The Different Religious Symbols in Japan


It is a known fact that Japan is a country that is made up of a population that has different beliefs. It is here that you will find a mix of people that believe in religions like Shintoism, Confucianism, Folk, Taoism, and Buddhism. These religions are very old, even ancient if you really think about it and with that being the case, it can already be expected that these religions make use of certain symbols to signify certain concepts and beliefs in their respective religions. Learning about these symbols can give you a better insight on what these religions believe in and what they value so if you wish to learn more about these religions, read on and learn more about some of the main symbols used

Ancient Japanese Religious Symbols of Shintoism

Shintoism is a religion that believes in spirits that are of good and evil nature. Because of the multiple gods and supreme beings that they pay tribute to, there is also an equal number of symbols used to describe them and other things related to them. These symbols do not include the shrines devoted to the religion like the Nishina Shinmei Shrine or any other shrine for that matter. Despite the several symbols used in this religion, there are only 6 main symbols used for Shintoism. These symbols are the Maneke Neko, Tomoe, Omamori, Torri Gate, Jizo, and Magatama.

The Maneke Neko, otherwise known as the “Lucky Cat”, is a symbol of Shintoism that you have surely seen in the form of a decoration in certain Asian homes and stores. The Maneke Neko is that cat looking figurine that holds a barrel-looking object under one paw while the other paw usually swings back and forth as if it were waving hello. It is placed in certain locations because it is believed to bring good luck to wherever it is.

The Lucky Cat is generally known as a good luck charm. What people usually do not know about the Maneke Neko is that the color it comes in also has a different meaning. You can find black nekos that are believed to ward off evil. You can also find red nekos that are known to ward off illnesses. Gold nekos are believed to bring money while pink ones are thought to bring about love. There are much more colors that these nekos come in but these colors are generally the main colors that they can come in.

You can find many origin stories of how this Maneke Neko turned into a symbol of the Shinto religion. The most popular of all origin stories though is the one involving a poor monk. In this tale, a poor but generous monk owned a cat. This cat happened to help a man from the heavy rains which eventually saved the man’s life. Due to his gratitude for saving his life, he left all his wealth to the temple of this poor monk. When his cat died, the monk showed his thankfulness to the cat by making the first Maneke Neko as a tribute to the cat that changed his life.

Another symbol is the magatama. This symbol is one of the oldest symbols used by the Japanese. Originally, it was made of jade stone and shaped like a tooth of an animal or a large apostrophe. It signified a high status for the wearer. This became a popular symbol because Shinto legends say that outside the cave of the sun goddess they called Amaterasu hung a necklace of magatama. Because of this relation to Amaterasu, this symbol because one of the three treasures of the Japanese Imperial Regalia.

The symbol known as Tomoe looks like you put two or three magatamas together inside a circle. If you follow the anime, Naruto, it might be easier for you to imagine the tomoe as the symbol in Sasuke’s eye. This symbol is highly related to the symbol of yin yang because they have very similar meanings. The yin yang symbol signifies balance while the tomoe represents the play of cosmic forces in the world. Although it can be seen that a tomoe can come in different styles, the most common Tomoe is usually made up of three magatamas which represent the earth, the heavens, and mankind.

The next symbol on the list is the one they call Omamori. The word itself translates to “blessed protector” which is exactly what it is considering that it is used as a lucky charm of some sort. The monks of Shinto and Buddhist temples would give these lucky charms in exchange for the donations of people to their temples. They are patch-looking objects that have a ribbon or lace tied into a bow on top. On one side, what is written is the temple where the charm comes from and on the other side, you will find a charm for specific purposes like health, prosperities, and much more. These charms are believed to never expire but it is a practice to change them on a yearly basis.

The symbol of the torii gate is highly related to the kami because the Shinto believe that these gates mark the boundary between the physical and spiritual realm. This explains why so many torii gates are placed by the entrances of shrines. There is a reason for the torii gate being made up of 3 pieces. It is that 3 is the number of the kami. People even clap and bow 3 times whenever they visit these Shinto shrines to show respect to the kami there.

The last main symbol used for the Shinto religion is the one with the name Jizo or Jizou. This symbol is the representation of the Japanese form of the Buddhist Bodhisattva. He is supposedly a childlike monk that is venerated in Japan as the protector of the souls of children and the unborn. Because of this, the symbol is depicted as a bald child in a kneeling and praying position.

