The religious landscape of contemporary Japan is characterized by a dynamic combination of syncretism, secularism, and new religious movements. Mahayana Buddhism arrived in Japan during the sixth century and blended extensively with Shinto, the indigenous tradition of Japan. State Shinto evolved in the nineteenth century with the advent of the Japanese Empire and came to be characterized by emperor worship and the suppression of non-Shinto faiths. The imperialistic tendencies of State Shinto led to a constitutional separation of religion and state after World War II. The emperor remains the highest authority of Shinto but his role is purely ceremonial, and Japanese politics are firmly secular. Many Japanese practice Shinto rituals, but also hold Christian-style weddings due to the influx of Western popular culture. Despite engaging in faith-based rituals, seventy percent of Japanese identify as belonging to no religion. New religious movements, often rooted in Shinto-Buddhist concepts, have started to emerge in Japan during the late twentieth century with the overwhelming majority of these groups oriented towards spirituality and peace. However, one of these new religious movements, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, became infamous in 1995 when its members carried out a deadly terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway.
Ancient Japanese life was shaped by Shinto, an indigenous religious tradition based on nature worship. The Classical Japanese dynasties, which began in 250 CE with the emergence of the Yamato clans, were headed by religious patriarchs who performed sacred rituals. Buddhism and Confucianism were first introduced in Japan in the sixth century, but members of the Shinto-dominated Yamato court largely resisted these new traditions and the general public continued to worship Shinto deities. During the Nara Period (710-794), Emperor Shomu promoted the spread of Buddhism by naming Buddhist clergy guardians of the state. This marked the beginning of the Buddhist-Shinto syncretism that would come to dominate Japanese culture. During the Heian period (794-1185), Chinese ideals, particularly the Mandate of Heaven, influenced Japanese imperial lineages. Heian emperor Shotoku was a Buddhist devotee who sent Buddhist missionaries abroad, but also adopted Confucian models of prescribed social class. In the late twelfth century, the Kamakuras,the first of the feudal dynasties, popularized Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism among the masses. Shinto regained some notoriety after the Japanese defeat of the Mongols in the 1200s was attributed to the kamikaze typhoons sent by Shinto deities. Shinto regained religious preeminence in the fourteenth century with the promulgation of a new doctrine that highlighted the divine lineage of the Japanese emperor and the divine nature of the Japanese people. In the late 1500s, Nobunaga, a powerful military leader, began a crusade to unify Japan. Protests by Buddhist clergy were met with harsh reprisals and many Buddhist temples were destroyed.
Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal first arrived in Japan in 1549. Initially the missionaries were welcome in Japan and successfully converted between 100,000-200,000 Japanese citizens, many of whom were peasants that faced persecution from the ruling Japanese shogunate. However, after Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed his reunification of Japan, he began to view missionaries and Christianity as foreign threats and as divisive to a cohesive Japanese society. In 1587, Hideyoshi issued a decree banning missionaries. Although the decree was not particularly enforced and missionary proselytism continued, Hideyoshi put twenty-six Christian Japanese martyrs to death in 1597 for their violations of the decree. After the death of Hideyoshi in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power, and in 1614 he issued a statement, titled “Expulsion of all Missionaries from Japan,” that banned Catholicism and required all citizens to register at Buddhist temples. During the mid-sixteenth century, Christians were persecuted and Churches were torn down. This eventually culminated in the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638) where an uprising of 30,000 Christians was eventually crushed by the 100,000 member Japanese army. Following the rebellion, missionaries and Japanese Christians were deported as part of a broader closing off from Western influence. Confucian principles dominated the social order while Buddhism and Shinto guided religious practice. Shinto was reasserted as the cultural tie between political leaders and the common people and declared the state religion. Isolation lasted approximately 200 years until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 paved the way for Japanese modernization. Japan entered the twentieth century as an emerging world power, developing an expansionist policy legitimized through rhetoric reviving the historical Mandate of Heaven.
