Religion of Japan

Brief Overview of Japanese Religion

Shinto Shrine Torii

Japanese People believe Multiple Religions in parallel
According to 'Annual Statistics of Religion' issued by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, there are around 106 million Shintoists, around 96 million Buddhists, around 2 million Christians, and around 11million followers of other religions in Japan, adding up to 215 million people, or nearly twice the total population of Japan, belonging to any religion. Only Shintoists and Buddhists come to more than 200 million. This is because many Japanese people engage in rituals of multiple religions. People become a member of a religion by baptism in other countries, while those who worship a god of a religion are deemed to be a believer of that religion in Japan. Therefore, Japanese people who worship Shinto Gods and Buddha equally belong to multiple religions.

“One Religion” is comprised of Shinto and Buddhism
Since the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism has been seen for a long time in Japan, there is no clear line between the two. For example, many families with a household Shinto altar also have a Buddhist altar, belonging to two religions at the same time. This is why Shintoists and Buddhists are said to total more than 200 million people.
From another point of view, it is more natural to assume that in Japan one religion has been created through a harmonious combination of Shinto and Buddhism than to consider the two have existed separately. Historically as well as presently, Shinto and Buddhism share functions and it can be said that the two come together to create a single religious notion.

Considerable Impact of Confucianism and Folk Religions
In addition to these two religions, Confucianism has also left its mark mainly on funerals and the view of life and death, although it is less often cited as a religion. The idea of ancestors' spirits, based on ancient folk religion and Confucianism, fundamentally conflicts with Buddhist philosophy, but is now incorporated into Buddhism.
Elements of folk religion are complicated partly due to its historical background. Folk religions are generally based on animism, and this aspect appears prominently in the previous belief style in sacred rock (iwakura) or mountain before the building for worship was constructed, and many of them changed their forms under the influence of syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism to be passed down to today (e.g., Doso-shin [traveler's guardian deity], Jizo Bosatsu [Ksitigarbha], and Ebisu worship).

Religious Idea of Japanese People

Pray in Shrine

Eight Million Deities (gods) in Japan
Originally syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism was widely seen from the Heian period until the Meiji restoration, and Shinto and Buddhism were not distinguished from each other as a general rule. The syncretism left traces, such as the torii (an archway to a Shinto shrine) in precincts of temples or the deity with the name of 'Hachiman Daibosatsu' (Great Bodhisattava Hachiman), in which a name for a shrine deity (Hachiman) is connected with a name of Buddha (Daibosatsu).
Famous Japanese Writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa made a character in one of his short stories say things to the effect that efforts to plant any religion in Japan would not be rewarded because Japanese people had had a unique view of religion to revere 'eight million different gods' since ancient times, which can be found in Shinto, Buddha and Jesus Christ being considered to be one of these deities in Japan. At the same time, he called it 'the ability to recreate' that Japanese people made foreign thoughts to change into their own thoughts. Another famous Japanese Writer Motohiko Izawa found the belief in 'Kotodama' (the soul or power of words), which is peculiar to Japanese.

Itsukushima Shrine

Most Japanese Love and Enjoy Christian Events
In Japan, many people participate in Shintoist and Buddhist festivals, some companies have a household Shinto altar, and services, such as praying for safety, are often held beyond religious boundaries of Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity etc. Although there are few Christians, Christmas, Valentine's Day, church wedding, Halloween, etc. are well known as events, and companies actively utilize these events to increase sales. Because people other than Christians do not perceive these events as religious rites, they easily associate Christmas with gifts from Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and cakes, and Valentine's Day with nothing more than an important romantic event. Church weddings are said to be chosen because brides want to walk down the church aisle, but after the ceremony less than one percent go to pray in church. Christian rites are carried out according to seasons, and Japanese people accepted the rites, not being involved in Christian faith at all.

Big Buddha in NaraNon-religious but not Atheists
The majority of Japanese people today lack a sense of belonging to religions, and many Japanese also consider themselves to have 'no religion,' although they actually engage in religious rituals. Most Japanese have no religion, nor practice a particular religion, but it may be not true that they are atheists, as seen from the fact that many of them do not strongly deny religions or Shinto and Buddhist deities, rely on the deities when they are in trouble, and respect religious ideas, such as 'curses' and 'bad karma.'

Hikawa Shrine Torii
Torii Gate of Hikawa Shrine

Introduction of Shinto

Four Seasons of Japan

Japan’s Indigenous and Biggest Religion “Shinto”
Shinto is an ethnical religious framework in Japan and a polytheistic religion that is unique to Japan. It is a religion originating in particular cultural traditions that have been believed since ancient Japan. Shinto is based on traditional ethnic and natural beliefs that naturally generated and grew among ethnic groups living in Japan and has been gradually growing in conjunction with central and local systems of politics carried out by groups of local ruling families. Shinto has neither a specific creed nor specific scriptures, and Japanese classics such as "Kojiki" (the Records of Ancient Matters), "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), "Kogo-shui" (History of the Inbe clan) and "imperial edict," which are called 'Shinten,' are norms. According to Shinto's idea, the Kami (God) exists in Shinrabansho (all things in nature, the whole creation) and religious services are considered important. Shinto is supported by approximately 106 million people in Japan and there are approximately 85,000 recorded shrines.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Eight Million God of Shinto
There is a big difference between Shinto and Buddhism, and while people have believed in Shinto for the purpose of having Kami (God) protect communities (tribes and villages) connected by territorial and blood ties, like Kami (God)s do in mythologies, people have believed in Buddhism for the purpose of securing individuals' Anjin-ryomyo (spiritual peace and enlightenment) and have their souls relieved and keep the state's peace and security. While Shinto is a polytheistic religion, it has a strong aspect of admiring Sorei (ancestral spirit, collective of ancestral spirits who have lost their individualities, ancestors deified as kami, spirit of a kami) and respects older things. It recognizes that Kami exists in everything, including weather, geography, and landscape. That is, 'Yao yorozu no kami' (eight million gods.)

Sakura and Heian jingu light upShinto bring in Anything and Enshrine as “Kami”
Moreover, there is a custom that a shrine was built, in which a person who performed outstanding accomplishments before the person died was enshrined as Kami (Kami of person.). On the other hand, it has a nature to take in foreign 'god' by itself, and many of 'gods' of primitive religions who were from the Eurasian Continent are enshrined as 'Kami' in Shinto. Among them, some 'gods' which should have conflicted with one another exist simultaneously. Furthermore, many of saints which were from other countries are regarded as 'god.' In the medieval period, this custom was disappearing because belief was getting less important due to the industrial revolution and progress in means of information transmission, but the custom lasts in a cultural way like the cross as an essence of Christianity has been generally recognized as 'sacrament' and essences such as the moon (particularly, new moon and Islam) and Rokubosei (Hexagram) (Judaism) have been regarded as 'a symbol of existence beyond human wisdoms.'

Nachi Waterfall, one of the sacred place Shinto and Buddhism of Japan
Nachi Waterfall, one of the sacred places of Japan
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Documentary of Shinto Shrine (28:05)

Introduction of Buddhism in Japan

Big Buddha in Kamakura

One of the Largest Buddhist Countries
Japan is one of the largest Buddhist countries with about 96 million adherents. There are estimated to be about 75,000 temples and more than 300,000 Buddhist statues, more than those of other Buddhist countries. Japan also has the oldest wooden temple in the world, Horyu-ji Temple, as well as one of the oldest Buddhist scriptures. On the other hand, most Japanese these days do not have a specific religion or religious beliefs, and have few opportunities to be conscious of themselves as Buddhists.

Buddhism in Old Japan’s Government System
According to the "Jogu Shotoku Hoo Teisetsu" (a biography of Prince Shotoku) and the "Gango-ji Garan Engi" (a history of the origins of Gango-ji Temple), many people think that Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538. In accordance with the development of Buddhism in China and Japan, the Monks and Nuns Act, which determined the regulation of monks and nuns (not of Buddhism itself) was introduced as part of Ritsuryo law. However, it is interesting that, while in China the priesthood was persecuted for opposing Confucian ethics by destroying the order of the 'family', in Japan it was incorporated into the bureaucracy through the Sogo (Office of Monastic Affairs) and official certification system under the concept of 'nation protection' (priests with ranks such as 'Sojo' or 'Sozu' were government officials, or 'sokan', literally 'priest officials', under the Ritsuryo system). In addition, it is also thought that such regulation was different between official temples built by nation and private temples built by nobles and common people.

Many Japanese Traditions came from Buddhism Culture
Yakushiji templeIn the Kamakura period, disturbances which had continued from the end of the previous period resulted in a change in Buddhism. Although mainstream Buddhism had emphasized ceremonies and study for the nation and nobles under the name of 'nation protection,' it gradually changed to emphasize salvation of the common people. Unlike conventional sects, these sects preached a simple teaching ('igyo', literally 'easy progress') which could be practiced by lay believers in their spare time instead of difficult theories and severe ascetic practices.
In Muromachi period, Buddhism influenced the birth of many aspect of Japanese culture that remain today, including 'suibokuga' ink-wash painting, the 'shoin-zukuri' style of residential architecture, the Japanese tea ceremony, ikebana flower arrangement and dry landscape gardens.

Todaiji Temple
Todaiji Temple in Nara

Syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism

Shinbutsu-shugo, The Syncronization of Two Religions in Japan
Shinbutsu-shugo (syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism) refers to blending of indigenous belief and Buddhistic faith to reconfigure one belief system. Although it generally refers to the syncretism of Japanese faith in Shinto (gods of heaven and earth) and Buddhism, in a broad sense, it may refer to a syncretism of an indigenous belief and Buddhistic that had happened in various parts of the world as Buddhism was spread. It is also known as "Shinbutsu-konko. "

Introduction of Buddhism
In 552 (in 538, according to another theory), when Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan, Buddha was recognized as banshin (a deity of a neighboring country) and equivalent to a Japanese deity. According to "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), the first Japanese Buddhist priest who entered into priesthood and deified the Buddha was a nun called Zenshin-ni. The nun thought to have deified the Buddha in the same manner as a shrine maiden deified Japanese gods of heaven and earth.

The view that the burning down of a temple may result in the arsonist being cursed by the Buddha is thought to come from the Japanese belief in Shinto, as Buddhism does not accept the concept of curses.

Erection of Jingu-ji Temples (temples associated with shrines)
As Japanese people realized that the Buddha had a nature different from Japanese deities, they began to regard deities and human beings on the same level and thought that like human beings, Japanese deities also wish deliverance for salvation of the Buddha to end suffering. From the beginning of the Nara period, Jingu-ji Temples started to be erected in the national shrines; for example, in 715, a Jingu-ji Temple was erected from an oracle of Kehi-jingu Shrine, Echizen Province. Moreover, Jingu-ji Temples were built within or out of precincts of shrines, such as Kashima-jingu Shrine, Kamo-jingu Shrine and Ise-jingu Shrine, by priest Mangan, et al. Furthermore, bodhisattva-like statues were made as shintai (an object of worship housed in a Shinto shrine and believed to contain the spirit of a deity), known as Sogyo Hachimanshin, in Usa-jingu Shrine, etc. In the late Nara period, erections of Jingu-ji Temples were widely seen even at rural shrines; Tado Ogami (great god) who was a guardian deity of a local ruling family in Kuwana County, Ise Province, wished to practice of Buddhist teachings, in a oracle, giving up the title of deity. From the late eighth century to the early ninth century, deities in various provinces, such as Wakasahiko Ogami, Wakasa Province and Okitsushima Ogami, Omi Province, began to show willingness to embrace Buddhism. In this way, in order to relieve an agonized deity, a temple was built by the side of a shrine, and it was called Jingu-ji Temple. Moreover, sutra was chanted before Shinto altar.

Such oracles of deities embracing Buddhism were thought to be a wish of powerful local ruling families who enshrined the shrines. As the social structure changed by introducing the system of the ritsuryo legal codes, local ruling families, who were simply the head of a community, became like feudal-lords with private property, and the conventional Shinto belief supported the religious service by a community was in a deadlock. The local ruling family started to become aware of the guilt owing private property and sought a new personal emotional prop. The reason Mahayana Buddhism became popular among local ruling families might be that it taught that sin was forgiven through Ritako (Altruistic Practice). Yugyo-so (traveling monk) who learned Zo-mitsu (the Mixed Esoteric Buddhism) thought to appear to meet their demands and encourage building Jingu-ji Temple. Although Esoteric Buddhism had not been systematized yet, it might be easy to blend with the Shinto belief because of its magical practice and teachings, focusing on miracles, and affirming accumulation and the prosperity of secular wealth. It might be also easy to be accepted by people under the local ruling family.

