“They were the givers of life, the givers of wealth, the makers and teachers of the present: they represent the past of the race, and all its sacrifices; whatever the liver posses is from them. Yet how little do they require in return! Scarcely more than to be thanked, as the founders and guardians of the home, in simple words like this: “For aid received, by day and by night, accept, August Ones, our reverential gratitude”…To forget or neglect them, to treat them with rude indifference, is the proof of an evil heart; to cause them shame by ill-conduct, to disgrace their name by bad actions, is the supreme crime. They represent the moral experience of the race. Whosoever denies that experience, denies them also, and falls to the level of the beasts, or below it. They represent the unwritten law, the traditions of the commune, the duties of all to all; whosoever offends against this, sins against the dead. And finally, they represent the mystery of the invisible: to Shinto beliefs, at least, they are gods.”


(“Japan, an attempt at interpretation”, by  Lafcadio Hearn; London, McMillan Ltd. Co., 1904)

The foundations of all civilized religions, probably, are located in the very first moment in which the man is abstracted and conceives the idea of spirits, entities in his interior. And then, after the death, the body disappears and these entities continue, in one or other way, existing. It was in the first organized societies where the ancestors worship was manifested as the first pattern of known divination. The old Greeks had their family worships of their ancestors based on their "yevos", as well as the Romans worshipped the ancestors of their "gens", or patriarchal families. When one speaks about “family worship“, to the ancestors, must not to be understood  that it only refers to the ancestors of a household, but, in general, to the components of the whole family branch. With the evolution of these most former worships, then they started to divide the spirits of the dead people in different categories; they were coming out from their function of simple gods to become more important divinities.

In the old Japan, -where this type of worships already existed from the beginning of the accession of the first inhabitants to the islands-, around the 8th century they were organized in three categories: the domestic cult, the communal cult and the state cult, or the worship of imperial ancestors. The most ancient form is the domestic cult.

Shinto signifies “The way of the gods ". All the dead people, initially, turned into gods, Kami. They acquired superhuman powers, but preserving the characteristics of what they had been in life. This way, a just man would give place to a benevolent spirit, and a man of bad habits, to a malicious one. These beliefs and its organized form of religion are as ancient as the Japanese nation itself. We might say that the history of the Japan is the history of her religion. The ancient Japanese term for "government", "Matsari Goto", means “matters of worship". At the arrival of the Buddhism, it tries to supplant this form of faith, but without success. The Buddhism has then to coexist and adapt to the postulates of Shinto, and this one to do some adjustments in its ceremonies and customs to be in harmony with the environment of the dominant foreign religion. Even nowadays, nevertheless, the Shinto is the religion still professed by the entire nation. This kind of syncretism between a vernacular, traditional religion and a foreign new-comer religion that comes to be  the dominant one, has been also seen in Central and South America, in Mexico, and in case of Brazil and Haiti, where the former African rites coexist and are adapted to the catholic cult.

On December 15, 1945, the Supreme Command of the Allies established in Japan the abolition of the Shinto as religion of the State. In agreement to this new status, will no more be obligatory to worship the Emperors' ancestors, and then Shinto passes to integrate only the Japanese personal’s beliefs. This did not diminish, at all, the massive faith in the religion itself.

The difference with the western, Greek and Roman worships is that while these believed that the spirits of their relatives inhabited another distant world, in Japan they are understood as a permanent presence, monitoring all their acts, and listening every one of their words. They must be honored, since there is an active interrelationship between the family and the dead ancestors: the fortune or misfortune of the house will depend on the influence of these spirits, and in turn, they will need, to be comfortable, of permanent honoring and offerings. If this was not fulfilled, they might get angry and influence negatively in the household. The offerings are prayers, gifts, and food. They will not eat the physical part of the food; they will only absorb its spiritual essence. The bodies are taken to the Moya shrines, but their spirits can return when they want to the house.

Obviously that to fulfill this, the Shinto devotee’s genealogies are strictly well kept: all the forbears, even the most ancient, are identified. The more an ancestor moves back in generations, it is probable that will not belong only to the family and acquires relevancy in the community. When the children are just born they record immediately their names in a wood tablet, close to the names of their predecessors. Everything is carefully organized.

In the most remote times, before the Christian age, it was common to offer sacrifices to the dead ancestors; they consisted of sacrifices of animals and of human beings. This way of immolation, Hitogaki, -or to follow the deceased to the other world-,  was done burying up to the neck the sacrificed and allowing that the birds should peck his head and the animals bite him. In the 1st century of the Christian age, the emperor Suinin abolished this custom, although it was practiced during much more time, since in the year 646 the emperor Katoku returned to launch an edict prohibiting definitively this rite.

In every home where the cult is followed they have located in some room a shrine, a Mitamaya, tiny model of a Shinto temple, which is placed upon a shelf fixed against the wall of some inner chamber, at a height of about six feet from the floor, where all the offerings will be done to the ancestors. In it they set thin tablets of white wood, lacked and gilded and with a carved lotus flower as pedestal, where they register the names of the deceased of the house. These are not their real names, but a new spiritual name (Mitama Shiro) that they acquire when they die. If the family worships its ancestors according to the Buddhist rite, the mortuary tablets are placed in the Buddhist household-shrine, and these tablets usually occupy the upper-shelf of an alcove in an inner room. To any religion that adapts the rite, the base of the Shinto is the same: prayers must be said once a day, at least, facing the mitamayas, and it’s fundamental not to neglect it in any circumstances. The prayers are generally in duty of the most elderly, or of the woman of the household. These prayers are brief, the food offering is done from the kitchen of the house when they are going to eat; that is to say, nothing solemnly at all, nor special. But the observance of the ceremony is a family obligation that never must be expired and forgotten while the family exists.

The main belief is that the forbears need affection of the alive to be happy; their happiness depends on their demonstrations. They do not think them exactly as dead men; they think that their spirits are amongst them, guarding the house, worrying for their daily activities, and for the event of his achievements. The Japanese call this " filial piety ", which is not only the respect of the children towards the parents, but it is the whole system of cult of the ancestors, reverential service to the dead, a permanent gratitude of the present to the past and also implies how they behave at home. To understand the importance of these ancient cult we should assume that the whole Japanese society's character is based on this line of thought: The reverential worship to the ancestors, which derives in the respect for the major figures of the house, to the elders in general, to the chiefs of the community, the loyalty to their leaders, and the individual self-sacrifice to achieve collective ends. The whole system of the Japanese ethics derives directly from their domestic religion.



Pablo Briand, June 24th 2009.


Sources: A Revival of Pure Shinto, Sir Ernest Satow; A History of the Japanese people from the Earliest Times to the end of the Meiji Era, Dairoku Kikuchi, Frank Brinkley; Japan, an attempt at interpretation, Lafcadio Hearn.