fbpx

Shinto symbols and their meanings in traditional and popular culture

In this article we present a list of a handful of the innumerable shinto-related symbols and look at their meanings. We also show imagery of examples of this shinto imagery appearing in popular culture generally, and in anime in particular.

We have compiled a list of 25 shinto inspired anime here. We also did an entire youtube/podcast talking in Japanese & English about Shinto & Japanese mythology anime here.

What is Shinto?

Shinto is an ancient Japanese belief system that focuses on the natural world and the spiritual values of people’s daily lives. Shinto is rich in symbolism and ritual. Shinto is so ingrained in Japan that it is a worldview that helps tie all Japanese people together, consciously or not.

The word Shinto means “the way of the gods”. Followers of Shinto are devoted to kami, variously, and somewhat inadequately, translated as spirits, deities or gods who are thought to inhabit natural objects, especially mountains, trees and shrines.

Nature as Shinto symbols

Mountains 山

Shinto is all about the natural world, and there is hardly anything more evident in the natural world than the towering mountains. So it is no surprise that mountains are intimately associated with shinto worship. Anyone who has spent any time climbing mountains in Japan will have had several experiences of coming across a Torii gate, or sacred shinto adornments, at particularly beautiful or awe-inspiring points on the slope.

In the Manyoshu, one of the earliest existent collections of Japanese poetry from 759, one poem reads : 

“The lofty peak of Mount Fuji is the kami mysterious who dwells there … the guardian kami of Yamato Province.”

Indeed, even today, you will find Torii gates at the top of Mount Fuji signifying the significance of the site. You will also find there a post office and many vending machines, proving that Japan is not afraid to mix the sacred with the profane.

In popular culture & Anime:

Shinto mixes with environmentalism in the Ghibli film Pom Poko where a group of Tanuki fight to save their mountain from destruction caused by wanton human land development.

ぽんぽこ Pom Poko – Mountain

Mountains feature prominently in the opening of anime Onsen Yosei hakone-Chan

温泉幼精ハコネちゃん Onsen Yosei Hakone-Chan – Mountain and Torii Gate

Trees 木

Trees are an essential part of Shinto and Japanese folklore. Trees provide shelter, give shade, and provide fruit to humans who live in the area. They also provide wood for building materials and paper for writing.

Shinto belief grants special significance to old and large trees. Often these trees and their environs are nominated as Himorogi, dwelling places of Kami. Sacred trees that are considered to be inhabited by spirits or life-force are called shinboku.

Different shrines have different types of wood that they consider to be the most sacred. So the Kasuga Shrine has Sasaki, Inari Shrines have cedar and Hiyoshi Shrines consider Laurel to be the most significant.

But the undisputed most famous tree in shinto belief is the Sakaki. Indeed, it was a Sakaki and a mirror that the prominent Fujiwara clan had transported to Kyoto to demonstrate the authority of their new shrine in the newly nominated capital of Japan.

In popular culture & Anime:

トトロ My Neighbor Totoro – Tree

千と千尋の神隠し Spirited Away

Rocks 石

Stones are often worshipped in Japanese Shinto belief and mythology. Interestingly, there was an ancient belief that stones actually grow over time. This can even be seen in the words of Japan’s national anthem of the present day, which uses words that originally appeared in the Kokinshu of 905:

Rule on, my lord, till what are pebbles now

By age united to mighty rocks shall grow

Unusually shaped rocks and stones throughout Japan can often be found draped in various forms of shinto regalia. Perhaps the most famous example may be the Meoto Iwa,  or “wedded rocks”, seen off the coast of Ise, in Mie prefecture. These are considered to be vehicles of sun worship, and of the kami Amaterasu.

Shintoistic worship of rocks has also blended with Buddhist religion over the years in the often seen wayside statues of Jizo, Dososhin or Sai-no-kami.

