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Japan’s Main Religions

Shinto is an indigenous religion based on ancestor and nature worship, with about 200 sects. Many families have either Buddhist family altars or Shinto god shelves at which they make offerings and pray for the spirits of their ancestors. Some families have both. But many Japanese in their day-to-day life have little to do with these religions, visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines for special occasions such as funerals, blessings for babies and children, weddings and New Year festivities.

Shintoism

Shinto Torii
The essence of Shinto is the Japanese devotion to invisible spiritual beings and powers called kami, to shrines, and to various rituals.

Shinto is not a way of explaining the world. What matters are rituals that enable human beings to communicate with kami.

Kami are not God or gods. They are spirits that are concerned with human beings - they appreciate our interest in them. If they are treated properly they will intervene in our lives to bring benefits like health, business success, and good exam results. If they are neglected then bad things happen to us.

Shinto is a very local religion, in which devotees are likely to be concerned with their local shrine rather than the religion as a whole. Many Japanese will have a tiny shrine-altar in their homes.

However, it is also an unofficial national religion (thus the increasing uprise in militaristic Nationalism) with shrines that draw visitors from across the country. Because ritual rather than belief is at the heart of Shinto, Japanese people don't usually think of Shinto specifically as a religion - it's simply an aspect of Japanese life. This has enabled Shinto to coexist with Buddhism for centuries.

The name Shinto comes from Chinese characters for Shen ('divine being'), and Tao ('way') and means 'Way of the Spirits'.

Shrine visiting and taking part in festivals play a great part in binding local communities together.
Shrine visiting and “worshipping” at New Year is the most popular shared national event in Japan.
Because Shinto is focussed on the land of Japan it is an ethnic religion. Therefore Shinto is rarely practised outside its country of origin.
Shinto sees human beings as basically good and has no concept of original sin, or of humanity as 'fallen'.
Everything, including the spiritual, is experienced as part of this world. Shinto has no place for any transcendental other world.
Shinto has no canonical scriptures.
Shinto teaches important ethical principles but has no commandments.
Shinto has no founder.
Shinto has no God.
Shinto does not require adherents to follow it as their only religion.

Buddhism

Japanese Buddah
Buddhism originated in India in the 6th century BC. It consists of the teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. Of the main branches of Buddhism, it is the Mahayana or "Greater Vehicle" Buddhism which found its way to Japan.
Buddhism was imported to Japan via China and Korea in the form of a present from the friendly Korean kingdom of Kudara (Paikche) in the 6th century. While Buddhism was welcomed by the ruling nobles as Japan's new state religion, it did not initially spread among the common people due to its complex theories.

There were also a few initial conflicts with Shinto, Japan's native religion. The two religions were soon able to co-exist and even complement each other.

During the Nara Period, the great Buddhist monasteries in the capital Nara, such as Todaiji, gained strong political influence and were one of the reasons for the government to move the capital to Nagaoka in 784 and then to Kyoto in 794. Nevertheless, the problem of politically ambitious and militant monasteries remained a main issue for the governments over many centuries of Japanese history.

During the early Heian Period, two new Buddhist sects were introduced from China: the Tendai sect in 805 by Saicho and the Shingon sect in 806 by Kukai. More sects later branched off the Tendai sect. Among these, the most important ones are mentioned below:

In 1175, the Jodo sect (Pure Land sect) was founded by Honen. It found followers among all different social classes since its theories were simple and based on the principle that everybody can achieve salvation by strongly believing in the Buddha Amida. In 1224, the Jodo-Shinshu (True Pure Land sect) was founded by Honen's successor Shinran. The Jodo sects continue to have millions of followers today.

In 1191, the Zen sect was introduced from China. Its complicated theories were popular particularly among the members of the military class. According to Zen teachings, one can achieve self enlightenment through meditation and discipline. At present, Zen seems to enjoy a greater popularity overseas than within Japan.

The Lotus Hokke or Nichiren sect, was founded by Nichiren in 1253. The sect was exceptional due to its intolerant stance towards other Buddhist sects. Nichiren Buddhism still has many millions of followers today, and several "new religions" are based on Nichiren's teachings.

Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi fought the militant Buddhist monasteries (especially the Jodo sects) at the end of the 16th century and practically extinguished Buddhist influence on the political sector.

Buddhist institutions were attacked again in the early years of the Meiji Period, when the new Meiji government favored Shinto as the state religion and tried to separate and emancipate it from Buddhism.

Nowadays about 90 million people consider themselves Buddhists in Japan. Funerals are usually carried out in a Buddhist way, and many households keep a small house altar in order to pay respect to their ancestors.
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Japanese praying to various gods

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