"For twelve leagues, Ananda, around the Sala-Grove, there is no spot in size even as the pricking of the point of the tip of a hair, which is not pervaded by powerful spirits." - The Book Of the Great Decease.


The truth that ancestor-worship, in various unobtrusive forms, still survives in some of the most highly civilized countries of Europe, is not so widely known as to preclude the idea that any non-Aryan race actually practicing so primitive a cult must necessarily remain in the primitive stage of religious thought. Critics of Japan have pronounced this hasty judgment; and have professed themselves unable to reconcile the facts of her scientific progress, and the success of her advanced educational system, with the continuance of her ancestor-worship. How can the beliefs of Shinto coexist with the knowledge of modern science? How can the men who win distinction as scientific specialists still respect the household shrine or do reverence before the Shinto parish-temple? Can all this mean more than the ordered conservation of forms after the departure of faith? Is it not certain that with the further progress of education, Shinto, even as ceremonialism, must cease to exist?

Those who put such questions appear to forget that similar questions might be asked about the continuance of any Western faith, and similar doubts expressed as to the possibility of its survival for another century. Really the doctrines of Shinto are not in the least degree more irreconcilable with modern science than are the doctrines of Orthodox Christianity. Examined with perfect impartiality, I would even venture to say that they are less irreconcilable in more respects than one. They conflict less with our human ideas of justice; and, like the Buddhist doctrine of karma, they offer some very striking analogies with the scientific facts of heredity, - analogies which prove Shinto to contain an element of truth as profound as any single element of truth in any of the world's great religions. Stated in the simplest possible form, the peculiar element of truth in Shinto is the belief that the world of the living is directly governed by the world of the dead.

That every impulse or act of man is the work of a god, and that all the dead become gods, are the basic ideas of the cult. It must be remembered, however, that the term Kami, although translated by the term deity, divinity, or god, has really no such meaning as that which belongs to the English words: it has not even the meaning of those words as referring to the antique beliefs of Greece and Rome. It signifies that which is "above," "superior," "upper," "eminent," in the non-religious sense; in the religious sense it signifies a human spirit having obtained supernatural power after death. The dead are the "powers above," the "upper ones," - the Kami. We have here a conception resembling very strongly the modern Spiritualistic notion of ghosts, only that the Shinto idea is in no true sense democratic. The Kami are ghosts of greatly varying dignity and power, - belonging to spiritual hierarchies like the hierarchies of ancient Japanese society. Although essentially superior to the living in certain respects, the living are, nevertheless, able to give them pleasure or displeasure, to gratify or to offend them, - even sometimes to ameliorate their spiritual condition. Wherefore posthumous honors are never mockeries, but realities, to the Japanese mind. During the present year(1), for example, several distinguished statesmen and soldiers were raised to higher rank immediately after their death; and I read only the other day, in the official gazette, that "His Majesty has been pleased to posthumously confer the Second Class of the Order of the Rising Sun upon Major-General Baron Yamane, who lately died in Formosa." Such imperial acts must not be regarded only as formalities intended to honor the memory of brave and patriotic men; neither should they be thought of as intended merely to confer distinction upon the family of the dead. They are essentially of Shinto, and exemplify that intimate sense of relation between the visible and invisible worlds which is the special religious characteristic of Japan among all civilized countries. To Japanese thought the dead are not less real than the living. They take part in the daily life of the people, - sharing the humblest sorrows and the humblest joys. They attend the family repasts, watch over the well-being of the household, assist and rejoice in the prosperity of their descendants. They are present at the public pageants, at all the sacred festivals of Shinto, at the military games, and at all the entertainments especially provided for them. And they are universally thought of as finding pleasure in the offerings made to them or the honors conferred upon them.

For the purpose of this little essay, it will be sufficient to consider the Kami as the spirits of the dead, - without making any attempt to distinguish such Kami from those primal deities believed to have created the land. With this general interpretation of the term Kami, we return, then, to the great Shinto idea that all the dead still dwell in the world and rule it; influencing not only the thoughts and the acts of men, but the conditions of nature. "They direct," wrote Motowori, "the changes of the seasons, the wind and the rain, the good and the bad fortunes of states and of individual men." They are, in short, the viewless forces behind all phenomena.

(1) Written in September, 1896.