In popular culture & Anime:

我が家のお稲荷様 Our Home’s Fox Deity – Stone

Animals as Shinto symbols

Foxes 狐

繰繰れ! コックリさん Gugure Kokkuri-San – Fox

Foxes feature heavily both in popular and traditional Japanese culture. They are associated with the wide spread “Inari” shrines in Japan. They are considered to be envoys for the Inari deity Ukanomitama-no-kami. The Inari kami is a kami of food, especially Japan’s staple food rice. Fox masks are often seen in Japanese festivals. 

The symbolic meaning behind foxes in Japan can vary from region to region. In some regions, foxes are seen as a good luck symbol while in others they are seen as a bad luck symbol. For example, in some parts of Japan, foxes are considered to be an auspicious symbol while in other parts of the country they are viewed as an ominous symbol.

In popular culture & Anime:

我が家のお稲荷様 Our Home’s Fox Deity

Tanuki (Raccoon-dog) たぬき

The Tanuki is a folkloric animal that is known for their ability to shape-shift and copy the movements of other animals. The creature has been well documented in Japanese culture and folklore, and they are said to be a mischief maker who can turn invisible.

A Tanuki is also a real animal in Japan. It gets called by several names in English. It gets referred to as any combinations of “raccoon” “dog” & “badger,” or an Asian species of canine. 

The tanuki in Japan is commonly associated with good fortune and happiness, or with mysticism more generally.

In popular culture & Anime:

有頂天家族 The Eccentric Family – Tanuki

ぽんぽこ Pom Poko – Tanuki

Deer 鹿

Deer are considered sacred creatures as being messengers or emblematic of the Kami Kasuga. Deer are especially closely associated with the Shrines in the city of Nara, where emperor Nimmei called for a new shrine to be built there to help solidify its status as the new capital.

 In Japanese folklore, deer are believed to have a supernatural power. They are a symbol of good luck. In Shinto, the deer is associated with the goddess Amaterasu and its antlers represent masculine power.

Deer may be seen as a paradoxical animal in that it is both revered and hunted in Japan. In Shinto hunting ritual, deer meat is offered to the gods while priests perform rituals to ensure the health of the animals’ spirit after their death.

In popular culture, Deer like figures can be seen in anime such as Miyazaki Hayao’s Princess Mononoke. In this context, the quasi-deer beast is presented as the ancient giver of life force for the forests and all that live within.

In popular culture & Anime:

もののけ姫 Princess Mononoke

Doves 鳩

Doves in Japanese Shinto tradition are associated with Hachiman shrines. The hachiman deity is tied to both agriculture and war. Given that doves are considered to be the embodiment of Hachiman, they can play widely different roles in Japanese folklore. Doves, for example, appear in Heike Monogatari from circa 1185 a soldier bows down to the doves as a show of respect on a battlefield.

Crows カラス

Crows are closely associated with the numerous Kumano Shrines throughout Japan. It is believed that this relationship began when a crow appeared as a guide to Japanese Emperor Jimmu on a military campaign at Kumano.

In popular culture & Anime:

Crows have appeared in Japanese popular culture in the anime Demon Slayer, where they appear as the mysterious talking-bird messengers of the Demon Slayer Corps. We have written about Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba meaning here.

鬼滅の刃 Demon Slayer

Frogs カエル

Frogs are associated with some of Japan’s earliest creation myths. 

In the ancient “Kojiki” text for example, The frog-deity Taniguku is seen as one of the pillars that holds up Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, which is an older name for Japan.

Frogs are seen as messengers for the deity Sarutahiko at the Futamiokitama Shrine, near Ise in central Japan.

The Japanese word for frog “Kaeru” is also a homonym for words such as “return” and “change”, so the animal can be seen as a symbol for returning home or changing a situation. They are sometimes also associated with wealth.

In popular culture & Anime:

Frogs appear in popular culture in anime such as The Eccentric Family, where a Frog lives in the bottom of a well (another common mystical symbol) and acts as a sympathetic ear for the main character.

