As a consequence, the society provides a culturally acceptable outlet for such expression, i.e., while under the influence of alcohol during a Shinto festival procession (also known as Japanese matsuri).
During these public processions, which are generally held on annual basis, a large object (supposedly containing the spirit of a local deity) is carried shoulder-high through the streets, in order to revitalize the community with its supernatural presence. The bearers of the deity are required to "purify" themselves by drinking large amounts of sake before taking part in the procession. The intoxicated state of the bearers together with the bulk of the object they carry, conveniently "ensures" that the object may crash into the home or a shop owned by a greedy merchant or an intolerable official. As the object's movement is supposed to be "guided" by a deity, no one can be held responsible for the damage caused.
The Shinto Festival Processions are, therefore, a form of informal social sanction against undesirable personal behavior in a close-knit community. It helps to keep people of malicious or a despicable nature in check from fear of retribution. It may even influence such people into acts of kindness towards others, even though such generosity may be wholly insincere. Such Shinto ritual of punishing or threatening to punish undesirable behavior through an elaborate charade is so typically Japanese. It works around the reluctance of the Japanese people to directly offend others for their undesirable behavior and also reflects the practical and 'folksy' nature of the Shinto religion.
Outside Influences on Shinto
Similarity with East Asian Religions: Although Shinto is often described as being uniquely Japanese in character, it has absorbed a number of foreign influences. For example, recent research has shown that there is marked similarity between the kami worship of Shinto and other indigenous religions and folk beliefs of other East Asian countries. This includes similarities between kami cults and Taoism, as well as the influence of Chinese theories of Yin and Yang and the Five phases of matter (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) on Shintoism. Other characteristics of Shinto such as worship of spirits, syncretism, polytheism and animism are also not unique to Shinto and are present in East-Asian folk religions as well. Shamanism, which is considered to be part of Shinto, is similarly not unique to Japan -- it is found in folk religions throughout East Asia.
Influence of Buddhism: The most significant of all influences on Shinto has, of course been by Buddhism, which was introduced in Japan in the 6th century AD. Buddhism rapidly overshadowed Shinto as the kami started to be regarded as manifestations of Buddha in a previous state of existence. Buddhist images and rituals were introduced in Shinto shrines and some Buddhist priests even took over some of these shrines. By the 8th century AD, a doctrine uniting Buddhism and Shinto called Ryobu Shinto was introduced in which elements of Confucianism were also adopted. During the ascendency of Buddhism in Japan that lasted upto the end of the Edo period in 1867 AD, the Buddhist divinities were considered the "original source" and the kami their localized, manifest expression. With the Japanese elite and the emperors adopting the Buddhist religion, Shinto receded to the side lines and the remaining Shinto priests took up more mundane past-times such as fortune-telling and magic.
Ironically, the introduction of Buddhism in Japan contributed to the long-term consolidation of Shinto in ways that were not apparent at the time. For example, it was only in the 6th century AD that the name "Shinto" was given to the native religion of Japan to distinguish it from Buddhism and Confucianism. Secondly, as a reaction to the sophistication of the Buddhist and Confucian narratives of Chinese origin, the existing Japanese myths and legends were compiled into written record such as Kojiki ("The Record of Ancient Things" in 712 AD) and the Nihonshoki ("The Chronicles of Japan" in 720 AD). The narratives were meant to rival the clearly superior Chinese culture and to shore up support for the legitimacy of the Imperial house of Japan, by narrating the myth about its lineage from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Shinto thus managed to maintain its separate identity despite centuries of assault from outside influences.
Revival of Shinto and Japanese Nationalism
In the 18th century, certain Japanese scholars such as Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) who were motivated by nationalistic sentiments attempted to revive Shinto as an important national religion through their writings. Although the attempt was largely unsuccesful, the nationalistic teachings set the stage for establishment of "State Shinto" that followed the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
When the western powers that had recently undergone the Industrial Revolution turned their attention towards the Far East and Japan in the mid 18th century, the Japanese found themselves to be nakedly vulnerable. The incident of the Black Ships in 1853, when just four American ships arrived in a Japanese harbor and managed to intimidate them into a one-sided trade treaty, was a rude shock for the nation. It paved the way for the overthrow of the Shoganate in 1867 and the rapid modernization program of the Meiji Restoration. While the Meiji emperors realized the importance of modernization, they also concluded that unless Japan was quickly unified, it would be soon colonized by the maurading Western powers. It was felt that the best way to unify the country was to stoke the nationalist sentiment, and what better way to do so than to present the ancient native religion of Shinto as the state religion? Shinto was thus made the official religion by the Meiji government in 1868 and the policy of Shinbutsu Bunri (the seperation of Shinto from Buddhism) promulgated.
Revival of Shinto also helped the Meiji emperors in consolidating their hold on power as the earliest Shinto writings (the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki) had propogated the idea that the sovereignty of the emperor is derived from his descent from the Sun-Deity Amaterasu ?mikami, who was considered to be the mythical founder of the Japanese nation. Shinto religion was gradually but surely fully hijacked by the Japnese government to further its own policies. A Ministry of Divinities was formed in 1871 which divided the Shinto shrines into twelve levels with the Ise Shrine, dedicated to the Amaterasu, placed at the highest level. Shinto priests were also nominated officially and they were instructed to tutor the general public in a manner that promoted the divine status and worship of the emperor.
These and other related "State Shinto" beliefs including the doctrine that the Japanese were superior to other peoples because of their descent from the gods, and that the emperor was destined to rule over the entire world were instrumental in harnassing popular support for the military expansion of the Japanese Empire. Brain-washed by such propoganda of State Shinto, Japanese fought fanatically in the World War II until its final defeat in 1945.
The Current Status of Shinto
After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Emperor Hirohito was forced by the occupying Allied forces to renounce his claim of divinity. Shinto lost its status as the state religion, teaching of Shinto cult doctrines was discontinued, and the use of Shinto symbols for nationalistic purposes was strictly forbidden. Despite such formidable setbacks, Shinto has managed to not only survive but is alive and well in Japan. In the mid-1990s 110 million Japanese participated in the various Shinto sects. The Shinto sects have approximately 90,000 priests and about 81,000 shrines. However, the State Shinto of the pre-war days has given way to a more benign Shrine Shinto that focuses on the ancient kami rituals and incorporates Buddhist and Confucian influences. Indeed most present-day Japanese view themselves as both Buddhists and Shintoists, and Japanese households typically contain two separate altars for these devotions. Of Japan's 124 million people, 106 million say they believe in Shintoism, and 96 million follow Buddhism, making Japan perhaps the only country in the world where a majority of the people follow more than two religions at a time.
Shinto, the ancient folk religion of Japan, is the quintessential representative of the Japanese culture. It has assimilated foreign influences throughout its history and yet has managed to retain its separate identity. Shinto's ability to adapt itself to the Japanese people's needs has also lent itself to misuse. Japanese rulers have exploited the religion to further aggressive nationalism and for Japan's military expansion during the Second World War. It is this adaptability of Shinto that makes it as relevant to the needs of the 21st century Japanese as it was to the Japanese of the prehistoric times when it originated in the land of the Rising Sun.
Davis, Winston. Japanese Religion and Society: Paradigms of Structure and Change. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Hammer, Raymond. Japan's Religious Ferment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962
Hendry, Joy. Understanding Japanese Society. New York: Routledge, 2003.