Understanding Shinto


NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I have edited it slightly for this blog.

In Japan, children grow up hearing ghost stories and attending festivals to honor a world of thousands of kami (spirits), which interacts freely with our own natural world. This mindset is part of everyday culture. So it’s not unusual for sophisticated and materialistic Japanese adults to say they have no religion, and yet at the same time buy omamori (good luck idols) for their car to prevent accidents, or have their land blessed by a Shinto priest before building to avoid upsetting the spirits by their use of the land. How can we become cross-cultural missionaries, and reach into this modern, but heavily Shinto-influenced worldview, with the Gospel?

Shinto purification rope

A ritual Shinto rope used to mark the boundary of a purified area

With origins dating to 500 A.D. and earlier, matsuri (festival worship) and other Shinto practices began as ritual worship of the ujigami, or local clan deity in each area and village. They sprang from a type of shamanism unique to these medieval agricultural communities. Over the centuries ancient Shinto was influenced by and syncretized with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other elements from continental East Asia.[1]

Jizo (stone idols) and vending machine

Even in big cities stone idols are a common sight on Japanese roads

Even now in Japan, aspects of syncretized Shinto worship practices are as ubiquitous as the stone idols found on corners across Japan. Surprisingly, most Japanese people do not associate these things with religion at all. Engage a typical Japanese city dweller in conversation about their participation in ceremonies, and worship of idols in shrines, temples, or the family kamidana (household altar) and it will soon become clear that these are seen as essential cultural duties. Shinto worship practices are widely seen as traditions that must be followed to honor family and country.[2]

Even “churched” Japanese are not free from the strong cultural influence of Shinto. Earlier this year a Japanese man came to my office asking for donations for a local matsuri (festival). After a brief conversation I discovered that he attends a Protestant church. I asked him why he was raising funds for the mikoshi (portable shrine for carrying a local idol) when the Bible explicitly forbids worshiping idols. His answer was that it was Japanese culture to do so. I continued to press him, explaining my hope that Japanese culture might someday be transformed so that festivals would be held to honor the true Creator God rather than idols, but he didn’t seem to grasp this idea at all. He left a bit disappointed that I would not give an offering, but undaunted in his efforts to raise money for the local matsuri.

Although Shinto has never been codified in the way that Christianity has, there are four affirmations that seem to be generally agreed upon [3] and it’s good to consider how the Bible helps us to respond to each.

Family and tradition

Tradition and family are supremely important in Shinto practice. This is often expressed through ancestor worship and even “tradition-worship”. Of course family is important to God. The Bible teaches us to honor our parents and to give importance to the family, but in Luke 14:26 Jesus clearly set honoring the Lord above all other relationships, even familial ones. I have found that the best way to approach Japanese culture regarding familial relationships is to emphasize that sincerely obeying God is the way to bless to one’s family, even if it means going against Shinto traditions in some ways.


Another affirmation of Shinto is matsuri to honor local deities or ancestral spirits. Almost every shrine in Japan has its own matsuri, originally held to influence things like the harvest or the local fishing. Christians believe all humans were created to worship and enjoy their creator and the beauty of dance, art, music, ceremony and ritual should all be purposed to honor and thank the true God and true source of blessings. As missionaries and ambassadors of our faith we need to identify and affirm the beauty and harmony in Japanese traditions that can serve to honor God, and at the same time clearly explain why animistic and pantheistic practices are contrary to God’s will. Our human artistic expression echoes the ultimate beauty in Christ, which is what the Japanese heart is really searching for.

Love of nature

Shrine festival worship ties in with the third affirmation of Shinto, which is a love of nature. Scriptures tell us that all of creation bears witness to the sovereign power of the Creator. But the Shinto affirmation of nature elevates nature so each unusual rock or tree is given the status of a minor deity. Hence the Japanese saying, there are over eight million gods (yaoyorozu no kami).

Because this spiritual error is deeply ingrained in the Japanese worldview, gospel teachers must clearly preach the words of Christ, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Without a clear understanding of this Japanese people may believe that Jesus Christ is another one of many gods, but miss that he is the one and only Creator God. Jesus came to affirm the true intended order of the creation by revealing Himself at the pinnacle. This truth about the ultimate authority of Christ will resound with the strong desire in the Japanese heart for harmony and proper order, if they can only see it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NASB).

Physical cleanliness

Shinto purification

Cold water purification at a Shinto shrine

The final affirmation of Shinto is physical cleanliness. Taking baths, washing the hands, and rinsing out the mouth are all encouraged because of Shinto’s emphasis on ritual purity. In the past, believers practiced misogi, ritual bathing in a river near the shrine. In recent years it is more common to merely to wash hands and rinse out the mouth in a washbasin provided within the shrine grounds. Because Jesus came to make us truly clean, there are many ways we can use this affirmation as a “redemptive analogy” for the Gospel. Imagine the impact of a sermon that contrasted ritual Shinto washing in water with Ephesians 5:26 (“washing with water through the word” NASB), or 1 Corinthians 6:11b (“you were washed… in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” NASB).

Water baptism is a big step in a new Japanese believer’s life. Although in some ways it appears similar to Shinto ritual purification rites, the Bible is clear that it represents more than just “washing” but rather a symbolic death and resurrection. Of course baptism also means a public confession of identity as a Christian and to many new believers this is a weighty decision. Because rituals are important in Japanese culture; water baptism strongly brings home the reality of a believer’s commitment to follow Jesus.

Taking the time to understand and prayerfully consider some of the influences of Shinto on Japanese culture can be very beneficial to a Christian who would like to share the Gospel in Japan. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto you can read online a paper I wrote called The Theology of Shinto at:


[1] Dr. David K. Clark, Shinto, A religion profile from International Students, Inc., (Colorado Springs, CO: ISI, 2004), [book on-line] available at http://www.isionline.org/pdfs/Shinto%202004.pdf, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[2] For example notice the following paragraph in the “About” section of The International Shinto Foundation official website – “Those involved in establishing the Foundation shared the belief that without study that takes account of Shinto a true understanding of the Japanese people and Japanese culture will remain inaccessible.”, [website] available at http://www.internationalshinto.org/, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[3] The definitions of the “Four Affirmations” are a generalization but can generally be observed in Shinto practices and literature. See The Japan Reference, [database on-line] available at http://www.jref.com/glossary/shinto_traditions.shtml, Internet, accessed November, 2013. Also see the website for the book Religion for Dummies, Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, [website] available at http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/four-affirmations-of-shinto.html, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

Where your treasure is your heart will be also…

yokosuka-pachinkoWhere are the young men in Yokosuka, Japan at 8:30am on a Sunday morning? Lined up waiting to spend their money on pachinko… But a couple of blocks away we had a great worship service at Yokosuka Grace Bible Church. This afternoon about 10 new members were added to the church. It is more rewarding than a big pachinko payout or winning the lottery to see lives changed and people following Jesus. These are the true riches!

Norenwake church planting


I am most privileged to be married to a girl from the Aichi prefecture of Japan. Her great uncle started a well-known tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant in Nagoya. He was one of the first to serve this type of food in a Japanese style. He sliced the cutlets and served them up to be eaten with chopsticks. His restaurant specialized in making a great bacon salad with the leftover parts of the pork. And they also used Nagoya’s famous miso to make a sauce for the tonkatsu and served miso tonkatsu or miso-katsu, as it is known now. The restaurant became so successful that several of the employees moved on and started their own shops based on the same menu and style of food. Of course, each branch had their differences and reflected the personality of the individual owners, but they all had the same basic menu and most of them even used the same name.

