Religion in Japan: An Overview
Religion is an important aspect of Japanese culture. Both Shintoism and Buddhism have had a significant impact on life and traditions in Japan. For some, the traditions themselves are more important than the actual beliefs. So let’s take a closer look at the major religions of Japan, and the history and culture behind them.
Shintoism is all about ritual. Careful practice of rituals and traditions connects modern practitioners with the religion’s rich and ancient history. There are no scriptures or human founders in Shintoism, as there are in other religions, which is why these traditions are so important. These rituals and ceremonies are very precise and often elaborate, handed down for generations, and they are how Shinto practitioners connect and commune with the gods. Many of these traditional rituals are called rites of life, and include weddings and important events in childhood.
The Shinto shrines are not just places of public worship, but in fact seen as the dwelling places of the gods, called kami. These shrines are unique to Japan, and people go to them to worship and pay homage to the kami, or to pray for good fortune. There are also a number of festivals that take place there, such as weddings, and the celebration of the new year.
Nature possesses the same kind of kami, which is why respecting and appreciating the environment is part of Japan’s spiritual beliefs.
A Shinto wedding is an intimate, family affair that begins with traditional purification, followed by prayers. After that, the couple takes three sips each from three cups of sake. A ritual dance is performed, and finally, another sharing of sake.
A child’s first visit to a shrine (Hatsumiyamairi) is also an important Shinto ritual. Boys are brought 32 days after their birth, and girls are brought 33 days after theirs. In olden times, children were brought by their grandmothers, because the mother was seen as impure after giving birth. This tradition has largely fallen by the wayside, however, and many mothers bring their children themselves.
Another major milestone celebrated at shrines is the “Shichigosan” festival which literally celebrates children 7(“shichi”), 5(“go:) and 3(“san”) years of age. The children are dressed in traditional formal kimono and hakuma.
Surprisingly, funerals are not as important a part of Shinto ritual. Since death is seen as impure, and Shinto shrines are based in purity, Shinto funerals are generally secular, and conducted by laypeople rather than priests—and never at a shrine.
The Japanese have a very simple and elegant saying roughly translated as “Japanese live Shinto and die Buddhist”. This is certainly the common practice in Japan. Almost all funerals are Buddhist, primarily due to the belief in the afterlife which forms an important part of the religion.
Buddhism, the other major religion of Japan, is also very steeped in traditions and history. Unlike Shintoism, however, it has a human founder (the Buddha), as well as a number of different written scriptures. Though Buddhism first originated in India, it’s been practiced in Japan since at least the sixth century A.D.
Rather than shrines, Buddhists have temples. And unlike Shintoism, similar temples can be found in India, China, and indeed, all around the world. There are no actual deities in Buddhism, but rather humans who have attained enlightenment, such as the Buddha. Prayers are therefore centered around him.
Particularly for those for whom these religions are more tradition-based than faith-based, there’s often quite a bit of overlap between the two. Some in fact practice both, and elements of both Buddhism and Shintoism are found in many Japanese festivals and holidays.
Both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are great places to visit while in Japan, with great history and rich culture. But remember, these are places of worship, not attractions. Always be respectful.
Japan has a rich history of spiritual practices, and is an important part of the culture that we enjoy sharing with our visitors.