Source: Photo courtesy of the author. Completed example student worksheets are available at https://tinyurl.com/uznd9txa.
Estimated time: thirty-five to forty-five minutes
Divide students into groups of four or five. Give each group a piece of chart paper and marker. Explain to students that they will be researching several aspects of Shintō, including key deities, sacred texts, basic beliefs, and basic practices. Explain to students that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “deity” is “divine or sacred god or goddess, or an entity that is divine or sacred.” Review the difference between “beliefs” (unprovable ideas) and “practices” (actions based on beliefs) before students begin their research. Ask students to share examples of beliefs and practices from other religious traditions to check for understanding before continuing. You may want to provide students with an example to help them organize the information on their poster, similar to the one shown above. Students should use the BBC Religions page on “Shintō” to conduct their research. Although the page is not currently being updated, it is an excellent basic introduction to the belief system that most middle school students can utilize. You may allow students to explore the page on their own or specifically assign them to look at the following sections: “At a Glance,” “Beliefs” subpage, “Kami,” “Is Shintō a Religion?,” “Purity in Shintō,” “Beliefs about the Universe,” “Rites and Rituals” subpage, “Shintō Worship,” “Ethics” subpage, “Ethics in Shintō,” and “Texts” subpage on “Shintō Holy Books.” Student groups will record their findings on their poster.
Estimated time: ten to fifteen minutes
Students should display their posters in the classroom or in a hallway. Students should be given ten minutes to fifteen minutes to view all the posters and revise their posters as necessary.
Estimated time: fifteen minutes
Allow each group to share key concepts from their posters with the class. Encourage each group to share something not shared by a previous group. Discussion should progress naturally, but the key concepts listed below should be covered by the completion of the discussion.
Shintō beliefs center on kami—spirit beings that can influence the outcome of events in humans’ lives.
Kami are often associated with forces or features of nature such as mountains, springs, rocks, impressive forest groves, waterfalls, and other natural phenomena. Kami can also be mythological deities and deceased people. Many large Shintō shrines are located in rural areas of Japan near sacred natural places that were long ago deemed as kami.
Shintō focuses on understanding how to live in harmony in nature.
Because kami are associated with specific shrines, Shintō is not widely practiced outside of Japan, and Shintō believers do not attempt to convert other people to the religion.
Shintō encourages individuals to develop excellence in a skill or art form as a kind of offering to the kami.
Worship can be an individual or group affair and can be conducted at a small home shrine or by visiting one of many thousands of shrines throughout Japan. It is not uncommon at famous shrines to see Japanese tour buses carrying schoolchildren or senior citizens’ organizations to visit and worship as a group at the shrine.
Shintō emphasizes the inherent goodness of humans. Evil actions are considered the work of evil spirits.
Purity, both physical and spiritual, is another important Shintō concept that permeates Japanese culture.
Rituals associated with Shintō worship include purification (washing hands and rinsing the mouth), praying for the kami to intervene in specific aspects of the worshipper’s life (eg, students asking for success on exams), and making offerings.
Shintō has no specific founder.
Shintō texts use myths to express key concepts. For example, the imperial family is thought to be directly descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Shintō can be practiced in addition to other religious traditions, such as Buddhism.
Beginning in the eighth century, Shintō and Buddhism began a long process of syncretism, or blending together. For example, kami were originally thought to be beings of pure spirit with no physical form, but in the eighth century, kami began to be depicted in human form because of the influence of Buddhist art. Today, most Japanese practice a mix of Shintō and Buddhist rituals. For example, weddings and baby christenings are often celebrated at Shintō shrines, while funerals are generally held at Buddhist temples since, traditionally, Shintō beliefs consider death unclean.
When compared to religions that are familiar to most Americans, one of the most important differences in Japanese religious practice (as well as several other cultures, including China, Taiwan, Việt Nam, and South Korea) is syncretism. The term syncretism means that unlike believers in monotheistic faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, East Asians mix together aspects of several belief systems in their religious practices and beliefs. This Japan Times (English-language) newspaper article focuses on the relationship between Shintō and Buddhism, and features impressive supporting images as well.
Author’s note on class discussion
During class discussion, students drew some interesting parallels between kami and Greek and Roman gods. Students noted that, like kami, Greek and Roman gods could help humans but could also be mischievous and cause problems for humans. Students were very intrigued by the concept of spiritual purity. They had some practical questions such as “How do they prevent the spread of disease if everyone is drinking from the same water dippers?” Students noted that important moments such as New Year’s and weddings are celebrated at shrines. One student wanted to know what Shintō funerals were like. I explained that corpses are considered impure in Shintō, so most Japanese have Buddhist funerals. This led to a great discussion on the blending of Shintō and Buddhism. Finally, students were interested to know if they would be allowed to participate in a Shintō ritual if they were in Japan. This allowed us to discuss the differences between proselytizing faiths such as Christianity and Islam and Shintō. Overall, the discussion allowed students to expand on and clarify their understanding of Shintō, as well as make connections to prior learning about other religious traditions.
If time allows, have students watch the Asian Art Museum “Shintō” video again. Students will be able to make new observations and connections based on their research and class discussion.
The poetry activity to be conducted during Class No. 2 works best if students have a concrete object to base their poems upon. You may want to assign students to bring objects such as a fall leaf or weathered rock. Alternatively, you could provide students with objects or photos such as a flower past its prime, cherry trees before and after blossoming, or a household item such as a cup or textile that shows signs of wear and age.