The main religions of Japan – a quick guide

There are, in my opinion, four main groups of religions in Japan. I will go through each below.

Shintoism is what can be considered the indigenous religion of Japan. It is at least 1,300 years old but possibly much older. It describes the power struggles in its early history in the disguise of creation myths of the country. This points to migration from Korea as the possible source of its history but also indication of much an earlier culture. It is generally a religion of animism, where mountains, trees, the sun, machinery, virtually anything has a spirit. It is also a religion which promotes purity and fertility, both for agriculture and sex. Shintoism is seen as one religion but can be thought of as having facets of folk, state and culture. From the 6th century until 19th century Shintoism was synchronised with Buddhism (see below).

Buddhism was introduced into Japan from China in the 6th century. It is a religion which originated in north-eastern India in the 6th century BCE. Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha. Buddha taught it is possible to find happiness by thinking and living correctly. There are different “denominations” with Jodo-based sects being the most predominant and the Zen sects being second most predominant in terms of temple count.

Christianity was introduced into Japan in the 16th century when Francis Xavier arrived with Christian converts. Although it makes up a small percentage of followers (around 1% of the population) it is nonetheless prominent within Japanese culture. Most weddings are “Christian” weddings with rites performed by a “priest” (read: ‘foreigner’). Christianity functions thus as marriage officiate, while Shinto functions as life celebrating, and Buddhism for Funerary. All major Christian denominations are represented in Japan.

New religions
Most ‘new religions’ are based upon one of the “traditional” religions – Shintoism, Buddhism and/or Christianity. Some were established after 1868 – when Japan began its modernisation period – but many sprang up after 1945. While some do have real ideological differences to their foundation religion most new religions were created for tax-break purposes.

Below are some “keywords” in each of the religious groupings.

Shintoism – inari, hachiman, susa, Izumo, Ise, fertility, creation myth, purity.

Buddhism – Jodo, Jodo Shin, Shingon, Tendai, Nichiren, Zen, death.

Christianity – Francis Xavier, Jesuit, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, marriage.

New religions – politics, tax-haven, Neo-Shintoism, Neo-Buddhism, Neo-Christianity.

The celebrity that is God 

To me, God is like a celebrity – He had been perfect until His history of plastic surgery surfaced. After that I had become more interested in his history than in him.

The fact that we now have a history of Christianity and a history of God means he loses his power upon man. No longer is ‘he’ with a capital ‘H’. And no longer is God beyond quantifiability. Once quantified we can measure him, compare him.

But by insisting that he is unquantifiable we put him beyond criticism and blame. And by quantifying him we can now make him take responsibility for his role in the past, make him accountable for the present, and make him change for the better in the future.

The fear of purposelessness

It seems to me that it is characteristic of Christian thought, and of the West in general, that there must be a purpose to life.

My children raised within an Eastern Japanese culture (and myself in a Chinese culture) do not seem to feel the need to ask the question of “why”? Growing up in Australia, this question was of utmost importance, to adults, and in being so to their children as well. The question of why seems so vital to Western/Christian thinking one can only be seen to it being tied to the fundamental nature of God.

God is talked about with the assumption He is conscious. The language is couched in a way that means it is a He. He is also The Father. So framed in such language it is impossible to escape the conclusion that what brought forth the universe can only be a conscious creator.

Nihilism has such a negative meaning in English. To be without intrinsic purpose is like being lost. There is a kind of helplessness to purposelessness. And when individuals choose their own purpose a sense of “group-ness” is lost. Christianity is therefore social, not in any way a “dialogue” (there we go again, giving Him a human quality) between the individual and God. The conversation is between Christians and God, not of individuals. The only way then is to set up God to be dialogic and purposeful.

Eastern thinking never had to deal with purpose the way Western thinking had to. Nor did Asians have a problem with purpose. There never is (“was”, perhaps Christianity has already made headways into influencing The East) this “there-must-be-a-purpose-in-life” monologue that Europe(ans) always seem to have.

On the social media platform Periscope a random drop-in into scopes in America seemed to be one of preaching, evangelical and missionary in outlook. There is a purposefulness to Christianity that is lacking in, for example, Buddhism. Of the 18,000-plus Buddhist temples in Japan you hardly see missionary-ism at work. Each temple on average caters to over 6,000 people in the population. The priests are too busy conducting funerals and such, preaching is hardly part of its work. Buddhism, in this sense, is for the living, even in funerals. The dead have no need for Buddhist names. Purpose is what we as individuals make of it, with influence or interference from what is properly called The Church.

Why do I doubt God?

If there is a god and he is to be believed in by me, it should be about God and me, and nothing more. Yet when Christianity begins to tell me that it is alright to be heterosexual and have children but not homosexual and love someone of the same sex I begin to wonder what has sexuality have to do with my faith in him. The link between family values and Christianity is an uncomfortable one for me.

I have a wife and two children. I could not be a better model for Christian family virtue. Yet, that is not the point. The other constrains that Christianity places on the christian is what turns me away from Christianity. It makes me ask the hard questions about Christianity, and whether it is about The Church and the community and not about the god as such.

The Buddha, Buddhism and the Buddhist community do not place such burdens on the practitioner. It is all about my practice and my relationship to Buddhism. Nothing more, nothing less. It does not tell me not to believe in other faiths or other systems of thinking, but to ask whether these things are true in their own right. I chose to be a Buddhist, I chose  Buddhism for its openness, its lack of bias to other thinking.

Homosexuality is not wrong in the Buddhist view. Sexual misconduct, be it perpetrated as heterosexual or homosexual acts, is wrong. There is no bias towards one religion like Christianity demands and discrimination against something irrelevant to faith like homosexuality. I cannot believe in a god which asks me of this. And I doubt a true god would demand such. My only conclusion then is that the values are that of the people and not of the god itself.