Religions of Japan
Early Foundations
image showing Shinto torii and Buddhist Kannon with Japanese red sun
bamboo page divider
Map showing migration routes in prehistoric Japan
bamboo page divider
Selection of Jomon Era Pottery
The Jomon Period
c.14,000-300 (or 1,000) BCE
Early “Jomon”
(Rope Pattern)

early Jomon pottery
Jomon Period

Middle period Jomon pottery
Jomon Pit Dwellings
Pit Dwelling Village
Map showing Jomon era cemetary at the center of the village
Cemetery at the Center of Pit Dwelling Village
Burial Pits for Adults / Burial Jars for Infants
Burial pit with skeleton

Burial Jar
Magatama Jewelry
Image of a Jomon Shaman
Bamboo page divider
Map showing Yayoi Migration from Korea and China
The Yayoi Period
300 (or 1,000-800) BCE-250 CE

Rice planting outside the village
The people of Wa [also referred to as Yamatai] dwell in the middle of the ocean on the mountainous islands southeast of [the prefecture of] Daifang. During the Han dynasty, [Wa] envoys appeared at the court; today, thirty of their communities maintain intercourse with us through envoys and scribes. ... The country formerly had a man as ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that there were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler. Her name was Pimiko [a.k.a. Himiko]. She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. ... In the sixth month of the second year of Jingchu [238 C.E.], the Queen of Wa sent the grandee Nashonmi and others to visit the prefecture [of Daifang], where they requested permission to proceed to the emperor’s court with tribute. The Governor, Liu Xia, dispatched an officer to accompany the party to the capital. In answer to the Queen of Wa, an edict of the Emperor, issued in the twelfth month of the same year, said as follows:
... You live very far away across the sea; yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety we appreciate exceedingly. We confer upon you, therefore, the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei,” together with the decoration of the gold seal with purple ribbon. The latter, properly encased, is to be sent to you through the Governor. We expect you, O Queen, to rule your people in peace and to endeavor to be devoted and obedient. ...
When Pimiko passed away, a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paced in diameter ... . (Sources of Japanese Tradition [SJT], 6-8)
But where was Yamatai?
Map of Japan showing Yoshinogari (possible site of Yamatai)
Archeological site map of Yoshinogari
Photo of reconstructed village at Yoshinogari
Map of Japan showing Yamato as possible site of Yamatai
Hashihaka "kofun" Tomb
Bamboo page divider
The Kofun Period
c. 250-538 CE
Map of Yamato c. 250 CE
Photo of reconstructed kofun tomb
Haniwa (clay figurines)
Haniwa arranged around kofun tomb
The Arrival of Buddhism
Bamboo page divider

Prior to the influx of cultural influences from China and Korea in the sixth century, the Japanese worshiped “nature” kami directly. Mount Fuji (the tallest mountain in Japan) is one of the earliest pilgrimage sites — and remains one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in contemporary Japan.

Woodblock print showing pilgrimage up Mt. Fuji

torii icon

Nachi Falls

Originally, people worshiped at sites in which spiritually charged entities called kami were believed to dwell, such as sacred waterfalls or forests.

Sacred Forest as early site of Shinto worship
Kodama (tree spirits)

torii icon

Sacred tree at Zentsuji

Over time, natural objects such as a large tree or an unusual rock came to serve as yorishiro — a kind of spiritual lightning rod that was believed to attract the kami to a particular location so that the villagers could worship and/or commune with the deity.

The "wedded rocks" of Futami Okitama Jinja

torii icon

Rice field with mountain in background

In early spring, the mountain kami was welcomed to the fields in the form of water, an abundance of which was required to grow rice, which is still a sacred crop in Japan today. In the fall, the choicest rice was offered to thank the kami before it returned to the mountain for the winter.

Shinto shrine with thanksgiving offerings

torii icon

Woodblock print of Amaterasu emerging from the cave

Eventually, shrine buildings came to provide the focal point for the worship of particular kami, especially those associated with the tutelary kami of a particular clan, such as the progenitor and principal kami of the Yamato clan, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu ...

The Ise Shrine

torii icon

Woodblock print of Susannoo

... or her (sometimes) nasty brother Susanoo, tutelary kami of the Izumo clan.

Illustration of original Izumo Shrine
Contemporary Izumo Shrine
torii icon
Kojiki and Nihongi

Myths of these kami were first recorded in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki at the beginning of the eight century (712 and 720, respectively). These myths were woven into a national narrative that legitimated the imperial family’s position as the rulers of a unified Japan.

Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako
Emperor Naruhito (#126) & Empress Masako