Get to Know the Main Religions of Japan Today

Every person has his or her own beliefs that they adhere to. These beliefs have their own teachings and practices that followers apply in their everyday living. Each country has its own dominant religions that most of its citizens follow. While some people may think that religion is just a small aspect of a person’s life, the opposite is true. Because governments are composed of humans and lawmakers are people, their decisions and actions can also be influenced by religion. Many wars and conquests were created and ended because of religion. Manners and the way people communicate and interact with each other are also affected by these beliefs called religion. Hence, knowing about the major religions in a certain country is important especially for those traveling to a different land. This is so as to avoid offending the people and the culture of that country. Also, it is so that one may pay one’s respects to the culture and heritage of that nation and be able to socialize with its people well.

Among the top places that tourists flock to every year is Japan. This is because the country has a lot to offer such as magnificent views, rich cultural heritage, and affordable but high-quality products and services. To be able to fully enjoy one’s trip to the Land of the Sun, one must first be knowledgeable about certain customs that the country and its citizens follow. Therefore, knowing the main religions and beliefs of the Japanese would definitely be beneficial as they greatly appreciate visitors who take the time and effort to learn about their culture.

The Way of the Gods: Facts on the Shinto Religion in Japan

One of the main ethnic religions in Japan is Shinto, also known as kami-no-michi. Considered as an action-centered religion, Shinto is dedicated to ritual practices that followers incorporate in their daily lives. Because of this, Shinto practitioners find a connection between their historical roots and the present times of Japan. The first record of Shinto practices was in the 8th century as written in the ancient records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. While the Shinto religion was basically just a group of native beliefs and mythology back in the day as defined by Richard Pilgrim and Robert Ellwood in their book “Japanese Religion” pp. 18-19, it is now a term used for the worship of kami or several gods in public shrines all over Japan. These gods have their distinct purposes and are prayed to depending on one’s needs and wishes. There is a standard in terms of language and practice with dress and ritual style similar to those from the Nara and Heian period.

The term “Shinto” meaning “the way of the gods” was first known as “Shindo,” originating from two written Chinese words Shendao. Adopted in kanji, Shinto is composed of “shin,” which translates to spirit or kami, and “to,” which translates to a philosophical path or study. Japanese scholars have categorized the different types of Shinto religious expressions. The first type would be the Shrine Shinto or Jinja-Shinto, which is the foremost tradition of Shinto. Shrine Shinto is basically the practice of worshipping in events at local shrines. The Association of Shinto Shrines, the present successor to the imperial organization system, is the group that supervises around 80,000 shrines all across the country.

The second type would be the Imperial Household Shinto or Kōshitsu-Shinto, which are the spiritual rites executed only by the imperial family at the three shrines on the imperial grounds. These include the Ancestral Spirits Sanctuary or the Kōrei-den and the Sanctuary of the Kami or Shin-den. The third type would be the Folk Shinto or Minzoku-Shinto, which are the several folk beliefs in spirits and divinity. Followers of Shinto practice divination, spirit possession and shamanic healing to name a few. While some of their practices originally came from other religions like Buddhism and Taoism, most of these are from early local traditions.

The fourth type would be the Sect Shinto or Kyōha-Shinto, which is a legal description. This designation was made in the 1890s to provide a separation between shrines owned by the government and religious communities that are organized only by the locals. Sect Shinto can be identified under five headings with thirteen groups, namely, pure Shinto sects with Shinto Taikyo, Shinrikyo, and Izumo Oyashirokyo; Confucian sects with Shinto Shusei-ha and Taiseikyo; purification sects with Shinshukyo and Misogikyo; mountain worship sects with Jikkokyo, Fusokyo, and Mitakekyo or Ontakekyo; and faith-healing sects with Kurozumikyo, Konkokyo, and Tenrikyo. The last type would be the Koshinto. Also known as Old Shinto, Koshinto is basically just a reconstructed Shinto just prior to the time that Buddhism started and is established more on the Ainu religion and Ryukyuan practices.

There are basic practices that Shinto followers apply when they worship like visiting a shrine. This practice is all Omairi in Japanese. Usually, there are a number of basic steps to be followed when practicing Omairi. First, one must bow respectfully prior to passing through any entrance gate. There are certain shrines that provide a hand-washing basin for visitors; if one is provided, then perform Temizu. For those who are unaware, Temizu is basically the washing not just of the hands but also of the mouth of the visitors. There are also basic steps to doing this to accomplish the washing properly. After Temizu, one can then approach the shrine.

Upon approaching the shrine, one may ring the bell first although one may opt to only do so after making a donation. Should there be a box for donations, most people leave an ample amount fitting their budget. After this, they would bow two times and clap two times. For the second clap, both hands are held together in front of one’s chest or one’s heart for the closing bow just after one is already done saying one’s prayers. While this ritual is pretty basic for Shinto followers, there may be other variations and additional rituals depending on the time of the year and holidays when it is to be done. One tip that visitors should be aware of is to keep quiet and remain sincere and respectful to everyone in the shrine. Also, there are certain parts on the shrine that are prohibited to the general public so one must also be mindful of that.

