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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).

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