Japanese Culture

Religion

Religion once featured heavily in Japan’s public sphere, with both Shintō and Buddhism each being the state religion at different points in Japanese history. However, secularism has been a prominent aspect of Japanese society since the introduction of the Constitution of Japan (1947). The secular nature of Japanese society can be seen in the demographics of religious affiliation. No single religion is particularly dominant, and people often follow a combination of practices from multiple religious traditions.

 

According to the Government of Japan, 69.0% of the population practises Shintō, 66.7% practise Buddhism, 1.5% practise Christianity and 6.2% practise other religions as of 2018.1 However, people tend to identify with no religion when asked about religious belief. For instance, when asked which religion they personally believed in, 62% of responders selected none, 31% selected Buddhism, 3% selected Shintō, 1% selected Christianity, 1% selected some other religion, and 2% did not respond.2 This reflects a general view of Shintō and Buddhism as a set of practices or a way of life that can be practised in conjunction with other beliefs. Moreover, people generally do not hold or express intense religious feelings, except for those who feel strongly connected to their religious identity.

 

Shintō in Japan

Shintō (literally meaning ‘the way of kami’) is the term used to refer to various religious myths, beliefs and rituals that are indigenous to Japan. The localised nature of Shintō means there is no formal central authority and there is a great diversity in beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, there are a number of commonalities, such as the belief in the existence of kami, visiting shrines to perform rituals, and the importance of maintaining purity.

 

The late 19th to early 20th century saw the rise of State Shintō, which linked the imperial family and nationalist ideology to Shintō thought. Shrines became sponsored and monitored by the government, citizens were strongly encouraged to respect the Emperor as a divine being, and other religions were highly discouraged.3 When Japan officially and formally became secular in 1947, State Shintō was disestablished and the Emperor’s divine status was removed. Nonetheless, this historical legacy means there are sometimes controversies surrounding the presence of Shintō in state affairs today, such as the use of Shintō symbols in state functions.4

 

Kami and Spirits

The foundation of Shintō is a belief in the existence of guardians or protecting deities, known as kami. It is thought that there are hundreds of kami that interrelate in multiple ways. Some kami have names and life narratives (like the sun goddess Amaterasu), some are seen as personifications of nature, and some are considered to be the spirits that animate natural features like waterfalls, large trees or mountains. Each kami has varying degrees of power and is capable of gracious or destructive actions.

 

Alongside kami, there are other kinds of spirits, such as messengers of individual kami. These messengers usually manifest in an animal form. For instance, the messenger of the great kami Inari is depicted as a fox (kitsune). Shrines for kami are often filled with statues of their messengers. Other spirits include those that perform ill-intended acts, as well as vengeful spirits who require pacification, often through Buddhist rituals or other means.

 

Shrines (Jinja) and Shintō Rituals

A shrine (jinja) is the main place where Shintō prayers and rituals take place. There are hundreds of thousands of shrines throughout Japan, of which most are household shrines, family shrines or public local shrines in varying sizes. The latter are often cared for by priests (kannushi) who manage the offerings presented to the specific kami at the location. Many shrines are located within natural settings, such as gardens or wooded forests. Shrines in more secluded areas often have a gateway known as a torii that demarcates the area where the kami resides. Torii, especially those in vibrant red, have become a major recognisable symbol of Japan.

 

Visitors to shrines usually perform a number of short rituals, taking only a few minutes. The individuals usually purify themselves by sprinkling water onto their hands and face. They then ring a bell located at the shrine to gain the attention of the kami, followed by a bow of reverence and a clap. Finally, they stand in silence while offering a prayer. Such prayers are not usually directed to a specific kami, but rather generally ask for recovery from illness, to pass an entrance exam, to gain good fortune and so forth. People may visit their local shrine daily, often on their route to work and to commemorate life-cycle events. The popular public shrines may host large-scale ritual services and major annual festivals.

 

Impurity (Kegare) and Removing Impurity (Harae)

In Shintō thought, it is believed that humans are fundamentally pure, but certain events or contact with certain things causes temporary impurity, such as menstruating (for women) or childbirth (for both parents). Moreover, death and anything relating to death is seen as especially impurifying. A number of rituals and substances are thought to bring the person back to their natural state of purity. Freshwater, saltwater and salt are seen as purifying substances, and feature frequently in many aspects of Japanese life. For example, great emphasis is placed on bathing oneself, and there is also a widespread practice of sprinkling salt over things that require purification. Fully immersing oneself into the sea is thought to be one of the most effective forms of purification.

 

Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism entered Japan some time during the 6th century CE from the Korean peninsula and China. The transmission of Buddhism through Northeast Asia is generally known as Mahāyāna Buddhism. Over subsequent centuries, the movement of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Japan developed into its own set of distinctive traditions and schools, many of which prevail today both in the country and worldwide. Alongside Shintō, Buddhist thought continues to influence Japanese societal values and attitudes.

