Religion in Japan
Religion in Japan is dominated by Shinto (the ethnic religion of the Japanese people) and by Buddhist schools and organisations. According to surveys carried out in 2006 and 2008, less than 40% of the population of Japan identifies with an organised religion: around 35% are Buddhists, 3% to 4% are members of Shinto sects and derived religions, and from fewer than 1% to 2.3% are Christians.
Most of the Japanese (50% to 80% considering degrees of syncretism with Buddhism, shinbutsu-shūgō) pray and worship ancestors and gods (神 kami, shin or, archaically, jin) at Shinto shrines or private altars, while not identifying as "Shinto" or "Shintoist" in surveys. This is because these terms have little meaning for the majority of the Japanese, or they define membership in Shinto organisations or sects. The term "religion" (宗教 shūkyō) itself in Japanese culture defines only organised religions (that is, religions with specific doctrines and required membership). People who identify as "non-religious" (無宗教 mushūkyō) in surveys actually mean that they do not belong to any religious organisation, even though they may take part in Shinto rituals and worship.
Scholars Isomae Jun'ichi and Jason Ānanda Josephson have challenged the usefulness of the term "religion" in regard to Japanese "traditions". They have shown that the Japanese term and concept of "religion" (shūkyō) is an invention of the 19th century.
Shinto (神道 Shintō), also kami-no-michi, is the indigenous religion of Japan and the people of Japan. It is defined as an action-centered religion, focused on ritual practices to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient roots. Shinto practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. Still, these earliest Japanese writings do not refer to a unified "Shinto religion", but rather to a collection of native beliefs and mythology. Shinto today is a term that applies to the religion of public shrines devoted to the worship of a multitude of gods (kami), suited to various purposes such as war memorials and harvest festivals, and applies as well to various sectarian organizations. Practitioners express their diverse beliefs through a standard language and practice, adopting a similar style in dress and ritual, dating from around the time of the Nara and Heian periods.
The word Shinto ("way of the gods") was adopted, originally as Shindo, from the written Chinese Shendao (神道, pinyin: shén dào), combining two kanji: "shin" (神), meaning "spirit" or kami; and "tō" (道), meaning a philosophical path or study (from the Chinese word dào). The oldest recorded usage of the word Shindo is from the second half of the 6th century. Kami are defined in English as "spirits", "essences" or "gods", referring to the energy generating the phenomena. Since Japanese language does not distinguish between singular and plural, kami refers to the divinity, or sacred essence, that manifests in multiple forms: rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places, and even people can be said to possess the nature of kami. Kami and people are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.
Shinto is the largest religion in Japan, practiced by nearly 80% of the population, yet only a small percentage of these identify themselves as "Shintoists" in surveys. This is due to the fact that "Shinto" has different meanings in Japan: most of the Japanese attend Shinto shrines and beseech kami without belonging to Shinto organisations, and since there are no formal rituals to become a member of folk "Shinto", "Shinto membership" is often estimated counting those who join organised Shinto sects. Shinto has 100,000 shrines and 78,890 priests in the country.
Shinto sects and new religions
With the profound changes that the Japanese society has gone through in the 20th century, and especially after World War II, including rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, traditional religions were challenged by the transformation and underwent a reshaping themselves, and principles of religious freedom articulated by the constitution provided space for the proliferation of new religious movements.
Both new sects of Shinto and movements claiming a thoroughly independent status, as well as new forms of Buddhist lay societies, provided ways of aggregation for people uprooted from traditional families and village institutions. While traditional Shinto is residential and hereditary, and a person participates in the worship activities devoted to the local tutelary deity or ancestor, occasionally asking for specific healing or blessing services or participating in pilgrimages, in the new religions groups were formed by individuals without regard to kinship or territorial origins, and required a voluntary decision to join. These new religions also provided cohesion through a unified doctrine and practice shared by the nationwide community.
The officially recognized new religions number in the hundreds, and total membership is reportedly in the tens of millions. The largest new religion is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect founded in 1930, which has about 10 million members in Japan. Scholars in Japan have estimated that between 10% and 20% of the population belongs to the new religions, although more realistic estimates put the number at well below the 10% mark. As of 2007, there are 223,831 priests and leaders of the new religions in Japan, three times the number of traditional Shinto priests.
Many of these new religions are Shinto-derived and retain the fundamental characters of Shinto, often identifying themselves as forms of Shinto. These include Tenrikyo, Konkokyo, Omotokyo, Shinrikyo, Shinreikyo, Sekai Shindokyo, Zenrinkyo and others. Others are independent new religions, including Aum Shinrikyo, Mahikari movements, the Church of Perfect Liberty, Seicho-no-Ie, the Church of World Messianity, and others.
