Articles: Religions in Japan: Many or None? [Dharma World 2016] by Prof. Gaynor Sekimori

Religion in Japan?

It is important to emphasise that in medieval times, the term "religion" had no equivalent in Japan. The very concept of 'religion and its Japanese translation, shukyo (宗教; teaching of schools) is a concept that was imported during the Meiji era from the West. Before the Meiji period, there was no generic word to describe religious trends.

In her study of the Shozan Engi, Carina Roth writes:

The term 'religion' is a modern Christian borrowing which does not embrace a Japanese reality. In its Western sense, the term "religion" generally implies a notion of exclusivity which is foreign to Japan, where it is normal to follow simultaneously the teachings and customs linked to several traditions. The combinatorial religious phenomena typified by Shugendo is the corollary of this lands inclusiveness, and confirms the cohabitation of divinities with very different origins. The Kami are associated with foreign lands, for example, Korean, Chinese and Indian deities, both local and universal.

As this diversity has lasted since the first exchanges between Japan and the Asian continent, it is very difficult to distinguish the truly 'indigenous' parts. What is more, deities frequently have overlapping identities, which are not confused but nested within the others like Russian dolls. Depending on the place, the occasion and the context, one or the other of the facets is put forward. These various forms of "assimilations between gods and Buddhas" (shinbutsu shûgô 神仏習合), were abruptly interrupted during the Meiji Restoration, which put in place a policy of "Separation of gods and buddhas" (shinbutsu bunri 神仏分離). Even though this policy has been revoked, it has effects that last through to this day.

Religion in Japan, Many or None?

By Prof. Gaynor Sekimori

The dual religiosity of the Japanese is often illustrated by the existence in the family home of both a Buddhist altar (butsudan), where the family's memorial tablets are placed, and a Shinto shrine (kamidana).

Overall, Japanese people seem perplexed when asked the question "What is your religion?" Surveys by the Agency of Cultural Affairs have for decades reported something close to twice the population of Japan belonging to a religious group. In 2009, for example, when the official population of Japan was around 126 million, more than 106 million were recorded as adherents of Shinto, around 90 million as adherents of Buddhism, and 2 million as adherents of Christianity, with 9 million listed as "other." This seems to indicate that the majority of Japanese subscribe to two religions simultaneously, Buddhism and Shinto. But do these figures represent the actual religious beliefs of individuals or the numbers reported by religious organizations? It is not uncommon for a person to be a "parishioner" of a local shrine while simultaneously belonging to the Buddhist temple that contains the family grave. We may have to redefine what religion means to the Japanese: as a member of a family, a person may have two affiliations that nevertheless have no significance at all when it comes to his or her personal belief (or lack of it).

This may explain the findings of a Gallup poll of 2012 concerning religiosity and atheism, which revealed that only 16 percent of the twelve hundred Japanese respondents thought of themselves as religious, while a very telling 23 percent, the highest percentage by far of all the countries polled, answered they did not know if they were religious or not. These figures closely reflect the results of social surveys about religious affiliation of the Japanese conducted between 2000 and 2005, where only about 11 percent admitted to a personal belief, while some 23 percent claimed affiliation as a family member. The rest did not admit to any affiliation or belief at all.

Some of this "confusion" arises out of the word shūkyō that was coined in the mid-nineteenth century to translate religion. This "religion" was very much a Western concept, newly brought to Japan in the wake of the great changes that occurred after 1868. It was based largely on a Protestant Christian idea of what religion was, focusing on personal belief, a specific faith, a founder, an organization, and a set ritual. It was hard to classify the actuality of the sacred realm as experienced in Japan through this definition and its rigid categories, which classed anything beyond them as superstition or folk religion, with the implication they were somehow not "true" religion. As a result Buddhism and Shinto gained a stricter, separate identity than had ever been the case before.

