Eight Million Gods in Nihon: the Practice of Shintō and the Japanese Culture

tower gate of Katori Shrine

Drawing on the Japanese pre-war postcards collection from the Library’s East Asian Collection, Rare Books & Special Collections student intern Jiawen (Chloe) Li (Master of Museum and Heritage Studies) introduces the practice of Shintō and explores its place in the Japanese culture today.

Shintō (神道) has been at the heart of Japanese culture since the country has named itself Nihon (日本), “the sun’s origin”. It originated in the relationship between ancient Japanese and the power they found in nature . Through centuries of recorded history, Shintō continues to take part in the framing of Japan both to the outside world and to the Japanese themselves. Shintō is a way of life and a way of thinking. Drawing on the Japanese postcard collection from the University Library’s East Asian Collection, this online exhibition is about to walk you through the spiritual Shintō world.


Many scholars find it difficult to define Shintō as a religion, while Shintō priests describe it simply as an integral part of Japanese culture. Shintō does not neatly fit into the Western perceptions of traditional religions, as it has no dogma, doctrine, founder or an explicit moral code. Rather than a closed system of beliefs, Shintō is a Japanese way of looking at the world.

Let the pre-World War II Japanese postcard images from the East Asian Collection take you on a journey to some of the Shintō shrines around the country, giving you a glimpse of the world seen through the lens of Shintō.

The Tower Gate of Katori Shrine 官幣大社香取神宮楼門
EA 6694 2, vol. 2 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

The red colour of the tower gate (rōmon, 楼門) is believed to have the effect of expelling demons and illness. The tower gate of Katori shrine represents a typical architectural style in Shintō, where a tower gate like this one often marks the entrance to the sacred grounds. The postcard fills the whole front with the photograph of the tower gate, visually representing its prominence and significance.

The Main Hall of Yoshida Shrine 官幣中社吉田神社 御本殿
EA 6694 2, vol. 21 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

The main halls (hōnden, 本殿) are considered the hearts of Shintō shrines. Their architectural styles vary, depending on the shrine’s divine lineage. The main hall of Yoshida shrine shown in the postcard above is in kasuga-zukuri (春日造) style, a traditional architectural style for Shintō shrines dating back to the early 8th century. One of the style’s distinctive features is the Chinese-style roofs that are gabled and decorated with ornamental poles, as appearing on the four joined kasuga-zukuri buildings above.

Visiting a shrine

For the Japanese, visiting a shrine (jinja mairi, 神社参り) is a simple act of faith performed without much soul-searching or contemplation. People pay a visit to a shrine out of faith, respect, social purpose, or even obligation. Visiting a shrine is an integrated part of their personal, family, and communal lives, even where strong belief is lacking. For many, jinja mairi is simply an aspect of Japanese life. There are not any set, particular day of the week to visit a shrine. People visit the shrines anytime they feel like, including during festival times.

The Sacred Tree and the Sacred Dance Stage at Katori Shrine 官幣大社香取神宮御神木並二神楽殿
EA 6694 2, vol. 2 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

Shrines are preferably surrounded by expansive woods and are usually located in places with a serene and solemn atmosphere. Worshippers view shrines as restful and sacred places, where they can always feel in harmony with nature. The colour postcard above of Katori shrine depicts a giant, sacred tree (shinboku, 神木) on the shrine grounds next to a dance stage. The photograph provides a perfect example of a natural being within a built environment, or rather, humans building around the pre-existing nature. The very fact that the postcard features the tree as centrally as it features the dance stage highlights the importance of nature in the Shintō world.

Shintō shrines are not always big and majestic; they can be very small, singular structures. The shrine on Mount Mikasa – also known as Mount Wakakusa today – above is as small as a cupboard on a pedestal. Small shrines usually do not have a main hall (hōnden, 本殿), but only a worship hall (haiden, 拝殿). This is often because spirits worshipped at these small shrines are natural objects such as sacred mountains or trees in the vicinity.

Noted Hill named Mikasa at Nara 奈良 三笠山
EA 6694 2, vol. 17 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima 安芸厳島神社(正面)
EA 6694 2, vol. 14 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

Torii (鳥居) is a two-post gateway, with one or two crossbeams at the top. Torii stands in front of shrines and marks the area as a sacred site where the gods (kami, 神) dwell. It is the clearest physical indication of the presence of a Shintō shrine and hence became a representative image of Shintō. The two postcards above and below feature the iconic “floating” torii at Itsukushima shrine.

