The ancient Japanese found divinity manifested within nature itself. Flowering peaks, flowing rivers, and venerable trees, for example, were thought to be sanctified by the deities, or kami, that inhabited them. This indigenous “Way of the Gods,” or Shinto, can be understood as a multifaceted assembly of practices, attitudes, and institutions that express the Japanese people’s relationship with their land and the lifecycles of the earth and humans. Shinto emerged gradually in ancient times and is distinctive in that it has no founder, no sacred books, no teachers, no saints, and no well-defined pantheon. It never developed a moral order or a hierarchical priesthood and did not offer salvation after death. The oldest type of Shinto ceremonies that could be called religious were dedicated to agriculture and always emphasized ritual purity. Worship took place outdoors at sites proclaimed to be sacred. In time, however, the ancient Japanese built permanent structures to honor their gods. Shrines were usually built on mountains or in rural areas, often on unlevel ground, without any symmetrical plan.
In Japan, anthropomorphic representations of gods were unknown before the spread of Buddhism, although deities were symbolically associated with sacred objects, such as mirrors, swords, and jewels that became imperial insignia. Following the advent of the new religion, Shintoists began to make images. The form of worship, however, did not change, as representations of gods were hidden away in the inner sanctuary of the Shinto shrine, adherents demonstrating their faith—at the entrance—simply by clapping their hands.
Department of Asian Art. “Shinto.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shin/hd_shin.htm (October 2002)
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.