Sacred Forests: The Ecological Power of Reverence

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

By Yasuhiro Kotera*

A famous Shinto torii, or shrine entrance. ©Gio Almonte/Unsplash

Shinto, an ancient, indigenous Japanese religion with an inherent reverence for nature, is attracting new interest among scholars and environmentalists. As the world grasps for values and practices that can lead to sustainability and forest renewal, the cultivation of Chinju no mori, or the sacred forests that surround Shinto shrines, is particularly appealing.

Shinto: A Deep Connection Between Humans and Nature

The Shinto environmentalist paradigm explains the connection between the Shinto religion and the environment, emphasizing the ways in which Shinto shrines and rituals harmonize with nature. Shinto environmentalists stress the importance of the “life-knowledge” that is acquired through this intrinsic connection between humans and the natural world.

Elements of Shinto behavior are embedded in Japanese culture. For example, many Japanese visit a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day to wish for luck in the new year, a practice called Hatsu moude. High school students visit a shrine before their college entrance exams to wish for success. Other shrine visitors may include a couple wanting to have a baby, a single person hoping to find love, or a professional sports team wishing for success in the upcoming season.

Shinto environmentalist behaviors are also embedded in the culture. In kindergartens, children are educated to treat nature kindly because its many inhabitants and forms are endowed with life. On New Year’s Day, many Japanese stay awake to see and pray in the direction of the first sunrise, a practice called Hatsu hinode, because the agricultural kami, or divine spirit or god, is believed to visit our world on January 1st. By seeing the sunrise on that day and praying for good luck for the year, some people believe that the agricultural kami may receive their prayers. They treat nature with kindness because they believe that kamis may be watching them. They expect that their kindness towards nature and the divinity within nature will be reciprocated in the form of good weather or family well-being.

These behaviors and beliefs may seem strange to people from other countries, but an understanding of Japan’s sensitivity to its many natural disasters may help to explain this aspect of Japanese life. As it has for millennia, the country watches daily for earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. Faced with natural disasters over which they have no control, some Japanese people are able to (or try to) maintain tranquility by believing in a link between spirituality and nature.

Chinju No Mori Impacts Conservation Efforts

A 3,000-year-old camphor tree, a Goshinboku. ©Pekachu/Wikimedia Commons

The term Chinju no mori refers to trees grown around a shrine as if to protect the shrine and its sanctity. Some trees in Chinju no mori are called Goshinboku (Tree of God), or trees thought to bridge our world and the spiritual world. These enduring concepts reveal how ancient Japanese people viewed nature, relating it to Shintoism.

Today, the English word “ecology” is often used when discussing nature. In Japanese literature, this word was first introduced by Kumagusu Minakata in 1911, referring to the interconnectivity of lives: the lives of humans and animals and the lives of forests and nature. Minakata claimed that our lives are connected with the lives of Chinju no mori; hence, we must treat the forest kindly.

During Minakata’s time, the Japanese government launched a policy to reduce the number of shrines in the country to reduce associated costs. About 70,000 shrines were demolished, reducing the number of shrines from 200,000 to 130,000. Minakata understood the threats from logging and development that would follow this policy and penned two persuasive pamphlets on the subject. Eventually, his claim and initiatives stopped the policy by convincing the people and the government that a reduction of shrines and Chinju no mori may yield needed cash, but, in the long run, the country would lose far greater benefits, such as nature’s ability to purify our mind and inspire gratitude.

A fox statue guards a Shinto shrine. ©Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons

Though forested land has been decreasing on a global level, more forests are grown in Japan than are being cut down. The presence of Chinju no mori in Japan has significantly contributed to conservation efforts there. For example, Okami Shrine in Osaka has twenty kinds of ferns and fifteen kinds of shells, which is remarkable for a shrine in a city with a population of nearly 20 million people.

Chinju no mori can also be used for biodiversity education.[1] Efforts to protect the spirituality of Chinju no mori has led to conservation efforts that protect the diverse nature surrounding the shrines.

Disaster Leads to the Chinju No Mori Project

In 2011, the Great Sendai tsunami and earthquake hit the Tohoku region, killing more than 20,000 people. It was the worst natural disaster in Japan since World War II. However, the Amaterasu Mioya Shrine in Iwate prefecture survived the disaster relatively intact. The shrine was well protected by the natural environment surrounding it. This and other displays of the protective power of nature touched many people’s hearts; thus efforts to build natural barriers to protect the devastated region began, eventually leading to the Chinju No Mori Project that was launched about five years ago.

In the Chinju No Mori Project, a team analyzes a Chinju no mori, identifies what kinds of trees grow there, and decides how many should be planted to support the forest. If a type of tree is poorly suited to the environment, it does not grow well and is more easily uprooted by strong natural forces, posing increased risks to people. But trees that are well-suited to the environment grow well, spreading their roots widely and deeply. Based on that information, volunteers can plant the suggested trees.

The selection of trees suited to a particular environment is in accord with Shinto environmentalist beliefs. Moreover, trees chosen for a deeply meaningful purpose, such as that of the Chinju No Mori Project, should be accorded proper treatment. Planting new trees may appear to be always good for the environment, but, according to Shinto beliefs, doing so imprudently can also cause harm to nature. Knowing the environment and selecting the right kinds of trees for planting can protect sacred green spaces.

One’s Relationship with Nature

Japanese academics and students often spend years studying the environment in classes and workshops; however, being taught as a child that nature has a life within its inhabitants is deeply impactful. Developing a strong, lifelong compassion for nature, as one would for a good friend, can lead to new insights about how to care for nature. Indeed, understanding one’s relationship with nature may be a beneficial step in actualizing one’s desires to improve the environment.

*Yasuhiro Kotera, Ph.D. is currently the Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom. As an Accredited Psychotherapist, he has been working with clients internationally, offering psychological support. As a researcher, he has more than 100 peer-review articles and several books published regarding mental health and cross-culture. One area of focus in his research and practice relates to nature-based interventions to reduce negative mental health symptoms. He is moving to the University of Nottingham as Associate Professor in Mental Health, where he will further explore mental health recovery and cultures.


[1] Murakami, K. (2014). Biodiversity education practices utilizing the sacred forest of shrines as "familiar nature.'' ESD Seminar at Nagoya Sangyo University.