Religion in Japan

Although both Buddhism and Shinto permeate Japanese society and life, most Japanese are blissfully unaware of the distinction between what is Shinto and what is Buddhist. A wedding is often a Shinto ceremony, while a funeral is a Buddhist rite.

There's a saying in Japan that you're Shinto at birth (marked with a Shinto ceremony) and Buddhist when you die (honored with a Buddhist funeral). The Japanese take a utilitarian view of religion and use each as suits the occasion. One prays for success in life at a shrine and for the repose of a deceased family member at a temple. There is no thought given to the whys for this—these things simply are. The neighborhood shrine's annual matsuri is a time of giving thanks for prosperity and for blessing homes and local businesses. O-mikoshi, portable shrines for the gods, are enthusiastically carried around the district by young locals. Shouting and much sake drinking are part of the celebration. But it's a celebration first and foremost.

Religion in Numbers

Although most Japanese—some 90 million people out of some 128 million total—identify themselves as Buddhist, most also practice and believe in Shinto, even if they don't identify themselves as Shinto followers per se. The two religions overlap and even complement each other, even though most Japanese people would not consider themselves "religious." The religions are just part of life.


Shinto (literally, "the way of the kami [god]") is a form of animism or nature worship based on myth and rooted to the geography and holy places of the land. It's an ancient belief system, dating back perhaps as far as 500 BC, and is indigenous to Japan. The name is derived from a Chinese word, shin tao, coined in the 8th century AD, when divine origins were first ascribed to the royal Yamato family. Fog-enshrouded mountains, pairs of rocks, primeval forests, and geothermal activity are all manifestations of the kami-sama (honorable gods). For many Japanese the Shinto aspect of their lives is simply the realm of the kami-sama and is not attached to a dogmatic religious framework as it would be in the West.


A Korean king gave a statue of Shaka—the first Buddha, Prince Gautama—to the Yamato Court in AD 538. The Soga clan adopted the foreign faith, using it as a vehicle to change the political order of the day. After battling for control of the country, they established themselves as political rulers, and Buddhism took permanent hold. Simultaneously Japan sent its first ambassadors to China, inaugurating the importation of Chinese culture, writing, and religion into Japan and the subsequent exchange of ideas in art, construction, language, and other aspects of society with mainland Asia. By the 8th century, Buddhism was well established.

Japanese Buddhism developed in three waves. In the Heian period (794–1185), Esoteric Buddhism was introduced primarily by two priests, both of whom studied in China: Saicho and Kukai. Saicho established a temple on Mt. Hie near Kyoto, making it the most revered mountain in Japan after Mt. Fuji. Kukai established the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism on Mt. Koya, south of Nara. In Japanese temple architecture, Esoteric Buddhism introduced the separation of the temple into an interior for the initiated and an outer laypersons' area.

Amidism (Pure Land) was the second wave, introduced by the monk Honen (1133–1212), and it flourished in the late 12th century until the introduction of Zen in 1185. Its adherents saw the world emerging from a period of darkness during which Buddhism had been in decline, and asserted that salvation was offered only to the believers in Amida, a Nyorai (Buddha) or enlightened being. Amidism's promise of salvation and its subsequent versions of heaven and hell earned it the appellation "Devil's Christianity" from visiting Christian missionaries in the 16th century.

In the Post-Heian period (1185 to the present) the influences of Nichiren and Zen Buddhist philosophies pushed Japanese Buddhism in new directions. Nichiren (1222–82) was a monk who insisted on the primacy of the Lotus Sutra, the supposed last and greatest sutra of Shaka. Zen Buddhism was attractive to the samurai class's ideals of discipline and worldly detachment and thus spread throughout Japan in the 12th century. It was later embraced as a nonintellectual path to enlightenment by those in search of a direct experience of the sublime. More recently Zen has been adopted by a growing number of people in the West as a way to move beyond the subject-object duality that characterizes Western thought.

Shrine and State

Although the modern Japanese constitution expressly calls for a separation of church and state, it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, twice over the last 150 years, Shinto was the favored religion and the government used all of its influence to support it.

