Forests and religious belief

It is believed that the major factor in the coexistence of forests and cities in Japan is the religious belief called Shinto (see e. g. Ono 1962; Pregill and Volkman 1999; Sonoda 2000). The distinctive feature of this Japanese primitive religious belief is nature worship. In ancient times, various natu­ral objects or places were regarded as sacred, and still today we can see their relics easily (Figs. 1, 2). In Japan, people tend to believe that these places are possessed by invisible presences such as native spirits.


Fig. 1. (left) An example of worshipping a big stone (in Yamanashi-shi, Yamana – shi, 2003/12/25)

Fig. 2. (right) An example of worshipping a hill (in Kasugai-cho, Yamanashi, 2003/12/25)

Especially in Japan where the land is mostly mountainous, “forest” was synonymous with “hill” or “mountain”, and they were regarded together as

a sacred area. Sometimes the sea was also regarded as sacred. After people started to grow rice on irrigated flat fields, forests became indispensable as sources of water with the result that people strongly recognized forests as sacred, and built shrines at the boundary between forests and villages. Un­til the Middle Ages, many cities were developed in the limited flat land be­tween the mountains or between the mountains and the sea. Inside these cities, major shrines were built on or at the foot of the small forested hills.

It is believed that for city people, the image of the hill composed of a forest and a shrine is analogous to the ancient setting of a forested moun­tain and a village’s shrine built in front of it (Fig. 3).

After Buddhism was introduced into Japan from China in the sixth cen­tury, the fusion of Buddhism and Japanese Shinto became more and more advanced, and Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines came to coexist on the same site surrounded by forests.


Fig. 3. Diagrams of spatial relationship between shrines and surroundings – proto­type of shrine (above), shrine in a city (below)

Updated: October 14, 2015 — 10:01 am