Shintō Terminology


Bettō  別当: The head of an institution, usually a religious one, who also served as the head of another institution usually on a temporary basis.  


Bettō-ji  別当寺lit. "temple in a separate place."  During  the Edo Period, when Shinbutsu-shūgō, the peaceful coexistence of Shintō and Buddhism was still very much the rule, a betto-ji was a temple to which the management of a usually nearby shrine was entrusted.

Bunrei 分霊 (also read as "wakemitama"): One of the most important concepts of Shintō. The literal meaning of the phrase is "separate spirit." The basic concept is that the spirit of a kami from one shrine, essentially the kami itself, can be replicated in another shrine, with no diminution of the power of the original kami, and with the replicated kami retaining the power of the original kami. The shrine in which the original kami is replicated is referred to variously as the bunshi (分祠, 分祀), bunsha (分社), or  imamiya (今宮). The jinja in which the original deity is enshrined is usually referred to as the Sōhonsha (総本社) or Sōhongū (総本宮). Perhaps the best known Sōhonsha is the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyōtō, while Ise Jingū is undoubtedly the best known Sōhongū.

Bunshi 分祀: A shrine in which the kami of another is enshrined with no diminution of the power of either. See Bunrei 分霊 above.

Chikaraishi  力石: lit. "strength stone."

Daijingū 大神宮: lit. "Great God Palace." Narrowly speaking the name applies to Ise Jingū's Inner Shrine (Naigū, 内宮), where Amaterasu-Ōkami is enshrined. At Ise Jingū's Outer Shrine (Gaigū, 内宮), Toyōuke-Ōkami is the deity. Shrines around the country which owe spiritual allegiance to Ise Jingū and enshrine  Amaterasu-Ōkami and Toyōuke-Ōkami are usually known by their place name followed by Daijingū. Examples on this site are Tōkyō Daijingū and Shiba Daijingū.


Edo Sandai Matsuri (江戸三大祭, The Three Great Edo Festivals: Still celebrated to this day, they are, Kanda Jinja's Kanda Matsuri, Hie Jinja's Sannō Matsuri, and Tomioka Hachiman-Gū's Fukagawa Matsuri.

Kinensai (also known as "Toshigoe-no-matsuri") 祈年祭: "Spring Festival" praying for bountiful harvests. Mostly observed in February, though in some areas in March. 

Niiname-sai (also known as "Niiname-no-matsuri," "Shinjōsaj") 新嘗祭: "Harvest Festival." Specifically refers to an offering by the Emperor of the newly harvested gokoku (The Five Grains) at a shrine (the Shinkaden, 神嘉殿) inside the Imperial Palace on November 23.

Reisai 例祭: Considered to be the most important of the annual shrine festivals. The date it is held on varies from shrine to shrine and is usually based on a particular event in the particular shrine's history. 

Shichi-go-san 七五三: lit "seven, five, three." A ceremony held on or around November 15. Boys of five years of age and girls of three and seven are taken to the shrine to offer thanks for having reached these ages and to pray for future prosperity.

Tori no Ichi 酉の市: lit. "Rooster Market." A festival held at many Ōtori Jinja (鷲神社) on days of the rooster (酉) in November. The rooster is the tenth of the  

Ge-gū  下宮:  In a shrine with two or more in-ground shrines that shrine built on the lowest part of the shrine grounds. See also Jō-Gū 上宮.

Gongen 権現, also referred to as gonge (権化) and kegen (化現): avatar. lit. "incarnation." Indicates the appearance of a buddha as a native Japanese kami dedicated to lessening the suffering of mankind, and hence an integral component of the Honji Suijaku theory.

Gongen-zukuri 権現造り: a style of architecture in which the prayer hall and the main hall are connected by a covered passageway.

Gūji  宮司: Equivalant to the chief priest of a shrine.

Haiden 拝殿: Prayer Hall. 

Heiden 幣殿: Hall of Offerings

Hokora : A small shrine, sometimes standalone, sometimes in the grounds of other shrines, usually dedicated to a folk or local deity.

Honden 本殿:

Honji Suijaku 本地垂逆: lit: "original substance, manifest traces." A concept prevalent until Meiji times that the Japanese kami were in fact manifestations of Indian and Buddhist deities, the latter,the original substance, having chosen to appear in Japan in order to help save sentient beings.

Honsha 本社: Main shrine. Manages the affairs of any sessha and/or massha in its grounds. Note that since the end of WWII the difference between sessha and massha has been largely ignored.