有頂天家族 The Eccentric Family – Frog

Other Shinto common shinto animals:

Given that there are really no limits on where kami can reside in the world in the Japanese worldview, all sorts of animals are often depicted as being representations of Kami. Some of the more common ones are: herons, hens, pheasants, eagles, deer, monkeys, rats, foxes,

boars, bees, tortoises, eels, carps and Phoenixes.

People

Miko 巫女

Miko are not just priestesses of Shinto, they are the caretakers of the natural world encompassing crops, trees, mountains, rivers and other natural resources. They were often seen as a bridge between the gods and people. They are also responsible for maintaining the purity of human society by purifying people’s minds and souls through rituals, ceremonies and other activities.

Interestingly, in a patriarchal society such as Japan, there is much evidence that women in Japan’s history held positions of power. The post of Miko, reserved women, is illustrative of this.

The word itself is a shortening of Kamu no ko, literally meaning “child of the deity”. This name shows just how close to the central wellspring of power Miko were considered.

With the decline of the matriarchal system in Japan, the power associated with the post of Miko has lessened. Today they are generally more seen as ceremonial helpers or assistants.

The traditional outfit of a miko is called a miko-himo which includes a yukata-style robe (a casual summer kimono), a hakama (a long split skirt) or kilt-like garment that is usually pleated on both sides.

In popular culture & Anime:

Miko, as well as characters wearing Miko-like outfits, have often been depicted in anime including 神無月の巫女 Kannazuki no Miko, 温泉幼精ハコネちゃん Onsen Yosei Hakone-Chan and 我が家のお稲荷様 Our Home’s Fox Deity.

くまみこ Kuma Miko: Girl Meets Bear – Miko

我が家のお稲荷様 Our Home’s Fox Deity

温泉幼精ハコネちゃん Onsen Yosei Hakone-Chan

Hime 姫 

In the same way that Miko are symbolic of an earlier matriarchal Japanese society, there is a crossover with women and girls that called hime, usually translated as something close to “Princess”.  

Miko have sometimes been considered as actually being kami. In this case, they have been referred to as hime-gami.

In popular culture & Anime:

Characters referred to as hime frequently appear in anime, such as in もののけ姫 Princess Mononoke and かぐや姫 The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

かぐや姫 The Tale of Princess Kaguya 

もののけ姫 Princess Mononoke

Monsters, Spirits & Yokai

Tengu 天狗

Tengu are Japanese creatures that are said to be spiritual beings that live in the mountains. They can fly, have long noses, and eat raw fish. Tengu dress in red and carry a sword with them.

In popular culture & Anime:

有頂天家族 The Eccentric Family

Celestial Bodies

Sun 日

The sun is a common symbol in many cultures and religions. The sun has been worshipped as a divine force to give life, warmth and energy to the earth. In Japan, the Sun is associated with the mythical creator goddess Amaterasu.

In Shintoism, Amaterasu was also worshiped as the protector of Japan and all living things on earth. The sun’s importance in Japanese mythology can be seen through its inclusion in many stories.

Moon 月

The moon has always been of great significance to the Japanese people. It is considered the home of many Shinto kani, and also symbolizes fertility, rebirth, and enlightenment.

In Shinto lore, it is believed that the moon was created by Izanami, one of the Japanese deities. She had a romantic relationship with her brother Izanagi, but after they pulled her out of a heavenly body called Takamagahara which she had given birth to him through her nose. When she became pregnant with his child again, he refused to let her go back up because he was afraid she would give birth to another child like herself who would be more powerful than himself. Izanagi cut down on his head with his sword, creating an 8-shaped wound; from this wound emerged Amaterasu.

In popular culture & Anime

:

The Moon in かぐや姫 Kaguya Hime

Man Made Structures

Shrines 神社

Shinto shrines are significant because they are the physical representation of the god or spirit that is worshipped there. Shrines can also be seen as places for people to come together and reconnect with their spirituality.

Torii Gates 鳥居

There is great variety in the structure of torii.

