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Many religions are practiced in Japan but most Japanese follow Shintō or Buddhism. Generally they do not associate themselves exclusively with one of these, but incorporate features of both into their daily lives in a process known as syncretism. Shinto and Buddhism are even taken to as being interwoven in the country. Japanese streets are decorated on Tanabata, Obon and Christmas. Japan grants full religious freedom allowing minority religions like Christianity, Islam and Sikhism to be practiced. According to the CIA World Factbook[1] and the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs[2] 84% to 96% adhere to Shinto and Buddhism while 4% to 16% of the demographic population adhere to other religions or non-religious, atheist groups.[3] However, such high numbers come primarily from birth records, following a longstanding practice of family lines being officially associated with a local Buddhist temple and not the people truly following the religion. The majority of Japanese carry on the roles of one or more religious body, but do not consider themselves believers in one particular religion, but are syncretistic.[4]

The Nachi Shrine is an ancient site of Shinto worship. Shinto is the most popular form of religion adopted by the Japanese, far exceeding the Abrahamic religions and Dharmic religions in terms of numbers.



Typical Shinto shrine with paper streamers made out of unprocessed hemp fibre.

Shintoism which approximately 51 percent of the population adhere to in first place[5] is Japan's indigenous religion. Shinto originated in prehistoric times, as a religion with respect for nature and in particular certain sacred sites. These sites may have originally been used to worship the sun, rock formations, trees and even sounds. Each of these being associated with a deity a complex polytheistic religion developed in the course of time. The deities in Shintō are known as kami, and Shinto itself means the way of the gods. Worship of Shinto is done at shrines. Especially important is the act of purification before visiting these shrines.

There are a variety of denominations within Shinto. It's said that Shrine Shinto has no founder and no canon. (To be correct, there is a dogma such as Jinja-Honcho). Meanwhile, Sect Shinto have a unique dogma or leader like Tenrikyo and Konkokyo. The Nihongi and Kojiki, however, contain a record of Japanese mythology. Shinto began to fall out of fashion after the arrival of Buddhism, but soon, Shinto and Buddhism began to be practiced as one religion. On sites of Shintō shrines, Buddhist temples were built, and people began to adhere to both. Before 1868 there were three main forms of Shinto: Shrine Shinto, the most popular type; Folk (or Popular) Shinto, practiced by the peasants; and Imperial Household Shinto, practiced by the imperial family. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people began to form independent Shinto sects, which were very radical and some even monotheistic, such as Tenrikyo. These were soon known as the Shinto Sects, or the New Religions. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were forcefully separated. The Emperor Meiji made Shintō the official religion, creating a form of Shinto known as State Shinto, which merged Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Household Shinto together. Sect Shinto was seen as radical and separated from State Shintō. Under Meiji, Japan became a moderate theocracy, with shrines being controlled by the government. Shinto soon became a reason for Japanese nationalism. After Japan took over Korea and Taiwan, State Shinto became the official religion of those countries as well.

During World War II, the government forced every subject, regardless of his or her adherence or belief, to practice State Shinto and admit that the Emperor was divine. Religions were strongly controlled by the government and those against Imperial cult, notably Oomoto and Soka Gakkai, were persecuted. When the United States occupied Japan in 1945 the shrines were taken away from the government, and State Shinto was abolished. Shrine, Folk, and Imperial Shinto became separated. Sect Shinto distanced itself from mainstream Shinto.


Buddhism first arrived to Japan in the sixth century, from the Southern part of the Korean peninsula kingdom of Baekje, where the Baekje king sent the Japanese emperor a picture of the Buddha and some sutras. Japanese aristocrats built many Buddhist statues and temples in the capital at Nara, and then at the later capital of Heian (now Kyoto).[6]

Buddhism is divided into three forms, the more orthodox and impersonal Theravada Buddhism, which is prevalent in India and most of Southeast Asia, and the more personal Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to China, Tibet, Vietnam, and from there went to Korea, where it came to Japan. The third is Vajrayana Buddhism. From the beginning, the largest form of Buddhism in Japan was the Mahayana school. According to the Agency of Cultural Affairs, 91 million persons identify themselves as Buddhist.[7]

In the capital of Nara, six Buddhist sects were created. These six are today quite small and called together "Nara Buddhism". Some were Theravada influenced. When the capital moved to Heian, more forms of Buddhism arrived from China. The two survivors of that day are Shingon, an esoteric form of Buddhism similar to Tibet's Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism, and Tendai, a monastic conservative form known better by its Chinese name of Tiantai. These Buddhist forms converted many Japanese, and temples were built all over Heian.

