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Facts of Japan - Religion

Updated on May 24, 2011

Shinto religion is the ancient religion of Japan and it is being practiced by more than half of Japanese people. Shinto actually means the way of life. Its origin can be traced back to the pre-historic times. It stressed respect for nature and worshipped some sacred sites. Sun, Trees, Rock formations and even sounds were all worshipped in that period. Further each one of the sites was also associated with a deity, which was known as Kami. The purification act was an important ritual of these sites.

There was no single founder for Shinto. But the sects of Shinto, Konkokyo and Tenrikyo, had leaders and unique dogma. This Shinto fell when Buddhism entered but gradually it survived alongside Buddhism in the later stage. When Buddhism entered, it spread so much that even on the site of Shinto sacred places Buddhist temples were constructed.

Kannushi - Shinto priest in ceremonial dress kariginu.
Kannushi - Shinto priest in ceremonial dress kariginu.

In the period preceding 1868, three primary forms of Shinto existed. Out of which Shrine Shinto was the popular one. For peasants exclusively Folk Shinto existed. The Imperial families of Japan went with Imperial Houshold Shinto. Buddhism arrived in Japan during 6th century. But following the Meiji restoration, the Buddhism and Shinto got separated. Emperor Meiji formed a State Shinto, by combining the Shrine Shinto, Folk Shinto and Imperial Shinto together. Shinto was made the official religion as well. Japan truly became a moderate theocracy under meiji’s rile. And it became the religion of Korea and Taiwan when Japan took control of them. In the mean time, a sect Shinto was also formed by some and it always stayed out of these unifications.

In 1945, when the United States was in control in Japan, All the Shrines were taken out of the Japan Government’s control and gradually State Shinto got abolished. Once this was abolished, the older Shintos like Shrine, Fold and Imperial Shintos resurfaced and stayed as separate after that.

Tori in Miyajima - characteristic shape of the gate, leading to tempels and Shinto holy places (in the Shinto birds are considered messengers of the gods).
Tori in Miyajima - characteristic shape of the gate, leading to tempels and Shinto holy places (in the Shinto birds are considered messengers of the gods).
Flag symbolizing Buddhism.
Flag symbolizing Buddhism.
The Tibetan Wheel of Life and marked the traditionally Six Worlds.
The Tibetan Wheel of Life and marked the traditionally Six Worlds.

Buddhism arrived in Japan from the southern part of the State, Baekje in Korea. Buddhism was divided into Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism. The Mahayana Buddhism spread much in Japan and a largest number of Japanese, during that time, identified as Buddhist.

Initially in Nara, six Buddhist sects were established. They were known as Nara Buddhism. As time progressed, more forms of Buddhism arrived in Japan. The major of them were Shingon and Zen. Yet another form called Jodo-kyo or in other words Pure land Buddhism also was followed by many during Kamakura period.

There was a monk, Nichiren, who established Nichiren Buddhism, which was totally a radical form of Buddhism. The Shogun distrusted Nichiren so much. Interestingly, Nichiren predicted that Mongols will invade Japan. Apart from this, Nichiren was the first to announce that women can also get the enlightenment as well. Today this Nichiren Buddhism is being followed in large numbers in Japan.

After these two major religions, other religions also invaded Japan. In 1542, the Portuguese arrived with the religion called Christian Catholicism. During the 16th century, the Franciscans arrived as well.

In modern Japan, apart from Shintos, Buddhists there are Christians, Hindus and Muslims, and Sikhs as well reside in Japan.

Judaism is also practiced by a small sect in Modern Japan.

Today most of the Japanese live the life cycles according to the Shinto beliefs and the death and after death cycles according to the Buddhist beliefs. In fact, Japanese did not identify totally as adhering to any single religion. They had incorporated all the different religions in a syncretism fashion. This was known as Shinbutsu Shugo. This, though seized to exist after the Shinto and Buddhism separation, it still is being practiced in Japan.

Metropolitan Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Tokyo.
Metropolitan Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Tokyo.

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