Shintoism and Clinical Depression


Understanding Shinto


Shinto is a religion of Japan and its people. It is the largest religion in Japan, with nearly 80% of the population practicing its traditions. With a little over 100 million followers, the vast majority of whom live in Japan, Shintoism ranks as the world’s fifth largest religion. Because Shinto allows for the worship of many gods and goddesses, followers can embrace Shintoism and other religious traditions.

Many define the Shinto religion as a religion of ritual and tradition. The practices are carried out to connect Japan’s present with its rich traditions of the ancient past. It is a religion of shrines devoted to the worship of many different gods. It incorporates the rituals involved in non-religious remembrance, including war memorials and harvest festivals. Some see the religion as a worship of the ancestors, though it is more the desire to honor those who have gone before and to preserve their memory and traditions.


The Origins of Shinto


Shinto tradition has recorded history back to the early 8th century, but archeological references and records date back further. Oral traditions regarding beliefs and rituals appear to go back several centuries before they began to be written down. Some of the traditions and histories view the Japanese imperial family as the cornerstone of Japanese culture. There are myths about creation and a structural system involving gods and goddesses.


Though there is no sacred scripture in Shinto, the books of lore and history provide the stories and characters involved in the formation of many Shinto beliefs. The four histories are the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), Shoku Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), the Rikkokushi (National Histories), and Jinno Shotoki (Shinto Politics).


Beliefs & Sects


Shinto is unique in that a person does not have to make a public profession of faith in order to be a member of the religion. When a child is born in Japan, a local Shinto shrine adds the child’s name to the membership list and declares the child as “family.” If the person eventually moves, their name may be added to an additional shrine.




One of the core beliefs of the Shinto religion is the idea that everything possesses a spiritual essence or energy called “kami.” Mountains, rivers, places, animals and people are said to have kami inside. People share on many levels and in many ways with kami. Shinto believes that certain objects or places have greater amounts of kami and make it easier for people to connect with them at those locations. Natural locations, like mountains and waterfalls, or man-made shrines are places where the kami dwell.


Death & Mourning


Shinto beliefs about death and the afterlife are often considered dark and negative. The old traditions describe death as a dark, underground realm with a river separating the living from the dead. The images are very similar to Greek mythology and the concept of hades.


The Buddhist influence on the Shinto religion teaches that thinking and meditating about death is important. Any death reminds the follower that life on earth is short. Death should challenge the living to make life meaningful by words and actions.

Mourning is seen as a natural reaction to death. Intense expressions of grief may be displayed on a specified day. At other times, grief should be shown in a controlled, almost stoic way that holds the deceased in highest honor and respect.


After Life


Shinto traditions lean heavily on the concepts of the presence of kami and not reincarnation. The spiritual energy, or kami, in everyone is released and recycled at the time of death. The spirits live in another world, the most sacred of which is called “the other world of heaven.” These other worlds are not seen as a paradise or a punishment. Instead the worlds are simply where the spirits reside. They can connect and visit the present world when people correctly perform rituals and festivals.


Shinto believes that the ancestral spirits will protect their descendants. The prayers and rituals performed by the living honor the dead and memorialize them. In return, the spirits of the dead offer protection and encouragement for the living.


Shintoism also views that some individuals live such an exemplary life that they become deified in a process called apotheosis. Many in the imperial family have experienced this honor, as have successful warriors.


Grief & Mourning


The Shinto religion teaches that it is natural to grieve the loss of family members and friends at the time of death. Buddhist influence would stress that any death is a reminder of the brevity of one’s own life. They would emphasize the need to have personal reflection and rededication to the correct spiritual paths during a time of grief.


Mourning is often seen as a regimented response to death. It has proper rituals and expressions. It should be endured in an almost stoic fashion. Mourning is a time of reflection on personal life, on the loss of companionship and the adjustment to life without the deceased. Mourning is a time to not only reflect on the life of the deceased, but to remember all those ancestors who have contributed to Japanese culture and life.


Periods of mourning vary in Shinto by sect and location. Most customs will have family and friends visiting the mausoleum or crematorium weekly, often bringing flowers and incense. In addition, many families will create home shrines to serve as a memorial for their departed loved one. One or more pictures will be hung above the shrine. Often some of the ashes of the body are kept in the home shrine.