Buddhism (仏教 Bukkyō) first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it was introduced in the year 538 or 552 from the kingdom of Baekje in Korea. The Baekje king sent the Japanese emperor a picture of the Buddha and some sutras. After overcoming brief yet violent oppositions by conservative forces, it was accepted by the Japanese court in 587. The Yamato state ruled over clans (uji) centered around the worship of ancestral nature deities. It was also a period of intense immigration from Korea, horse riders from northeast Asia, as well as cultural influence from China, that had been unified under the Sui dynasty becoming the crucial power on the mainland. Buddhism was functional to affirm the state's power and mold its position in the broader culture of East Asia. Japanese aristocrats set about building Buddhist temples in the capital at Nara, and then in the later capital at Heian (now Kyoto).
The six Buddhist sects initially established in Nara are today together known as "Nara Buddhism" and are relatively small. When the capital moved to Heian, more forms of Buddhism arrived from China, including the still-popular Shingon Buddhism, an esoteric form of Buddhism similar to Tibet's Vajrayana Buddhism, and Tendai, a monastic conservative form known better by its Chinese name, Tiantai.
When the shogunate took power in the 12th century and the administrative capital moved to Kamakura, more forms of Buddhism arrived. The most popular was Zen, which became the most popular type of Buddhism of that time. Two schools of Zen were established, Rinzai and Sōtō; a third, Ōbaku, formed in 1661.
With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, that involved the centralisation of imperial power and the modernisation of the state, Shinto was made the state religion and an order of elimination of mutual influence of Shinto and Buddhism was enacted, followed by a movement to thoroughly eradicate Buddhism.
Nowadays, the most popular branch is Pure Land Buddhism, arrived in the Kamakura period. It emphasizes the role of Amitabha Buddha and promises that reciting the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu" upon death will result in being removed by Amitabha to the "Western Paradise" or "Pure Land", and then to Nirvana. Pure Land attracted the merchant and farmer classes. After Honen, Pure Land's head missionary in Japan, died, the form split into two schools: Jōdo-shū, which focuses on repeating the phrase many times, and the more liberal Jōdo Shinshū, which claims that only saying the phrase once with a pure heart is necessary. Today, many Japanese adhere to Nishi Honganji-ha, a conservative sect of Jodo Shinshu.
Another prevalent form of Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism, which was established by the 13th century monk Nichiren who underlined the importance of the Lotus Sutra. Main representatives of Nichiren Buddhism are sects like Nichiren Shū, Nichiren Shōshū and lay organisations like Risshō Kōsei Kai and Soka Gakkai, a controversial denomination whose political wing forms the Komeito, Japan's third largest political party. Common to most lineages of Nichiren Buddhism is the chanting of Nam(u) Myōhō Renge Kyō (or Nam Myoho Renge Kyo) and the Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren.
Christianity (キリスト教 Kirisutokyō), in the form of Catholicism (カトリック教 Katorikkukyō), was introduced into Japan by Jesuit missions starting in 1549. In that year, the three Jesuits Francis Xavier, Cosme de Torres and Juan Fernández, landed in Kagoshima, in Kyushu, on 15 August. Portuguese traders were active in Kagoshima since 1543, welcomed by local daimyo because they imported gunpowder. Anijirō, a Japanese convert, helped the Jesuits understanding Japanese culture and translating the first Japanese catechism.
These missionaries were successful in converting large numbers of people in Kyushu, including peasants, former Buddhist monks, and members of the warrior class. In 1559, a mission to the capital, Kyoto, was started. By the following year there were nine churches, and the Christian community grew steadily in the 1560s. By 1569 there were 30,000 Christians and 40 churches. Following the conversion of some lords in Kyushu, mass baptisms of the local populations occurred, and in the 1570s the number of Christians rose rapidly to 100,000. In the domains of Christian local lords, non-Christians were forced to accept baptism and shrines; Buddhist temples were converted into churches or destroyed.
Near the end of the 16th century, Franciscan missionaries arrived in Kyoto, despite a ban issued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious edict and executed 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki as a warning. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors enforced the prohibition of Christianity with several further edicts, especially after the Shimabara Rebellion in the 1630s. Many Christians continued to practice in secret.
In 1873, following the Meiji Restoration, the ban was rescinded, freedom of religion was promulgated, and Protestant missionaries (プロテスタント Purotesutanto or 新教 Shinkyō, "renewed teaching") began to proselytise in Japan, intensifying their activities after World War II, yet they were never as successful as in Korea.