In Japan, when a new restaurant starts with he cooperation of the existing establishment it is called norenwake - literally a “dividing of the noren”. The noren is the traditional Japanese fabric curtain which is hung in front of the entrance way of the restaurant. It usually has the name and logo of the establishment printed on it. When sending a former employee out to start his own shop, the owner will often make him a new noren to hang in front that shows the same name as the old place so he can build on the brand loyalty for the shop. He will also give him a portion of the restaurant’s sauce to use as starter for a new batch. My wife’s uncle repeated this process several times and through his leadership and guidance many new shops sprung up around the city of Nagoya. When I lived in Nagoya about 20 years ago, I got a chance to eat at one of these norenwake restaurants. The original restaurant that my wife’s uncle had built was long out of business by this time. But I still remember how good my first plate of Nagoya misokatsu was.

Our church in Yokosuka was planted this way and I believe that in the future we will also have the privilege of sending our own “chefs” out to start their own norenwake churches. We are a part of a spiritual family in Japan that has a shared mission and calling. We have the same name, the same basic “recipe” and the same “sauce” for what we serve to the people in our community who need to be fed. In fact the Holy Spirit has been sending out church planters since the first century with the same name and the same mission. Each nation and church has their own cultural distinctive and flavors. But our job is to offer that same “menu” to new believers in Japan so that, even though the churches listed in the New Testament have long since closed their doors, anyone who seeks for truth in Japan can come and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:2-3) at our norenwake church.


My recollection of what happened two years ago…

When the earthquake started I was in the church building with James and Alishea. When the building started to shake my first concern was for the new speakers and lights we had just installed over the platform. But as the tremors continued and intensified I began to realize that this wasn’t the typical earthquake that one becomes accustomed to in Japan. I began to think about getting my kids out of the building and also about helping the grade-school kids in the floor below us.

After the first quake, we all came down the staircase and into the street. Immediately the ground started quaking again. The first thing I noticed was that the traffic signals were out. Then we watched in amazement as the street seemed to roll like the ocean and the large traffic signs above the highway moved up and down on the waves. After a few minutes it was all over and the retired men who volunteer for crossing guard duty on the corner every afternoon amazingly moved out into the intersection and began directing traffic like they had been planning for this type of thing their whole lives. I was glad that we were in Japan.

Over the next several weeks and months, God used our church to help people in the same way he used those volunteers. We didn’t know the extent of the earthquake, the tsunami, or the nuclear meltdown for a long time. But we didn’t have time to think about that. We just kept moving forward and allowing God to use us to help others. Many others did the same and even though there were times when we were even more afraid than when we ran out of the building after that first jolt, we knew that God was working because so many doors of opportunity miraculously opened up before us.

Sometime between one and two months after the earthquake I was in the shower and I finally felt the weight of it. 16,000 souls just north of us were gone and hundreds of thousand of homeless people had lost their homes, loved ones and even their future because of the radiation. That was the first time I cried after the earthquake. It would not be the last.

Change is now coming to Japan. It needs to come. But change is not without a price. Please keep praying for this nation. We need Jesus no matter what the cost.

When the Earth shakes (original)


(new video version – April 1st)
This video contains footage that I took personally in Ishinomaki, Japan shortly after the Great Earthquake of March 11, 2011. I combined it with photos from our Every Nation churches working together to help Japan. James Mercer’s heartfelt song expresses our faith that God would meet every need.

YouTube Preview Image
(new audio version – March 31st)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

In times like this I’m reminded

That my life belongs to you

In times like this I will not fear

Everything is in your hands

When the Earth shakes

I’ll be ready for Your call

For I know You will guide me through

When the Earth shakes

I will serve You all the more

For I know in You I stand secure

When I’m alone I’m not alone

You are always there for me

When I’m confused You give me peace

You give me strength so I can lead

Earthquake Information Center

How to Give

Give to Japanese local churches through Every Nation U.S.A.
(These are local churches in Japan that I am directly connected with and who are working now to establish relief efforts)

Missing Person Locators

Person Finder (multilingual)

Red Cross Family Links page for Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (multilingual)

Google Earthquake Crisis Response

Google has set up a great information page for the earthquake here. Also you can donate to the Japanese Red Cross at this page. The Red Cross in Japan is still assessing the situation but if you feel you need to give money now, that is one place to do it. It should eventually be put to good use.

