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An introduction to Shinto, one of Japan's earliest belief systems.  Created by Asian Art Museum.

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Video transcript

Shinto is Japan's earliest religion. Its followers respect and hold rituals for kami, formless invisible spirits that animate all things and all life. Natural phenomena, humans, and inanimate objects can be vessels for kami. Shinto began its development more than 2,000 years ago. It consisted of rituals for the well-being of the community. Shinto shrines are everywhere in Japan. They range from small household altars to large complexes. Some are found at rural sites, while others are part of the urban landscape. A shrine building is thought to be a temporary residence for the kami, represented by a sacred object  hidden from view inside the inner sanctuary. Visitors to a Shinto shrine enter  through an archway called a torii.   The torii separates everyday space from sacred space. Visitors purify themselves by rinsing their hands and mouths with water from a basin. In front of the shrine, they call for the kami's attention. It might petition for a healthy child or success in college entrance exams. Good luck charms are for sale, and visitors can leave written petitions on special plaques or strips of white paper that will later be used  in a ritual by the priests. Kami are occasionally represented in human form,  such as these two artworks in the museum. However, many traditional arts, like sword making, are connected with Shinto practice. Most Japanese mark important personal moments at shrines, such as coming-of-age ceremonies and weddings, Though its roots are ancient, Shinto practice is part of contemporary life. At the many annual Shinto festivals, kami are asked to bless the community and its economic livelihood. The kami are jostled in their portable shrines as a way to entertain them during their visit. Purification rites are prominent in Shinto rituals. Water and even fire are used. People visit shrines in large numbers at New Years to seek good fortune in the coming year. These Shinto practices have developed  and adapted to changing lifestyles in Japan for hundreds of years, and surely will continue to evolve in the future.