When the shogunate took power in the 1100s, and the administrative capital moved to Kamakura, new forms of Buddhism arrived. The most popular was Zen, known in China as Chan. Zen Buddhism was completely different, and it was the most popular type of Mahayana Buddhism of the time period. Zen split up into two different forms, Rinzai and Soto.

The Toshodaiji was an early Buddhist temple in Nara.

Another form of Buddhism arrived in the Kamakura period, known as Jodo-kyo or Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the role of Amida Buddha or the Buddha of the Western Paradise. This school promises that reciting the phrase "Namo Amida Butsu" upon death will result in a person being removed by Amida to the "Western Paradise" or "Pure Land" and from then on to Nirvana. Jodo-kyo attracted the merchant and farmer classes. But after Honen, Jodo-kyo's head missionary in Japan, died, the form split up. Jodo-shu were followers of Honen who said that saying the Nembutsu (an abbreviation for Namo Amida Butsu) many many times would save someone. The more liberal form started by Shinran known as Jodo Shinshu says that saying the phrase once with a pure heart will save you. It has also dropped monasticism.

A more radical form of Buddhism was Nichiren Buddhism, created by the monk Nichiren, which praised the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren's teaching was often revolutionary, and the shogun distrusted him, especially when he said that the Mongols were to invade Japan. When the shogun heard this, he exiled Nichiren, but it soon became true. Nichiren was also a progressive thinker, for he was the first Japanese thinker to declare that women could also gain enlightenment. Nichiren Buddhism is the second largest form, and split off into Nichiren-shu, Nichiren Sho-shu, a more radical form, and Soka Gakkai, a controversial Nichiren denomination, whose political wing forms the conservative New Komeito Party, Japan's third largest political party.

Today, many Japanese adhere to Nishi Honganji-ha Buddhism, a conservative form of Jodo Shin-shu. It was formed in 1580, after Honganji, a form of Jodo Shin-shu, split up into two forms - Nishi and Higashi.

New religions

From left, Shin Hirata, Katsuya Takahashi, and Naoko Kikuchi, were perpetrators in attacks in the Tokyo Subway and belonged to the new religion Aum Shinrikyo renamed to Aleph.

Beyond the two traditional religions, many Japanese today are turning to a great variety of popular religious movements normally lumped together under the name "New Religions". These religions draw on the concept of Shinto, Buddhism, and folk superstition and have developed in part to meet the social needs of elements of the population. The officially recognized new religions number in the hundreds, and total membership is reportedly in the tens of millions.

The largest new religion is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect, founded in 1930. Its declared motto is peace, culture and education. It has about 10 million members in Japan. The New Komeito Party was founded by the Soka Gakkai in 1964, but they broke all financial or any other ties, in 1970, to respect the Japanese constitution. It is both in national and local assemblies and has a huge influence on politics as it is a part of the coalition government at the Diet. Because the Constitution requires separation of church and state the party's connections with the religion is often criticized.

Many of these new religions actually arose as part of Shintō, and some still have Shinto in their teachings. Some, not all, of the new religions are also known as Sect Shinto. Other new religions include Aum Shinrikyo, Gedatsu-kai, Kiriyama Mikkyo, Kofuku no Kagaku, Konkokyo, Oomoto, Pana-wave laboratory, PL Kyodan, Seicho no Ie, Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan, Sekai kyūsei kyō, Shinreikyo, Sukyo Mahikari, Tenrikyo, and Zenrinkyo.[citation needed]



Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith in Japan begins after a few mentions of the country by`Abdu'l-Bahá first in 1875.[8]


Christianity, in the form of Roman Catholicism, arrived with St Francis Xavier, and was spread by missionaries. However, it was soon persecuted and banned until the Meiji era. Sustained Protestant missionary work began in the late 19th century. Today, there are around 1 - 3 million Christian adherents of various denominations.[9][10] Today, about one to two million Japanese are Christians (about 1% of Japan's population). Most of them live in Western Japan where the missionaries' activities were greatest during the 16th century.

A few Christian customs have become quite popular among the non-Christian population. Such customs are the wearing of white dresses at weddings or the celebration of Valentine's Day and, to a certain degree, also Christmas.

In the year 1542, the first Europeans from Portugal landed on Kyushu in Western Japan. The two historically most important things they imported to Japan were gunpowder and Christianity. The Japanese daimyo on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade especially because of the new weapons, and, therefore, tolerated the Jesuit missionaries. The missionaries were successful in converting quite large numbers of people in Western Japan including members of the ruling class. In 1550, Francis Xavier also undertook a mission to the capital Kyoto.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the Jesuits lost their monopoly position in Japan when Franciscan missionaries arrived in Kyoto despite a banning edict by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious edict and executed 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki as a warning. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors continued the persecution of Christianity with several further edicts.

