Shinto is not an organized religion or even a unified system of beliefs. Instead, the Japanese use the word to describe a whole group of religious ideas and practices focused on the forces of nature and ancestors, both mythological and real.

Originally, Shinto did not use images. The various deities were thought to come from the places where they lived—the heavens, the tops of mountains, isolated islands—to sacred compounds where they would stay just a short while. However, later in response to Buddhism, which uses images in its rituals, paintings of Shinto shrines depicted with a bird’s-eye view and of deities garbed in the robes of the Japanese nobility came to be produced for powerful religious institutions.