Talking about depression in Japanese has always been a fundamentally different undertaking than talking about it in English. In English, the word for depression is remarkably versatile. It can describe dips in landscapes, economies or moods. It can refer to a devastating psychiatric condition or some autumn blues. It can be subdivided almost endlessly: major, minor, agitated, anxious, bipolar, unipolar, postpartum, premenstrual. But in Japanese, the word for depression (utsubyo) traditionally referred only to major or manic depressive disorders and was seldom heard outside psychiatric circles. To talk about feelings, people relied on the word ki or ''vital energy.'' A literal translation of Japanese synonyms for sorrow reads, to Westerners, like the kind of emotional troubles that might befall a kitchen sink: ki ga fusagu, sadness because your ki is blocked; ki ga omoi, sadness because your ki is sluggish; ki ga meiru, sadness because your ki is leaking.


Not surprisingly, Shintoism does not have a specific doctrine or set of teachings regarding mental health issues like depression. Shinto is more focused on the veneration of kami (spirits or gods) and the harmonious relationship between humans and the natural world.


Shintoism takes a holistic approach to well-being, recognizing the interconnectedness of the mind, body, and spirit. It believes that nurturing a harmonious relationship with nature, honoring ancestors, and practicing gratitude can contribute to overall mental health. This perspective encourages individuals to seek balance and find meaning in their daily lives, promoting a sense of purpose and contentment.


Shintoism emphasizes the mind-body connection and the influence each has on the other. It encourages individuals to engage in activities that promote physical wellness, such as cleansing rituals, meditation, and mindful practices. By actively nurturing both their mental and physical health, individuals can strengthen their resilience and find greater equilibrium amidst life's challenges.




The Shinto attitude towards suicide is somewhat ambivalent. Shinto believes that humans return to nature after death, suicide does not constitute an exception, and suicide as a sacrificial act is condoned. On the other hand, believing that life is given by nature and ancestors implies that suicide is wrong.


Shinto Rituals and Practices for Depression


Shintoism places great importance on purification rituals and cleansing practices as a means to restore spiritual balance. Participation in activities such as ritualistic bathing, visiting sacred waterfalls, or engaging in symbolic acts of cleansing can provide a sense of renewal and aid in releasing negative emotions associated with depression.


Prayer and meditation play significant roles in Shintoism, offering opportunities for introspection, inner peace, and connection with the divine. Engaging in these practices can help individuals find solace, regain clarity, and cultivate a sense of tranquility amidst the turmoil often experienced during depressive episodes.


Shinto shrines serve as sacred spaces where individuals can seek solace, healing, and spiritual guidance. Paying visits to shrines, making offerings, and performing rituals can provide a sense of support and create a space for introspection and reflection. These practices can help individuals find strength and resilience as they navigate their journey towards overcoming depression.


Shintoism places great importance on the spiritual connection between humans and nature. Nature is seen as a source of healing and renewal, with natural elements considered divine entities. This belief underscores the role of nature in promoting mental well-being and healing, including in the context of depression. One specific practice that aligns with Shintoism's emphasis on nature is "forest bathing," or shinrin-yoku. This practice involves immersing oneself in nature, particularly in forests, to experience the therapeutic benefits of being in a natural setting. Numerous studies have shown that forest bathing can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and promote overall mental well-being. By incorporating this practice into their lives, individuals following Shintoism can harness the healing power of nature to cope with and alleviate symptoms of depression.


Self-reflection and Mindfulness


Self-reflection is an integral aspect of Shintoism. This spiritual tradition encourages individuals to examine their actions, thoughts, and emotions, fostering self-awareness and personal growth. By engaging in self-reflection, individuals can become more attuned to their mental states, identify the causes of their depression, and take steps towards finding inner peace and balance.


Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, are commonly practiced in Shintoism to cultivate mind and body awareness. These techniques can be invaluable in managing depressive symptoms by redirecting attention to the present moment and promoting a sense of calm. Incorporating mindfulness into daily life can help individuals with depression develop a healthier relationship with their thoughts and emotions and find moments of peace and clarity.



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