Religion in Contemporary
Japanese Society

Article written by H. Neill McFarland for the Asia Society's Video Letter from Japan: Choices for Men Approaching Sixty, 1991, pp.14-21.

Among the sightseeing attractions in Japan are numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. along with the gardens and artistic treasures that are often associated with them. Visitors, seeing these impressive monuments of traditional Japan, correctly surmise that Shinto and Buddhism have been powerfully determinative factors in the shaping of Japanese culture.

However, if these same visitors were to become acquainted with a significant number of individual Japanese -- particularly students and business and professional people -- they might conclude that religion has little importance among contemporary Japanese. But how accurate is this assessment?

Judged by Western norms of religiosity, the lifestyle of most Japanese clearly cannot be described as being particularly religious. Commitment to a single chosen religion, frequent participation in religious services, study of doctrines and scriptures, and sharing in religious outreach through evangelism or social service --- these do not characterize the interests and activities of most Japanese. But it is a mistake to assume that therefore most Japanese have no religious involvement or that they are untouched by any religious influence. In fact, it is a rare Japanese who has absolutely no involvement with either Shinto or Buddhism, or even with both.

Furthermore, religious influences are not limited to these two most visible sources. The ethical perspectives and familial and societal relationships of most Japanese remain imbued with Confucianism, although a conscious awareness of this fact may often be lacking. Though relatively small, the Japanese Christian community is also an effective presence. On certain levels of Japanese society, particularly in rural areas, folk religious beliefs and practices still flourish, and there are numerous active religious associations that bid for and thrive on the commitment and support of individual devotees.

Each of these categories of religious influence is explained more fully below.

The indigenous religion of Japan is called Shinto, usually translated as the "way of the gods." Evolved from the most ancient and primitive stages in the development of Japan, Shinto remains philosophically and theologically unstructured today. Its goal is to epitomize and sustain the essential ethos of Japan, the unique experience -- past and present -- of living as Japanese.

Basic to Shinto is the vague but suggestive concept of kami, a virtually untranslatable term that is often rendered as God, gods, spirit, or spirits, though none of these is a precise equivalent. Behind this term is an elementary awareness of a pervasive spiritual presence or energy that can be manifested in innumerable phenomena. Manifestations of kami include, among many others, the sun, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, certain animals, trees. rocks, and even human beings. The principles of fertility and growth are also considered manifestations of kami. One or more kami are resident in each Shinto shrine, where they are the focus of distinctive and stately rites conducted by priests with the goal of maintaining a propitious relationship between these spiritual agents and the human community.

Without thinking of themselves as Shintoists, a large percentage of Japanese participate on occasion in these rites. Weddings traditionally have been conducted under Shinto auspices. Infants are dedicated at the shrines. The Seven-Five-Three Festival (Shichi-Go-San Matsuri), an autumnal rite, features the presentation of children of these ages at the shrines. A civil coming-of-age ceremony, now held on January 15, officially recognizes the adulthood of those who will reach the age of twenty during the calendar year. This event also is celebrated by some with a visit to a shrine.

The New Year (Shogatsu) is the time when many Japanese make the year's first visit (hatsumode) to a Shinto shrine, and often to a Buddhist temple as well, to seek purification from the defilements of the past year and good fortune for the coming year. This season also features many other customs -- the display of symbolic decorations, the preparation and consumption of special foods, game playing, kite flying, calligraphy practice, fortune-telling -- some of which are rooted in now-forgotten religious traditions.

At various other times of the year, many shrines sponsor an additional annual festival (matsuri) or fair, which often includes a colorful and exuberant street procession. The grandest of these, such as the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto or the Takayama Matsuri in Takayama City, feature magnificent old floats and period costumes and are major social events, attracting many thousands of spectators. In addition, beginning and completion of a wide range of construction projects, from private domiciles to bridges and tunnels linking the islands, may be marked by Shinto ceremonies.

Many aspects of Shinto were present even in prehistoric Japan and thus may be considered uniquely and quintessentially Japanese. However, in premodern Japan, during the two and a half centuries of the Edo period or Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), Shinto was subordinated to officially favored Buddhism, which had been imported to Japan from China by way of Korea in the mid-6th century. Also during the Edo period, in part as a reaction to this official policy, some Shinto scholars began to advocate a return to a purer Japanese tradition, as reflected in the oldest collections of ancient myths and legends, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan), compiled in 712 and 720, respectively.

One important goal of the Shinto revivalists was the restoration of imperial rule. The position of emperor had evolved from that of a priest-chief in the clan structure of ancient Japan. Thus, traditionally the emperor was regarded as sacred and participated in Shinto rites -- such as rice planting -- deemed essential to the country's welfare. However, the emperor seldom had been accorded the power to rule Japan directly. That power belonged early on to a few elite families and later to the warrior lords called shoguns.

