Three stages of ancestor worship are to be distinguished in the general course of religious and social evolution, and each of these can be found in the history of Japanese society.
The first stage, Domestic came in to existence before the establishment of settled civilization, when there is yet no national ruler, and when the unity of society is the greater patriarchal family, with its elders or war-chiefs for lords.
This is where only the family ancestors are worship, with each family honouring its own dead, and recognizing no other form of worship.
As the patriarchal family became grouped into tribal clans, there grew up a custom of tribal sacrifice to the spirits of the clan rulers.
The tribal clans was superadded to the Domestic, marking the second stage of ancestor worship, Communal.
Finally, with the union of all the clans or tribes under one supreme head, there developed the custom of propitiating the spirits of national rulers, State.
This third form of the ancestor worship becomes the obligatory “religion” of Japan.
However, this did not replace the proceeding two ancestor worship protocols, and these three continue to exist together in harmony.
How did the Shinto Shrine evolve?
The dwellings of the ancient Japanese were a very simple wooden structure.
The deceased was left for a certain mourning period, in either in the abandon house where the death occurred, or in a shelter especially built for the purpose.
Here is where offerings of food and drink were set before the dead, along with poems (shinobigoto 誄) in praise of the dead.
Along with music of the flute, drums, and dancing, a fire was kept burning before the house, and after the mourning period the deceased was then interned.
It is these abandoned dwellings that became an ancestral shrine, or ghost-house, from where the Shinto shrine evolved.
It is here at regular intervals after the burial where ceremonies were performed at the grave along with food and drink served to the spirits.
If one has the opportunity to visit a traditional Japanese home, one may very well find a tiny model of a Shinto shrine fixed upon a wall (kami dana 神棚).
It is here where there are thin tablets of white wood bearing the name of the deceased using the same name during their life in this mortal world.
A family venerating their ancestors according to Buddhist tradition and have a Buddhist alter, where the name of the dearly departed is inscribed with a posthumously prescribed name.
One of the most important matters when considering “religion” and its beliefs is its relation to conduct and character.
It should be recognized that no “religion” is more sincere, no faith more touching than this domestic worship, which regards the deceased as continuing to form a part of the household life, and still needing the affection and respect of their children and kin.
They are not thought of as dead, but are believed to remain as gods among those who love them, where unseen, they guard the home, and watch over the welfare of its inhabitant.
Indeed, the Japanese do not carry with them the concept of gods as the almighty rulers of the heavenly and hellish domains, but could be thought of as “the Superiors” or “The Higher Ones”.
The vast majority of Japanese Buddhists are also followers of Shinto, where these two faith though seemly incongruous, have long been reconciled to the common mind.
In all patriarchal society‘s with a settled civilization, there is involved, out of the worship of ancestors, a religion of filial piety.
Filial piety still remains the supreme virtue among civilized people possessing an ancestor cult.
Alas, filial piety does not translate into English, and fundamentally this alien concept can not be understood, or is dismissed outright in the framework of the Occidental mind.
This terminology needs to be understood in the classical sense of the early Romans, that is to say, as the “religious” sense of household duty.
Reverence for the dead, as well as the sentiment of duty towards the living.
The affection of children to parents, and the affection of parents to children
Mutual duties of husband and wife, and the likewise duties of son-in-law and daughter-in-law to the family as a body.
What is unquestionably true is the whole system of far-eastern ethics is derived from the “religion” of the household.
It is here where the idea of duty to the living as well as to the dead evolved, along with the virtuous traits of reverence, sentiments of loyalty, the spirit of self-sacrifice, and the spirit of patriotism.
It is in the ancient practice of ancestor worship where each member of the family can consider themselves to be under perpetual ghostly surveillance.
Spirit eyes are watching every act, and the spirit ears listening to every word.
Thoughts too, not less than deeds, are also visible to the gaze of the dead, and it is truly here where the heart must be pure with the mind under control within the presence of the spirit.
Probably the influence of such beliefs, uninterruptedly exerted upon conduct during thousands of years of Japanese social evolution did much to form the charming side of the Japanese character.
One can truly say, the “religion” of Japan, or more appropriately the Japanese Way, is a societal convention of gratitude and tenderness, where the dead are served by the household as if they were actually present in the body.
Internalizing the concept of filial piety and the accompanying ancestor worship, provides a moral compass to help shepherd one’s own life, as all continue to navigate the turbulent waters of modern life in the 21st century.
Japan, An Attempt At Interpretation
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn