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Ko-Shinto (古神道, Ko-Shintō) is the name given to the original Shinto tradition of the Jōmon people still practiced today in some Ainu families and communities, as well as in some Ryukyuan areas.

Ten thousand years ago the Jomon people inhabited the Japanese Archipelago. About 2,500 years ago the Yayoi people came from the Asian mainland. The two cultures mixed in the archipelago and the amalgamation of local Ko-Shinto (ancient Shinto) and the imported traditions resulted in the forerunner of today's Shinto. The aboriginal Ezo people were displaced to the north, and eventually pushed to Hokkaidō. Ko-Shinto kept its identity as a belief system in the north where the Ainu kept their racial identity and also in the south, as was detailed in the 1605 anthropological work Ryukyu shinto-ki ("Account of Local Religion [Shinto] in Ryukyu"). The Shinto of central Japan, what would later be called "Pure Shinto", was influenced later by Buddhism and Confucianism and over time developed into today's Shinto. Some kokugakushu ("nativists") have tried to recover the Shinto religion, as practiced originally, from fragmentary texts and isolated popular religious practices.

Ko-Shinto has much in common with Shinto. Nature and mankind are closely interlaced and God is a function of or the totality of Nature which expresses itself in spiritual entities called Kamuy or Kamui (Shiji in the Ryukyu) by Ko-Shinto and Kami by Shinto. As in Shinto, there is not total homogeneity of belief, ritual and tradition, but diverse interpretations of the basic belief.

Modern Ainu belief is not always Ko-shinto, some modern conceptions are not original with the Ainu. Some rituals and traditions in use by today's Ainu have a foreign tinge to the old Ko-shinto traditions. An example is the sometimes mentioned Ainu prohibition prayer by women, which did not exist in the original Ko-shinto or in Uepeker, the tales with experiences of those who lived in the past. In original Ko-shinto women were given prominent place as shamanesses.


The Japanese word ko () means "ancient or old"; shin () from Chinese Shen, means "spiritual force or spirit" often loosely translated as "deity" or "god"; and () from Chinese Tao, means "The Way". Thus Koshinto literally means the "Ancient Way of the Gods" or "Way of the Ancient Gods".


Ko-Shinto believes that Nature's expressions and things, like trees, mountains, rivers and animals or even stones are, or are inhabited by, spiritual beings. Shinto inherited this view but combined it with Buddhism, and while in Ko-shinto there is no representation of Kamuy (spirits) because they are intangible, in Shinto some Kami are represented by Buddhist-like figures. Some Shinto practices, such as Yamabushi (Shugendo) are very similar to some Ko-Shinto rituals.

In Ko-Shinto everything has a soul, nature itself has one. One must respect the spirit of the universe and worship nature itself in all its expressions. One should also worship Life in oneself as the expression of Nature. One of the main ways of life in Ko-Shinto is to live in harmony with Nature and all its beings and manifestations which include also the spiritual beings that we cannot see and who inhabit trees, mountains, rivers and other things. Death is simply to become a spirit, to just change form. Unusual characteristics in a tree, a rock, a waterfall, certain animals, and outstanding people are taken as an indication of a powerful Kamui (or Shiji in the Ryukyu).

Kagura, also called kamukura or kamikura, are dances adopted by Ko-Shinto for representing fables or for interacting with some Kamui deeds.

Musubi (the mystical power of becoming or of creation) has fundamental importance in the Kamui concept and in the Ko-shinto view of the world.

There is also a belief in utopian places as the Ryukyuan's Nirai Kanai or the Ainu's Kamuy Moshiri.

Ascetic discipline (shugyo or shugyō) has been undertaken in the mountains for centuries. It usually includes cold water ablutions at the base of a waterfall. It is considered profoundly transformative for the soul but the practitioner is warned of the danger of becoming possessed by one of the spirits believed to inhabit the mountains. This practice and kotodama (words with a magical effect on the world), as well as the purification rites of misogi, have been transmitted also to some Shinto sects as the Yamabushi and were practiced by some martial arts founders such as Morihei Ueshiba of Aikido and Ryushin Yakushimaru of Kukishin Ryu.

Ko-shinto places importance on purifying soul and body. One can purify the body by bathing under a waterfall or pouring water on oneself or through kokyu-ho (breathing power practice) and kotodama-ho or "magic chanting practice".


Ko-Shinto shrines are simple stones, stone circles or wooden small housings and altars for the worship of the Kamui of the dead ancestors. Nature's Kamui can be worshiped where they live, in forests, rivers and mountains. Ritual is a personal and sometimes community activity, usually carried on in open spaces. Temples are reserved only for the transmission of traditions or some more reserved practices as purification, some kinds of meditation, offers and sometimes body training. Festivals and ceremonies are mostly connected with the seasons, harvest and special ages when rituals of passage can be done.

Pottery for the exclusive use of ritual is a normal practice and way of expression. There is a traditional prominence of shamanesses over shamans, with the divination and spirit possession abilities most often considered capacities of the female gender.

See also


  • Ashkenazy, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 2003. ISBN 978-1-57607-467-1
  • Batchelor, John. The Ainu and Their Folklore. London, Religious Tract Society, 1901, OCLC 8394931901 ("On the Ainu Term `Kamui")
  • Carl Etter, Ainu Folklore: Traditions and Culture of the Vanishing Aborigines of Japan (1949), Kessinger Publishing Co (2004), ISBN 978-1-4179-7697-3 (2004)
  • C.Scott Littleton, Understanding Shinto: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places, Duncan Baird Publishers (2002), ISBN 978-1-903296-75-2
  • Honda Katsuichi, Ainu Minzoku, Asahi Shimbun Publishing Co. Ltd., 1993 (in Japanese) ISBN 978-4-02-256577-8
  • Ichiro Hori, Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change, University of Chicago Press, (1974), ISBN 978-0-226-35334-0
  • James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics (1908), Kessinger Publishing Co (2003), ISBN 978-0-7661-3666-3
  • Breen, John and Mark Teeuwen, Shinto in Historical Perspective, Routledge Curzon (2000), ISBN 978-0-7007-1172-7
  • Junko Habu, Ancient Jomon of Japan, Cambridge University Press, (2004), ISBN 978-0-521-77670-7
  • Lebra William P, Okinawan Religion: Belief, Ritual and Social Structure, University of Hawaii Press, 1966, ISBN 0-87022-450-6
  • MacKenzie, Donald A, Myth of China and Japan, Kessinger Publishing, (2005), ISBN 978-1-4179-6429-1
  • Kornicki, Peter and I.J. McMullen (Ed), Religion in Japan: Arrows to Heaven and Earth, Cambridge University Press, (1996), ISBN 978-0-521-55028-4
  • Yves Bonnefoy, Wendy Doniger, Asian Mythologies, University of Chicago Press, (1993), ISBN 978-0-226-06456-7