It varies all the way from the simple Shimmei to the MyOjin, Itsukushima Miwa Torii and Miwa

In popular culture & Anime:

繰繰れ! コックリさん Gugure Kokkuri-San – Torii

千と千尋の神隠し Spirited Away

Wells 井戸

Wells were often central points for community to gather and exchange information in traditional Japan. The water that they contain is vital for life and also intricately related to the central ideas of purity and cleanliness in shinto belief. As such, wells often became places of worship or dwelling places for kami.

Examples of well-deities include Mizuhanome no Kami or Suijin. Fish, such as carp, were sometimes placed in the wells so that people knew that the water was pure enough to sustain life. Sometimes the fish in the well would come to be considered as a kami and many rituals and taboos would come into place.

Wells were seen as gateways to the underworld.

In modern Japanese culture, the well often features as a gateway to another world or dimension. This can be seen in anime such as Inuyasha, where a young girl falls down a well to find herself transported to the ancient world.

Sarayashiki by Hokusai – Well

In popular culture & Anime:

犬夜叉 Inuyasha – Well

Crests

Similar to noble families in Japan, there is a long tradition of Japanese shrines having there own crests similar to these:

There is more detailed information about crests in this academic paper.

Sacred Objects

Shide

Shide are a type of talisman that have been used in Shintoism for centuries. They can be made from a variety of materials, notably paper and wood.

In popular culture & Anime:

繰繰れ! コックリさん Gugure Kokkuri-San – Shide and Shimenawa

Shimenawa

The shimenawa is a straw rope that is hung around sacred places in Shinto. It signifies purification, and it is believed to be warding off bad energy.Shimenawa are often seen in entrances of Shinto temples

The shimenawa has two purposes: one, to signify purification, and two, to ward off evil spirits. It is considered taboo for visitors of the temple to touch the shimenawa

Goshiki-no-hata

Goshiki-no-hata means “five colored flag.”

Five colors are used in the goshiki-no-hata: white, black, red, yellow and blue. These five colors represent the five elements of Buddhism. The white represents the air element; black is for water; red is for fire; yellow is for earth; and blue is for space (or void).

Shimpu & Ofuda

The Shinto shrines often use talismanic “cards” or “tags”referred to as ‘Shimpu’. They are sometimes referred to as o-fuda. They can be fastened on god-shelves, on door posts, attached to various structures or put in fields as symbols of the kami. They can be objects of worship that protect from evil influences or bring good fortune.

Charms, small in size, which are worn on the person in close contact with the body, are called o-mamori. They are considered by people, to this day, as having great power, bestowed by Kami. 

Other Shinto Symbols to look out for:

There is a long list of other Shinto symbols that could be added and are often seen in both traditional and modern popular culture including Mirrors , swords , Jewels, Kamidana, Mikoshi.

How Does Shinto Symbolism Intersect With Other Religious Symbology?

Japan is a country that is known for having mixed religions. Most notably, Shintoism and Buddhism have a long history of intimately coexisting in Japan. They are not considered to be exclusive to one another. Indeed, the merging of these two religions is one of the things that makes Japan so unique.

This flexibility in religious view sometimes extends towards other, non mono-theistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Some examples of other religious imagery in anime can be seen below.

Buddhism

In popular culture & Anime:

Christianity

In popular culture & Anime:

神無月の巫女 Kannazuki no Miko

Who is behind this site?

I’m Peter Joseph Head. I lived in Japan for four years as a student at Kyoto City University of the Arts doing a Masters Degree, have toured the country six times playing music and speak Japanese (JLPT N1). I’ve written songs in Japanese and have released several albums through Tokyo label Majikick Records. You can hear my music at my bandcamp page:

ピータージョセフヘッドです。4年間京都市立芸大の大学院として日本に住み、6回日本で音楽ツアーをし、日本語能力試験で1級を取得しました。要するに日本好きです。

僕の音楽はBandcampで聞けます。

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

e7319a946f928d455f2a4c9abc7c687c