Japanese Religion - Randolph

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A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
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Sugawara no Michizane
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Lesson Plan for Japanese Religion
Prepared by:
Timothy A. Brown
Professor of Religious Studies
Randolph-Macon College
Fox-faced votive tablets (ema) at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Gravel garden at Daitoku-ji temple complex in Kyoto
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Part 1: Some Preliminary Comments on Japanese Religion(s)
Japanese Religion or Japanese Religions:
Most scholars move between these two ways of referring to the religious life of Japan. In some
cases they tend to emphasize the uniqueness or singularity of Japanese Religion, even though it is
comprised of multiple traditions. At other times, scholars refer to Japanese Religions in the plural so as to
differentiate the distinct strands of religion, i.e. Folk Religion, Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist,
Christian, New Religious Movements, etc.
Reflecting these two different ways, scholars typically present the religious life in Japan in at
least two different ways, or as a combination of these two ways. Emphasizing Japanese Religion, one can
understand the religious life of Japan as a unique combination of religious ideas, presuppositions,
expectations, and practices played out through the various distinct religious traditions, especially Shinto
and Buddhist. On the other hand, emphasizing the variety of religious traditions of Japan, one can present
the distinct traditions and their various sub-schools or sects (usually presented in their chronological
arrival or formation in Japan). Both methods of understanding the religious life of Japan are presented at
this site.
Religious Syncretism and Specialization:
This is an important aspect of the religious sensibility of the Japanese and one that many brought
up in the American religious climate may find perplexing. In a word, it is a general religious disposition
that allows for a religious eclecticism, the combining of multiple types of religion (i.e. Buddhist, Shinto,
and Christian) into a multi-faceted whole. Such an assemblage of different religions can, in turn, become
a static formation (refusing the addition of yet other religious traditions) or remain open to yet more, new
additions. The recent appropriation of the Christmas Holiday (in a much attenuated form) and Christian
marriage ceremonies by some Japanese indicates that the latter, more dynamic and creative tendency, is
currently prevailing in Japan. Whereas 20 years ago most scholars would say that the Japanese were
“born Shinto and die Buddhist,” today some are saying that one is “born Buddhist, marries Christian, and
dies Buddhist.”
In addition to religious syncretism, we can also speak of religious specialization when we speak
of Japanese Religion. To a great extent, the individual religions have tended to gravitate toward certain
areas of human experience, i.e. Shinto and the cycles of nature and transitions of human life, Buddhism
and death rites. Although the issue is more complicated than this, we can note these major tendencies
differentiating Shintoism from Buddhism.
Straw rope (shimenawa) and white paper streamers designating
this massive old tree at a Shinto shrine as a kami (a deity)
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Hundreds of weathered Buddha sculptures commemorate the anonymous dead of Kyoto
at Adashino Nembutsu-ji Temple
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Are the Japanese Religious?
In most recent scholarly treatments of Japanese Religion this question emerges. Why? Because if
you ask Japanese people if they are religious, the great majority (80% in some polls) will tell you that
they are not. Whereas if you ask the same individuals if they have prayed to a kami or a Buddha, 80% will
tell you that they have. How do we understand this discrepancy? One way is to examine what the
Japanese word for “religion,” shukyo, conveys. The word shukyo is formed through combining the
Japanese characters for “teaching” and “sect.” This may imply for some that they must be affiliated with a
particular teaching or a particular sectarian formation to be “religious.” As noted, most Japanese people
combine multiple religious teachings, traditions, and rites in their religious life, so they may not think of
themselves as “religious” in a strict sense, or according to the meaning conveyed by the term shukyo.
What is even more fascinating is that the word only emerged in common usage in the nineteenth century
after a sustained Japanese encounter with Christian missionaries. It is possible that the word reflects more
that encounter than the religious life of the Japanese today.