Ichinomiya 一宮 (also written as 一の宮 or 一之宮): The highest ranking shrine in each of Japan's pre-modern provinces.

Jinbutsukami 人物神: lit. "person god." A human being who has been deified as a kami. Examples described on this site are Sugawara Michizane and Yoshida Shōin.

Jingikan 神祇管:"Department of Divinities." Established in the eight centtury to oversee Shintō clergy and rituals,

Jingū​ 神宮:a shrine closely related to the Imperial Family, usually refers to a shrine affiliated with Ise Jingū

Jinja Gōshi  神社合祀令 Shrine Merger Order:  Enacted in December 1906 the Shrine Merger Order was designed to merge or close shrines with the aim of having just one shrine in each town or village. Its purpose was to strengthen the organizational and financial underpinnings of Shintō and it was successful to the extent that of the 190,000 shrines registered in 1906 just 130,000 remained in 1914 and by 1926 the number had fallen to 113,000.

Jinja Honchō    神社本庁:

Jinushigami  地主神 : lit. "Land owning god." Kami associated with a particular area of land, and to enshrine whom a shrine was often built.

Jō-Gū 上宮:  Used to describe the most important in-ground shrine of a Jinja having two or more such shrines, or to the shrine built on the highest part of the shrine grounds. See also Ge-gū  下宮

Kagura-den 神楽殿: The building within a shrine where the sacred dance (kagura) and music are offered to the kami during ceremonies.

Kanjō  勧請: The ceremonial transfer of a divided tutelary deity to a new location

Kannushi  神主: Chief Priest of a shrine

Kenmusha 兼務社: a shrine the affairs of which are managed by the head priest of another shrine

Kohai 向拝: pent roof built atop the stairs of a shrine (or temple)


Massha 末社: Subordinate shrine. A shrine located in the grounds of another shrine and which is managed by it. See also Honsha and Sessha.

Miya-daiku 宮大工: A carpenter specializing in shrine or temple construction. 

Nade-ushi 撫で牛 lit. "caress cow/bull.  Statues of seated castle usually found in shrines dedicated to Sugiwara-no- Michizane'. It is said that when he was on his way to being buried the cow pulling his coffin apparently just fell to its knees en route and refused to go any further. Touching its head or horns of a nade-ushi  is said to revitalize both body and spirit. 

Okusha  奥社: Rear shrine. Situated behind the Honsha and enshrining the same kami 

Reikutsu  霊屈  A cave, hole, depression in the ground, where kami are present.

Sakaki 榊, サカキ: A species of evergreen tree, Cleyera japonica, sacred to Shintō.


Sengūsai  遷宮祭:  A ceremony held to commemorate the moving of a shrine's sacred object (shintai) from one building to anotherr.

Senzasai   遷座祭:  A ceremony held to commemorate the moving of a deity to a new site.

Sessha 摂社: Auxiliary shrine. A shrine located in the grounds of another shrine, the enshrined kami of which  is closely related to that of the main shrine.

Shakaku Seido 社格制度: Shrine Ranking System. In July 1871 the Meiji government set up a new shrine ranking system as part of its State Shintō policy. This superseded an earlier such system and was in turn abolished by SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) following Japan's defeat in WWII. Sitting alone at the very top of the pyramid, and hence not considered to need an official ranking, was Ise  Jingū. The three main rankings are Kansha 官社, Shosha 諸社, and Mukakusha 無格社.

Kansha 官社:  Probably best translated as "Imperial Shrine." These were shrines where Imperial representatives made Kinensai and Niiname-sai offerings to the kami on the Emperor's behalf.  Within Kansha there are two sub-divisions,

Kanpeisha 官幣社, where the offerings came from the Imperial Household Department, and   

Kokuheisha 国幣社, where the offerings came from the provincial governments. Again broadly speaking these were the Ichinomiya of the various provinces. 

Note that both the Kanpeisha and the Kokuheisha were divided into three rankings, Major, Medium, Minor (大, 中, 少).For the Kanpeisha there were 67 major shrines, 23 medium, and five minor. 

Shosha 諸社: "General shrines," there were three rankings, Fukensha 府県社, Gōsha 郷社, and Sonsha 村社

Fukensha 府県社: Offerings were in the name of the Fu 府 (municipal districts), Tōkyō, Kyōto, Ōsaka,  Japan's colonial holdings, and of the Prefectures 県, including Hokkaidō. 

