Japan: Religion Essay, Research Paper
Buddhism is the Japanese religion that comes closest to
paralleling Christianity, because of its concern for the
afterlife and salvation of the individual. In this it shows its
origin in India, a region that in religious and philosophical
terms is more like the West than East Asia. The historical
Buddha started with the basic Indian idea of a never-ending cycle
of lives, each determining the next, and added to this that life
is painful, that its suffering is caused by human desires.
However, these desires can be overcome by the Buddha?s teaching,
freeing the individual for painless merging in Nirvana, or
?nothingness.? As the teaching grew, it came to stress reverence
for the ?Three Treasures,? which were the Buddha, the ?law?
written in a book much like our Bible, and the religious
community, or the monastic organization.
The branch of Buddhism that spread throughout East Asia is
called Mahayana, or the ?greater vehicle,? which contrasts
another belief called Theravada, or the ?doctrine of the
elders.? Mahayana taught salvation into a paradise that seems
closer to the Western concept of Heaven than to the original
Buddhist Nirvana. It also emphasized the worship, not just of
the historical Buddha, but of myriad Buddha-like figures,
including Bodhisattvas, who had stayed back one step short of
Nirvana and Buddhahood in order to aid the salvation of others.
In Japan, Mahayana Buddhism developed three major emphases.
One appearing in the ninth century was esoteric Buddhism, which
stressed ritual and art as well as doctrines. The second
emphasis starting a century later was on salvation through faith,
particularly in Amida, the ?Buddha of the pure land? of the
Western Paradise, or in the Lotus Sutra, a scripture in which the
Buddha promised the salvation of ?all sentient beings,? or of all
animal life. This emphasis gave rise to the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries of new sects–the Pure Land sect, the True
sect, and Nichiren–which are today the largest Buddhist sects in
Japan. The third emphasis was on self-reliance in seeking
salvation through self-discipline and meditation. This became
embodied in the two Zen, or ?meditation? sects, introduced from
China in 1191 and 1227. These developed methods of ?sitting in
meditation? and of intellectual self-discipline through these
means were supposed to lead to salvation through sudden
Buddhism first came to Japan in the sixth century and played
much the same role as Christianity in North Europe, as the means
of transmission of a whole higher culture. A great part of
expression in architecture, sculpture, and painting was
associated with Buddhism, as it was with Christianity in the
West. The monastic establishments became rich landowners, as in
the West, and at times exercised a considerable military and
political power. The whole intellectual, artistic, social and
political life of Japan was influenced by Buddhism from the ninth
through the sixteenth centuries.
Not much of this survives in contemporary Japan after three
centuries of an incredibly dynamic society. Buddhist concepts
about such things as Paradise and the transfer of the soul linger
on in folklore but do not serve as guidelines for most people.
Monasteries and temples, both great and small, cover the Japanese
landscape but usually play only a subdued background role in the
life of the community. A few people come to worship and find
solace in the Buddhist message of salvation. Temple grounds are
often the neighborhood playground for children. Most funerals
are conducted by Buddhist priests, and burial grounds attached to
temples are the place of interment for most people after
cremation, a custom learned from India. Some families have
ancestral tablets, which they place on small Buddhist alters on a
shelf at home. The Tokugawa system of requiring the registry of
all persons as parishioners of some Buddhist temple–the purpose
of this was to uncover secret Christians–has given all Japanese
families a Buddhist sectarian affiliation, though this usually
only indicates the sect of the temple where the family burial
plot is located.
Most temples and monasteries today maintain their rituals,
though often with particularly small numbers of monks or priests.
Some sects took on new intellectual and religious vigor in modern
times, in part response to the Christian missionary movement.
They developed published literature, schools, and even a Buddhist
missionary movement in Asia and America. A few modern Japanese,
such as some prewar military men and postwar business executives,
have practiced Zen, but their numbers are small and their concern
is usually less with Buddhist enlightenment than with the
development of their own personalities. Modern Japanese life is
full of traces of Buddhism as a sort of background melody, not as
a staple of their lives (Ellwood, p.p. 123-142).
Shinto, the most distinctive of the Japanese religions, has
also slipped into a background role in modern urbanized Japan.
Early Shinto focused around the animistic worship of natural
phenomenon–the sun, mountains, trees, water, rocks, and the
whole process of fertility. ?Totemistic? ancestors were also
included among the kami, or deities, worshipped, and no line was
drawn between man and nature. Deities were worshipped through
offerings, prayers, and light-hearted festivals at the many
shrines. The shrines were dedicated to the imperial ancestors,
the deity of rice, or the spirit of some outstanding phenomena,
such as a great mountain, a beautiful waterfall, or simply an
unusual tree or rock. There was no theology or even a concept of
ethics, beyond an abhorrence of death and emphasis on ritual
The Japanese never developed the idea that a person had to
adhere to one specific religion. Premodern Japanese were usually
both Buddhists and Shintoists at the same time and often
Confucianists as well.
