Religions of the Non-Religious: Shinto and Buddhism in Japan

Religions of the Non-Religious: Shinto and Buddhism in Japan

  1.             When asked, the typical Japanese will tell you they are not religious, although the majority attend festivals and events at local Shrines and Temples every year.  Japan was able to avoid the Christian influence and domination that spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world, preserving Shintoism, the indigenous religion of the ancient Japanese peoples, and Buddhism which spread to Japan from China.

    Shinto: The Way of the Kami

                Shinto has no known founder and no official foundation date, though historical documents suggest it may be as old, or older, than 500 B.C.E.  Often translated as meaning "the way of the gods," Shinto is written with two Kanji (Chinese Characters): 神道.  The first character, 神(kami), is often translated as "god" but the Shinto concept of "god" is not the same as the Western concept, and so it may also be considered "deity" "divine power" "divine spirit" and the like.  道, the second character, means "way" or "path" and is the same character in words such as 柔道Judo, 武士道Bushido, 合気道Aikido, and so forth.  

                Shinto contains Japan’s Creation Myth, explaining how the Japanese islands and people were formed and came to be.  This Creation Myth is found in the 古事記Kojiki, an ancient text translated as "Record of Ancient Matters." 

    Izanagi, Izanami, and the islands of Japan

                All of the kami called upon Izanami and Izanagi, a specific female and male pair, to work together to create a land that would become Japan.  They were provided a spear, which they stirred in the ocean water.  Upon removing the spear from the water, drops feel from the end forming an island which became Japan.  Izanami and Izanagi then built a home on that island, and wishing to bear children, performed a ritual in which they circled a pole and greeted each other.  Unfortunately, the first time they performed this ritual, Izanami spoke the greeting first which the pair blamed for the malformation of their first two offspring islands.  Performing the ritual again, this time with Izanagi, the male, speaking the greeting first, the pair birthed eight offspring which became the island nation of Japan. 

                The pair then continued to birth offspring which became other kami until Izanami dies.  Izanagi attempted to revive her, entered the land of the dead.  Upon finding her there, he lit a torch to gaze upon his once-beautiful mate only to discover she was rotting and covered with maggots and other signs of decomposition as a result of her eating the food in the land of the dead.  His scream awoke her as he ran away.

                Izanami chased him but he escaped the land of the dead and sealed the entrance with a large boulder.  She demanded that if he not bring her back with him she would kill 1000 people a day, to which Izanagi replied he would then give life to 1500.  Shinto, in general, does not involve death and there are rituals involving purification if one encounters death.

    Shinto Shrines

                Festivals and celebrations are performed at or around Shinto Shrines, 神社(jinja).  These are recognizable and distinguishable from Buddhist Temples by their large, bright red torii.  A sort of gateway symbolizing the entrance to each Shrine or sacred place.  Many Japanese will make a trip to a Shinto Shrine and make an offering for divine favor in school exams, job applications and interviews, safe delivery of a baby, and just about anything one wishes for a little "divine back-up on.  Many families will have a kami-dana, a type of offering shelf placed high in the home where they make daily offerings and pay respects to the kami that protect them, their family, their town, and so forth.  Many of the festivals in Shintoism involve agriculture, nature-worship, elements, and the various kami found just about everywhere.

    Buddhism in Japan

                Buddhism, though it may have been known in Japan earlier, official made it’s entrance into mainstream Japanese culture around 552 C.E. according to the Nihon Shoki when a mission was sent from China to Nara, Japan which included Buddhist monks, and image of the Buddha, and Buddhist Sutras meant to introduce the philosophy religion to the Japanese.  While Buddhism has split into different sects and branches in Japan, and around the world, it has remained a strong presence among the Japanese since.

                Buddhism is more likely to deal with death issues, as opposed to Shintoism, and often Japanese funerals are of the Buddhist variety involving the chanting of Sutras.  The annual O-Bon festival is a Buddhist celebration honoring the dead, and many families maintain a butsudan (altar) in their home, making daily offerings to ancestors and the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, such as Kannon or Amida.

                In contrast to a Shinto Shrine, Buddhist celebrations and offerings are performed at Temples, お寺(o-tera).  These are where one would find those perfectly balanced Zen rock gardens, and the scent of offered incense can be caught, often early in the day, with the hum of chanting sutras by the resident monks.  Families will often visit a Buddhist Temple at New Years for their New Years blessing and home o-fuda, or talismans.  There are also celebrations for the birth and death of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, and the Buddha’s Enlightenment.

    Christianity in Japan

                Though the Japanese primarily will consider themselves non-religious, yet attend annual festivals and celebrations at both Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples, there is a small population of Christian believers that attend Sunday Mass, have Christian weddings, celebrate Christian holidays, and some forego the traditional Shinto and Buddhist celebrations while others maintain them.

                Many non-Christian Japanese will have Christian style weddings, following with a traditional Japanese Shinto wedding.  The Western influence of white gowns and rose-filled bouquets has had a visible impact on the typical Japanese wedding, and when the family can afford it many couples desire a Christian ceremony as well.

                Christmas is celebrated by many Japanese, usually involving a small Christmas tree and gift exchange, Christmas cake, and Kentucky Fried Chicken or other Western style food.  Christmas cake is a Japanese invention, and many Japanese are surprised to find Westerners do not have this traditionally.  Usually a Christmas cake consists of a sponge cake with whipped cream topping, strawberries, and marzipan decorations.  There are even Japanese versions of traditional Western Christmas songs which have grown quite popular.

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