 

Japanese Buddhist Schools and Organisations

Since the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, the religion has developed into many different schools and traditions. Some of these schools have existed for centuries, such as Tendai, Shingon, Jōdo, Jōdo Shinshū, Rinzai, Sōtō and Nichiren, all of which have their own branches and subsects. Most of the more than 77,000 Buddhist temples in Japan are affiliated with one of these seven major schools. The school with the largest temple affiliation is Sōtō (over 14,000 temples), followed by Jōdo Shinshū (over 10,000 temples).5 Some of these traditional lineages have colleges and universities that specifically train individuals in history, doctrine and practices for the purpose of becoming monastics or priests.6

 

There are also newer schools that have emerged in Japan in the last century, such as Sōka Gakkai International (“Value Creation Society”) and Risshō Kōsei Kai (“Society for Establishing Righteousness and Friendly Relations”). Both schools locate their origins in the Nichiren school and are founded and run by laypersons. Practices often focus on group meetings and participation in chanting and learning about the Lotus Sūtra.7 Though initially small with members only in Japan, both now are global organisations with followers from around the world.

 

Most schools of Buddhism in Japan follow major tenets of Mahāyāna Buddhism, such as belief in the existence of special beings known as buddhas and bodhisattvas, teachings on the Four Noble Truths, as well as an emphasis on cultivating wisdom and compassion. However, there are aspects of Japanese Buddhism that are quite distinct. For instance, certain schools of Buddhism in Japan reject celibacy as an ideal for monastics, meaning that some monastics (usually male) are married. The term ‘priest’ is sometimes used to distinguish married male monastics from celibate monks, but there is no clear-cut distinction. ‘Monk’ and ‘priest’ are often used interchangeably.8

 

Temples (Tera) and Altars (Butsudan)

Buddhist temples (tera) are found throughout Japan, with nearly every town and city home to at least one temple. The complex around a temple generally includes multiple buildings that serve different functions, such as a lecture hall, monastery and cemetery. Many temples in Japan are owned, administrated and cared for by a single family. This heritage system emerged as a result of monastics being able to marry and have children. Thus, the responsibility of a temple is usually patrilineally passed down through the family. A similar practice occurs with laypersons, whereby people will often continue to be patrons to the same temple of their family.9

 

People primarily visit temples for cultural or religious festivities, as well as to commemorate a death in the family.10 In particular, people tend to participate in funerary rites for a deceased family member or to honour past family members on the anniversary of their death. Most funerals are Buddhist, performed by Buddhist priests usually at the temple where the family have traditionally been patrons. However, the role of Buddhism in funerary matters has been changing in recent times.11 There is now more diversity in preferences, with some families choosing more secular funerals over traditional temple funerals.12

 

Similarly, most Japanese homes have a Buddhist altar, known as a butsudan which is used to perform rituals that commemorate ancestors. The frequency of rituals varies depending on the family, ranging from daily to infrequently. People tend to pray for the well-being of their ancestors and for their blessing or protection. A typical altar contains numerous religious objects, such as incense burners and bells, platforms for placing offerings such as fruits, water or rice, statues of different buddhas or bodhisattvas, as well as the names of deceased family members.

 

Religious Syncretism

Religious syncretism has been a major feature of religion in Japan since the introduction of Buddhism. Though many Shintō beliefs and rituals predate the arrival of Buddhism, Shintō has been influenced by Buddhist thought and practice throughout the course of centuries. In particular, the relationship between Shintō deities (kami) and Buddhist special beings (buddhas and bodhisattvas) was redefined multiple times. Today, though the two sets of entities are usually seen as distinct, it is not uncommon to find statues of Buddhist beings in Shintō shrines.

 

On a more personal level, traditional Japanese religions tend to be viewed as complementary to one another. In particular, it is common to find individuals and families practising both Shintō and Buddhism, depending on the context. Such practices also often include influences of other Asian worldviews like Confucianism and Daoism. Religious syncretism is particularly noticeable in rituals relating to birth and death, wherein people may commemorate growth through Shintō practices, while also performing Buddhist rituals for recently deceased family members and ancestors.

 

Christianity in Japan

Christianity entered Japan largely through the efforts of the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century. Initially, Christianity was well received as a religion and a symbol of European culture. However, it became banned by the state in the 17th century, forcing many Christians into hiding due to fear of persecution. The ban on the religion was lifted during the late 1800s, which saw the reintroduction of Christianity by various missionary groups. Many denominations that were established in the country continue to be followed today, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Presbyterian and Eastern Orthodox Church.

 

Today, approximately 1.5% of Japan’s population identifies as an adherent of Christianity.13 As of 2018, there are over 8,500 Christian organisations and 32,000 clergy or ministers.14 A large portion of Japan’s Christian community reside in the western part of the country where the activity of missionaries was greatest during the 16th century, such as the city of Nagasaki in Kyūshū. Though the total population of Christians is small, particular Western customs that are related to Christianity (such as Western-style weddings and the celebration of Valentine’s Day and Christmas) have become increasingly popular. Moreover, various Christian groups have funded and supported many educational, medical and other social institutions.

 

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1 Statistics Bureau of Japan, 2021. Note that the total number of adherents exceeds the total population as many people practise both Shintō and Buddhism.
2 Nippon Hoso Kyokai [NHK], 2019. Note that survey results were gathered in 2018.
3 Harai, 2020
4 Rots, 2017
5 Shimazomo, 2006
6 Deal & Ruppert, 2015
7 Deal & Ruppert, 2015
8 Tricycle, 2019
9 Borup, 2012
10 Borup, 2012
11 Deal & Ruppert, 2015
12 Deal & Ruppert, 2015
13 Statistics Bureau of Japan, 2021
14 Statistics Bureau of Japan, 2021
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