For most of the premodern period, Shinto was definitely
subordinate to Buddhism, being thought of as representing the
locally valid Japanese variants of universal Buddhist truths and
deities. But Buddhists fervor waned after the sixteenth century,
while the native origins of Shinto and its association with the
foundation myths of Japan and with the cult of the imperial
ancestors focused attention on it in a Japan that was becoming
more nationalistic and eventually came to seek a new unity under
symbolic imperial rule. A sort of Shinto revival, centering
around reverence for the emperor, became part of the movement
that led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa and the founding of the
new regime in 1868.
The leaders of the Meiji Restoration were thoroughly
anti-Buddhist, brutally cutting it off from Shinto, and they
attempted at first to create a Shinto-centered system of
government. Although they soon discovered that this concept
could not be mixed successfully with their basically Western
political patterns, they did create a system of state support for
the great historic Shinto shrines, and also developed new
national ones, such as the very grand and beautiful Meiji Shrine
in Tokyo dedicated to the first modern emperor and the Yasuduni
Shrine, also in Tokyo, for the souls of military men who had died
trying to protect their country. In order to maintain the claim
that Japanese enjoyed complete religious freedom, this
nationalistic ?state Shinto? was officially defined by the
government as being not a religion but a manifestation of
patriotism. In a sense this was correct, because, even though it
did not impinge, at least in form, on the fireld of religion in
its enforced worship at Shinto shrines.
The American occupation attacked ?state Shinto? with
enthusiasm as a dangerous manifestation of hypernationalism, and
in the general postwar reaction against militarism and patriotism
it disappeared almost completely. The occupation also demanded
that a sharp line be drawn between government and religion. The
great religious shrines were thrown back on their own individual
sources of income, and as a result most found their way into
great financial debt. Although a few had wide support, which has
allowed them to generate new sources of income, the ban on public
funds for institutions connected with religion hit most of them
hard and also contributed to the slowness with which the
government came to aid the private universities, many of which
have Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian affiliations.
With ?state Shinto? gone, Shintoism has reverted to a more
peripheral role in Japanese life. Shrines of all types are
scattered everywhere, often in places of great beauty and charm,
though usually with signs of quiet decay. They are visited by a
few believers in the efficiency of their rituals and prayers to
their deities or, if they are historically famous or are known
for their natural beauties, by many sightseers. In a manner
reminiscent of prewar days, even top government leaders will come
to visit one of the shrines, such as the one at Ise, dedicated to
the sun goddess ancestress of the imperial line, while the Meiji
Shrine continues on as a kind of national monument, similar to
our Lincoln Memorial, it plays homage to the ?unknown soldier.?
Children are often taken to shrines at prescribed points in their
lives–shortly after birth, at special festivals in their third,
fifth, and seventh years, and at annual boys? and girls?
festivals. Shrines are also the setting for many marriages and
homes frequently have ?god shelves? where offerings can be made
to Shinto deities.
Traditional Shinto seems alive today at shrine festivals
held annually on specific dates by all shrines of any importance.
At these times, the shrine deity is carried around in a portable
shrine by local youths.
In these various ways Shinto continues to be part of
Japanese life, and folklore remains full of Shinto elements. The
Japanese love of nature and sense of closeness to it also derive
strongly from Shinto concepts. But very few modern Japanese find
in traditional Shinto any real focus for their lives or even for
their social activities or diversions (Durant, p.p.278-285).
Christianity is usually linked with Shinto and Buddhism as
one of the three traditional religions of Japan, though it is
considered a foreign religion in a way Buddhism is not. First
introduced by the famous Jesuit missionary, Saint Francis Xavier,
in 1549, it spread more rapidly in Japan during the next several
decades than in any other non-Western country. Christians came
to number close to half a million, a much larger percentage of
the population of that time than there are today. But Hideyoshi
and the early Tokugawa shoguns came to view Christianity as a
threat to political unity and suppressed it ruthlessly, creating
in the process a large number of Japanese martyrs and virtually
stamping out religion by 1638.
The nineteenth century Japanese remained deeply hostile to
Christianity, abut they soon learned the strength of the Western
feelings about the religion and therefore tactically dropped
their prohibition of it in 1873 and then made explicit a policy
of complete religious tolerance. But Christianity this time
spread much more slowly. Even today its participants number only
a mere three quarters of a million–less than one percent of the
population–divided fairly evenly by Protestants and Catholics.
After the Meiji Restoration, Protestant Christianity,
largely brought by American missionaries, was taken up by a
number of able young samurai, particularly those from the losing
side of the civil war, who sought in Christianity a new ethics
and philosophy of life to take the place of discredited
Confucianism. These men injected a strong sense of independence
into the native church. In fact, under the leadership of
Uchimara Kanzo, a leading intellectual of the time, a ?No Church?
movement was founded in reaction against the sectarian divisions
of Protestantism in the West. During World War II the
government, for control purposes, forced the various Protestant
sects into a United Church of Christ in Japan.
The influence of Christianity on modern Japanese society is
far greater than its numbers of adherents would suggest.
Christians, though small in numbers, are strongly represented
among the best educated, leading elements and have therefore have
shown a quite disproportionate influence. Another factor is that
Christianity, as an important element of Western civilization,
has attracted general interest and curiosity. Most educated
Japanese probably have a clearer concept of the history and of
Christianity than they do Buddhism (Cambell, p.p.154-176).