Descended from a Sun Goddess: Japan and the Shinto Religion

At the beginning of the world, only the sea existed.

Using a long stick, a god and goddess – Izanagi and Izanami – began to stir up this sea which surfaced mounds of mud. 

These mounds became the more than 6,800 Japanese islands spotting the Pacific Ocean.

Next, the godly couple birthed three children: the god of the moon, the god of the storm, and the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu.

Amaterasu and all the gods are called kami – aka, sacred spirits that appear in the form of nature, such as trees, rain, wind, and mountains.

Similar to the Biblical passage, “From dust you have come, And to dust you shall return,” the Shinto religion teaches that humans become nature after they die; they become kami.

The sun goddess birthed her own children. When these children had children, the first Emperor of Japan was born.

This emperor, being the direct descendent of the sun goddess, holds great power.

After hearing this creation story, you might understand how the Japanese have historically viewed their emperor and the world at large.

Japanese is the World

The Shinto religion is as old as the country itself.

Notice that in its creation story, as the sea was stirred up, only Japan was created, not the world at large.

This differs from Christianity, where Genesis indicates that all the world and the universe were created by God.

The Japanese gods not only created the country; they lived there.

Again, unlike Christianity – or other religions or mythologies – where the gods often reside in otherworldly places and only visit Earth, the island nation of Japan is heaven and Earth to its people.

The nationalism felt by the Japanese can be explained by this religious belief…which can also explain some of the nation’s history.

Shinto & Nationalism

“Shinto can’t be separated from Japan and the Japanese, but in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Shinto became an established state religion, inextricably linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism.” – BBC

Being that the Imperial family of Japan was believed to be so descended from the gods, this leaves little room for questioning the authority of the Emperor and his relationship to his people, particularly after the Meiji Restoration and State Shinto was established.

Bringing the Imperial legend back into the light after it had been shunted to the side by the popularity of Buddhism for centuries, the mid-19th century saw the Emperor gain new power and the “divine right” to rule the world.

Moreover, the Japanese people, themselves, were descended from the gods and, thus, a superior ilk.

This gave rise to nationalism in Japan which crescendoed to its climax in WWII.

In 1946, in a transcript called the “declaration of humanity,” Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine repute, after which the country’s Constitution was rewritten toward a more secular separation of church and state.

David McNeill of The Japan Times writes that today, Shinto has “two faces.” 

“Spokesman for the religion’s International Section, Katsuji Iwahashi, stresses Shinto’s essentially peaceful roots and its overwhelmingly benign role in the lives of millions of Japanese as well as its modern, internationalist outlook. Organized beliefs can be used in any nation, he explains, for good and bad.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss how religion has been used across different cultures and nations, for good and bad, and what the beliefs and values of religions can teach you about culture.

How Do Canadian Social Norms Reflect Their Cultural Values?

Say, you and your friend, Canadian Jim, go for a coffee.

You arrive at the Tim Horton’s door at the same time.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, as he jumps ahead to open the door for you.

“Sorry?” you think. “What is he apologizing for?”

Canadians are known to be polite and to apologize for the slightest infringement. This is their social norm.

In fact, a McCaster University geo-linguistic study regarding the differences between American and Canadian language on social media found that Canadians are much more upbeat and polite in their language even online.

For nine months in 2015, PhD Candidates Daniel Schmidtke and Bryor Snefjella compiled upwards of three million tweets. Aside from “hockey and “eh”, “disproportionately ‘Canadian words’ included ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘favourite’,” while most of the American favorites were unprintable and/or negative, like “‘hate’, ‘hell’, ‘tired’, ‘hurt’ and ‘annoying’.”

This begs the question…

Why Are Canadians Polite?

What is at the root of their behavior?

The values of kindness and courtesy are.

The director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, Nelson Wiseman, theorized why these values are so embedded in Canadian culture:

“John A. Macdonald called Canadians a subordinate people. That’s in part because we’ve had a strong tradition of centralized regimes, with the French, and then as a British nation.”

European settlers, particularly the conservative British Tories, imparted these values unto their ancestors.

“Although Canada is no longer a British nation,” Wiseman said, “these tendencies replicate and perpetuate themselves like a gene.”

The non-confrontational tradition carries on. Apologizing before things get out of hand – even for nothing approaching insulting, like failing to open the door for someone – is the visible part of their culture (a baobab branch), while common courtesy and conservatism are the invisible parts (the roots of the baobab).

The fact that Canada doesn’t have the same imperial history as America may also factor into why Canadians are considered friendlier when compared to those south of the border.

Understanding the Cultural Baobab

When you enter into a culture that is not your own, familiarizing yourself with their cultural baobab will always help you come to terms with differences. The norms that you see are often deeply rooted in values that lie below the surface.

And it’s only when you examine the components of this tree of life that you start to understand the rationale of a culture.

You may not agree with it.

You may not like it.

But in understanding it, you may accept the culture’s values as they are.