unhappy lives, or have no family to care for their kami become hungry ghosts, causing trouble for the living.
Kami and Ancestor Worship
Shintoism suggests that everyone’s immortal spirit lives on, sharing this world side-by-side with people who still inhabit their physical bodies. The more powerful a person is in this physical life, the more powerful he is in the next, spiritual life. Shrines are built and festivals held to worship emperors, heroes and scholars. Small, personal shrines built to honor the kami of deceased loved ones can also be found dotting the landscape. Piles of stones or flowers provide for temporary shrines placed at sites where people have died suddenly.
The concept of hungry ghosts is adopted from the Chinese. When kami are not happy, they can bring danger and destruction to the living. The most powerful kami can cause natural disasters to strike. In Shintoism, rituals and festivals are designed to appease the kami or turn them from bad to good. The kami of powerful political victims -- those who have been executed or exiled -- are sometimes celebrated in festivals designed to use them as scapegoats to absorb the transgressions of the community.
The Importance of Purity
Purity, virtue and fulfillment of duty are concepts seen in many aspects of Japanese society that have their roots in Shintoism. People who reflect these principles will be honored after death and their kami will be appeased. These principles are also reflected in Shinto shrines, which are never cluttered. The architecture is simple and the inner spaces are nearly empty. Before entering a shrine, visitors are expected to wash their hands to remove dust that can hide their true nature, and their mouths to remove untruths.
Because Shintoism focuses on immortal kami, death itself is not addressed. Shinto shrines are often visited for weddings and births but not for funerals. It is not uncommon for people who practice Shintoism to also practice Buddhism, which addresses two end-of-life paths. The most common path after death is reincarnation. The harder-to-attain path releases the immortal soul through enlightenment. Shintoism allows for this type of religious pluralism -- it is not an exclusionist religion.
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