Shinto, composed of two ideographs, literally means the "way of the kami." Although kami can be translated as gods or deities, it also refers more generally to spirit-beings, the supernatural, or to a sacred quality in which an individual can even participate. Shinto refers to what has become a religious tradition indigenous to Japan that recognizes the existence of the kami governing various aspects of reality. There is no primary revelatory text from which doctrines emanate. Instead, doctrines have become established over time, with evidence showing conceptual interaction with Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism over the centuries.
The sacred as represented by the kami, in whom lie the constructive "way" of creation, harmony, and uprightness, plays a central role. These truths can be discerned through faith and ritual. While beneficial and malevolent forces are both recognized, they are not necessarily strictly separated, since good and evil are understood as closely related. In Shinto mythology, for example, it is not unusual for the effects of particular gods to change from one to the other depending on the kami's circumstances.
Central to Shinto is the concept of purity and purification of one's inner and outer selves. Purification of the inner self involves living before the kami in reverence and worship. Shinto recognizes that life lived with such reverence shapes attitudes of heart and mind, leading to magokoro ("heart of sincerity"). This, in turn, influences all of man's relationships to himself, to others, and to the world leading to harmony and peace. In this way, man also partakes in the divine as he lives in accordance to the way of the kami. The purification of the outer self involves the observance of various rites—among which are included rites for different stages in an individual's life, and festivals (matsuri) at various times of the year.
Contrary to common perceptions, for most of its past, Shinto did not exist as an independent religion. In this sense, presenting a summary of the "history of Shinto" may misleadingly reify its existence when it was not truly there as a distinctive religious tradition. The term as it is understood today did not become common parlance until the twentieth century. Still, since modern Shinto reflects the broader tendencies of folk religion in Japan's history, and since the tradition claims historicity, the history of Shinto as it is often presented remains significant.
It is standard to present the origins of Shinto as being historically discernible as far back as the Yayoi period (roughly 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E.) in which uji, or clans, worshipped the ujigami, its tutelary deity. While these kami were often ancestral, others represented various aspects of nature or ideas. As the Yamato clan, from which the imperial line is said to come, gradually grew powerful, the authority of its tutelary deity also expanded. During the seventh and eighth centuries, Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions deeply influenced Japanese folk belief. Efforts in the eighth century made Buddhist and Shinto philosophies compatible in a process called shimbutsu shûgô (unifying of gods and buddhas). Shinto kami became protectors of Buddhism, making it possible to have Shinto shrines within Buddhist temples. Such Buddhist-Shinto accommodation became more explicit during the Kamakura period (1192–1333): Ryobu (Dual) Shinto taught that the two realms of the universe in Shingon Buddhism corresponded with the two kami (Amaterasu and Toyouke) of the Ise Shrine; and, Sannô Shinto taught that the fundamental truth of the universe was equivalent to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who was the source of the universe. Buddhism, however, generally remained more politically powerful and much of what is referred to as Shinto during this time may, in fact, be more Buddhist.
Shinto as a more distinct religious tradition is said to become more recognizable in reactions to Buddhist dominance that occurred in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the thirteenth century, Watarai (or Ise) Shinto taught that kami were the basis of all beings including buddhas and bodhisattvas. In actuality, however, the Watarai tradition continued to assume compatibility with Buddhism. In the fifteenth century, hints of Shinto as a distinctive religion appear. Yoshida Shinto, established by Yoshida Kanetomo (1435–1511), taught that Buddhism and Confucianism were second-hand versions of Shinto, and that indigenous knowledge of truths had been handed down through generations through his lineage. Although Yoshida Shinto's influence would be subdued during the Tokugawa period (1603–1867) when Neo-Confucian philosophy legitimized the state, it continued to inform Shinto beliefs leading to the development of Nativist Studies (Kokugaku) and the thinking of Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801). This would eventually coalesce in Fukko (Restoration) Shinto that called for the restoration of imperial rule, resulting in the Meiji Restoration and the start of Japan's modern history.
Following the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, Shinto was made a state religion that taught the national ethic of reverence for and submission to the emperor. Kokka (State) Shinto, as this form is called, was very much a modern creation and was used aggressively by the state to nurture a loyal and nationalistic population. In the postwar period, though some traditionalist conservatives are known to seek revivals of this in some form, due to its disestablishment in the postwar constitution, Shinto no longer has such close connection with the state and is substantially weaker.
Still, Shinto belief and practice continue and exert their shaping influence upon attitudes and values of many Japanese. Shinto weddings, or festivals marking the calendar such as obon in the summer, the November festival for children, or New Year's Day, all remain popular and have become deeply embedded in national life. This has invited a new generation of scholars to move beyond viewing Shinto only in its statist form, to seeing it as a rich and lively tradition that continues to flourish in modern Japanese society. Although its close association in both beliefs and practice with the people and politics of Japan has given Shinto a parochial sensibility not conducive to spreading overseas, its continuing vitality has raised questions regarding the place of folk religion in the modern era and has won scholarly interest.