Am I saying that Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan has no place in modern society? Not necessarily. Am I saying that you might want to think twice before seeking career advice from a nature spirit (kami) that has no frame of reference for the life of a corporate salaryman? Maybe.

Japan’s ancient belief system, known as Shinto, is something of a living relic. While there is a general idea in the west that this belief system is dead and/or dying, it actually seems to be alive and well despite the rapid modernization that has taken place in Japan since World War 2. A rare breed of ancient animist systems and more modern ritualistic practices, Shintoism is surprising for a number of reasons. Cultures all across the globe, at one point, practiced some form of animism, ie-the belief that natural creations (the rocks, the trees, the animals, etc) held some type of spirit that could be turned to for guidance, offered respects to, or that could hinder or harm unwary believers. While most cultures have mutated their belief systems in such a way as to unintentionally conceal these origins (there is, for example almost no hint of animism in the Abrahamic faiths) the Japanese people have held tight to this tradition for thousands of years.

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Like Buddhism, Shinto does not require faith as a measure of belief. Shinto practitioners engage in rituals celebrating many aspects of the natural world from rocks, to trees, to animals and even the spirit of ancestors that have passed on. It is an extremely present belief system, a set of ideals that lauds the current moment as being beautiful and important and supported by the land on which one lives. Recognition of and respect for the place in which one dwells is a theme seen in other animist traditions such as many native American cultures and others that have lived close to the land for thousands of years. Japan, until the mid 1800’s, was still living a feudal lifestyle as part of an empire. Serious modernization efforts did not occur until after contact with America. For this reason, it would seem highly likely that the belief and practice of Shinto would die out, if not during those early years, then at least now that Japan has become a leader in technology, science, and modern living. Strangely, this has not been the case. While Japan has changed drastically in its outward appearance, there are many cultural ideals still going strong beneath the surface. Some of them can be seen as good and others as bad, but what is clear is that Japan’s identity is all its own.

It may be a bit confusing to some in the west how someone can work the demanding schedule of a Japanese salaryman, living in a small apartment and working in a mega-city like Tokyo only to then take trips to the countryside to engage in Shinto rituals or just to be near the trees that grow there. It’s something very different than what we experience spiritually in places like America, but that’s exactly the reason this still happens. Japan has always been different and the nation prides itself on its own unique perspective. While they may borrow from the west where they see fit, Japan’s heart has always been Japanese.

There’s something beautiful in that, something to respect. While it may not be a major player on the world stage, Shinto has a lot to teach people in the west and even the people that ignore it in Japan. Modern living is still supported by the world we all share and to ignore that fact is costly to all of us. Perhaps if Shinto had spread more actively, the world would be a much different place. It’s hard to say.

While I still contend that the spirits contained within rocks, trees, or weasels may not be the best to turn to for advice on modern living, I do think they could teach us a thing or two about respecting our surroundings. Either way, it couldn’t hurt to stop every now and again and offer your thanks to the trees that help us breathe, to the water that we drink, or to the animals and plants that help keep us alive.

Too often we think of ourselves as being apart from the world, something different, something unique and powerful with dominion over the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we imagine ourselves emperors supported on the shoulders of the natural world, it would take very little to knock that support out from under us and cause it all to come crashing down.

The world is our home and no matter where you live, taking a moment to stop and appreciate it all doesn’t hurt you.

In fact, it may help put your problems and your life into a new perspective.