Japan became an imperial power in the early 1900s, colonizing several countries across Southeast Asia and battling China in two Sino-Japanese Wars. Japan reached agreements with the U.S. and Britain and entered World War I on the side of the Allies. However, Facism emerged in Japan in the 1920’s, and Japan eventually joined Germany and Italy in the Axis Pact during World War II. Throughout World War II, the Japanese emperor required all subjects to acknowledge his divinity and practice State Shinto, with protesters subjected to persecution. Defeat in World War II led to a period of American occupation during which official State Shinto was abolished. However, Shinto continued to remain an influential aspect of Japanese society. Public holidays were based on Shinto rituals; Shinto practices were used in the coronation of the emperor; and devout followers of Shinto continued to regard the emperor as divinely mandated. 1952 marked the end of occupation and power was transferred to a secular parliamentary democracy. In the latter half of the twentieth century new religious movements expanded rapidly in Japan. Many combined elements from Buddhism and Shinto, although some also included facets of Christianity, Judaism, and other traditions. New religions ranged from the highly popular Soka Gakkai, an offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism, to cults like Aum Shinrikyo, a movement that combines Buddhism, Christianity, and Yogic philosophy. In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, now known as Aleph, carried out a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo transit system, costing a dozen lives and poisoning a thousand others. Several of its leaders were arrested, and some were dealt death sentences for their role in the attacks.
Due to Japan’s secularist society, religious conflicts have generally not marred the country’s recent affairs. In August 2010 Japanese cabinet members refused to visit the Yasukuni Shrine marking the first time no members of the government were present at the annual religious ceremonies. The shrine is a controversial Shinto place of worship honoring Japan’s war dead, including fourteen high-level war criminals from the Second World War, and attendance by public figures had led to tensions with Japan’s neighbors in the past. Additionally, in June 2012, Japanese authorities finally captured the last fugitive suspected of carrying out the 1995 attack, Katsuya Takahashi, ending one of the longest manhunts in Japanese history at 17 years. Takahashoi was a member of the Aum Shinrikyo sect involved in perpetrating the 1995 nerve gas attacks that killed a dozen people and injured thousands in the Tokyo subway. The sect, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, declined dramatically in popularity following the attacks but currently maintains approximately a thousand followers in Japan. In March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and the Fukushima nuclear power plant in particular. The damage nearly led to a nuclear meltdown and spurred radiation leaks that left a significant amount of land uninhabitable. The country has since devoted a significant amount of resources to stabilize and upgrade the country’s nuclear facilities, and and in July 2012, the Japanese government restarted the first nuclear power plant since the nuclear crisis. In February 2013, tensions heightened between Japan and China in regard to the Senkaku Islands, as both countries have claimed ownership over the oil-rich Islands.
Japan has a notable absence of religious conflict and one of the world's lowest rates of government intervention in religious affairs. This has been the case since the separation of the Shinto religion and the Japanese state following the Second World War. The government remains committed to guaranteeing freedom of conscience and worship. Religious groups must register with the government in order to receive tax benefits, but the process is not discriminatory. As of 2006, there are over 180,000 certified religious organizations operating in the country. This permissiveness was only moderately altered by the deadly 1995 nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Many of the cult's leaders were arrested and the organization was placed under supervision, but the sect was not banned. In the aftermath of the attacks, the government passed a law that enhanced its ability to supervise religious organizations. This included greater disclosure requirements on the assets of religious groups and granted civil authorities the ability to suspend any of their actions that violate regulations on for-profit activities conducted by religious organizations. Worship by state officials at the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates those who died in service to the emperor during wartime from 1867 to 1945 and includes fourteen Class-A war criminals, has remained a widely controversial occurrence and even insulting to many victims of Japanese occupation in Korea and China.
Although the Japanese Constitution does not explicitly separate between church and state, a 1977 Japanese Supreme Court decision held that the document "made it an ideal to separate church and state completely." The freedom of religion is an integral part of the Japanese Constitution. Article 14 forbids institutional or personal discrimination based on religious creed and Article 19 states that freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated by the government. Article 20 guarantees freedom of religion to all and declares that no religious organization shall receive any privileges from the state. In recent years, Article 89 - which stipulates that public funds cannot be used for the benefit of any religious organization - has given rise to controversy since government funds have occasionally been donated to religious organizations for special events. The state is prohibited from forcing individuals to participate in any type of religious practice or act and is also forbidden from providing religious education.
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