Does Shintoism have Iconoclastic features? || Bushido & Feudal Japan


Everybody has observed that the Shinto shrines are conspicuously devoid of objects and instruments of workship, and that a plain mirror hung in the sanctuary forms the essential part of its furnishing. The presence of the this article is easy to explain: it typifies the human heart, which when perfectly placid and clear, reflects the very image of the Deity. When you stand, therefore, in front of the shrine to worship, you see your own image reflected on its shining surface and the act of worship is tantamount to the old Delphic injunction, “Know Thyself.” But self-knowledge does not imply either in the Greek or Japanese teaching, knowledge of the physical part of the man, not his anatomy or his psycho-physics; knowledge was to be of a moral kind, the introspection of our moral nature.

Shinto Mirror

Western philosophy tends towards a phallogocentric or logocentric dialogue, whilst Eastern philosophy may lean towards an ‘empty vessel’ anatta (impermanence) dialogue. One philosophy is not superior to another and are limited in its context.

Iconoclasm usually refers to a person who destroys imagery of religious figures or someone who may attack beliefs held by most of the public quorum.

In a contemporary perspective, images limit and extend a version of ourselves, such as social media depicting an excellent understanding of who we are, like how I am typing. It may somewhat represent myself, or if you post a photo of yourself with filters on Instagram, like how I use Grammarly, the act of refining our responses to be then consumed as information can typify who we are to an online audience.

But in some instances, we fight with ourselves to meet those standards, and they may not be a realistic representation of who we are. Because what we reflect in the mirror is not a refined one.

And in other cases having images or stories and representations can help form a part of our identity, whether religious or non-religious icons.

And the words of an iconoclast in the way it is being defined as either ‘deviance’ or ‘freethinker’ or ‘heretic’ to ‘individualist’, or ‘conformer’ to ‘non-conformist.’ Is imbued with the politics between identities and becomes confusing in a public arena.

Shintoism is a polytheistic religion and observes good as inherent in humans and evil to arise from spirits. Kami is invoked to get rid of these spirits. These kami take the form of inanimate objects and nature, which provide sustenance and ruin equally to mortals.

What Buddhism failed to give, Shintoism offered in abundance. Such Loyalty to the sovereign, such reverence for ancestral memory, and such filial piety as are not taught by any other creed, were inculcated by the Shinto doctrines, imparting passivity to the otherwise arrogant character of the samurai. Shinto theology has no place for the dogma of “original sin.” On the contrary it believes in the innate goodness and God-like purity of the human soul, adoring it as the day them from which divine oracles are proclaimed.


Perhaps I don’t know much about the history of religions, but to me, Shintoism at mere appearances seem to encompass both iconoclastic and icon-worshipping features. To reference Inazo Nitobe’s quote above, he talks about how places of worship are without objects or instruments of prayer. Still, at the same time, it possesses features of icons seen in the worshipping of deities.

Shintoism as a source of Bushido

Bushido translated means “Military Knight Ways”, similar to the chivalry of a knight in Medieval Europe, to the chivalry or precepts of a Samurai in Medieval Japan. Although Bushido had become less prominent after World War II, the code is well-known in Japanese martial arts. Minamoto Yoritomo’s reign in the Kamakura period in 1192 created the shogunate empire. He was the first shogun of Japan who contributed to the unwritten moral code of Bushido. His establishment of this shogunate system would persist for another 700 years until the Meiji restoration period.

Shintoism existed in Japan before the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 12th Century of China to Japan, and both faiths imbued some values into Bushido[ including the teachings from Confucius and Mencius]. For example, meditation was employed from Zen Buddhism to drive fear of death in the Samurai, Which ensured that the Samurai had an advantage over their enemies in battle. These drew upon Zen Buddhism’s facets of discipline and Yoyū [ meaning capacious mind or tranquillity] to enable one to achieve self-actualisation; These tenets benefit Japan’s militarised society, as the Samurai could be a powerful instrument of the daimyo or the shogun, as they have composure in their minds and self-control.

Whilst Shintoism, already an existing facet of Japanese society, and being an indigenous faith of the Japanese people, emerging perhaps from 200 or 600 CE, further instilled moral codes in daily societal life like the governor and the governed. Shintoism offered moral character to the Samurai where Zen Buddhism could not, given that it helped strengthen the feudal system. It aimed to balance the Samurai’s violence with a set of ethics and tranquillity or peace to help them fluctuate between warrior and a participant of daily societal life. Shintoism helped to form the moral code of Bushido through this balance.

Bushido as a source of filial piety/ feudalism


Inazo Nitobe (1888).Bushido Illustrated. The Soul of Japan. Amber Books.

Joe Lovatt. (2009) Sword and Spirit: Bushido in Practice from the Late Sengoku Era through the Edo Period. West Oregon University.

Pletcher, K. (2019, September 9). Bushidō. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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