The Influences of Taoism & Confucianism on Shinto Beliefs

Japan's indigenous Shinto shares features with Chinese religions.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

Shinto refers to the indigenous beliefs of the Japanese people, a religion that is practiced alongside Buddhism today by most people in Japan. The Shinto religion is based on belief in a world of spirits, or kami, which are worshipped and communicated with at shrines and through religious rites. Although much about its origins are unclear, Shinto has been influenced by the Chinese religions of Taoism and Confucianism throughout history.

1 Origins

As Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto is believed to date back to ancient times, before the establishment of large-scale cultural contact between Japan and China. However, since Japan had no writing system before adopting Chinese characters, there are no written records from that earlier period. The earliest Shinto writings include abundant connections to Taoist beliefs, but it is impossible to know which concepts already existed in Shinto and which were adopted directly from Taoism.

2 Citing Taoism

Despite the lack of clarity on the origin of many concepts, there are some very clear Taoist influences in Japan's earliest Shinto writings, such as the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki. These works were written using Chinese characters and use references to Taoist legends and writings to illustrate Shinto beliefs. Meanwhile, some forms of Shinto explicitly incorporate Taoist teachings and rituals into their practices. One form, known as Ise Shinto, actually cites the Taoist scripture of the Dao De Jing in one of its religious texts.

3 Taoist Beliefs

Some concepts in Shinto are apparently taken directly from Taoism, such as the idea that there is a fundamental yin-yang duality in nature. Beliefs regarding the classification of matter into five types also were adopted from Taoism, as were various ideas about the relationship between people and heaven. The Shinto belief that the supernatural world is governed by an organized hierarchical system of deities has been attributed to Taoism as well. Some Taoist deities were directly adopted into Shinto, such as the Lord of Mount Tai, who serves as the ruler of fate from his peak in the east.

4 Confucian Influences

Confucianism, a system of moral teachings that also originates in ancient China, also has at times been mixed with the Shinto religion. Japan's Ritsuryo law code of the seventh and eight centuries adopted concepts from Confucianism, and centuries later Confucian thought became the basis of a new school of Shinto known as Juka Shinto. The Tokugawa shogunate, which came to rule feudal Japan in 1600, adopted Confucianism as its official ideology, thus adding a Confucian flavor to Shinto practices that continued during that period.

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.