What is Japanese religion?

Two of the most popular Google search queries to hit this blog daily are “Japanese religion” and to a lesser degree “geisha religion”.1 People want to know what Japanese religion is, including that of geisha, and that is the subject of this post. Westerners tend to judge or describe Japanese or Asian religion using Western criteria but this tends to be misleading. So instead I will try provide a brief summary of what it is, while avoiding comparison to Western religious traditions. In other words I will try describe it on its own terms, and encourage people to explore more using recommended resources. I am not Japanese myself though, so I will probably make mistakes. This is a best-effort based on my limited experience.

This post was started after I stumbled onto this fantastic article published by the University of Kyoto on this very subject. If you can, stop and take the time to read this article first.

To me one of the best statements in this page is right on the first paragraph:

Many Japanese may say that they are atheists. However, this answer would not be accurate.

And that’s very true. I’ve seen many English-language articles on the Internet and in books describe Japanese, especially post-war Japanese as atheist or disinterested in religion, but the answer is much more complex. The problem, again, is that the notion of “religion” is being defined in Western terms which don’t fit easily into the Asian notion of religion and spirituality. This is definitely not limited to Japan either, as I talked about in a recent blog post. Instead, Japan has many sources to draw upon and they’re not mutually exclusive either. Through native Shinto, Buddhism and Confucian/Taoist teachings from China, people have many overlapping options without being pressured to identify themselves with a single religion.

When I lived in Ireland, I worked in an office of people from all across the E.U. and even though European culture may be described as more “secular” than American culture, people still are seeking answers to life. I remember one friend who was Polish and devoutly Buddhist, even though there were few resources in Ireland or mainland Europe (including Post-Communist Poland) for Buddhists. Somehow he managed what he could and it was an important part of his life, which greatly impressed me.2 But he was very humble about his faith, and was otherwise virtually indistinguishable from our other Polish co-workers, so you can’t easily judge a person even by the culture they come from.

Likewise, in secular Japan, I’ve met some people who were pretty spiritual and not just the older generation. My wife’s family works in the funeral industry, so they’re not a “temple family”, but they do work with a lot of them. I’ve met some of the neighborhood temple families myself. You can see from family to family which ones take their religion seriously, and which ones are more run as a family business (not unlike some churches I know back home). Religion is a personal subject for each person, and even if a Japanese person says they’re atheist it doesn’t mean they’re not a spiritual person, but instead they may not subscribe to a particular religion the way Americans do. Also, people change. I know of someone who had little interest in religion at all, but then during a trying time in her life, she tapped into the Buddhist religion she grew up with in Japan and became more interested then.

In America, it’s hard to blend religions as much as in Japan. You’re either A or B, not A+B. But in Japan, as the article above shows, religion there is generally a fusion of them. It’s not that Buddhism and Shinto teachings blend and lose their identity, but in my experience, they exist on different levels.

Despite my internal struggles at times, at the end of the day, I realize that I am still very much a Buddhist. I’ve been Buddhist now for 6 years, it’s greatly changed the way I view the world, and really don’t see my self giving it up, no matter how frustrated I get. At the same time, I’ve learned a great deal from Confucian teachings as well, and for me they provide a more day-to-day set of social ethics that I follow in addition to the more general Buddhist teachings about kindness, the nature of existence, and letting go of self-infatuation. The exist for me on different levels and complement one another. The teachings of Confucius in the Analects mirror certain Buddhist sutras (such as the Sigalovada Sutta) with regard to fostering positive relationships with those in your life, and both approach morality from an ethical standpoint (how can you improve your conduct to benefit others?) rather than a legalistic one I learned growing up.

But through my wife and exposure to Japanese religion, I’ve worked out the two, while venerating Shinto as well. I must admit I tend to venerate the kami Tenjin too. This is not because I think Sugawara no Michizane is a real deity with magic powers, but rather that I draw a lot of inspiration from him as a scholar. As this article shows, the notion of Kami can be seen in one sense as anything awe-inspiring or spiritual. And for me, Tenjin, myths and all, inspires me on a mundane level in my studies of Japanese language and my interest in Confucian teachings, but all within a broader Buddhist framework.

I think I gradually learned to do this after seeing how people in Japan incorporated so many different sources of religion so seamlessly. My wife’s family is definitely more Buddhist in general, owing to their background in the funeral industry, but like many Japanese homes, they still have a Shinto kamidana in the bedroom upstairs. The kamidana is maintained for help in protecting and fostering my wife’s family’s business, while the profound teachings of Buddhism work at another level for questions to life. It struck me as really strange at first, being from the U.S.. But as I learned to appreciate the wealth in such a variety of teachings, I found it harder and harder to discard one in favor of another, so I had to work it out in my own way as a foreigner (and latecomer).

