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Home » 7. Concepts and Doctrines » Basic Concepts
The concept (kan) of the universe (uchū) originated in Taoism and the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. and is written with two graphs. The first character refers to the spatial dimension 'Heaven and Earth' and the 'Four Directions;' while the second character has the meaning of temporal dimensions. In this sense, the term uchū may be interchangeable with the term sekai (usually translated as 'world'), in which the first character "se" refers to the temporal categories of past, present, and future, while the second character "kai" refers to the spatial categories (North, South, East and West, up and down). Or possibly the term uchū is very close to the modern idea of "view of nature" (shizen-kan). The term shizen originates with Laozi and Zhuangzi (and can imply the Taoist concept of 'so-of-itself' (shizen) but was used to translated the English word "nature".

Concept of the universe as seen in Shinto mythology
Shintō mythology, naturally, begins with a cosmogony, or explanation of the beginning of the universe. This differs from the Genesis of the Old Testament. In the Kojiki it states: "At the time of the beginning of heaven and earth" and does not refer to whatever may have preceded the separation of Heaven and Earth, but simply suggests that something already existed. The Nihon shoki (which is said to have been influenced by Chinese classics such as the Sanwuliji, the Huainanzi and others) echoes this by saying, "Of old, when Heaven and Earth when not yet separated, and when Yin and Yang were not yet differentiated, they formed a chaotic mass like an egg which was of obscurely defined limits and contained germinating matter." In this respect the sentence "When Heaven and Earth first appeared as different entities, matter existed in the midst of the Void," which is found in one of the alternate writings of the Nihon shoki, seems to be the simplest expression of this point. Like the Chinese, the ancient Japanese did not conceive of an absolute Void preceding the appearance of this world, but thought that this world was already existent, a given thing. Of great importance, however, is the following phrase found in the Kojiki: "The name of the kami that appeared in the High Heavenly Plain was" as well as the following sentence found in the Nihon shoki: "Heaven was therefore formed first, and Earth was established subsequently. Thereafter kami were produced between them." That is, unlike in Genesis, where God creates the world out of nothing, the idea is that there was an existence and the kami manifest this. The kami were thought of as the essence of that concrete existence, however there are multiple kami, among them Izanagi and Izanami, who received the word from the seventeen Heavenly kami (amatsugami) to consolidate and fashion the "drifting land." This might be interpreted in the following way: the Japanese understood the existing universe to be in a state of ongoing self-genesis, and thought that the evolution of this already existing world depended on its own will to be. This evolution was not conceived of as a mere natural transformation, but as working towards a purposeful creation. One may infer from this the basic life-affirming optimism of Shintō, which is grounded in the belief in a world which is 'so-of-itself.'

The Shintō concept of the universe and the history of its interpretation
Next, let us look at the examples of how the word uchū is actually used in the classics. The term only appears in the Nihon Shoki, where it is used three times. The first is in the 'Age of the Gods' section, discussing the divinity of Susano-o, Izanagi and Izanami say "You (Susano-o) are exceedingly wicked, and it is not proper that you should reign over the universe (uchū). You must depart far away to the Nether Land." The second is in in the records of the reign of emperor Keitai, in the chronicles of human sovereigns: "The kami of Heaven and Earth must not lack a worshipper; the universe (uchū) must have a lord." And third, in the chronicles of the Emperor Ankan: "Benevolent influences extend over the universe (uchū): cries of appreciation fill Heaven and earth." However,this term is traditionally glossed in Japanese as 'under Heaven' (amenoshita), an idea that does not refer to the modern concept of universe, but only to Japan. This is made clear by the myths in which the term 'Earth' (as in Heaven and Earth) always refers to the 'Land of the Eight Great Islands' (Ō-yashima-guni), or Japan, and not to the whole of the world. If this is said, the sentence in the edict (senmyō) that appears in the chronicles of Emperor Jinmu "The capital may be extended so as to embrace the six cardinal points and the eight corners of the world under one roof," does not refer to the world at large, but to Japan only. Indeed, the term 'six cardinal points' was traditionally glossed as domain, while the term 'eight corners' was glossed as 'amenoshita,' that is, Japan. Since Shintō is a polytheistic system, the kami were related to specific functions and particularistic values; this does not mean, however, that the 'world,' as this term is understood today, was ignored. Indeed, by the time the Kojiki and Nihon shoki were recorded in writing, Japan had already created a state with centralized power and legal controls based on the model learnt from China. After the Nara period, this system was shaken many times. First of all, emperors became Buddhist devotees, and due to Buddhism becoming the state religion, there began contamination between Shintō and Buddhism. Buddhism was grounded in a single, universalistic truth system and Shintō soon adopted the uchū-kan (universe concept). Kami were ranked as guardian deities and protectors of the Buddhist teachings and subsequently, kami came to be regarded as mere manifestations of the real deity Buddha . One finds in the Yamato-hime no Mikoto Seiki, an Ise Outer Shrine Shintō text compiled during the Kamakura period, the following statements: "Great Japan is a sacred land [or, "is the land of kami"]," and, "You must cover your breath concerning Buddhism and revere the kami." Yet, even as Ise Shintō emphasized the maintenance of Shintō rituals, it considered Toyo-uke no ōkami, the main object of cult at the Outer Shrine of Ise, to be a child of Śiva (Daijizaiten), the main deity of Hinduism. This kind of tendency is still noticeable during the early modern and modern periods. Hirata Atsutane, who was influenced by the texts Sandai-kō and Shichidai-kō (authored by Hattori Nakatsune, a disciple of Motoori Norinaga), used knowledge based upon Western astronomy to claim that the first kami mentioned in the Kojiki, Ame-no-minaka-nushi, was in fact the universal lord residing in the Purple Palace of Polaris (the North Star); that the ancient narratives of Japan were oral transmissions from that lord; and that the kami Suku-na-hiko-na had created all other countries. This conception of the universe originates in a tendency to treat myth as history. It is only after the defeat in World War Two that these issues have come to be questioned on the basis of genuine theology.

— Ueda Kenji
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
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