Religion and Thought

Japanese spiritual traditions are a rich blend of ancient beliefs and rites intermingled with regional and even world influences. However, culture shapes religion as much as religion shapes culture, and contemporary Japanese religious and philosophical perspectives constitute a unique melange. Aspects of Japan’s spiritual traditions have even been exported to the West. The indigenous spiritual practices known as Shinto as well as Buddhism, Confucianism, elements of Daoism, the so-called ‘‘new religions,’’ and Christianity are all present in the archipelago. This does not necessarily mean, as will be discussed later, however, that large numbers of Japanese consider themselves ‘‘religious’’ in the Western meaning of the term.

The large majority of readers of this volume have spiritual traditions that emanated from the ancient Near East and that are predicated on the notions of monotheism (one god) and exclusivity—one cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim. The first step in understanding Japanese spiritual traditions is the realization that for the majority of Japanese, the aforementioned beliefs are not valid. The large majority of Japanese, as is true of most East Asians, approach religion from a syncretic perspective and have no problem with incorporating aspects of different religious creeds and practice into their lives. The assumption undergirding syncretism is that various practices and beliefs from different spiritual traditions are most useful depending on the particular stage of one’s life. This syncretic tradition in Japan dates back more than 1,000 years. The first historical record of the figurative transfer of a Shinto kami (‘‘divinity’’) in a portable shrine was in 749 CE when a kami was taken from Kyushu to Nara to protect the construction of the Buddhist temple Todaiji, which contains one of Japan’s two Great Buddhas.

Many contemporary Japanese, for example, have family shrines where Shinto and Buddhist icons are present. Large numbers of Japanese also base aspects of their daily conduct on Confucian teachings but adhere to certain Daoist beliefs about lucky and unlucky practices. Traditionally, Japanese have christened children and married in Shinto shrines and conducted funerals at Buddhist temples. Even though Christians constitute less than one percent of the Japanese population, getting married in Christian churches is now popular among Japanese young people. Recent estimates indicate that slightly over half of newlyweds have a Christian service. Sometimes, the marrying couples will have both a Christian and a Shinto wedding service. If this now more than 20-year-old Christian-style wedding trend continues, it could be evidence that the Japanese are even more eclectic than their East Asian neighbors in utilizing a variety of religious rites.

Not only have different spiritual traditions affected individual Japanese, but also the religions and belief systems present in Japan have influenced each other. Even Shinto, the ‘‘indigenous’’ Japanese religion, has been influenced by Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

Another aspect of East Asian syncretism that is a dominant feature of Japanese spiritual traditions is that practice and behavior are much more important than abstract beliefs, Western-style theological debates, and adherence to religious dogma. Nowhere is this element of East Asian syncretism truer than in the spiritual tradition that has come to be known as Shinto.