Gōsha 郷社: "Rural district shrines"

Sonsha 村社: "Village shrines"


Shikinai-sha  式内社: A shrine which is listed in the Engishiki

Shikinen Sengu 式年遷宮: The following is from the home page of the Ise Jingū:- "Every twenty years, a new divine palace with the same dimensions as the current one is constructed at an alternate site which is adjacent to the main sanctuary. It involves about 30 rituals and ceremonies beginning with the ritual cutting of the first trees for the new divine palace. The sacred apparel, furnishings and divine treasures to be placed inside the sacred palace are also remade. Once they are prepared, the Holy Mirror (a symbol of Amaterasu-Omikami) is moved to the new sanctuary by the Jingu priests. This ritual is called Shikinen Sengu. It takes about eight years to conduct all rituals and events for Shikinen Sengu. It is carried out at Geku and other jinja of Jingu as well."

Shinboku 神木: also referred to as goshinboku 御神木, lit. sacred tree.  A tree found in shrine grounds indicating the presence of kami and considered to be sacred. A small shimenawa is usually draped around them, and they may be fenced off.. 

Shin-butsu Bunri  神仏分離:  The Edo Period Nativist movement, Kokugaku, had made philosophical points against Buddhism, saying that it was of foreign origin and distorting original Japanese culture. The Meiji government picked up on this and in March 1868 issued the Shinbutsu Hanzenrei (lit. Distinction between Shintō and Buddhism Order), designed to separate Shintō and Buddhism. Innocuous as the name of the Order may seem it led to a lot of anti-Buddhism violence: many temples were closed, monks were forcibly defrocked and driven from their temples, temple artefacts and books were destroyed.  One of the perhaps ironic side effects of the Order was its deleterious affect on Shintō theology: philosophizing along Buddhist lines was never an element of Shintō and with what was the effective outlawing of Buddhism shrine priests found they had so little to say to their parishioners that they were forbidden to preach and forced to restrict themselves to conducting shrine rites. 

Shinbutsu Shugo 神仏習合: “syncretism of kami and buddhas”: During the Edo Period Shintō and Buddhism coexisted in quiet harmony, with temples and shrines often sharing the same grounds and relationships between Buddhist deities and Shintō delineated. In Japan the concept was probably first promulgated in the Heian Period by Kūkai. This happy state of religious tolerance came to an end in when the new Meiji government introduced its Shin-butsu Bunri, a measure designed to separate  Shintō and Buddhism.

Shinroku 神鹿: lit. "Sacred Deer." Originally refers to deer which are raised in the grounds of a shrine and are considered to be  smessengers of the gods (akin to the Inari kitsune) . ​Most closely associated with the Kasuga Taisha in Nara, the family shrine of the Fujiwara clan.  Also associated with the Itsukushima Shrine grouping.

Shinsen-heihakuryō-kyōshin-jinja  神饌幣帛料供進神社: During the State Shintō period, shrines with the rank of gosha or sonsha (both mean village shrine) at which offerings were made on behalf of the prefectural governor based on an Imperial edict at the three main annual festivals, Kinen-sai, Niname-sai, and Reisai. 

Shintai 神体: "Body of the Kami": object of worship housed in a Shinto shrine and believed to contain the spirit of a deity. Most commonly they are man-made objects, particularly mirrors, swords and  comma-shaped jewels (magatama), statues: they can also be natural items such as rocks, and in a few cases entire mountains, Mt. Fuji is the best such example.

Sukeisha  崇敬者: A person considered to worship at a particular shrine but living too far away from it to visit regularly.


Tamakuji 玉串: A branch of a sakaki tree adorned with strips of paper and cotton used as an offering. 

Tōshō-gū 東照宮: A name reserved for jinja at which Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined. The main shrine is the one at Nikko, which is a world heritage site, and there are at least another 32 around the country. 

Yashiki-no-Sha  屋敷の社: A household or estate shrine 

Yorishiro 依り代/憑り代:  Objects considered welcoming to kami so that the kami can be summoned to inhabit them during religious ceremonies and after that on a more or less permanent basis as they become shintai. Among objects which can function as yorishiro are natural ones such as trees and large rocks. The most common mad-made yorishiro are mirrors, swords, and magatama (comma-shaped jewels).

Yoshida Shintō  吉田神道: An influential Shintō sect named after its founder, Yoshida Kanetomo. Its main teaching was that the Buddhist deities  were in fact manifestations of the Japanese kami, i.e. a reversal of the Honji Suijaku concept.


© Rod Lucas 2016-2020

All text and photos by Lucas unless otherwise stated