Shinto: The Way of the Gods

Kasuga Mandala Reliquary Shrine, 1479, lacquered wood with colour, Muromachi period (1392-1573), 55.6 x 39.7 x 48 cm, Tokyo National Museum (in rotation two, 23 May to 30 June). This miniature shrine, said to be an architectural representation of Takemikazuchi, the kami of the first shrine at Kasuga Taisha, was meant to contain relics of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, Takemikazuchi’s Buddhist counterpart. On the front doors are Aizen Myoo, wisdom king of passion (right) and Fudo Myoo, wisdom king of immovability (left). The side doors show the guardian kings of the four directions. The back wall inside the shrine vividly portrays a view of the landscape of Kasuga Taisha. Based on other examples, we can assume that a gem-shaped reliquary would once have been installed in the middle. Photo: TNM Image Archives

Shinto, The Way of the Gods, is Japan’s ancient belief system focused on the veneration of divine phenomena, or spirits, called kami – nature divinities of the land, sky, and waters. The essence of Shinto lies in the worship of nature and the wish to be in harmony with the living world – the relationships of people to nature with developed rites and rituals to ask for requests, or express gratitude or atonement.

Kami can inspire or terrify, as can be experienced in the beauty of nature and landscape, or in the ominous rumble of thunder, the onslaught of torrential rain, or the tragedy of an earthquake. The earliest written histories in Japan describe kami as being the creators of the islands of Japan, who descended from the heavens to rule the land. Kami were responsible for all manner of tasks, from managing natural resources to protecting against disease, but only descended to earth to inhabit special places in nature such as mountains, forests, and waterfalls.

Shinto: A Belief in Life

Above all, Shinto is regarded as a belief in life and regeneration and consecrates such occasions as weddings, births, deaths and coming of age ceremonies. Most relevant to this month of May is the form of Shinto of the Imperial house (Koshitsu Shinto), as various Shinto rites have been performed to enable Emperor Akihito of Japan to abdicate in favour of Crown Prince Naruhito. This new Imperial era is called Reiwa, made up of two characters: good fortune (or more contentiously commands/order) and peace or harmony.  The government’s official translation is ‘Beautiful Harmony’. The Crown Prince became emperor on 1 May.

To explore this world of Shinto, the Cleveland exhibition has 125 works from different media, such as calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume as well as decorative arts, assembled from Japanese and American museums, shrines and Buddhist temples. Among the 75 works on loan from the Japanese lenders, 20 objects are designated Important Cultural Properties (ICP) by the Japanese government with some of the artworks having not been seen in the US since 1976 (Shinto Arts: Nature, Gods, and Man in Japan) exhibited at Japan Society, New York and the Seattle Art Museum, in an exhibition organised by the Kyoto National Museum. Other objects have never before left Japan and are rarely exhibited.

Although Shinto was officially established in the late 19th century, there is a long tradition of venerating kami in Japan. However, this exhibition focuses on the traditions from a particular period, from the 10th to 19th centuries. Sinéad Vilbar, the exhibition’s curator and curator of Japanese art at the CMA explained, ‘Kami veneration has been a central feature of Japanese culture and the inspiration behind a broad range of Japanese art for centuries. This exhibition explores the worship of kami and Buddhist divinities and celebrates the religious art ignited by their fusion. The exhibition features artworks that are an expression of the everyday engagement of people with divinities in their midst’.

Shinto is Linked to Buddhism

Shinto is syncretic and has long been linked to another religion in Japan – Buddhism. After the arrival of Buddhism from continental Asia in the mid-6th century, and its adoption as a national religion in the early 7th century, the indigenous Shinto faith took on aspects of the new religion. People began building shrines (jinja) for kami in emulation of the construction of temples dedicated to Buddhist deities. In the mid-8th to mid-9th centuries, it was believed that kami were avatars of Buddhist deities, and as a result many kami were assigned Buddhist counterparts and took on human form with kami and Buddhist deities being worshipped side-by-side. However, kami remained distinct from Buddhist deities and were worshipped in different ways through entertainment, festivals and offerings. While the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of Buddhism are enlightened beings with virtues seen as out of reach for most humans, kami are more like people. They can exhibit generosity and cleverness, as well as pettiness and foolishness. Like nature, they can deliver great bounty, or be the source of tremendous devastation. This idea was widespread by the mid-11th century and continued to inform the perceived relationships between kami and Buddhist deities into the 19th century, when Shintoism was reinterpreted by the Meiji Restoration and became the official state religion, with many shrines being supported by the state. The funding was short lived and by the 1890s most Shinto shrines were once again supported by those who worshipped at them.