This page has many useful links such as:

  • Warnings and advisories
  • Disaster message boards
  • Transportation status
  • Blackout information

The Japanese version of the above page is here.

Softbank announces free messaging and free WiFi spots



Before/After Satellite Photos from ABC News Australia

hover mouse over each picture to see the change:

Video Archive of Japan Earthquake and Tsunami


Three Keys


Japan – Key to Reaching Asia

With a population of almost 128 million, Japan is only the tenth most populated country in the world.  When most mission strategists talk about Asia they naturally think of nations like China and India because of their growing economic influence and huge populations. However Japan has been uniquely positioned by God to be a major influence throughout Asia in the twenty-first century. Japan is a leading force in business and economics, with major international banks and world-dominating companies in the electronics, technology and automotive industries.  This year, China passed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world for the first time. However, while Japan is still a very close third economically, I would assert that Japan has an even greater power in its culture. Japanese culture is unique and fascinating. You can see the impact of this “culture export” all over the world but most especially in Asian countries. This cultural influence causes change in the youth and over time it becomes a powerful force to change the thinking and behavior in entire countries.

Even as I write this, Japanese creative minds are undeniably influencing the arts and media of many countries across the waters from her shores. Japan produces 80% of the world’s video animations, called anime. Other media include manga “comic books” and Japanese television. J-Pop music culture has penetrated throughout the world and  Tokyo fashion is visible from Korea to Paris and everywhere in between. Styles from the streets of Harajuku, the famous fashion mecca in the heart of Tokyo, are said to strongly influence some of big-name fashion designers in Europe. Even Japanese food culture is influencing the world. The Japanese television cooking show “Iron Chef” has been popular for many years and this year, the venereable Michelin Guide, which annually rates the world’s best restaurants, proclaimed Tokyo “the world leader in gourmet dining” and awarded more than twice as many stars to gourmet establishments in Tokyo than to those in Paris, the former gourmet leader.The last century’s financial boom in Japan created one of the world’s highest standards of living. Because of the fat billfolds of the typical Japanese tourist, most Asian countries welcome a Japanese passport.  Communist nations are open to Japanese tourism and business.  Recently, even some pragmatic Islamic nations, looking to bolster their economic conditions, invite Japanese business and tourism. Japanese passports can easily go places that others cannot. In short,  Japan has been positioned to reach into every Asian nation through exports, media, culture and also through individual Japanese citizens.

Tokyo – Key to Reaching Japan

NASA Photo of Tokyo Bay

The GDP of Tokyo alone is greater than the GDP of Canada.  Over 25% of the entire population of Japan lives in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  This makes the Tokyo “mega-city” agglomeration 34,000,000 people and the largest agglomeration in the world.  Tokyo is not only one of the largest cities in the world, but it is also one of the single largest unevangelized masses of humanity anywhere at any time in history (according to the Joshua Project, only the Islamic Shaiks of Bangladesh are a larger unreached people group). Over 3 million people per day travel through Shinjuku station in the center of Tokyo.  If the Bible is true, 99% are headed for an eternal separation from God.  This is unacceptable.  We must redouble our efforts to understand and reach the largest city in the world.

The longer we wait, the more souls will be lost.  On the other hand, if we can reach Tokyo the rewards are great.  As I see it Tokyo is truly a “pearl of great price” which is worth the enormous cost to possess.  If Tokyo experiences revival in the early 21st century, it will not only change Japan, it will change Asia and the uttermost parts of the earth.

