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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

What is the Religion of the Japanese?

[From March Issue 2013]

201303-3

During spring and autumn, many wedding ceremonies are held in Japan. Though the number of practicing Japanese Christians is thought to be around 1% – that’s including Catholics and Protestants – nearly 70% of Japanese weddings are held in a chapel. By contrast, almost all funerals are Buddhist. On the other hand, events like shichigosan, which celebrates the growth of children, are held at Shinto shrines. In Japan, religions are able to coexist without any friction between them.

Shinto has been the religion of Japan since ancient times. Sensing a mysterious power residing in things like rocks, waterfalls, rivers and mountains, Japanese worshiped natural objects, animals and humans as gods. Shinto shrines are symbolic places. In Japan many gods coexist. In this way, Buddhism has been accepted since the sixth century. For their first visit of the year, people may go to pray at either a shrine or a temple.

Since Japan is polytheistic, Japanese are tolerant of foreign religions. Because of this they have incorporated western religious events and ceremonies, like Christmas and Halloween, into their lives. For most Japanese they are merely fun events.

However, besides funerals, events and ceremonies connected with Buddhism are regarded as old-fashioned, and these days Japanese distance themselves from them. Japanese know Christ’s birthday, but hardly anybody knows Buddha’s. However, in recent years, Asian countries have taken center stage and because of this, religious events originating from these countries that are perceived as being “cool,” may be adopted.

The Japanese pagan attitude to religion can be seen as tolerant, but on the other hand, it may be seen as impious or even indifferent. From the standpoint of fiercely religious countries, the Japanese might appear to be heathens. However, due to this attitude, Japan hasn’t been involved in any religious disputes, and because religion is not an integral part of everyday life, it’s a peaceful country.

The Other Side of Religion

Zen, which can be a religion or philosophy, has greatly influenced Japanese culture and bushido (the samurai code). Leading to enlightenment, zazen (meditation) training is well known, but few people fully understand it. Its central message to “Accept reality as it is” might be more easily understood through the Beatles’ song “Let it Be” or Doris DAY’s “Que Sera Sera.”

In Japan there are no religious political parties, but a party supported by a religious group exists. New Komeito, a political party that has formed a coalition cabinet with ABE Shinzo’s Liberal Democratic Party was founded by Soka Gakkai, a religious Buddhist group. Candidates of newly formed religious groups occasionally run for office in national elections, but almost all fail.

In 1995, many people were victims of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo metropolitan subway. This was carried out by cult religious group Aum Shinrikyo. Though all the suspects were arrested, having divided into splinter groups, Aum still survives under different names. As a result, many Japanese are suspicious of new religions. 


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