Today, there are 1 to 3 million Christians in Japan, most of them living in the western part of the country, where the missionaries' activities were greatest during the 16th century. Nagasaki Prefecture has the highest percentage of Christians: about 5.1% in 1996. As of 2007 there are 32,036 Christian priests and pastors in Japan. Throughout the latest century, some Western customs originally related to Christianity (including Western style weddings, Valentine's Day and Christmas) have become popular as secular customs among many Japanese.
The Bahá'í Faith (バハーイー教 Bahāīkyō) in Japan began after a few mentions of the country by `Abdu'l-Bahá first in 1875. The first Japanese convert was Kanichi Yamamoto (山本寛一), who lived in Honolulu, and accepted the faith in 1902; the second convert was Saichiro Fujita (藤田左弌郎). The first Bahá'í convert on Japanese soil was Kikutaro Fukuta (福田菊太郎) in 1915. Almost a century later, the Association of Religion Data Archives (relying on World Christian Encyclopedia) estimated some 15,700 Bahá'ís in 2005.
Islam (イスラム教 Isuramukyō) in Japan is mostly represented by small immigrant communities from other parts of Asia. In 2008, Keiko Sakurai estimated that 80–90% of the Muslims in Japan were foreign born migrants primarily from Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran. It has been estimated that the Muslim immigrant population amounts to 70,000–100,000 people, while the "estimated number of Japanese Muslims ranges from thousands to tens of thousands".
Judaism (ユダヤ教 Yudayakyō) in Japan is practiced by about 2,000 Jews living in the country. With the opening of Japan to the external world in 1853 and the end of Japan's sakoku foreign policy, some Jews immigrated to Japan from abroad, with the first recorded Jewish settlers arriving at Yokohama in 1861. The Jewish population continued to grow into the 1950s, fueled by immigration from Europe and the Middle East, with Tokyo and Kobe forming the largest communities.
During World War II, some European Jews fleeing the Holocaust found refuge in Japan, with one Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania, disregarding his orders and issuing more than 6,000 entry visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis. After World War II, a large portion of Japan's Jewish population emigrated, many going to what would become Israel. Some of those who remained married locals and were assimilated into Japanese society.
There are community centres serving Jews in Tokyo and Kobe. The Chabad-Lubavitch organization has two centres in Tokyo.
Hinduism (ヒンドゥー教 Hindūkyō or 印度教 Indokyō) in Japan is practiced by a small number of people, mostly immigrants from India. Nevertheless, Hindu themes have had a significant but indirect role in Japanese culture, through the spread of Buddhism. Four of the Japanese "Seven Gods of Fortune" originated as Hindu deities, including Benzaiten (Sarasvati), Bishamon (Vaiśravaṇa or Kubera), Daikoku (Mahakala/Shiva), and Kisshoutennyo (Laxmi). Various Hindu deities, including the aforementioned, are worshipped in Shingon Buddhism. This denomination, and all other forms of Tantric Buddhism, borrow heavily from Tantric Hinduism.
Other religions of East Asia
Ryukyuan folk religion
The Ryukyuan folk religion (琉球神道 Ryūkyūshintō) is the indigenous belief system of the people of Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands. While specific legends and traditions may vary slightly from place to place and island to island, the Ryukyuan religion is generally characterized by ancestor worship (more accurately termed "ancestor respect") and the respecting of relationships between the living, the dead, and the gods and spirits of the natural world. Some of its beliefs, such as those concerning genius loci spirits and many other beings classified between gods and humans, are indicative of its ancient animistic roots, as is its concern with mabui (まぶい?) , or life essence.
One of its most ancient features is the belief onarigami (おなり神), the spiritual superiority of women derived from the goddess Amamikyu, which allowed for the development of a class of noro (priestesses) cult and yuta (female media). This differs from Japanese Shinto, where men are seen as the embodiment of purity. Ryukyuan folk religion has been influenced by Japanese Shinto and Buddhism, and various Chinese religions. It includes sects and reformed movements such as Ijun or Ijunism (Ryukyuan: いじゅん Ijun; Japanese: 違順教 Ijunkyō), founded in the 1970s.
Ainu folk religion
The Ainu religion アイヌの宗教 (Ainu no shūkyō) is the indigenous belief system of the Ainu people of Hokkaido and parts of Far Eastern Russia. It is an animistic religion centered around the belief that Kamuy (spirits or gods) live in everything.
Chinese folk religion
Most Chinese people in Japan practice the Chinese folk religion (Chinese: 中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰; pinyin: Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào or Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyǎng; Japanese: 中国の民俗宗教; rōmaji: Chūgoku no minzoku shūkyō), also known as Shenism (Chinese: 神教; pinyin: Shénjiào; Japanese pronunciation: Shinkyō), that is very similar to Japanese Shinto.
