Origins and Development
The Shinto religion is as old as the Japanese people. It has neither a founder nor sacred scriptures. Adherents believe that the world is created, inhabited, and ruled by kami, varied spirits running the gamut from those that reside in trees, rocks, oceans, and entire mountain ranges to spirits that act as guardians to various trades such as fisherman, laborers, or entire villages.
There's no real way to describe kami other than the emotions it evokes: wonder, fear, and awe. Buddhists regard the kami as a manifestation of various Buddhas, but the Shintos believe that the Buddha is another kami or nature deity.
Shinto is one of two religions practiced by the Japanese people, the other being Buddhism. The two faiths have not always seen eye to eye on doctrine, but the differences haven't altered their peaceful coexistence.
Shinto was affected by the influx into Japan of Confucianism and Buddhism in the sixth century. Unlike the migration of other religions to foreign locations, this one did not cause conflict and disruption, at least for some years. Instead, both arrivals melded into the culture and a cross-fertilization of religious and cultural influences took place.
During the first century of Buddhism in Japan, it had a great influence on the arts, literature, and sciences and was the dominant religion of the upper classes. Buddhism evolved and merged with many aspects of Shintoism to incorporate the worship of kami. Buddhist priests then began to run many Shinto shrines and Shinto priests were demoted to the lower steps of the hierarchy ladder.
From earliest recorded times until the later part of the nineteenth century, Shinto and Buddhism coexisted without incident. The intermingling of Buddhism and Shinto even extended to sharing some rituals. For instance, Buddhists supervised the preaching and conducting of funeral services; Shinto priests oversaw the birth and marriage rituals. This didn't last forever, of course; eventually the Shinto priests wanted to establish and preserve their own identity. As a result, the Shinto priests began to assert their own ancient traditions in contrast to the foreign, more sophisticated Buddhist practices.
In 1868, things changed when the Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne. The Emperor used Japan's myths — linking the sun goddess to the emperor — to promote being worshiped as a living god. He then put Shinto shrines and priests under governmental control; State Shinto became the national religion. Then the discord started. Buddhist estates were seized, temples were closed, and Buddhist priests were persecuted.
Interestingly, Shinto could not coexist with Catholicism that arrived in the form of European missionaries. Initially, the guests were welcomed. However, the influx of more missionaries and their message proclaiming loyalty to a pope in faraway Rome began to anger the Shinto. In 1587, Christian missionaries were banned from Japan. For the next fifty years, many initiatives were enacted to abolish Christianity from the islands of Japan.
The state was divided into two: Shrine Shinto (Jinja Shinto) and Sectarian Shinto (Kyoha). Jinja was the larger group of the two and was the original form of the religion. A third sect called Folk Shinto (Minkoku) also developed; it was not an organized sect and was centered in agricultural and rural families. Shinto has had a proclivity to form subsects; altogether, there are more than 600 of them. However, when State Shinto evolved it promulgated nationalistic and racist overtones. In State Shinto, priests became civil servants. Many of them opposed the regime, but to no avail; State Shinto became mandatory throughout Japan.
State Shinto played a very significant role in Japanese society during its involvement in the Second World War. It wasn't until the defeat of Japan that it was officially discredited and banned by decree of the Allied occupation forces. Nevertheless, many Shinto followers apparently still held that the emperor was divine and a direct descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
After the Second World War, Shinto was completely separated from the state and returned to being a nature-based, community-oriented faith. The shrines no longer belonged to the state, but to the Association of Shinto Shrines.