When imperial rule was reestablished with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, one aim of the Shinto revivalists was realized and the vindication of Shinto was under way. In the reshaping of Japan according to the imperial, and increasingly militaristic, vision of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Shinto was defined officially not as a religion but as the national faith of Japan. Discounting the tragic, hypocritical, casuistic, and jingoistic uses of the concept by an eventually totalitarian regime, it is possible to say that, within the context of the Japanese historical and cultural experience, this characterization of Shinto as a national faith had and indeed still has a certain aptness.

Having developed in insularity, with the option either to repudiate or to access outside influences, the Japanese understandably acquired a perception of themselves as a unique people. Ancient myths, recorded in the Kojiki, supported the notion of a sacred people inhabiting divinely begotten islands and led by a divine ruler. Reinvoked but also cruelly distorted during the prelude to the Pacific War, this naive self-image actually contributed to the military defeat of Japan. By their fanatical belief in their innate superiority, the Japanese were blinded to the fact of their vulnerability.

In the aftermath of war, Shinto, which had been commandeered to promote this and other ideas of national aggrandizement, was separated from the state. Legally it now has the same status as any other independent religious entity. But several controversial questions remain, among them that of the relation of a traditionally sacred emperor, now constitutionally the symbol of a secular state, to the historic Shinto rites involving the imperial household that are still performed today.

Now few Japanese identify themselves as Shintoists, but far fewer are untouched by a residual Shinto influence. If there is a "religious" experience common to most Japanese, perhaps it is the inimitable experience of living as a Japanese in the "splendored isles" of Japan. It is this that Shinto seeks to perpetuate through its symbols and rituals. In this sense, then, Shinto really does represent, historically and timelessly, the national faith of Japan.

Buddhism (Bukkyo)
Originating in India in the 6th century B.C., Buddhism developed and spread geographically for a millennium before reaching Japan in the mid-6th century A D. It was introduced to Japan from China via Korea as the jewel in a large assemblage of cultural borrowings. As this transplanted Buddhism then evolved, often in interaction with the native Shinto, it imparted many definitive qualities to the formation of Japanese civilization and acquired in turn a distinctive Japanese coloration.

Initially Buddhism was solely the province of the Japanese court and its elite supporters, who were infatuated with the grandeur and sophistication associated with this great acquisition. Subsequently explored and expounded for centuries by a succession of Japanese monks, Buddhism gradually assumed a broader relevance and appeal and, beginning in the 12th century, acquired an enormous popular following through the propagation of a message of universal salvation.

Today Buddhism is represented in Japan by a number of denominations. Though still highly visible through its thousands of temples, its well-regarded schools, and its other social agencies, Buddhism is no longer a very strong intellectual or spiritual motivator in contemporary Japan. It does, however, play one conspicuous perennial role: Buddhism is the chief mortuary agent in Japan's family-oriented society.

In responding to a direct question about religious interests, a Japanese will often reply: "My family is Buddhist." Although seemingly noncommittal, this response suggests that the individual has no well-defined religious interests but that his or her family has for generations been associated with a particular Buddhist denomination or temple. Funerals of family members, therefore, are conducted under Buddhist auspices, and thereafter Buddhist memorial rites are held on specified anniversaries of their deaths.

For certain rites, the family may have in their home a butsudan, an altar containing Buddhist symbols and memorial tablets. One of the most important family-centered rites is the annual summer Bon festival, when spirits of the deceased are welcomed home for a visit with special food offerings and other signs of respectful attentiveness. Other rites are temple-centered. For example, during the week of the spring and autumnal equinoxes, one or more family representatives may go to a temple to participate in rites intended to benefit the souls of the deceased.

Beyond this most obvious role, Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, has long been and is still a pervasive influence in the aesthetic life of Japan, though in this respect its impact is less religious than philosophical and affective. Some of the most typical and admired Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, flower arranging, and ink painting, are permeated by the spirit and perspectives of Zen, the most enigmatic form of Buddhism. This is evidenced most concretely in the simplicity, understatement, and asymmetry that characterize these arts.

Certain martial arts, particularly fencing (kendo) and archery (kyudo) and the bare-handed skills exemplified in judo and karate are also influenced by Zen. Sportive competition is less important to many practitioners than the spiritual discipline that is required for the achievement of advanced skill.

Confucianism (Jukyo-shugi)
Less a religion than an ethical philosophy and a prescription for social relationships, Confucianism entered Japan from China in the same package of cultural borrowings that included Buddhism. A factor for centuries in the shaping of Japanese culture, it received its greatest support during the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shoguns adopted a version of Confucianism as the official ethical philosophy of Japan. The family was recognized as the basic social unit, and loyalty to one's superiors was considered the highest virtue.