Shinto Early Sculpture

Two highlights, from some of the earliest works in the Shinto exhibition, are the mid 13th-century wood sculptures of Tenman Daijizai Tenjin (Celestial Deity of Great Power Filling Heaven), the deified form of the Japanese courtier Sugawara no Michizane (845-903). On view in the first rotation is the sculpture of Tenjin from Yoki Tenman Jinja, a shrine near the Buddhist temple Hasedera in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture. Featured in the second rotation is the Tenjin sculpture that is the mishotai (deity body) of the shrine Egara Tenjinsha in Kamakura. Both are designated Important Cultural Properites.

Among the other works related to the kami Tenjin are three ICP from the shrine Hofu Tenmangu in Yamaguchi Prefecture: two illustrated handscrolls from a six part set dating to 1311 that relate the story of Michizane and his deification, and a lacquer writing desk and writing box of black lacquered wood with designs in gold powder. The composition of renga (linked-verse poems) as a rite of devotion to Tenjin, revered as the kami of literature and learning, has historically been an important feature of worship at Tenjin shrines around Japan. In addition, a miniature lacquer shrine represents the legend of Tenjin crossing the sea to visit China. Belonging to Sata Tenjingu in Moriguchi, Osaka Prefecture, this shrine treasure is customarily given a public viewing once every 25 years; it was last on view in 2001 in Japan, but the shrine’s head priest has made a special exception for this treasure to travel to Cleveland.

Nara National Museum

Nara National Museum is a major lender to this Shinto exhibition, especially in the area of applied arts with ICP designations. Among the works on show are a set of two boxes with unique iconography believed to be related to the worship of water in its incarnation as a Dragon King at Kasuga Taisha in Nara. The boxes, their surfaces showing the five kami of Kasuga along with a panoply of other deities, as well as dragon and water motifs, are believed to have held jewels belonging to the Dragon King.

One fortuitous reunion brought about by the exhibition is of a group of statues thought to have originated in a shrine on the island of Kyushu and now spread across one Japanese and three US institutions. Generally considered to date from the 10th century, the sculptures of the kami Hachiman and associated deities represent an early phase of creating shinzo (sculptures of kami). Another treat is the chance to see the two early 14th-century narrative scrolls that form The Illustrated Miraculous Origins of the Yuzu Nenbutsu School. One scroll belongs to the CMA, and the other to the Art Institute of Chicago. The set is among the most important emaki (illustrated handscrolls) outside Japan.

Six Thematic Sections

To explore the world of Shintoism, the exhibition is organised into six thematic sections that look at the centuries of engagement with kami and Buddhist divinities. The first section, Entertaining the Gods, explores the performing arts and the sport competitions that are held at shrines during festivals to entertain and appeal to the resident kami, including sculptures depicting sumo wrestlers and mounted archery, screens painted with scenes of horse racing and costumes used in performances of gagaku (traditional court music), bugaku (traditional court dance) and noh (masked drama).

In Gods and Great Houses the historical relationship of kami veneration to powerful families and individuals of Japan’s elites is explored, including dual focuses on Kasuga Taisha in Nara, the protecting shrine of the powerful Fujiwara family of the Heian period (794–1185) court, and shrines devoted to Tenjin, the deified form of 9th-century courtier Sugawara no Michizane.

Shinto Gods Embodied

The third section, Gods Embodied, introduces the strong sculptural tradition associated with kami veneration. Kami are invited to reside in wood sculptures. The sculptures are often painted and may have special features such as sacred objects hidden inside. These sculptures are housed in shrine halls and are not visible to visitors. Visitors ring a bell to alert the deity to their arrival. This section features works that still belong to shrines and are rarely seen in public. And the section Moving with the Gods addresses festivals and pilgrimage. Many shrines are located within awe-inspiring natural environments and involve pilgrimage routes to and processional routes from these sacred destinations. Glorious screens depict the Hie-Sanno and Gion shrine festivals, as well as celebrations at Kitano Tenmangu and Yoshino, while large hanging scrolls show travellers making their way to the Kumano and Ise shrines.

Kami and Buddhist Deities

The last two sections of the Shinto exhibition are Combinations: Kami and Buddhist Deities, clarify the unique mingling of kami veneration with Buddhist religious traditions by considering topics such as star worship, mountain asceticism, and Pure Land Buddhist incorporation of kami. It also investigates the complex topic of shinbutsu shugo (the matching of kami with Buddhist deities). And finally, Gifts for the Gods features examples of gifts given to the kami. Some objects are given to kami in gratitude for assistance or in requesting help. Other gifts include the objects a kami needs for daily life, such as clothing, cosmetics and writing tools. Gifts are presented when a shrine is reconstructed or refurbished as part of a renewal of the kami’s spirit.

Shinto Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, to 30 June. Closed for rotation 20 to 22 May. First rotation: until 19 May; second rotation, 23 May to 30 June. Approximately 80 percent of the works on view during the first rotation will be replaced with entirely new works for the second rotation. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition