“In some rural areas even today, elderly villagers face the rising sun each morning, clap their hands together, and hail the appearance of the sun over the peaks of the nearby mountains as ‘the coming of the kami,‘ “ — so wrote historian Takeshi Matsumae in “The Cambridge History of Japan,” published in 1993. W hat is Shinto? There is no answer; its devotees hardly seek one.

Who or what are the kami, the myriad objects of Shinto worship? Nobody knows; knowledge seems beside the point.

“The Japanese people themselves do not have a clear idea regarding the kami,” writes Sokyo Ono in “Shinto: The Kami Way” (1962). “They are aware of the kami intuitively at the depth of their consciousness and communicate with the kami directly without having formed the kami-idea conceptually or theologically.”

Ambiguity is fertile breeding ground, and kami, whatever they are — gods? spirits? natural? supernatural? good? evil? both? neither? — crop up everywhere, in overwhelming profusion, in every conceivable form. A 10th-century text enumerates 3,132 of them — the upper crust, so to speak. It’s a far from exhaustive list.

Most kami are purely local; many are ancestral; many more are animals (tigers, wolves, hares, serpents), or natural phenomena (wind, rain, thunder — “the kami that rumbles”), or natural objects (most famously Mount Fuji — “the mysterious kami” celebrated in the eighth-century poetry anthology “Manyoshu”).

A numberless horde are Japan’s kami. The “Nihon Shoki,” an eighth-century court compendium of myth and tendentious history, speaks of “kami that shone with a lustre like fireflies, and evil kami that buzzed like flies.”

“God” or “deity” seems the best the English language can do with “kami,” but this misleads by suggesting a level of exaltation foreign to Japanese worship. The Emperor’s former status as a “living god” was not what many horrified Westerners took it to be. In fact, he was a “manifest kami” — hardly the same thing and much less shocking.

Anything, or anyone, can become a kami by being striking or, in some undefined way, “superior” — the literal meaning of the word. The classic definition comes from the 18th-century nativist thinker Motoori Norinaga, who dedicated his life to exalting suprarational Japanese purity over Buddhism’s and Confucianism’s corrupt enslavement to human reason.

“I do not yet understand the meaning of the term kami,” wrote Norinaga (in “The Spirit of the Gods,” 1771). “It is hardly necessary to say that it includes human beings. It also includes such objects as birds, beasts, trees, plants, seas, mountains and so forth. In ancient usage, anything whatsoever which was outside the ordinary, which possessed superior power or which was awe-inspiring, was called kami. . . . Evil and mysterious things, if they are extraordinary and dreadful, are called kami . . . “

Rooted in the spontaneous nature- worship of deep prehistory, Shinto is probably the most archaic living religion anywhere in the developed world.

Why is it living? How did it survive?

The greatest challenge Shinto encountered came not from modern times but from Buddhism.

It’s a story that goes back some 1,500 years. Indian in origin and newly arrived in Japan via China and Korea, Buddhism was everything Shinto was not — elegant, systematic, moral, philosophical, profound. No two world views could have been more different.

Preliminary skirmishes flared into civil war. The Buddhist faction won. That was in A.D. 587. Around the same time, in far distant lands utterly unknown to the actors in the Japanese drama, Roman Christianity was confronting the heathen religions of Dark Age Europe. Heathenism died out. Shinto did not. Why?

Possibly its very nebulousness saved it.

Shinto defies a direct approach. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is, what it lacks than what it has.

In its pristine form — as distinct from what the state and scholars like Norinaga made of it from time to time — it has no gods more exalted than kami, no myths that transcend childishness, no charismatic founder, no sacred texts, no art, scarcely any notion of good and evil, no morals, no ethics, no punishment, no concept of personal responsibility, of the soul, of immortality.

There’s no human or animal sacrifice either, inseparable though these expressions of cosmic terror generally are from mankind’s dawning religious consciousness.

Is it even a religion? Ono, a noted Shintoist scholar, calls it “more than a religious faith,” but one could just as easily call it less. “It is an amalgam,” Ono continues, “of attitudes, ideas, and ways of doing things that through two millenniums and more have become an integral part of the way of the Japanese people.”

It was in the air Japan breathed. It never even had a name until Buddhism — Butsudo, the “Way of the Buddha” — came along and presented something to contrast it to. Hence Shinto, the “way of the kami,” a word combining shin, another reading of the kanji character for kami, and to, which means “way.”

Shinto is blessed with a joyously exuberant view of the world. It has no heaven because it doesn’t need one. “This world,” writes Ono, “is inherently good.”

There is evil, certainly, but it is ascribed either to pollution, which can be purified, or to an intrusion from other worlds, which can be exorcised. Pollution arises from contact with illness, blood, death. Childbirth is deemed more polluting than murder if the murderer spills no blood.

Ono offers this peculiar explanation: “The Shinto manner of grasping truth takes into consideration the fact that values are constantly changing. For example, in Shinto ethics nothing — sex, wealth, killing, etc. — is regarded as unconditionally evil.”