Discipleship – Key to Reaching Tokyo

Exponential change is needed to penetrate and change the entire city. No existing single mega-church in the world is big enough to have the kind of influence that would truly change a city the size of Tokyo. Instead there must be multiplication of disciples, training of leaders, planting of churches which multiply like seeds growing and reproducing. This year marked 150 years of Protestant Mission to Japan. Because Japan is still more than 99% unreached, it might seem at a glance that nothing is happening. But Christianity has had a disproportionate affect on this nation since World War II. Many Christian educational institutions and hospitals stand as a testament its influence.  Christianity is well-respected and is, in fact, regarded as one of the most true and virtuous religions. But as a wise Japanese pastor said publically at a recent Tokyo world mission symposium, “Japanese people put relationships above the truth.” We must find a way to show this people that the best thing they can do for their relationships is to embrace God’s Truth. Because Japan is culturally homogeneous and because of the deep relationship-base of the population it is possible to see a total shift towards Christianity in our generation.  If true Japanese disciples with a heart to reach the lost can be made then it is possible that Japan could become a Christian nation very quickly. Jesus invested three years in His disciples and they multiplied and “turned the world upside down.” If a movement of young people in Tokyo can influence the worldwide fashion industry out of one train station at Harajuku then they can also influence their city to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If Tokyo is influenced by the Gospel then Japan as a nation will surely be influenced too. The only thing necessary for turning Japan upside down is some true disciples. The only thing necessary for making true disciples is one minister who is willing to be used by God. Lord, please use me.

Theology of Shinto


I wrote this paper for my Theology class at Every Nation Leadership Intitute during my studies there. I have had several different people tell me that it was helpful in understanding Japanese Shinto. It is a very simple overview of  Shinto and includes some points that I thought were interesting.

Please download and read this paper if you are interested in learning more about the history and context of Shinto in order to reach Japanese people. Although I have found that the average Japanese person does not know a great deal about Shinto, the culture, traditions and daily life of many Japanese are influenced a great deal by it. And it is believed by many, right or wrong, that in order to be Japanese one must also “be” Shinto.

I welcome your additions, corrections and even criticism. I am certainly no expert on this topic, just an interested learner who wants to share. See the links below to share this article or leave a comment.

Top 30 Unreached People Groups By Population

Shaikh Bangladesh 131,167,000 < 0.1% Islam
Japanese Japan 121,405,000 0.4% Buddhism
Shaikh India 76,130,000 unknown Islam
Brahman India 57,108,000 unknown Hinduism
Yadava India 56,367,000 unknown Hinduism
Turk Turkey 52,120,000 < 0.1% Islam
Chamar India 49,814,000 unknown Hinduism
Rajput India 40,963,000 unknown Hinduism
Han Chinese, Xiang China 35,793,000 0.3% Non-Religious
Sunda Indonesia 34,720,000 unknown Islam
Hakka China 33,238,000 0.6% Non-Religious
Jat, Muslim Pakistan 32,330,000 < 0.1% Islam
Burmese Myanmar (Burma) 27,875,000 0.1% Buddhism
Persian Iran 27,500,000 0.3% Islam
Mahratta India 27,460,000 unknown Hinduism
Bania India 26,519,000 unknown Hinduism
Hausa Nigeria 24,181,000 < 0.1% Islam
Algerian, Arabic-speaking Algeria 24,161,000 0.2% Islam
Pashtun, Northern Pakistan 24,041,000 < 0.1% Islam
Korean Korea, North 23,712,000 1.5% Non-Religious
Uzbek, Northern Uzbekistan 21,626,000 < 0.1% Islam
Jawa Pesisir Lor Indonesia 20,020,000 < 0.1% Islam
Thai, Central Thailand 19,649,000 unknown Buddhism
Arab, Iraqi Iraq 19,300,000 0.1% Islam
Jawa Mancanegari Indonesia 18,000,000 1.1% Islam
Thai, Northeastern, Lao Isan Thailand 17,958,000 unknown Buddhism
Kurmi India 17,067,000 unknown Hinduism
Teli India 17,024,000 unknown Hinduism
Rajput, Muslim Pakistan 16,561,000 < 0.1% Islam
Kunbi India 15,810,000 unknown Hinduism

Joshua Project welcomes corrections / updates to this data. Please send feedback to:

Joshua Project

Office: 719.886.4000
PO Box 62614

Fax: 719.266.9250
Colorado Springs, CO 80962

Email: info@joshuaproject.net
United States

Web: www.joshuaproject.net

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