Living the Shinto Way - Asian American Heritage Month

Shinto buildings

In 1992, Congress designated the month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. May was thoughtfully chosen to commemorate both the immigration of the first Japanese immigrants who arrived in the United States in May 1843 and to honor the 20,000 Chinese immigrants whose work helped open America’s first intercontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. 

Today more than 24 million people identify as Asian and 1.6 million more as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders living in America. These individuals carry with them tremendous richness in culture, faith traditions, and languages that offer diversity and beauty to us all. 

In honor of this month, I want to share about my mother, Mutsuko, who came to this country in the early 1950s from Yokohama, Japan. She met and married my birth father, an Army serviceman, after World War II and moved home with him. Even though my mother left her family and country, she didn’t leave her faith behind. My mother was Shinto, the indigenous faith and cultural tradition of Japan, and she raised me with the transformative values she had always known and loved.  

The Way of the Gods 

The word Shinto means “the way of the gods.” As in Unity, there is no dogma in Shinto, no rigid rules to live by. There is also no sacred text, such as the Bible in Christianity or the Sutras in Buddhism. Instead, Shintoism is taught as a way of life, a philosophy that blends spirituality and morality. Its main precepts are based on the values of harmony, respect, love of nature, and the presence of God everywhere and in everything.  

Shintoism is a polytheistic tradition. It is a faith that honors kami, which are gods or divine forces that exist everywhere. Kami is limitless and can be found in humans and creatures, in Japanese mythology, and in nature and natural phenomena. Kami is recognized in loved ones who have passed and have become ancestral kami, known and cherished for the strong spiritual gifts they cultivated while on earth.  

Nature also exudes a strong presence of kami. Mountains, water, trees, wind, and sky, for example, all express the Divine through their gifts of beauty, wisdom, power, and grace.   

Where God Is 

Growing up with a Shinto mom, I wasn’t encouraged to go to church as a child. My mother couldn’t relate to the ways Americans practiced their religions. I remember her telling me, “You can go to church if you want to, but why don’t you just go outside and look around? Feel the sun and see nature all around you. That is where God is.” 

I didn’t realize my mother was teaching me the Shinto way. I thought she simply didn’t want to engage in Western Christian beliefs, but in truth, she was sharing an indigenous way of life that saw and felt the essence of God everywhere.  

Shintoism places a high value on harmony, the ability to live in peace with all things and beings. My mom often chose harmony with others over any words or actions she thought might embarrass or shame others, even to her own detriment. For example, there were times my mother was the focus of racist behavior, and she typically weathered these storms with grace and peace. Once, after a very humiliating incident when she and I were being mocked for our Asian eyes, I asked her how she felt. She told me to let it go, not to worry about her, and she encouraged me to make peace with myself instead. She said, “Just sing a song in your head when it happens. There’s no need to fight. No one can take away your happiness.”

I used to think her answer was simplistic, but then I began to practice this technique when I was hurt or angry. It gave me space, a moment of breathing to center myself and not give away my power, truth, or happiness. I began to feel and know the wisdom of her words. 

I didn’t realize my mother was teaching me the Shinto way. I thought she simply didn’t want to engage in Western Christian beliefs, but in truth, she was sharing an indigenous way of life that saw and felt the essence of God everywhere.

Surrendering the Self 

In the Shinto way, great emphasis is placed on honoring the needs and wishes of others—family, community, or country—above the wants and needs of an individual. This practice rubs up against the individualism of Western culture since putting others first might be seen as participating in acts of submission, giving in to control, or a lack of self-esteem. But I have come to know this value in its purest form is not about being suppressed, passive, or unworthy. Instead, it is a spiritual decision. It’s about acting selflessly and surrendering the self with humility and love. I came to understand this practice more fully when I went to Japan to visit relatives nine years ago, and my aunt talked about my mother’s early years in America. The stories she told me are forever imprinted on my heart. 

I always knew of my mother’s difficulties in America as an immigrant. Life was challenging because of language and cultural barriers. My mother had no family here, and she and my father divorced when I was young, leaving her very much alone in this country. 

Her family reached out and asked her to return to Japan. I’m sure it would’ve been a welcome relief since she was raising two young children on her own, but my mother declined. She told my aunt that she would remain in the United States and continue to do her best to overcome poverty and illness (my little sister became terminally ill with leukemia) because she wanted, first and foremost, for me to grow up in my own homeland, America.  

My mother never spoke of this sacrifice to me. She never mentioned that she put me first when I was a child, that she withstood the challenges before her—a divorce, my sister’s illness and death, poverty, racism, and abuse—so I could know my own country.  

Honoring the Gifts of My Heritage 

I am so proud and honored to be an Asian American today. I carry my mother’s stories, her strengths, her spirit, and her values in my heart. I stand on her shoulders and go forward as a second-generation Asian American, honoring the gifts of my heritage she has given me. 

My hope is that all of us will take time this month to appreciate and celebrate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our country. I encourage you to learn about the various cultures and explore differences in diversity. Even more, I invite you to listen to stories of AAPI individuals so they can come alive for you.
It is then that you’ll feel the beauty of kami, alive and vibrant everywhere. 

About the Author

Rev. Myra McFadden is the senior minister at Unity of Kansas City North in Missouri. She is also a psychotherapist who has worked in the field of mental health for 30 years. Visit her website at