While shrines came close to temples, temples also came close to shrines. In the late eighth century, temples recognized a deity that was related to them as their guardian deity or tutelary shrine. The relationship between Kofuku-ji Temple and Kasugataisha Shrine in 710 was the oldest example. Moreover, Todai-ji Temple made a branch shrine for deity of Usahachiman-shin, which helped erecting the Great Buddha. The shrine is called Tamukeyama Hachimangu Shrine at present. As for other influential temples in the ancient times, Enryaku-ji Temple had Hiyoshi-taisha Shrine, Kongobu-ji Temple had Niutsuhime-jinja Shrine, and To-ji Temple had Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, as their guardian shrines.

In this phase, although deities and the Buddha were under the same belief system, they were recognized as a different existence; they were not yet considered same existence. The phase may be called Shinbutsu-konko to differentiate from later Shinbutsu-shugo. Jingu-ji Temples were built in many shrines, and shrines were built in temples. It compensated Shinto belief and Buddhism, without oppressing the conventional Shinto belief.

Systematization by Mahayana Esoteric Buddhism
Such Jingu-ji Temples were led by the Zo-mitsu Buddhist scripture and tried to settle with the support of the local ruling families. On the other hand, this situation might have accelerated the separation of Shinto belief from local ruling families. There was a concern that it might affect collection of the Soyocho (a tax system, corvee), which was thought be derived from first-crop-offering ritual of Shinto belief, and the centripetal force of the country through Shinto belief. On the other hand, as the system of the ritsuryo legal codes changed, major temples and shrines had started to aim at territorial expansion while local Jingu-ji Temples had begun to desire to be approved as a branch temple of main temples.

The Imperial-Court promoted the movement to keep centripetal force of Jingu-ji Temples in various countries by joining Jingu-ji Temples to the main temples that were under national protection. However, Kukai's Shingon sect of Buddhism attracted Jingu-ji Temples of various countries as a central large temple because it had magical essence, which was easy to combine with Shinto belief, as well as preaching a story, providing protection for the nation, universality, and abstractness. Moreover, to meet the demand, esoteric Buddhism was also progressively accepted by Ennin and Enchin in the Tendai-shu sect.

On the other hand, Shugendo (mountain asceticism-shamanism), which had developed from the Nara period, was also strongly influenced by the esoteric Buddhism of both sects and was evolving independently.

Worship of Vindictive Spirits
On the other hand, prosperity of such esoteric Buddhism brought relativization of sovereignty. At the same time, expansion of the Fujiwara clan's influence ruined former prestigious families. Under such circumstances, worshiping vindictive spirits became popular to justify the discontent and repulsion to sovereignty by using the name of deceased, who lost in a political strife.

This trend led to the epidemic of the goryoe (ritual ceremony to repose of spirits of a deceased person) in the ninth century. One may see it as an example of shinbutsu-shugo since ritual for repose of souls, based on esoteric Buddhism, was carried out in addition to the custom of vindictive spirit festival based on traditional Shinto belief. Especially, when the vindictive spirit of SUGAWARA no Michizane turned to Tenjin belief, he was regarded as Tenbu (deities who reside in a heavenly realm, one of six realms in which the souls of living beings transmigrate from one to another) according to Buddhistic logic. Therefore, it is shown that esoteric Buddhism influenced the view of curses to sovereignty.

The typical example is seen at TAIRA no Masakado's accession to the throne. At the enthronement of new emperor Masakado, it supposed that Hachiman (God of War), deity of shinbutsu-shugo and Imperial Family's soshin (ancestor honored as god), granted the throne, SUGAWARA no Michizane wrote the Iki (court rank diploma), and a shrine maiden of Shinto belief had an oracle to play Buddhistic music at the ceremony. The influence of Buddhism, as a means to justify the logic of sovereignty relativization, is strongly seen.

Logic of "Muck" Evasion
Thus, the Shinto belief started to arm with reasoning to confront Buddhism, which spread to the public who demanded magical belief.