Today Confucianism is rarely mentioned or studied except by scholars, but its influence remains apparent in innumerable ways in the etiquette and protocol of Japanese society. Filial piety, the respectful loyalty and deference that children are taught they owe to their parents, is a basic Confucian principle. Historically, it has included a clear obligation for children to care for their elderly parents -- a responsibility that is increasingly difficult to fulfill in modern Japanese society.

Christianity (Kirisutokyo)
Though the Christian community in Japan comprises less than one percent of the total population, its proponents claim justifiably that its influence is greater than this statistic implies. This is due largely to the significant number of schools, particularly women's schools, founded and maintained by Christian churches. While only a small percentage of students in these schools are Christians, all acquire an acquaintance -- usually a respectful one -- with some aspects of Christian faith and worship and their spiritual and ethical implications.

But Christianity is not and probably will not become an integral factor in Japanese culture. It arrived too late to share with the other foreign imports, Buddhism and Confucianism, a role in shaping the basic infrastructure of Japan. Roman Catholic Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by a Jesuit missionary to Asia, Francis Xavier (1506-52). While the results were dramatically successful in the short term, the effort was ultimately abortive. In the 17th century, missionaries were expelled by the Tokugawa shogunate and the visible Christian community was destroyed by persecution. The only remnant of the religion in Japan was embodied in an underground fellowship now described as the Hidden Christians (Kakure Kirishitan).

Christianity was readmitted to Japan in the late 19th century, following the opening of the country to trade and diplomatic relations in 1854 and the beginning of a program of modernization with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Representatives of all branches of Christendom -- Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism -- are now present. Their success is mainly among less traditional, Western-oriented, urban Japanese.

Christian progress seems limited by one great impediment. To the extent that Christianity is perceived as calling for the renunciation of traditional loyalties -- to the Japanese ethos as symbolized in Shinto and to the family as manifested in Buddhism and Confucianism -- it will not be considered a viable option by most Japanese.

Even so, certain customs associated with Christianity have been widely adopted by the Japanese. Christmas is almost as prominently featured in Japanese department stores and shopping centers as it is in their American counterparts. Another prominent by-product is the growing popularity of Western-style Christian weddings. even among non-Christians. Some hotels have built their own wedding chapels in order to meet the demand.

Folk Religion (Minkan Shukyo)
Many elements that could be characterized as belonging to folk religion have been accommodated as fringe elements by both Shinto and Buddhism; these include certain life-cycle rites and pilgrimages, fortune-telling, and the dispensing of protective and good-luck amulets. A prominent example of the latter is the roly-poly self-righting Daruma doll, a ludicrous caricature of the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who is traditionally regarded as the founder and first patriarch of Zen Buddhism. Hundreds of thousands of these figures are purchased annually from temples, shrines, and other outlets in the hope of fulfilling personal wishes.

Additionally, however, there is a considerable body of folk beliefs and customs that flourish outside the range of institutionalized religion. Some of these traditions are of great antiquity, surviving especially in more remote rural and mountain areas. These include cults associated with prominent mountains, holy men and women functioning as shamanic communicators with a spirit realm, and stone figurines that serve as guardians of roadways and rice paddies (dosojin and ta no kami, respectively).

New Religions (Shin Shukyo)
Since the mid-19th century hundreds of popular religious movements, known collectively as New Religions, have arisen in Japan. Typically, these have resulted from the efforts of charismatic individuals, both men and women, claiming to have received some special empowerment. They offer to share this benefit with others, thereby enabling them also to achieve concrete blessings, such as healing, prosperity, and effective interpersonal relationships.

While some of these movements choose to be identified with either Shinto or Buddhism, most are an amalgam of elements from both of these religions and from various folk traditions as well. Also common are influences of a more contemporary, even Western, character, such as "divine science" movements and psychology.

The greatest proliferation and growth of the New Religions occurred during the two decades following World War II. Subsequently many of them declined or ceased. A few, however, have achieved a stability and stature sufficient to assure their long-range viability.

Unlike traditional religions, the New Religions require evidence of personal commitment from their members. Enthusiastic participation in worship, instruction, and other group activities is characteristic of these movements. Some of the needs that made the New Religions seem attractive have diminished with the increased affluence and social stability of present-day Japan. But current conditions have produced their own kinds of anxiety. One result of this is another, though smaller, wave of popular movements now being dubbed Neo-New Religions (Shin Shin Shukyo).

Perhaps in spite of certain seemingly contrary evidence, it can be affirmed that religion is no less important in contemporary Japan than in most other modern nations. But in Japan, as elsewhere, the manifestations of religion are culture-specific. In Japan's homogeneous society, individualism is commonly superseded by communal loyalty, and religious ties are sensed intuitively -- hence, vaguely -- and expressed habitually rather than confessionally.

Religion in Japan is nevertheless a pervasive and definitive dimension of Japanese life. Although it is difficult to say what religion is for the Japanese people, it would be even more difficult to describe the Japanese people without it, either historically or contemporarily.