Religion in Japan

Religion in Japan

In Japan there is a saying that gives excellent insight into how religious are viewed in this far eastern nation. It goes “Japanese are Shinto when born, Christian when married, and Buddhist at the time of their death”. It is a testament to how these three major religions are seamlessly merged into the lives of the average Japanese person. In fact, religious practices are considered part of the Japanese culture, and not as an expression of religious conviction.



The literal meaning of Shinto is “the way of the Gods”. Shinto is an animistic religion that can be traced back to the 8th century. Shinto is at the heart of Japanese culture and its most revered traits; the desire for balance and harmony with nature, and veneration of the dead.

According to Shinto, everything in nature has its own god, or kami. These spirits aid humans through their journey of life. This underlying belief is manifested in Shinto rituals that keep humans in balance with the spirits of the natural world. In Shinto, “all humans are children of gods; through gods’ arrangement, they are put in the mother’s womb and enter the world, and after humans finish playing a role on the earth, they return to the world of gods and protect their descendants”.



The Chinese characters for Buddhism literally mean “the teachings of Buddha”, referring to the religion’s primary figure Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE.  As an enlightened person who attanited the status of an “awakened one” (buddhahood), the teachings of Buddha are intended to guide others on the Middle Way,  a means to live a life free of sensual indulgence and self-mortification.

Buddhism is an integral part of Japanese culture, arriving in Japan via Chinese and Korean monks who brought with them the Chinese characters, art, and architecture to the Japanese islands. Zen (meditative) Buddhism influenced Japanese art forms like sado (the tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arrangement), shodo (calligraphy), and even martial arts.

Shinto and Buddhism

Shinto and Buddhism are pillars of Japanese society and played a vital role in the development of Japanese culture. While they have coexisted in Japan over centuries, they differ fundamentally. To begin with, Shinto has roots in Japan while Buddhism came to Japan from India via China and Korea. While Buddhism has many sects, Shinto has none. Shinto places emphasis on mankind’s peaceful co-existence with the spirits of nature through ancient Chinese texts and religious rites. On the other hand, Buddhism focus one’s relationship by following thoughts and teachings of Gautama Buddha.


Shinto Shrines

Shinto is known as the religion of 8 million kami (gods), signifying the belief that there are spirits present in every aspect of nature. These deities also include folk deities, actual persons, mythological beings and some Buddhist and Confucian figures. Shinto Shrines are dedicated to one or more gods, and according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, there are approximately 85,000 Shinto shrines in Japan. If the definition of shine is expanded to include local places of worship which have not been officially registered with the Japanese government, this number rises to well over 100,000.

People go to Shinto shrines to offer matsuri (festivals or worship) as a form of thanksgiving and prayer to the gods enshrined. Shinto shrines are characterized by the torii, two pillars topped by a curved cross-beam at the entrance. The torii is a gateway between the impure natural world and the sacred spiritual world known within.

Izumo Taisha Shrine and Ise Jingu Shrine are two of the most well-known Shinto shrines in Japan, and are dedicated to its most revered kami. Izumo Taisha Shrine in Shimane Prefecture is one of Japan’s oldest and most important Shinto shrines, dedicated to Kotoamatsukami, the first gods of the universe. Ise Jingu Shrine in Mie Prefecture is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu from whom the Japanese emperors are believed to be descended.


Buddhist Temples

As with mosques and churches, Buddhist temples are places of worship for its practitioners, and are where Buddhist rites and rituals occur. Temples are adorned with Buddhist images and serve as the homes of Buddhist monks. One can practice Buddhist asceticism and train the self through prayer at a temple. Funeral rites are held in buddhist temples, and they also house family graves.

Many of Japan’s small temples operate on a parishioner system and are closed to the public. However, the unique architecture of larger Buddhist temples attract countless visitors yearly. Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, is home to many splendid Buddhist temples such as Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kinkaku-ji Temple and Ginkakuji Temple. Not too far away from Kyoto is Todai-ji, a temple complex in Nara Prefecture that houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. Kamamura, a former de facto capital of Japan now located 50 km from Tokyo, is home to Kotoku-in Temple and another large statue of Buddha.


Christianity and Japan

Nowadays it is common for Japanese, especially younger generations, to celebrate Christmas. Whereas Christmas is a family affair in the west, the Japanese have transformed this sacred day into a special time that is to be shared with friends and lovers. Christmas coincides with the date of the current Emperor’s birthday (December 23), and with end of the year festivities known as bounenkai (“forget the year” parties). As such, Christmas has taken on a positive connotation in Japan. Nevertheless, the celebration of Christmas and practicing the Christian faith has dark roots in Japanese history.

Christianity came to Japan via Nagasaki through the efforts of St. Francis Xavier in 1549. In the years that followed, other missionaries came spread the Christian faith among the Japanese people. While Christianity flourished after its initial arrival, Japan’s great unifying daimyo Hideyoshi Toyotomi expelled the Jesuit missionaries from Japan in 1587. A decade later, he had 26 Japanese Christians and missionaries crucified in order to prevent the further spread of Christianity.

When the Tokugawa Shogunate took control from Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the persecution of Christians continued, going as far as prohibiting any display of the Christian faith. Facing intense pressure, many Japanese Christians pretended to be Buddhist while practice their faith in secret.

Japanese Christians endured unjust hardships until 1871. It was then that dignitaries of western countries demanded that the embargo on Christianity be lifted as part of treaty negotiations. Finally, in 1873, the ban on Christianity was lifted. Although it did not allow for complete freedom of religious expression, Japanese Christians were able to practice their Christian faith at long last.

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