Another ritual that Shinto followers often do is called harae. Harae is the daily ceremony of sacramental purification of offerings and prayers in various forms. Typical types of food that are being offered by folks in the shrine are shinsen or basic food offerings of fruit, vegetables, and fish; tamagushi or sakaki tree branches; mochi or rice cakes; shio or salt; sake or rice wine; and gohan or rice. Special offerings are also added to these dishes during holidays and other special events. Speaking of purification, another ritual done by Shinto followers is called misogi. Directly translating to purification, misogi, specifically misogi harai or misohi shūhō for water purification, is another basic ceremony that most Shinto followers do when visiting a shrine. It is the practice of purification with the ceremonial use of water while reciting prayers. Temizu is an example of this, but more dedicated followers of the religion perform the ritual by actually standing under a waterfall or performing the ceremony in a river.

The History and Practice of Buddhism in Japan

Another major religion in the country of Japan is Buddhism. Also known as Bukkyō, this religion was first introduced in the country back in the 6th century. Between the year 538 and 552, the history of Buddhism began when it was presented from the kingdom of Baekje in the country of Korea. It was the king of Baekje who sent a photo of the Buddha and other sutras to the emperor of Japan. While there were several oppositions coming from conservatives that were short yet violent, this obstacle was overcome and Buddhism was acknowledged by the Japanese court in the year 587. The Yamato state had power over clans called uji that focused on worshipping ancestral nature deities. This period was also a turning point for Buddhism as there was strong immigration and cultural influence from both Korea and China. It was during this time that Japanese aristocrats started building Buddhist temple located in the capital of Nara. This construction later on propagated to the later capital of Heian, now known as Kyoto.

Buddhism further developed in the 12th century when the shogunate took power and moved the administrative capital to Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture. Among the many types of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism was the most popular type during that century. At this time, two schools based on this type of Buddhism was built called Rinzai and Sōtō. The third school of Zen was then constructed in the year 1661 known as Ōbaku. However, Shinto became the state religion back in the year 1868 with the Meiji Restoration. This movement included the goal of eradicating Buddhism. However, this eradication was not successful as even now, more than a quarter of the population of Japan are Buddhists.

Two branches of Buddhism that are popular these days are Pure Land Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the role of Amitabha Buddha and the promise of being moved by the Buddha to the “Pure Land” then later on to Nirvana upon reciting the phrase “Namu Amida Butsu” just before death. This form of Buddhism, however, was separated into two schools when the head missionary of Pure Land in the country, Honen, passed away. One school called Jōdo-shū is centered on repeating the said phrase multiple times while the other school called Jōdo Shinshū is centered on just uttering the phrase once upon death but with a pure heart. As for Nichiren Buddhism, it was founded by the monk named Nichiren in the 13th century. This form of Buddhism is centered on the essence of Lotus Sutra. One common practice of this type of Buddhism is chanting Nam(u) Myōhō Renge Kyō and the Gohonzon as taught and written by Nichiren.

Religious Anecdotes Online and in PDFs and in Languages Like Deutsch

With more than 80% of the population of Japan being either Shintoist or Buddhist, it should come as no surprise that religious writings and anecdotes are made available throughout the country. While it used to be only in paper and writing, these documents and teachings can now also be accessed and learned online and downloaded in PDF or EPUB format thanks to technology advancement. Furthermore, because both religions have grown more followers not just locally but all around the world as well, a lot of its teachings are published not only in Japanese but in other languages as well such as English and Deutsch. These teachings are also available in libraries in schools and university almost anywhere in Japan including Tokyo.

Currently having 100,000 shrines and 78,890 priests preaching Shinto in the country, the number of believers just keep on increasing. As of the year 2014, there are also more than 377,000 monks, priests, and leaders in the country, the number of which had grown more than 60,000 back in the year 2007. Due to the massive number of people practicing these religions, the teaching of Shinto and Buddhism are now more accessible than ever.

Shinto and Buddhism Through the Years: From the 1940s to 2014

Through the years, several things in the country have been influenced by religion. While there were definitely certain favors given to specific organizations that uphold certain beliefs and principles, the government realized the importance of separation of the church and the state. Hence, in the 1947 Constitution of Japan, Article 20 states, "Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority." This ensured equal standing among people of different beliefs and virtues.

Even in the year 2014, there is almost no discrimination at all among the people of Japan despite their different beliefs and religions. With almost 52% of the population being followers of Folk Shinto, almost 35% being Buddhists, and a certain percentage for other religion such as Christianity based on a 2006 survey, Japanese people are still able to live harmoniously with each other.