The Chinese folk religion consists in the worship of the ethnic Chinese gods and ancestors, shen (神 "gods", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes"; literally "expressions", the energies that generate things and make them thrive), which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors of kinships. Holy narratives regarding some of these gods are codified into the body of Chinese mythology.
Taoism (道教 Dōkyō) was introduced from China between the 7th and 8th centuries, and influenced in varying degrees the Japanese indigenous spirituality. Taoist practices were absorbed into Shinto, and Taoism was the source of the esoteric and mystical religions of Onmyōdō, Shugendō and Kōshin.
Taoism, being an indigenous religion in China, shares some roots with Shinto, although Taoism is more hermetic while Shinto is more shamanic. Taoism's influence in Japan has been less profound than that of Japanese Neo-Confucianism. Today, institutional Chinese Taoism is present in the country in the form of some temples; the Seitenkyū was founded in 1995.
Confucianism (儒教 Jukyō) was introduced from China during the Edo period, and developed into an elite religion, yet having a profound influence on the fabric of Japanese society overall. The Confucian philosophy can be characterized as humanistic and rationalistic, with the belief that the universe could be understood through human reason, corresponding to the universal reason (li), and thus it is up to man to create a harmonious relationship between the universe (天 Ten) and the individual. The rationalism of Neo-Confucianism was in contrast to the mysticism of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Unlike the Buddhists, the Neo-Confucians believed that reality existed, and could be understood by mankind, even if the interpretations of reality were slightly different depending on the school of Neo-Confucianism.
The social aspects of the philosophy are hierarchical with a focus on filial piety. This created a Confucian social stratification in Edo society that previously had not existed, dividing Japanese society into four main classes: samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants. The samurai were especially avid readers and teachers of Confucian thought in Japan, establishing many Confucian academies.
Neo-Confucianism also introduced elements of ethnocentrism into Japan. As the Chinese Neo-Confucians had regarded their own culture as the center of the world, the Japanese Neo-Confucians developed a similar national pride. This national pride would later evolve into the philosophical school of Kokugaku, which would later challenge Neo-Conufucianism, and its perceived foreign Chinese origins, as the dominant philosophy of Japan.
Religious practices and holidays
Most Japanese participate in rituals and customs derived from several religious traditions. Life cycle events are often marked by visits to a Shinto shrine. The birth of a new baby is celebrated with a formal shrine visit at the age of about one month, as are the third, fifth, and seventh birthdays (Shichi-Go-San) and the official beginning of adulthood at age twenty (Seijin shiki). Wedding ceremonies are often performed by Shinto priests, but Western-style secular wedding ceremonies, called howaito uedingu ("white wedding"), are also popular. These use Christian-like liturgy but are usually not presided over by an ordained priest.
Japanese funerals are usually performed by Buddhist priests, and Buddhist rites are also common on death day anniversaries of deceased family members. 91% of Japanese funerals take place according to Buddhist traditions.
There are two categories of holidays in Japan: matsuri (temple fairs), which are largely of Shinto origin and relate to the cultivation of rice and the spiritual well-being of the local community; and nenjyū gyōji (annual feasts), which are largely of Chinese or Buddhist origin. During the Heian period, the matsuri were organized into a formal calendar, and other festivals were added. Very few matsuri or annual feasts are national holidays, but they are included in the national calendar of annual events. Most matsuri are local events and follow local traditions. They may be sponsored by schools, towns, or other groups but are most often associated with Shinto shrines.
Some of the holidays are secular in nature, but the two most significant for the majority of Japanese—New Year's Day and Obon—involve visits to Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, respectively. The New Year's holiday (January 1–3) is marked by the practice of numerous customs and the consumption of special foods. Visiting Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples to pray for family blessings in the coming year, dressing in a kimono, hanging special decorations, eating noodles on New Year's Eve, and playing a poetry card game are among these practices. During Obon, bon (spirit altars) are set up in front of Buddhist family altars, which, along with ancestral graves, are cleaned in anticipation of the return of the spirits. People living away from their family homes return for visits with relatives. Celebrations include folk dancing and prayers at Buddhist temples as well as family rituals in the home.
Religion and law
In early Japanese history, the ruling class was responsible for performing propitiatory rituals, which later came to be identified as Shinto, and for the introduction and support of Buddhism. Later, religious organization was used by regimes for political purposes; for instance, the Tokugawa government required each family to be registered as a member of a Buddhist temple. In the early 19th century, the government required that each family belong to a shrine instead, and in the early 20th century, this was supplemented with the concept of a divine right to rule bestowed on the emperor. The Meiji Constitution reads: "Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief".
