Shinto has no founder or founding date. When the Japanese people and Japanese culture became aware of themselves, Shinto was already there. Yayoi culture, which originated in the northern area of the island of Kyushu around the 3rd or 2nd century BC, is directly related to later Japanese culture and Shinto. Among the primary Yayoi religious phenomena were agricultural rites and shamanism. Early shamans (miko) performed the ceremonies; eventually those of the Yamato tribe did so on behalf of the other tribes and their chieftain assumed duties that led to headship of the Shinto state.
Confucianism reached Japan in the 5th century AD, and by the 7th century it had spread among the people together with Chinese Taoism and yin-yang (harmony of two basic forces of nature) philosophy. All of these stimulated the development of Shinto ethical teachings. With the gradual centralization of political power, Shinto began to develop as a national cult as well. Shinto became political by the 8th century when Yamato writers ascribed divine origins to the imperial family and so claimed legitmacy for rule. By the beginning of the 10th century, about 3,000 shrines throughout Japan were receiving state offerings.
Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan in AD 552 and developed gradually. In the 8th century there emerged tendencies to interpret Shinto from a Buddhist viewpoint. Shinto kami were viewed as protectors of Buddhism; hence shrines for tutelary kami were built within the precincts of Buddhist temples. Kami were made equivalent to deva (the Buddhist Sanskrit term for “gods”) who rank highest in the Realm of Ignorance, according to Buddhist notions. By the late 8th century kami were thought to be incarnations of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Bodhisattva names were given to kami, and Buddhist statues were placed even in the inner sanctuaries of Shinto shrines. In some cases, Buddhist priests were in charge of the management of Shinto shrines.
From the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192–1333), theories of Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation were formulated. The most important of the syncretic schools to emerge were Ryobu (Dual Aspect) Shinto and Sanno ("King of the Mountain") Shinto. The anti-Buddhist Ise or Watarai Shinto appeared in the city of Ise during the 13th century as a reaction against the Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation; it attempted to exclude Buddhist accretions and also tried to formulate a pure Japanese version.
In 1603 the Tokugawa shogunate was founded in Edo (Tokyo), and contact between Shinto and Confucianism was resumed. Scholars tried to interpret Shinto from the standpoint of Neo-Confucianism, emphasizing the unity of Shinto and Confucian teachings. Schools emerged based on the teachings of the Chinese philosophers Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming, and Neo-Confucianism became an official subject of study for warriors.
Fukko (Restoration) Shinto began toward the end of the 17th century. Advocates of this school maintained that the norms of Shinto should not be sought in Buddhist or Confucian interpretations but in the beliefs and life-attitudes of their ancestors as clarified by philological study of the Japanese classics. Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) represented this school. His emphasis was on the belief in musubi (the mystical power of becoming or of creation), which had been popular in ancient Shinto, and on a this-worldly view of life, which anticipated the eternal progress of the world in ever-changing mutations. These beliefs, together with the inculcation of respect for the Imperial line and the teaching of absolute faith—according to which all problems beyond human capability were turned over to kami—exercised great influence on modern Shinto doctrines.
In the early Meiji period (1868-1912), the religion was divided into Shrine Shinto (Jinja) and Sect Shinto (Kyoha). An Imperial Rescript on Education made it the formal foundation of the state. The divinity of the emperor was stressed, based on Confucian concepts of loyalty to the emperor and the state.
During the latter part of the 19th century, new religious movements emerged out of the social confusion and unrest of the people. What these new movements taught differed widely: some were based on mountain-worship groups, which were half Buddhist and half Shinto; some placed emphasis on purification and ascetic practices; and some combined Confucian and Shinto teachings. The new religious movements were based mostly on individual religious experiences and aimed at healing diseases or spiritual salvation. These sectarian Shinto groups, numbering 13 during the Meiji period (1868–1912), were stimulated and influenced by Restoration Shinto. They can be classified as follows:
- - Revival Shinto sects: Izumo-oyashiro-kyo (or Taisha-kyo), Shinto-taikyo, Shinri-kyo
- Confucian sects: Shinto Shusei-ha, Shinto Taisei-kyo
- Purification sects: Shinshu-kyo, Misogi-kyo
- Mountain worship sects: Jikko-kyo, Fuso-kyo, On take-kyo (or Mitake-kyo)
- "Faith-healing" sects: Kurozumi-kyo, Konko-kyo, Tenri-kyo