This emphasis on belief should not, however, be overemphasized as a defining point between Japanese religions and monotheistic religions. As Jonathan Freedland wrote recently in the Guardian, "Over the years, conversations with Jews, Catholics and Muslims have taught me that when it comes to religion, belief is often optional. For many, it's about belonging and community, a matter of ethnic or familial solidarity rather than theological creed. For increasing numbers of Anglicans, it works that way too. Singing hymns in church is a comfort, reminding them of their childhood or their parents, and leaving them with a glow of warmth towards neighbors they might otherwise never meet" (September 26, 2015).

The dual religiosity of the Japanese is often illustrated by the existence in the family home of both a Buddhist altar (butsudan), where the family's memorial tablets are placed, and a Shinto shrine (kamidana), traditionally containing perhaps images or pictures of popular deities like Daikoku or Ebisu, other kinds of engimono (good luck objects), a model shrine building, and talismans and paper slips from both shrines and temples. However, urban living, smaller houses and apartments, and the decrease in multigenerational households have led to a marked falling off of both butsudan and kamidana in homes. Unless a household has a strong religious conviction, as in Rissho Kosei-kai, neither altar may be considered necessary for a newly established home. This has created a challenge for dealers in butsudan. A major business in the Asakusa area of Tokyo promotes itself as a butsudan department store and offers both an enormous range in choice - from butsudan "in the Japanese taste" to "stylish" ones suiting a Western décor - and "professional advisors" who can guide the neophyte through the variety on offer with the minimum of stress and provide after-sales service, setting the butsudan up and furnishing it.

Stores selling butsudan often sell kamidana as well. Customers are urged to make the purchase "at those special times when people feel the need to venerate the kami, such as building a new house, getting married, or during the periodic 'unlucky years' (yakudoshi)." The kamidana, they say, provides a focus to "revere the kami and ancestors to ensure their protection and pray for the family's peace and prosperity." Once again, it is the family rather than the individual faith that is the issue. In actual fact, so few private houses now have kamidana that the National Association of Shrines distributes free altar kits to encourage people to buy Ise amulets, which they would not do if they had no kamidana. Whereas most households in Japan enshrined them in the mid-1940s, now probably no more than 10 percent do so, and the lack of interest is most noticeable in urban areas. Today kamidana are more likely to be found in business premises, particularly restaurants and traditional inns, because they are believed to bring prosperity, rather than because of any particular devotion to Shinto as a religion. The line between Shinto as a religion and Shinto as a mass of traditional communal practices is in fact quite vague, so even though there is strict separation of state and religion in Japan, Shinto groundbreaking ceremonies for official buildings can be paid for out of public funds, on the grounds that their purpose is secular and the rite follows general social custom. Similarly, the majority of Japanese would not ascribe any religious significance to the large ornamental rake (kumade) prominently displayed in Ueno Station in Tokyo every November, although it is provided by Ōtori Shrine near Asakusa, a religious site.

Though people do not admit in large numbers to personal faith, this does not mean they do not engage in practices that seem to an outside observer to be religious. Enormous numbers visit popular shrines and temples over the New Year period when two or three million people crowd places like Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and the Buddhist temple of Naritasan Shinshōji in Chiba Prefecture. Rarely does anyone think whether the place is Shinto or Buddhist; more important than sectarian affiliation is its cachet. Also, as anyone who has tried to take long-distance transport during the o-bon season in July and August has experienced, millions of people try to return to their ancestral homes at that time to visit their family graves and attend ritual services for the dead.

The three most important rites of passage are also celebrated in the name of religion, as exemplified by the well-known phrase "born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist." Babies are generally taken to their local shrine, their ujigami, at the age of around one month to be introduced to the local protector deity. No belief commitment is assumed, and therefore this does not have the force of baptism in Christianity, where the parents and godparents are enjoined to bring the baby up in the Christian faith. Marriage was a secular, household rite until the beginning of the twentieth century, when Shinto-style weddings became popular in the wake of an imperial marriage in that style. Today their popularity has been overtaken by Western-style, "white" weddings (that is, Christian), with perhaps 80 percent of couples being married in an unconsecrated wedding chapel by a "minister," more often than not simply a Caucasian male dressed in clerical robes who conducts weddings for money. In an interview, one admitted he was not ordained, not religious, and did not understand what he was reading in the service. Though the service incorporates a hymn, prayer, and Bible reading, no knowledge of Christianity is assumed or taught, and an actual missionary pastor taking the opportunity to proselytize would probably be unwelcome in a commercial wedding hall or hotel. The experience takes precedence over belief; couples enjoy it because it is fashionable, cool, and exotic.

