Glossary of Shinto: Definitions, Beliefs, and Practices

Great floating gate (O-Torii) on Miyajima island near Itsukushima shinto shrine
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Since Shinto has no founder or central creationist figure, but rather is an ancient set of beliefs that was formally incorporated into Japanese society with the influx of Confucianism and Buddhism, understanding the complex web of tradition, ritual, prayer, kami, and jinja can be daunting. This glossary provides you with a general overview of Shinto definitions, key terms, names, and figures that repeatedly appear across the study of Shinto.

TermDefinition

Amaterasu

Kami of the sun; born from the left eye of Izanagi as he purified himself after his journey back from the land of the dead. The line of succession of the emperors of Japan trace their ancestry back to Amaterasu. 

Engimono 

Traditional Japanese lucky charms, often decorated with ornate designs and bright colors and associated with Shinto shrines. Buddhist and Shinto symbols of prosperity, fortune, and luck. 

Engishiki 

“Procedures of the Engi Era”; a book detailing Japanese law and customs dating back to 927 A.D., the Engishiki also explains the process by which Shinto shrines should be visited and provides a list of all the actives shrines at the time of publication. 

Ema

Small, wooden plaques where worshippers at Shinto shrines can write prayers for the kami. The plaques are purchased at the shrine where they are left to be received by the kami. They often feature small drawings or designs, and prayers often consist of requests for success during exam periods and in business, healthy children, and happy marriages. 

Fudoki

An ancient agricultural, geographical, and societal report that was presented to the emperor, this book also details Shinto beliefs, myths, and legends not mentioned in other sacred texts.

Haiden

Place of public worship within Shinto shrine; the only area within shrine grounds that is always open to the public.

Harae

Shinto purification rituals.

Haraigushi

Purification wand used by Shinto priests.

Heiden 

The place of offering within a shrine used for prayers and donations.

Honden 

The place within a shrine where the kami resides; only accessible by priests.

Imi

The placing of taboos on certain circumstances to avoid impurity. For example, if a family member had recently died, the family would not visit a shrine, as death is considered impure.

Izanagi 

“He Who Invites”; one of the pair of kami born in the 8th generation of deities. Tasked with bringing shape and structure to the earth.

Izanami

“She Who Invites”; one of the pair of kami born in the 8th generation of deities. Tasked with bringing shape and structure to the earth.

Jinja

Shinto shrine.

Kagura

Ritual dance used to pacify and energize kami, particularly those of recently deceased people.

Kagura-den

Also called maidono; a room within a shrine where sacred dance is offered to the kami as part of a ceremony or ritual. 

Kami 

The essence or spirit present in natural phenomena, objects, and human beings (living or deceased); kami are often defined as Shinto gods, but they are considered essences rather than all powerful higher beings.

Kamidana 

Small shrines in private homes.

Kegare

Impurity, which comes from every day occurrences, intentional and unintentional, such as injury or illness, environmental pollution, menstruation, and death. This impurity can be cleansed by a variety of purification rituals. 

Kiyome

Purity; humans are born pure without original sin and can return to a state of purity easily through ritual cleansing. Purity is essential in the presence of kami. 

Kojiki 

Records of Ancient Matters; written in 712 A.D., the book is the oldest record of Japanese history. It details myths, legends, and the creation story of Japan. Considered a sacred text.

Misogi Harai

Purification method; submerging oneself completely under a body of active water. It is common to find basins at the entrance of shrines where visitors will wash their hands and mouths as an abbreviated version of this practice. 

Mori 

Sacred, natural spaces (e.g. mountains, rivers).

Nihon Shoki

Chronicles of Japan; written in 720 A.D., this is the second oldest collection of ancient myths and traditional teachings. Considered a sacred text. 

Norito

Shinto prayers, issued by both priests and worshippers that follow a complicated structure of prose and usually contain words, requests, and offerings for the kami.

Ofuda

An amulet received at a Shinto shrine that is inscribed with the name of a kami and is intended to bring luck and safety to those who hang it in their homes. 

Oharae

Biannual ceremony of “great purification” is performed in shrines around Japan with the intent to purify the entire population; also performed after natural disasters. 

Ohnusa

Belief in transferring impurity from a  person to an object and destroying the object after the transfer.

Omairi 

Process of visiting shrines.

Omikuji

Small slips of paper at Shinto shrines with fortunes written on them. A visitor will pay a small amount to randomly select an omikuji. Unrolling the paper releases the fortune. 

Omamori

Small, portable amulets that provide safety and security for one person.

Shamusho 

Administrative office of the shrine.

Shinshoku

Shinto priests.

Shintai

Body of the kami; an object where the kami resides. Shintai can be manmade, such as jewelry or swords, but can also be naturally occurring, like waterfalls and mountains. 

Shinto

The Way of the Gods; the oldest indigenous Japanese religion.

Susanoo

Kami of storms and the sea; born from the nose of Izanagi as he purified himself after his journey back from the land of the dead. Brother of Amaterasu.

Tamagaki

A small gate enclosing a sacred space. The gate is not necessarily intended to prohibit entry, but rather to indicate the presence of sacred space so that visitors may practice appropriate purification rituals before entering the grounds.

Temizuya 

Also called chozuya; a basin of water with dippers for visitors to wash their hands, mouths, and faces before entering the shrine structures.

Torii

Gates that serve as the entrance to the shrine; indicator of sacred space.