The “Japanese-ness” of Religion in Japan

February 6, 2017

When one searches “Japanese religion” in a search engine, the resulting images reveal the perceptions of what religion in Japan means. These images that reveal iconic red Shinto gates, or torii, weathered Buddha statues, and ceremonial processions at picturesque temples and shrines, are instantly recognizable as fundamental embodiments of Japanese religion. However, religion, which is defined as a certain fundamental set of beliefs and customs generally agreed upon by a group, goes far beyond archetypal structures or rituals. How do Japanese people practice or not engage in religion, and how does religion influence Japanese society compared to the Western world? The concept of religion was not an established idea in Japan until the nineteenth century, when the opening of Japan to the Western world during the Meiji period necessitated a counterbalance to the influx of Western religious concepts. As such, the practice of religion in Japan takes form in a rather different way than what is common in many other countries.


Shintoism and Buddhism, the primary religions practiced in Japan today, are characterized by an intriguing blend of influences, not only from each other each other, but also from other sources originating from their historical roots. While less than 50 percent of Japanese people identify themselves as active members of a religious group, a majority of individuals do partake in traditional practices involving praying to Shinto gods, or kami, and visiting shrines and temples on special occasions. Additionally, funerals are often carried out according to the ceremonial Buddhist tradition, even among families who aren’t active members of a Buddhist sect or organization. Compared to the Western world of religion, which is dominated by Christianity, after the spread of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, religion in Japan is a more casual, culturally based sort of phenomenon. For this reason, many Japanese Buddhist temples are situated on the same sites as Shinto shrines, an odd sight if one is trying to distinguish the two different Japanese religions. However, due to the different applications of the concept of religion in Japan, the idea of proclaiming oneself “non-religious,” while also visiting a Shinto shrine to make offerings to kami and attending a Buddhist ceremony for a deceased relative, does not result in a contradictory lifestyle, as one might be expect due to Western religious standards.

Furthermore, another fascinating point about religion in Japan is the fact that many of the icons we take for granted as symbols of Japanese religion are not actually inherently Japanese. The torii, in addition to providing beautiful places to take photographs, symbolize the transition from the profane to the sacred and thus are located at the entrance of Shinto shrines. However, this seemingly Japanese concept originated from Indian torana (gateways), which differ in architectural appearance yet serve a similar purpose. Benzaiten, a Japanese Buddhist goddess (for whom a shrine has been built in the same city as my university), is the Japanese adaptation of Saraswati, a Hindu goddess. Daruma dolls, symbolic little red talismans with cute mustaches most often seen during the New Year holiday in Japan, are modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, who was most likely of South Asian origin. In terms of society overall, Confucian thought, imported from China, has shaped many of the common practices assumed to be characteristic of Japan (for example, samurai were deeply tied into Confucian tradition). Even in modern day Japan, Western-style weddings and holidays, such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, are held and celebrated by many Japanese who do not identify themselves as Christian (the percentage of Christians in Japan being a mere 1 to 2 percent of the population). Additionally, while less pervasive or common, folk religions and newly formed religions in Japan also play their own roles in influencing the role of religion in Japan.

The manifestations of Japanese religion vary greatly and are loosely identified with by individuals who relate to religion in multifaceted ways. As an amalgamation of religious influences and ideologies from around the globe, Japanese religion might not be as innately Japanese as we might perceive. Of course, as all religions and philosophical ideas form from past influences, this is not a phenomenon singular to Japan, yet the way in which it affects society and culture certainly makes it a quite observable example.
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