Norinaga, the 18th-century nativist, in effect transmutes evil into good by making it no less divine: “Among the kami there are good and bad ones. Their actions are in accordance with their different natures, so they cannot be understood by ordinary reason. . . . In foreign countries all the good and bad things that happen are either attributed to karmic retribution according to the Way of the Buddha or else thought to be, according to the various Ways of China, acts of heaven. . . . All these theories are mistaken. . . . It is entirely due to the will of the kami that there is harm in the world, that everything cannot be proper and in accordance with reason, and that there are many wicked things.”

Buddhism, when at last it put down inextricable roots in Japanese society, must have seemed to the Shinto mind a bitter if intellectually bracing pill.

“As opposed to Shinto, which views physical life as basically good and acceptable,” writes the scholar H.E. Plutschow (in “Chaos and Cosmos,” 1990), “Buddhism regards life as suffering, and physical existence as basically undesirable.”

Are these contrary outlooks reconcilable? Astonishingly, mysteriously, they turned out to be.

Shinto’s roots reach so deep into the past as to be scarcely traceable. Before agriculture, before metal, the Stone Age hunter-gatherers of the long Jomon Period (c.8000-300 B.C.), in their instinctive veneration of mountains, fields and streams, were in a sense proto-Shintoists.

The wet-rice cultivators of the succeeding Yayoi Period (c.300 B.C.-A.D. 300) worshipped a rice spirit “believed to dwell at harvest time in specially reaped sheaves of rice,” writes the historian Matsumae. “These sheaves were enshrined in grain storehouses” — apparent archetypes of the distinctive and rudely beautiful Shinto shrine architecture we know today.

Sun worship, too — subsequently to loom so large in official, militaristic “state Shinto” of the 20th century — is a Yayoi legacy. The famous mythological quarrel between the benign sun goddess, Amaterasu, and her raging brother, the storm god Susano’o, who desecrated her rice fields, reflects the fearfully precarious footing on which Yayoi agriculture stood.

Its long prehistory over at last, Japan enters recorded history as the kingdom of Yamato (ca. A.D. 250-587), its kings (or emperors) increasingly acknowledged by rival clan chiefs as supreme.

That this supremacy was largely religious was of great significance for the future of kami worship. So far, cultic evolution had been slow and natural. Now it would be rapid and political.

Imperial ascendancy came to rest on divine descent. Benevolent and charming in the early myths, Amaterasu, emerging in the sixth century as the Imperial ancestress, grew ominously, though briefly, awesome. Buddhism in the next century tamed her; Confucianism, a later import, dimmed her. For centuries, even as folk Shinto, or “shrine Shinto,” flourished in villages and urban plebian quarters, Amaterasu herself eked out a bare survival as “avatar” of the Roshana Buddha. [see accompanying story]

But her brilliant, fleeting glory inspired scattered minds here and there — Norinaga’s, for instance. In the fullness of time it resurged.

Apostle of the past and unconscious herald of the future, Norinaga in 1771 wrote: “(The Sun Goddess) is without peer in the whole universe, casting her light to the very ends of heaven and earth and for all time. There is not a single country in the world which does not receive her beneficent illuminations. . . . This goddess is the splendor of all splendors. However, foreign countries, having lost the ancient tradition of the Divine Age, do not know the meaning of revering this goddess.”

They were, of course, to learn, though Norinaga in his own day seemed more wistful than prophetic. Long relegated to an official netherworld, Shinto under the 1868 Meiji Imperial Restoration was abruptly adopted as the state cult. Shinto myths, taught in schools as historical fact, propelled Japan first into the most intensive modernization the world had ever seen, then headlong into the most destructive war the world has ever known.

The curtain came down on state Shinto in December 1945, its abolition decreed under the Occupation by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers — “in order,” reads a SCAP memorandum to the Japanese government, “to prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultranationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression.”

There remains to this day shrine Shinto — unperverted Shinto, we might call it — at the heart of which are Japan’s ongoing wealth of timeless festivals — timeless in two senses of the word: timelessly ancient, timelessly eternal.

Dancing and carousing celebrants welcoming, entertaining and finally seeing off local kami in due season perform rites as old as mankind. Shinto festivals, each distinctively local and yet all so essentially alike that some scholars infer an ancient proto-festival from they all descend, represent order destroyed, disorder tamed, order restored.

On this ritual representation depend cosmic order, always precarious, and kami benevolence, never to be taken for granted.

The next time you see hordes of men in loincloths tearing through town at festival time shouldering a kami-bearing mikoshi (portable shrine) to spirited (but lexically meaningless) shouts of “Washoi! Washoi!,” you might reflect on the awesome implications of the innocent fun. The symbolic destruction and regeneration of time and cosmic order is no light matter.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). His Web site is at michaelhoffman.squarespace.com

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