The torii at Itsukushima shrine featured again on this postcard is built in a torii style called Ryōbu (両部). Ryōbu-style torii typically has a pair of small pillars holding up each of the main pillars, as clearly seen on this “floating” torii photographed from another angle.

The Giant “Torii” on the Sea, Miyajima 安芸厳島神社大鳥居の麗姿
EA 6694 2, vol. 14 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

Torii Gate, Japan during day
Photo by Adrien Lemaire on Unsplash | published on February 13, 2015

Unlike the torii at Itsukushima shrine, one in Miharayama shrine represents a different style, called myōjin torii (明神鳥居). Myōjin is the most common torii style, featuring an upward-curving top lintel.

Oshima Miharayama 三原山の三原神社
EA 6694 2, vol. 10 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

Hot Spring Shrine (a famous place in Nasu) 温泉神社 (那須名勝)
EA 6694 2, vol. 3 | ca. 1915-1930 | photographer unknown; on verso: ‘東京神田濃島町樓并合名會社印’

A water font and basin (temizuya 手水舎) are usually placed somewhere to the front of the shrine. Worshippers are expected to wash their hands and rinse their mouths as ritual ablution before entering the shrine. The postcard above provides a distant view of a temizuya.

In Shintō, the distinction between purity and impurity is clearly marked. The “outside” is often considered impure, while the “inside” is pure. Such a distinction is embedded in the everyday practice, from taking off one’s shoes before entering the house to gargling and washing one’s hands as soon as returning home.

This recent photo provides a closer view of a temizuya. Water is a significant symbol of purification in Japanese culture. Such symbolic significance of water plays a role in people’s great indulgence for hot baths, which are believed to purify the body and mind.

Grey stainless steel ladle
Photo by Kaori K on Unsplash | Published on November 27, 2019

Famous Places and Fine Prospects (Futami) 二見浦日の出
EA 6694 2, vol. 16 | ca. 1915-1930 | photographer unknown; on verso: ‘printed by Kaigakenkyukai’

Kami is translated as “god”, “deity” or “spirit”. Shintō is often regarded animistic as Shintō kami are in the forces and manifestations of nature. Kami can be in the form of natural phenomena, legendary beings, human ancestors, and even ideas. The rocks in Futami have been deified and served as kami. Their sacredness is marked by the shimenawa (しめ縄) here.

A shimenawa is a thick or thin braided rope made of straw to signify sacredness, from which shide (紙垂) – white paper streamers – hang. Shide are folded in a zig-zag pattern and attached to the shimenawa at intervals. Shimenawa firstly appeared in Shintō mythology, where people used it to block the entrance to a cave, so the sun goddess (Amaterasu, 天照) could not enter and thrust the world into darkness. It is now used to distinguish and separate a sacred site from the rest of the world.

The strange view of Iwane Shrine Mt. Hakusan (白山名勝) 岩根神社の奇勝
EA 6694 2, vol. 11 | ca. 1915-1930 | Photographer unknown; on verso: ‘Made in Wakayama’; ‘Trademark: Taisho’; ‘Taisho Hato brand’

Some kami reside in a particular site or manifest in that site voluntarily or when called upon. The site is usually remarkable in some way, such as a waterfall, a large rock, or a volcano. The peculiar rock on Mt. Hakusan acts as a shrine since it is deemed special to kami.


Shintō festivals are an integral part of Japanese culture, having grown beyond their early religious roots. The spiritual aspect of Shintō festivals have become less important than that of fun and spectacle. Omatsuri (お祭り) nowadays is a significant tourist attraction as it draws numerous visitors from all around the globe. Today, Shintō festivals are a major source of economic activity and a key force for community solidarity.

A Portable Shrine (国宝)神輿 二基之内 丹生都比売神社所蔵
EA 6694 2, vol. 16 | ca. 1915-1930 | creator unknown

A portable shrine (mikoshi, 神輿) is used during festivals to carry the kami from the shrine to a temporary resting place (otabisho, 御旅所) and back. Portable shrines are often made to approximate shape of the main shrine architecture, and they are also called miniature shrines. The portable shrine above from Niutsuhime shrine exemplifies the proper size of a miniature shrine.

Parade participants carry a portable shrine – misidentified as a ‘rickshaw’ in the title of the photograph – on their shoulders as they half-walk, half-dance through the streets during festival times. This is to celebrate kami, and for the kami to present itself in the community it protects.

Group of Men at the Carries Gold Rickshaw at the Street, 2019
Photo by Trevor Paxton on Unsplash | published on June 11, 2019

A Festival of Miho Shrine 美保神社大祭 (四月七日) 青柴垣神事
EA 6694 2, vol. 8 | ca. 1915-1930 | photographer unknown; on verso: ‘printed by Kaigakenkyukai’

Some festivals involve water, such as the grand festival depicted above at Miho shrine. Water-related festivals usually include rituals of purification and exorcism as well as celebration of masculinity.

A Ritual in the Sada Shrine (出雲) 国幣小社佐太神社七座神事
EA 6694 2, vol. 8 | ca. 1915-1930 | photographer unknown; on verso: ‘Union postale universelle’

Many festivals focus on music and dance. Performances involving the ancient court music (gagaku, 雅楽) create a solemn and mysterious atmosphere for the festival. This postcard features a photograph of a seven-seat ritual (shichiza shinji, 七座神事) performed in Sada shrine in Matsue during such a musical festival. Many photographic records such as this postcard contain images of musical performance, alluding to the place of music in Shintō and its festivals.


Shintō priests are not cloistered and are free to marry. The lack of licensed priests causes two-thirds of shrines to be unstaffed on a full-time basis. Instead, community members perform certain traditional rites, cleaning and making daily offerings at unstaffed shrines.

Sacred Dancers of Kasuga Shrine, Nara 奈良春日神社巫子
EA 6694 2, vol. 17 | ca. 1915-1930 | photographer unknown; on verso: ‘AZO’

Many women serve the shrines as shrine maidens (miko, 巫女). Miko wear a white kimono top and red skirt-like pants (hakama 袴) or pleated skirt at the shrine. White is the colour of Shintō as it stands for purification, while the colour red is believed to have the power to expel demons and illness.

Miko help the priest with rituals, cleaning, preparing food, selling amulets, and sometimes performing sacred dances (kagura, 神楽) as portrayed in the postcard above.

Women were generally not allowed to be shrine priests due to early forms of religious emphasis on female shamanism. They were instead relegated to a minor position in the shrine. The shamanistic aspect has since been removed, and the miko today are usually daughters of the shrine priests or temporary or part-time workers. Although women could become Shintō priests after the second World War, the number of female priests remains much smaller than that of male priests in Japan.

Even today, women’s menstruation is considered impure; on such a ground, women have often been excluded from certain activities in Japan. For instance, women are still barred from entering dohyō (土俵) in sumō (相撲), and some mountain shrines including the one at Mt. Ishizuchi still forbid women from attending the mountain-opening ceremony every July.

Shintō still sustains meaning and is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Its gender view continues affecting the contemporary Japanese society, which poses a conundrum. Nakagawa Tomoko, the Takarazuka City Mayor, spoke out in 2018 in favour of equal treatment of men and women in sumō:

Tradition is important, but it is also important to have courage and make a change. I don’t care whichever side of the ring we stand, but I do want both men and women to be treated equally.

A similar statement can certainly be made about the practices of Shintō.

Jiawen (Chloe) Li is a graduate student in Master of Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Sydney. Recipient of the 2016 James Murdoch Prize, Jiawen went on exchange to the Kyoto University in Japan in 2017 and graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Japanese Studies in 2018. Prior to her internship at Rare Books & Special Collections this year, she worked as an intern at the Australian Society of Anaesthetists in 2019, focusing on collection management.

The Japanese postcards featured here are part of a twenty-four album collection that contain four thousand postcards. The postcards were collected by a certain Mrs Suzuki’s wealthy uncle during his travels before World War II. The collection was subsequently obtained and donated to the Library by Associate Professor Peter Armstrong at the University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. The postcard collection now belongs to the Library’s East Asian Collection and can be found through the Library Search:  EA 6694 2 Japanese Postcards (1915-1930). A teaser display of this online exhibition is on level 4, Fisher Library.