The role of Buddhism in funerals and memorial services is by comparison much more fundamental and serious. Like Christian culture in the secular West, Buddhist ideas are ingrained in Japanese life and traditions. It is no coincidence that a deceased person is called hotoke, which means "buddha." Through the funeral service and subsequent memorial services at set periods, Buddhist priests ease the deceased toward rebirth in an enlightened state, or buddhahood. Ideas about the spiritual progression of the dead meld in some places with native ideas about ancestral spirits gradually ascending local mountains and becoming kami, guardians of the locality. People living in the Shōnai Plain in Yamagata Prefecture, for example, believe that over a period of thirty-three years, the deceased gradually ascends a mountain called Gassan. Today the major religious presence in the area is a Shinto shrine called Dewa Sanzan Jinja, which was until 1870 a Buddhist temple called Jakkōji. Shrines generally have nothing to do with the cult of the dead, this being the preserve of Buddhist temples, yet here popular expectation centuries old has forced the shrine to erect a hall called the Reisaiden (Spirit Veneration Hall) to memorialize the dead. Outside there is a large pot for incense, and inside can be seen memorial tablets and even a Buddhist statue on the altar. On Gassan itself there are many Buddhist-style monuments, both old and contemporary, to the dead that are supposed to reside at the summit of this sacred mountain.

Throughout most of Japanese history, Buddhism and native beliefs, and to a lesser extent Chinese cosmological ideas, have existed in combination one with another. Modern scholars call this coexistence shinbutsu shūgō, which has been translated by words such as syncretism, contamination, blending, assimilation, or amalgamation of buddhas and native deities. Perhaps the best nonjudgmental way of describing how Japanese religion has worked for most of its history is "combinatory." Wherever Buddhism went in its journey across Asia, it absorbed local deities and cults in the name of skillful means - local gods became protector deities and local concerns continued to be acknowledged within a new framework. In Japan, for example, the deity Hachiman was made the protector of the great temple of Tōdaiji in Nara and was commonly depicted wearing the robes of a Buddhist priest. Most temples had the shrines in their grounds, and most large shrines were in fact shrine-temple complexes, where the kami were venerated as avatars (gongen) of Buddhist deities. Thus at Togakushisan in Nagano Prefecture, now a shrine, the local nine-headed dragon deity was venerated as an avatar of Benzaiten, the Buddhist deity principally associated with water. This is why we can still occasionally see buildings like pagodas and goma halls standing within shrine precincts.

Perhaps nothing in Japan today better represents the actuality of traditional combinatory religion than Shugendo, where beliefs and practices associated with mountains have been given expression through esoteric Buddhism. The core of Shugendo practice is mountain-entry (nyūbu) rituals. One of the most famous is the seven-day okugake practice in the Ōmine Mountains in Nara Prefecture, where practitioners traverse a series of peaks between the Yoshino and Kumano, reciting sutras at numinous sites, performing physical exercises like climbing around dangerous outcrops and hanging over cliffs, and venerating the kami and buddhas through fire rituals called saitō goma. The latter often incorporate fire-walking, especially in large public ceremonies like those at Mount Takao near Tokyo every March. At the centre of Shugendo practice is the mountain itself, regarded as an avatar of a Buddhist deity, and also as a kami. Thus in Haguro Shugendo in Yamagata Prefecture, the highest of the three sacred mountains, Gassan, is considered as an avatar, Gassan Daigongen, of a Buddhist divinity, the Buddha Amida (Amitābha), and as the kami Tsukiyomi no Mikoto.