To quote the article above once more:

I asked what effects Shinto and Buddhism have had on each other by coexisting in Japan throughout these periods. The priest never showed any concern about the fusion. “It is good to have more variety of objects to worship,” he said. Also he posed a question to me: “What is having faith, or what do you do by believing in gods?” His answer is that having faith is an action to address one’s weakness….Finally, the priest told me the way Japanese should be: “The form of faith is not important, so we do not have to separate Shinto and Buddhism. What we do is to pray to gods and become relieved from pains and anxieties. Also Shinto and Buddhism have their own roles in our lives: Shinto reflects how we appreciate nature and Buddhism shows us the wisdom of how to live. We depend on kami when we suffer and we depend on Amida (Amitābha, the Buddha) when we die.” He was calm as he explained the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism.

I think for many Japanese and Asian people in general, with such a wide array of devotional figures, teachings and such, beliefs will vary as some people may be inclined more one way or another or may just fuse them in a way that works for them. Of course, a lot of people may not take religion seriously, or only with passing interest when they need something, but isn’t that true with our own cultures as well? I think it’s just how religion and society tend to work.

At the end of the day, I am just another foreigner writing about someone else’s spiritual beliefs, but I wanted to try and dispel some myths about Japanese religion, and help to provide examples as well through my own limited experiences and those I’ve met over the years. I hope this helps. :)

1 Lately, my post on Yakudoshi, is probably the most consistently read post too. Not sure why it’s suddenly popular. Maybe because New Year’s just passed?

2 If Buddhism can thrive in post-Soviet Eastern Europe it can surely thrive anywhere, regardless of culture and nationality. I know vaguely of Buddhist temples in Africa arising as well.

P.S. Changing blog theme again. This one handles quotations and footnotes much better.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

7 thoughts on “What is Japanese religion?

  1. We can see people everywhere who don’t understand differences in religion and spirituality. It is just their ignorance against our knowledge. We just have to teach them, sometimes more than just one or two posts on a blog.

    I can handle the ignorant and hypocrits when they think they know something about Atheism but I am also a bit spiritual and their brains start to smoke because they don’t understand.

    This is a good post and I think it can help ‘alot’ in educating people more about Japanese spirituality.

  2. It is a very nice problem presentation.I agree that you said ” Of course, a lot of people may not take religion seriously, or only with passing interest when they need something, but isn’t that true with our own cultures as well? ” . Most Japanese and I feel that we are not out of the way. For example we hold both Christian marriage ceremony and Buddhist a funeral gathering.

  3. Hello, gentlemen!

    @hfinity: “We just have to teach them, sometimes more than just one or two posts on a blog.” Indeed. People are stubborn, but this blog is a tiny effort to help provide another (hopefully healthier) viewpoint. :)

    @cocomino: Very true. Religion is often based on ‘need’. :) For me though, I like the sense of structure too, which is why I take it more seriously. It helped me change in (hopefully) better ways.

  4. I just read (the English translation) of the Heike Monogatari, the story of the epic civil war in medieval Japan. In the story, there seems to be almost *no* distinction between shrines for kami-sama and temples for Hotoke-sama. For example, noble families would sponsor copies of sutras that were then donated to shrines. When I mentioned this, my ‘informant’ reminded me that it was during the Meiji period (late 19th cent.) that the government officially split Buddhism and Shintoism. I think this was part of the movement by the government to weaken Buddhism–eliminating celibacy for Buddhist clergy was another step in this effort.

  5. Hi Johnl, quite so! That period was marked by an especially strong synthesis of Shinto and Buddhism, as a way of reconciling the two religions, and this influenced later sects in varying degrees (Jodo Shinshu is a notable exception). Indeed, the Meiji Period is when this was forcefully separated, for better or for worse.

  6. Hello Doug,
    “It is good to have more variety of objects to worship.”
    What delighted me in Japan, where I spent a year in 2008, is the omnipresence of spirituality, a light and sweet breeze which invites both my body and my mind to dilate, and takes my old clothes off.
    I had to go to Japan to remember how much I loved trees when a child.

  7. Agreed, when I am in Japan, I get the same feeling! :) I too learned to appreciate nature and seasons after visiting there.

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