West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs

Religion in Japan

By Josiah Lebowitz

Zojoji is famous for its new years celebation.

Japan’s two major religions are Buddhism, which was first introduced to the country in 552, and Shintoism, which is their native religion. Christianity, which was brought to Japan in 1549, is the country’s largest minority religion, though it claims less than 1% of the population.

The famous Zenkoji Shrine in Nagano

You’ll find shrines (Shinto) and temples (Buddhist) everywhere in Japan. Some are enormous buildings with elaborate carvings and others are smaller and more subdued. Some have expansive grounds including well-tended gardens and forests, others are squeezed onto small lots in the middle of a crowded part of town. Many include cemeteries, though that isn’t always the case. And, while there are newer shrines and temples to be found, many are hundreds of years old.

A Japanese cemetary

Shinto shrines are easily recognizable by their tori gates, which are usually a reddish orange in color (though most shrines don’t have nearly as many as the one in the photo below.

A whole lot of tori gates

Shintoism revolves around a combination of nature spirits and ancestor worship. In fact, many Japanese families have a small alter in their house where they pray to the spirits of departed loved ones. Unlike Christianity, there are no weekly Shinto services or anything like that. Instead, people visit their local shrine on holidays and when they have something in particular they want to pray for. Some shrines which are said to be particularly good for certain types of prayers (such as prayers for children or prayers for good grades) receive visitors from all across the country. Shinto priests can also be called on to perform a variety of purification ceremonies, such as purifying the land before beginning construction on a new building or removing restless spirits from a supposedly haunted area.

A Shinto priest going about his duties

When visiting a shrine, many people start by washing their hands in a basin of holy water and then burning incense (though not all shrines have basins and incense burners). They then approach the shrine itself. While some of the more famous and elaborate shrines allow you to walk through the building (either on your own or as part of a tour), smaller shrines only allow visitors to climb the steps and look into the inner chamber. There will be a large box there where you can toss in some coins as an offering. You’re then supposed to clap your hands twice, close your eyes, and spend a moment praying for whatever it is you want (be it health, success, a good score on your big English test, or the like). You then pull the rope (if there is one) to ring a bell and you’re done.

Bad fortunes tied to a tree in Nikko

Many shrines also sell charms for things like safe childbirth, good grades, and all the other things Japanese people typically pray for. If you’re still not sure if you’ve done enough, you can buy a prayer board (a small wooden plaque), write you prayer on it, and hang it up. You can also get your fortune told (a particularly popular activity around at the beginning of the year). Unlike most American fortunes which can get pretty specific, Japanese ones tend to boil down to how lucky you’ll be, with several different degrees ranging from the best luck to the worst luck. But if your fortune isn’t so great, you can tie the paper to a specially designated cord or tree to negate it.

The famous daibutsu in Kamakura

For people who haven’t been in Japan long, Buddhist temples really aren’t much different than Shinto shrines. Though they’re rather easy to tell apart as temples lack tori gates (they often have a very large and thick gate instead) and have at least one statue of the Buddha, generally in a fairly obvious place (though you can find him in poses other than the well-known one in the above photo). As with Shintoism, people don’t attend regular services (other than monks) and primarily visit temples on holidays and when they have something to pray for. Buddhist temples often tend to be a bit larger and bit less elaborate than Shinto shrines (though some of the Buddha statues are pretty impressive).

Golden Buddha statues

Although Buddhism and Shintoism aren’t in agreement on many matters, most Japanese people (Shinto priests and Buddhist monks aside) are actually a mix of both and see no problem with the inherent contradictions. Perhaps because, while just about everyone in Japan is religious, they’re only nominally so. The main exception would be Christians and cultists (yes, Japan does have a handful of weird cults scattered throughout the country) who tend to be far more dedicated to their religions and will actually stand on street corners or go door to door searching for new converts. During my first stay in Japan, I had a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Japanese, of course) come to the door of my out of the way apartment and ran into some protestant women (also Japanese), talking to people on the street. I’ve also heard of the occasional Mormon missionaries going door to door as well, though all of these are far less common in Japan than they are in the US. Still, while most Japanese may not take their religion as seriously as many Americans do, it’s interesting to see a country where religion is literally everywhere and has such complete acceptance.


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