Contributing to the confusion about sectarian identity in modern Japan is the movement initiated by the new Meiji government in 1868 to "clarify" what was Shinto and to remove any "foreign" (that is, Buddhist) elements from it. Since, with the exception of the immediate surroundings of the Ise Shrines in Mie Prefecture, every major shrine in the land was actually a part of a shrine-temple complex, this caused major changes in the religious landscape, institutionally, ritually, topographically, and materially. A pagoda has remained in the precincts of the present shrine on Mount Haguro only because a buyer could not be found to take it away as fuel wood. Buddhist statues and implements were removed from shrine buildings, often destroyed, but also often preserved secretly by local sympathizers with the traditional religion. Even today it is easy to find beheaded stone statues of Kannon, Jizō, and other Buddhist figures, victims of an anti-Buddhist movement that was forceful in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Many of the images found today in Western museums were acquired from antique dealers into whose hands fell many of the rejected pieces of Buddhist artwork.

The idea of combinatory religion is not a thing of the past in Japan. Moreover, new forms have appeared. An interesting example is the Zen-Catholic combination that two Jesuits resident in Japan, Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle (1898-1990) and Father William Johnston (1925-2010), promoted. Father Lassalle set up a Christian-Zen training hall called Shinmeikutsu near Ōme, west of Tokyo, in 1969. In form it was exactly like a Soto Zen training temple. However, whereas in a zendō a statue of Monju is placed directly in front of the entrance, here there was a cloth-covered boulder for the daily celebration of the Eucharist. Father Johnston used to conduct zazen sessions in his home in Hongō, near the University of Tokyo, followed by a Mass where all shared the Eucharist cup, whether or not they were confirmed Catholics. Reportedly Pope John Paul II questioned this Catholic-Zen combination during his visit to Japan in 1981, but while the Vatican remains cautious about mixing aspects of Christian and Buddhist practices, in 1989 it did state that Catholics could take methods from non-Christian religions "so long as the Christian concept of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured."

In Japan, too, there is a growing awareness of the centrality of combinatory ideas to Japanese spirituality. Shōkai Koshikidake, who recently reconstituted the Shugendo temple in Yamagata that his ancestors had maintained down to the 1870s, has stated his express aim in reviving Shugendo there to be "restoring and continuing pre-Meiji [pre-1868] combinatory rituals" and "reinvigorating shinbutsu shūgō as the core of Japanese religious life." At Mount Haguro, the host of Daishōbō pilgrims' lodge, Fumihiro Hoshino, though his family has been affiliated with the shrine since 1874, is actively teaching Shugendo with shinbutsu shūgō as its spiritual core.

In March 2008, an organization called Shinbutsu Reijōkai (Kami-Buddha Sacred Sites Association) was formed in response to an appeal made by the scholar Tetsuo Yamaori and others to "bring back to the present age the spiritual climate of the past in which Japanese people respected both kami and hotoke in the belief that the gods and the buddhas (shinbutsu) coexisted, and to contribute to the peace of mind of modern people and the stability of society." To this end later that year more than two hundred Shinto and Buddhist priests visited the Ise Shrine to mark the start of a pilgrimage route of 150 shrines and temples around Kyoto and Nara. It was the first time that prominent Buddhist figures had formally visited the shrine. The organization continues to hold seminars and events to publicize its aims.

Combinatory religion is not unique to Japan but, rather, can be seen to a larger or smaller extent in most cultures. However, because of historical circumstances, its existence has been obscured in Japan, and this has caused misunderstanding about the nature of Japanese religion. An appreciation of the nature of the shinbutsu can only deepen spiritual awareness among all of those belonging to a Japanese religious tradition.


Gaynor Sekimori is a Research Associate in the Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and concurrently Visiting Professor at Kokugakuin University, Tokyo. She received her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2000. She was managing editor of the International Journal of Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press) and a member of the Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo from 2001 to 2007. Gaynor, from Australia, is also an accomplished Shugenja of the Haguro sect of Shugendo. Pictured here with the Great Guide, Sho-Dai-Sendatsu of Haguro Shugendo Kokai Shimazu.

This article was originally published in the January-March 2016 issue of Dharma World