The view of bipolar confrontation between purity and muck, which had not been very notable formerly for Shinto belief, developed and was emphasized. Accordingly, the way of muck removal had been changed; it is confirmed that from the ninth century to the tenth century, purificatory asceticism was mainly applied, under the influence of Onmyodo (way of Yin and Yang; occult divination system based on the Taoist theory of the five elements), instead of former purification.

Because of the consolidation of the logicalness, Shinto belief was able to confront the invasion of Buddhism and symbioses with. The influence of muck idea was seen in Jodo (Pure Land) sect at the end of the tenth century. For example, "Ojoyoshu" (The Essentials of Salvation) describes a logic employing muck of Shinto belief to explain Buddhism's own pure and impure thought.

Honji-suijaku Setsu (theory of original reality and manifested traces)
However, the spread of Pure Land Buddhism showed the predominance of Buddhism, which could present the way to fundamentally flee from muck, while Shinto belief could only evade muck. According to Honji-suijaku setsu, Buddha and bodhisattvas are honji (original ground or true nature), and they come to this world, in the shape (suijaku - literally, trace manifestation) in accordance with the life to be saved. It may be understood that Buddhism tried to take in Shinto belief while Buddhism was considered superior. The harmonization of Shintoism and Buddhism might be theoretically supported by assuming that Buddha and bodhisattvas were the absolute beings, while deities were their incarnations.

Moreover, such a view of Buddhism predominance touched the hearts of samurai, who were commonly close to muck, and led to prosperity of future Hachimanshin and Tenjin beliefs.

Furthermore, during the Kamakura period, it became popular to make explanations, according to esoteric Buddhism, of Ryobu Shinto based on Honji-suijaku setsu, Oharae no Kotoba based on Sanno Shinto and the enshrined deities of deities and shrines appeared in Kiki-shinwa (the Kojiki, Nihonshoki and mythology). The phenomenon is so-called chusei Nihongi (medieval Nihongi).

Historically, Buddhism had connoted local deities not only in Japan but also in India and China; the gods of the Buddhistic Tenbu were originally the deities of Hinduism. Such nature of Buddhism was the key factor of the birth of shinbutsu-shugo.

Shinponbutsujaku Setsu
From the end of the Kamakura period to the Period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan), Ise Shintoism and Yoshida Shintoism appeared; they advanced the Shinponbutsujaku setsu, insisting that their deity was honji while the Buddha was an incarnation, objecting to the Buddhist priests' Shintoism view. During the Edo period, Suika Shinto, which integrated both schools with the theory of Neo-Confucianism, appeared. They served as doctrine of the mainstream faction of Shinto belief, and contributed to the doctrine establishment of Shintoism.

However, shinbutsu-shugo thought itself undiminished until the "separation of Buddhism and Shintoism" during the Meiji period. It has also influenced the mentality of Japanese in modern times and the present day.

Torii Gate (Shinto) in Front of The Shitenno-ji Temple (Buddhism)

Historical Festivals and Religion of Japan

Matsuri festival in Tokyo

Traditional Festival is a Way to Communicate with "Kami"
Many Japanese festivals, or Matsuri, originated from early Shinto rituals. These festivals often symbolize hope for abundant rice production or spiritual health of the community. The festivals are often done inside a Shinto Shrine, or display some form or image of a Shrine. Many of these festivals can stretch for over several days. These usually include processions that bear an image of the local Kami through crowded streets to the sound of drums and flutes. The festivities vary with different locals, but they all have similar features: energy, noise, food, and exultation. This is an opportunity for members of the local community to celebrate a joyful occasion together.

Annual Visitation of Departed Ancestors "O-Bon"
One of the more well-known festivals in Japan is the Bon Festival, also known as O-bon, an event that marks the annual visitation of departed ancestors to the surviving members of their family. This festival is characterized by visits to Buddhist temples and the decoration of alters of the departed. Days before the festival, ancestral graves are cleaned by family members in preparation for the return of the souls of the deceased. Many people also take this opportunity to return to their native towns to be with their families and visit local temples to pray and give offerings.

nebuta Festival in Aomori
Nebuta Festival in Aomori
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Encyclopedia of Japan