In 1873 after the Meiji restoration, freedom of religion was promulgated, although State Shinto was enforced in the period before World War II. After WWII the number of Japanese Christians has been slowly increasing.


There is no reliable estimate of the Muslim population in Japan as the government does not inquire about people's religion on census forms or other official documents. The majority of estimates of the Muslim population have been put at around 115,000 to 125,000[11] of which about 90% are foreign residents, and 10% are ethnic Japanese. At the present time, Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Iranians make up the largest communities of foreign Muslims in Japan.


Judaism is practiced by a small community in Japan.[12] Currently it is estimated by the US Department of State 2,000 Jews live in Japan.[10]


Ryukyuan are the beliefs of Ryukyuans, the people of Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands.[citation needed]


Sikhism is also a very small minority religion in Japan. Sikhs came to Japan from India. Sikhs live mainly in Kobe and Tokyo.

Religious practice

Most Japanese participate in rituals and customs derived from several religious traditions. Life cycle events are often marked by visits to a Shintō shrine. The birth of a new baby is celebrated with a formal shrine visit at the age of about one month, as are the third, fifth, and seventh birthdays and the official beginning of adulthood at age twenty. Wedding ceremonies are often performed by Shinto priests, but Christian weddings (or rather secular American-style chapel weddings, called howaito uedingu ("white wedding") in Japanese) are also popular. In the early 1980s, more than 8% of weddings were held in a shrine or temple, and nearly 4% were held in a church. The most popular place for a wedding ceremony—chosen by 41%—was a wedding hall. These days most Japanese weddings are Christian style, using liturgy but not always with an ordained priest.

A type of traditional Shinto crown, called Ten-Kan (literally "heavenly crown") at the Otsu Festival, Tenson Shrine.

Japanese Funerals are usually performed by Buddhist priests, and Buddhist rites are also common on death day anniversaries of deceased family members. Some Japanese do not perform ancestral ceremonies at all, and some do so rather mechanically and awkwardly. But there have also been changes in these practices, such as more personal and private ceremonies and women honoring their own as well as their husbands' ancestors, that make them more meaningful to contemporary participants.

There are two categories of holidays in Japan: matsuri (festivals), which are largely of Shinto origin and relate to the cultivation of rice and the spiritual well-being of the local community, and nenjyuu gyouji (annual events), mainly of Chinese or Buddhist origin. The matsuri were supplemented during the Heian period with more festivals added and were organized into a formal calendar. In addition to the complementary nature of the different holidays, there were later accretions during the feudal period. Very few matsuri or nencho gyo are national holidays, but they are included in the national calendar of annual events. Most matsuri are local events that follow local traditions, and vary from place to place.

Most holidays are secular in nature, but the two most significant for the majority of Japanese--New Year's Day for Shinto believers and Obon (also called Bon Festival) for Buddhists, which marks the end of the ancestors' annual visit to their earthly home—involve visits to Shintō shrines or Buddhist temples. The New Year's holiday (January 1–3) is marked by the practice of numerous customs and the consumption of special foods. These customs include time for getting together with family and friends, for special television programming, and for visiting Shintō shrines to pray for family blessings in the coming year. Dressing in a kimono, hanging out special decorations, eating noodles on New Year's Eve to show continuity into the new year, and playing a poetry card game are among the more "traditional" practices. During Obon season, in mid-August (or mid-July depending on the locale), bon (spirit altars) are set up in front of Buddhist family altars, which, along with ancestral graves, are cleaned in anticipation of the return of the spirits. As with the New Year's holiday, people living away from their family homes return for visits with relatives. Celebrations include folk dancing and prayers at the Buddhist temple as well as family rituals in the home. Many Japanese also participate, at least as spectators, in one of the many local matsuri celebrated throughout the country. Matsuri may be sponsored by schools, towns, or other groups but are most often associated with Shintō shrines.

Religion and law

Article 20 of the 1947 Constitution states, "Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority". Separation of religion and the state, however, is a more difficult issue.

Historically, there was no distinction between a scientific and a religious worldview. In early Japanese history, the ruling class was responsible for performing propitiatory rituals, which later came to be identified as Shinto, and for the introduction and support of Buddhism. Later, religious organization was used by regimes for political purposes, as when the Tokugawa government required each family to be registered as a member of a Buddhist temple for purposes of social control. In the late nineteenth century, rightists created State Shinto, requiring that each family belong to a shrine parish and that the concepts of emperor worship and a national Japanese "family" be taught in the schools.

See also


External links


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