Article 20 of the 1947 Constitution states: "Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority". The United States privatized shrines and created the term "State Shinto" during the occupation of Japan to reform native Japanese ideas of church and state, under the belief that it had supported the rise of Japanese militarism before and during World War II.
Thoughts and movements against organised religion
Shichihei Yamamoto argues that Japan has shown greater tolerance towards irreligion, saying, "Japan had nothing like the trial of Galileo or the 'monkey trial' about evolution. No Japanese Giordano Bruno was ever burned at the stake for atheism".
Comments against religion by notable figures
- Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, philosopher and scholar who rejected theism, claimed that God or Buddha, as objective beings, are mere illusions.
- Prince Ito Hirobumi, four-time Prime Minister of Japan, who reportedly said: "I regard religion itself as quite unnecessary for a nation's life; science is far above superstition, and what is religion – Buddhism or Christianity – but superstition, and therefore a possible source of weakness to a nation? I do not regret the tendency to free thought and atheism, which is almost universal in Japan because I do not regard it as a source of danger to the community".
- Hiroyuki Kato, who headed the Imperial Academy from 1905–1909 and said: "Religion depends on fear".
- Haruki Murakami, a Japanese novelist who wrote: "God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God's always has been a kind of flexible concept. Look at what happened to the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being a God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person".
- Ando Shoeki, who denounced Confucian scholars and Buddhist clergy as spiritual oppressors of his age, though he still venerated the gods of old Japan as a pantheist would, equating them with the nature.
- Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was regarded as one of the founders of modern Japan and found it impossible to combine modern learning with belief in gods, openly declaring: "It goes without saying that the maintenance of peace and security in society requires a religion. For this purpose any religion will do. I lack a religious nature, and have never believed in any religion. I am thus open to the charge that I am advising others to be religious while I am not so. Yet my conscience does not permit me to clothe myself with religion when I have it not at heart...Of religions there are several kinds – Buddhism, Christianity, and what not. From my standpoint there is no more difference between those than between green tea and black...See that the stock is well selected and the prices cheap".
The Japan Militant Atheists Alliance (Nihon Sentoteki Mushinronsha Domei, also known as Senmu) was founded in September 1931 by a group of antireligious people. The alliance opposed the idea of kokutai, the nation's founding myth, the presence of religion in public education, and the practice of State Shinto. Their greatest opposition was towards the imperial system of Japan.
Two months later, in November 1931, socialist Toshihiko Sakai and Communist Takatsu Seido created the Japan Anti-religion Alliance (Nihon Hanshukyo Domei). They opposed "contributions to religious organizations, prayers for practical benefits (kito), preaching in factories, and the religious organizations of all stripes" and viewed religion as a tool used by the upper class to suppress laborers and farmers.
|Prefecture||Tendai or Shingon||Pure Land||Zen||Nichiren||Soka Gakkai||Other Buddhist schools||Buddhism overall||Shinto sects||Christianity||Folk Shinto or none|
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- Bestor, Yamagata. 2011. pp. 66-67: 無宗教 mushūkyō, "no religion", in Japanese language and mindset identifies those people who do not belong to organised religion. To the Japanese, the term "religion" or "faith" means organized religions on the model of Christianity, that is a religion with specific doctrines and requirement for church membership. So, when asked "what is their religion", most of the Japanese answer that they "do not belong to any religion". According to NHK studies, those Japanese who identify with mushūkyō and therefore do not belong to any organised religion, actually take part in the folk ritual dimension of Shinto. Ama Toshimaru in Nihonjin wa naze mushukyo na no ka ("Why are the Japanese non-religious?") of 1996, explains that people who do not belong to organised religions but regularly pray and make offerings to ancestors and protective deities at private altars or Shinto shrines will identify themselves as mushukyo. Ama designates "natural religion" what NHK studies define as "folk religion", and other scholars have named "Nipponism" (Nipponkyō) or "common religion".
- According to the Dentsu survey of 2006: 1% Protestants, 0.8% members of the Catholic Church, and 0.5% members of the Orthodox Church.
- Both mean the "way of the divine" or "of the gods". Other names are:
- kannagara-no-michi, "way of the divine transmitted from time immemorial";
- Kodo, the "ancient way";
- Daido, the "great way";
- Teido, the "imperial way".
- During the history of China, at the time of the spread of Buddhism to the country, the name Shendao was used to identify what is currently known as "Shenism", the Chinese indigenous religion, distinguishing it from the new Buddhist religion. (Brian Bocking. A Popular Dictionary of Shinto. Routledge, 2005. ASIN: B00ID5TQZY p. 129)
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