Religion in Japan: is dominated by Shinto (the ethnic traditions of the Japanese people) and by Japanese versions of Buddhism. According to surveys carried out in 2006 and 2008, less than 40% of the population of Japan identifies with an organized religion, around 35% are Buddhists, 3% to 4% are members of Shinto sects and related organizations and from fewer than 1% to 2.3% are Christians. Shinto is, in fact, the largest religion in Japan, practiced by nearly 80% of the population, yet only a small percentage of these identify themselves as “Shintoists” in surveys. This is due to the fact that “Shinto” has different meanings in Japan: most of the Japanese attend Shinto shrines and beseech Kami (gods or ‘spirits’) without belonging to Shinto organizations, and since there are no formal rituals to become a member of folk “Shinto”, “Shinto membership” is often estimated counting those who join organized Shinto sects. Shinto has 100,000 shrines and 78,890 priests in the country. Two Chinese traditions Confucianism and Taoism, have been very influential in the Japanese world-view. Confucianism provided an exaggerated filial piety and loyalty to the state so typical of Japanese society. Taoism manifest in forms of magic, divination and cosmology rather than the philosophy of Taoism. Christianity did not arrive in Japan until Francis Xavier’s mission in 1549. It flourished for a brief ‘Christian century’ before being banned for two centuries following a major Christian uprising (Shimabara Rebellion) against the Shogunate (central government) in 1637. Christianity in Japan today dates from its reintroduction in the second half of the 19th century. Although it is largely considered to be a foreign religion with a following of less than 1% of the population, Christianity has made wide contributions to education, and social reforms.

SHINTO: Means‘the way of the Kami, or Gods’. It is a religious tradition that emerged from prehistoric religious practices and such influences as Buddhism, and Chinese religions, but developed its own distinctive beliefs and practices. The world view found in Shinto is central to Japanese culture and has often been closely related to the national identity.

Beliefs: Kami or Gods dwelling in heaven but inhabiting earth as sacred forces within nature. The notion of Kami is broad and flexible; the Emperor is considered to be ‘manifest Kami’ because of his direct descent from the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu), and people with extraordinary spiritual powers as well as family ancestors are considered to be Kami. Shrines were established at sacred places like natural objects – trees, waterfalls, boulders all over Japan. A basic division in many shrine buildings is between the larger Haiden (oratory or hall of worship) and the smaller Honden (inner sanctuary or main shrine) behind it. Shinto Shrines do not have statues rather ancient relics such as mirrors and swords sometimes considered the dwelling places of the Kami. Offerings such as fish and vegetables are presented to the Kami and later eaten. Small shrines to the Kami (Kamidana) are in most Japanese homes. Shinto priests attend the public shrines and present offerings to the Kami and formally mediate between the Kami and the local people. Traditionally each shrine observed the new year, spring, autumn and special festivals honoring the local shrines – all of which formed the religious year for the local people. Shinto does not have formal theological systems, favoring instead a sincere reverencing of the Kami and respect for ritual purity. Shinto was favored by the government after the Meiji restoration of the Japanese emperor in 1867 when it was considered to be a state religion, and the Emperor a manifestation of the Kami on the earth. After WWII Shinto was relegated to equality with all other religions. The intimate association between Shinto and the war effort dampened enthusiasm for participation in Shinto, many shrines lost their special privileges and land holdings, and priests had to seek part-time employment. However, Shinto is still fundamental to Japanese life even if most people don’t have a direct affiliation with their local shrine. Shinto has long defined a distinctively Japanese spiritual tradition, and will continue to do so, both in Japanese culture generally as well as in its influence upon other religions, notably Buddhism and the new religions.

ZEN BUDDHISM: Buddhism was first brought to Japan by Korean missionaries in the 6th century AD. This was originally opposed by local clansmen until 593 when Prince Notoku assumed the regency of the Empire and officially sanctioned the establishment of Buddhist monasteries. In succeeding centuries especially under the Tokugowa Shogunate (1600-1867) Buddhism became the dominant faith in Japan with a variety of schools which shaped the national character of Japan. Zen (‘Meditation’) became the most famous form of Buddhism in Japan. Its aim is enlightenment; the art of transmitting the Buddha mind drawing on Mahayana Buddhism from northern India emphasizing meditation and the doctrine of Sunyata (emptiness) and Bodhi (enlightenment) with Chinese practicality and Taoist tradition. A successor of one of the Buddha’s disciples brought Buddhism to China and became the first patriarch and founder of Ch’an Buddhism which later became the Zen tradition. The 6th Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism, Hui-Neng, became the founder of Zen tradition of rejecting scholasticism and preaching the possibility of sudden enlightenment, Satori, the direct experience of enlightenment. Enlightenment is the unfolding of the inner mind without attachment. Teachers avoid academic argument and emphasize meditation and intuitive wisdom expressed in the present moment and everyday life. Sudden Enlightenment meant the idea of progressing by stages was rejected. And teachers now utilized shouts, slaps, questions, and strange seemingly meaningless poems (Koans) and antics to trigger enlightenment. Zen has had a major influence in the West due to the works of Zen Masters, DT Suzuki, Allan Watts, and the influence of Zen centers in Hawaii and California. Zen has found especially friendly reception in the West among psychotherapists (mindfulness), poets, and artists.

OTHER FORMS OF JAPANESE BUDDHISM: Nowadays, the most popular type is Pure Land Buddhism, emphasizing the role of Amitabha Buddha and promises that reciting the phrase, “Namu Amida Butsu” (‘I take refuge in Amida Buddha’) upon death will result in being removed by Amitabha to the “Western Paradise” or “Pure Land”, and then to Nirvana. Pure Land attracted the merchant and farmer classes. Another prevalent form of Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism, which was established by the 13th century monk Nichiren who underlined the importance of the Lotus Sutra. This includes, Soka Gokkai, a controversial denomination whose political wing forms the Komeito, Japan’s third largest political party. As of 2018, there were 355,000+ Buddhist monks, priests and leaders in Japan, an increase of over 40,000 compared to 2000.

NEW RELIGIONS: Japan is unusual in that New Religions number in the hundreds, and total membership reportedly numbers in the tens of millions. The largest new religion, Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect founded in 1930, has about 10 million members in Japan. Scholars in Japan have estimated that between 10% and 20% of the population belongs to the new religions.  As of 2007 there are 223,831 priests and leaders of the new religions in Japan, three times the number of traditional Shinto priests. This probably due to the impact of World War II on Japanese society and the previous association of Shinto with the Imperial Japanese government before WW II.

All the different traditions and religions of Japan interact in Japanese life; so a person may be married according to Western style or in a Shinto shrine, live his life according to Confucian social teachings, hold some Taoistic beliefs, participate in folk festivals, celebrate Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and have his funeral conducted in a Buddhist temple! The Enso, symbol of Zen Buddhism: is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.

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