Ancient Japanese Religious Symbols of Confucianism, Folk, and Taoism

Much like the symbols of Shintoism, the symbols of the Confucians, Folk, and Taoists are too many to mention all at one time. Also like the symbols of Shintoism, this long list of symbols can be simplified to 14 symbols. These symbols are the Ba Gua, Tomoe, Yin Yang, Maneke Neko, Hotei, I Ching, Chan Chu, Shou, Saturn, Elements, Water, Gourd, Double Happiness, and Daruma. There are bound to be symbols used for more than one religion and that is why you will notice the repetition of such symbols like the tomoe and the Maneke Neko.

Even if the list was cut down to 14 symbols, discussing all would be too many details and information to handle so what will be discussed are the top 3 symbols among these 14. The first symbol is the Ba Gua. This symbol is also known as Pa Kua and it is a wooden hexagram with eight trigrams and a mirror at the center. This symbol is highly used by Feng Shui practitioners because it is believed to be a protective charm to homes that place it by the doorway.

The second symbol is the Yin Yang and this might as well be the most famous symbol of religion in the world. Some think of this symbol as the heart of the Taoist religion because of how it symbolizes the balance of forces in the universe. There are followers that think of the white and black parts of the Yin Yang to be representations of the moon (Yin) and the sun (Yang). There are also others that believe that the parts represent enlightenment and ignorance, respectively.

The third symbol is the one that represents the five elements and this symbol is called the “Wu Xing”. The elements acknowledged here are the elements of water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. It is a pentagram or a star-looking pattern that contains kanji or characters that pertain to each of the five elements. These characters are found at each of the tips of the star and it has arrows that come from one element and points to another. The way that these arrows point to elements represents something people refer to as the generating sequence. This sequence is simply the process of which element contributes to the generation of another. For example, water feeds wood that, when burnt, turns into ash or earth that is then turned into the metal where the water flows.

Ancient Japanese Religious Symbols of Buddhism 

Since the religion of Buddhism has been here for centuries now, it should be completely understandable why Buddhism would have the most symbols of all the religions in Japan. Considering the same conditions as the symbols for Shintoism, Confucianism, Folk, and Taoism, you should only worry yourself with knowing the 31 main symbols. Among these 31 symbols, the symbols of Tomoe and Jizo are the ones repeat themselves from the Shinto symbols.

31 is still a very large number and it is because some of the main signs symbolize the demons and gods that they recognize in Buddhism. Examples of such symbols are the Citipati and the Yab-Yum. The Citipati is known as the Lord of the Cemetery but he isn’t seen as a demon or an evil spirit despite his title. The Citipati represents the never-ending dance between death and awareness and it originated when two Buddhist were killed when they were in the deep trance of their meditation. This symbol is usually depicted as a male or a female that is intertwined with a skeleton and you would notice that they are in a dancing position.

The Yab-Yum, on the other hand, is a symbol that can be quite deceiving if you do not read up more about it. This is the case because this symbol is made up of two bodies, one male, and one female, who are in a position that suggests that they are having intercourse. This is the misleading detail about this symbol because it actually represents the union of compassion and wisdom. One gender represents compassion while the other represents wisdom. Successfully combining the two is believed to lead a person to spiritual liberation.

If you wish to learn more about the other symbols of Buddhism, all you need to do is search for symbols used in Buddhism and you will find a lot of information about each and every one of the 31 main symbols. Some symbols are basic while others are quite complex representations of certain concepts and beliefs in the said religion. Nevertheless, learning about these symbols of Buddhism would definitely lead you to understand this religion more thoroughly.

Overall, although these symbols seem simple, you must always remember and acknowledge the fact that these symbols were able to relay their meanings and representations to empires with ease. Each of these symbols has said a thousand words and a million stories to those to follow and believe in the religion and that is amazing considering that a simple picture can entail so many things at one go. There are many ancient symbols to be studied in the culture of Japan but those symbols related to the religious side of Japan truly gives the most meaning and influence to the people. They have been respected and used for thousands of years now and they will continue to be used and respected because of the history and meaning that these symbols bring to these religions.