During the Meiji Restoration (1868), the emperor was made sovereign leader of Japan, and power that had been spread out among the shoguns was consolidated in the Imperial House. Shinto was favored over Buddhism for two reasons. First, according to Shinto, the members of the Imperial Family were direct descendants of the kami who had formed Japan. The second reason was more practical: many of the Buddhist temples were regional power bases that relied upon the shoguns for patronage. Relegating Buddhism to a minor religion with no official support would have a weakening effect on the shoguns, while the government could use Shinto shrines to strengthen its power base.

Indeed, Buddhism was actively suppressed. Temples were closed, priests were harassed, and priceless art was either destroyed or sold. The collections of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, were just two of the indirect beneficiaries of this policy.

During the Pacific War (the Japanese term for World War II), Shinto was again used by the military (with the complicity of the Imperial House) to justify an aggressive stance in Asia. (It should be noted that Kokuchukai Buddhism was also used to sanction the invasion of other countries.) The emperor was a god and therefore infallible. Since the Japanese people were essentially one family with the emperor at the head, they were a superior race that was meant to rule the lesser peoples of Asia.

Once ancestor worship was allied with worship of the emperor, the state became something worth dying for. So potent was this mix that General Douglas MacArthur identified state Shinto as one of the first things that had to be dismantled upon the surrender of Japan. The emperor could stay, but shrine and state had to go.

Religious Festivals

Although there are religious festivals and holy days observed throughout the year, the two biggest events in the Japanese religious calendar are New Year’s (Oshogatsu) and Obon. New Year’s is celebrated from January 1 to 3. Many people visit temples or shrines the night of December 31 to ring in the New Year or in the coming weeks. Temple bells are struck 108 times to symbolize ridding oneself of the 108 human sins. This practice is called hatsumode. Food stalls are set up close to the popular places, and the atmosphere is festive and joyous. Many draw fortune slips called omikuji to see what kind of a year the oracle has in store for them.

The other major religious event in the Japanese calendar is the Obon holiday, traditionally held from August 13 to 15. Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead when the spirits come back to visit the living. Most people observe the ritual by returning to their hometown or the home of their grandparents. Graves are cleaned and respects are paid to one’s ancestors. Family ties are strengthened and renewed.

Visiting a Buddhist Temple

The first thing to do when visiting a temple is to stop at the gate (called mon in Japanese), put your hands together and bow. Once inside the gate, you should stop to wash your hands at the stone receptacle usually found immediately upon entering the temple grounds. Fill one of the ladles with water using your right hand and wash your left hand first. Then refill the ladle with water using your left hand and wash your right hand, being careful to not let the water drip back into the receptacle (the water is considered impure once it touches your hands). After washing your hands, you can ring the temple bell if you choose.

Next, light a candle in front of the main altar of the temple and place it inside the glass cabinet. Then put your hands together and bow. You can also light three sticks of incense (lighting them together is customary) and put them in the large stone or brass stand. This action is also followed with a prayer and a bow.

After praying at the main altar and/or sub-altar, you’ll probably want to spend some time walking around the temple grounds. Many have gardens and sculpture worthy of a visit in their own right. Upon leaving you should stop at the gate, turn, put your hands together, and bow to give thanks.

Visiting a Shinto Shrine

Shrines, like temples, have gates, though they are called torii and are often painted a bright red-orange, but this varies regionally. There are stained wooden torii, stone, and even metal torii. In terms of their appearance, torii look much like the mathematical symbol for pi. As with the gates of temples, one enters and exits through the torii, bowing on the way in and again on the way out but without clasping the hands.

Inside the shrine grounds, wash your hands as you would at a temple described above (left hand and then right hand). Then proceed to the main entrance (usually a set of open doors at the top of some stairs), clap twice to alert the kami of your presence, and bow. If there is a bell to ring, that will also summon the kami, as will the sound of money tossed into the box at the shrine's entrance. At a larger shrine there may be special trees, stones, and other holy objects situated throughout the grounds where you can repeat the clapping and praying process. At the beginning of their prayers, people introduce themselves by name and address. Since gods in Japan are local, you are to identify yourself to the god that you are of this place or of some other place and visiting.

After you have finished visiting the shrine, you should turn around at the torii and bow upon leaving.

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