In addition, given recent history and Japan’s embrace of modernity (including science), the desire
not to affiliate oneself too closely with “religion” may also take on some meaning. Historical events, such
as the militant Shinto nationalism of the World War II era and the more recent, 1995 gas-attack on the
Tokyo subway system by a new religious movement called Aum Shinrikyo, have made many reluctant to
overly associate themselves with “religion.” Further, in most cases, the Japanese, like many Westerners,
embrace science, technology, and the worldviews generally associated with these. Some, for example,
may find religion less plausible in the era of science than it was in the past. Or, other Japanese, as with
many people throughout the world, may be trying to negotiate a new relationship between modernity,
science and religion. As with many Americans, for example, some Japanese may prefer terms that suggest
that they are “spiritual,” rather than “religious.” This is frequently done so as to distance oneself from
much that is perceived to be problematic or negative in “religion,” yet retain a tie to a spiritual life of
some sort.
Finally, the question of whether the Japanese are religious is largely dependent on what one
means by “religion” and whether one allows for historical variation and change with regard to “religion.”
Though most Japanese may not associate with a particular teaching or movement, most apparently pay
homage to and request benefits from a variety of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, kami, and ancestors. By most
standards, this is obviously religious behavior, in spite of the fact that those participating in such behavior
do not self-identify as “religious.”
People of all ages and types seeking healing benefits
from the incense cauldrons at Sensō-ji Temple in Tokyo
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Why study Japanese Religion(s)?
A primary reason for studying Japanese Religion is to learn about Japanese culture and history
generally. In fact, it is simply impossible to have a complex sense of Japan without such an understanding
of Japanese Religion(s). Given the effects of religion on the individual, its uses by the state, the impact of
religious ideas and practices on literature, the arts and architecture (not to mention the manner in which
one drinks tea or designs a garden), the religious in Japan is impossible to discard without discarding an
understanding of Japan itself.
A second reason for studying Japanese Religion(s) is to learn something more about religion
generally. Japan provides a rich and complicated example of a very different religious world than that
encountered by most Westerners. For this reason it has the potential of widening the religious imagination
of those who take the time to understand or experience it. In a global context, where the role of “religion”
is being constantly negotiated, challenged, and asserted, this expansion of the religious imagination may
be a necessity for a more global sense of citizenry.
Part 2: Teaching Japanese Religion
As suggested in the preliminary comments, one way of teaching and understanding Japanese
Religion is to see it as a set of religious insights and objectives that apparently transcend specific
traditions. Rather than treat Japanese Religion as made up of three distinct traditions, Shinto, Buddhist
and Confucian, it may be more productive and effective to treat it as a set of religious dispositions and
actions. This approach suggests that traditionally and currently (as well as popularly) there are several
threads of religious claims and practices that most clearly define Japanese Religion. These are: 1) Seeking
Benefits, 2) Religious and Spiritual Agents, 3) Unsettled Spirits and 4) Diverse Practices. What follows is
a description of each.
1) Seeking Benefits
This can be conceived as a pragmatic religious desire to secure benefits in this world and the next
and is a central religious practice and inclination of Japanese religion.
According to this religious sensibility, it is not necessarily important to whom one goes (i.e. to a
Buddha, a bodhisattva, or a Shinto kami), but that one perform prayer and give ritual offerings
with sincerity
This can be furthered conceived as a ‘problem by problem attitude toward religion,’ or a “turning
to the gods in a time of trouble.”
This disposition is less concerned with moral codes, sacred texts, or the congregational worship
that is so central to other religious ways (though it may be particularly visible during the great
public festivals, such as the New Year celebrations (hatsumōde))
Some scholars have conceived of this as a kind of ‘market-place model of religion’: knowing
where to go based on one’s particulars needs at a particular time (i.e. health, success in education
or business, safety in driving, etc.)
Once a decision has been made a reciprocal relationship is established with particular
obligations, expectations, rituals, shows of respect – and a fear that if one does not play
out these obligations consequences could be dire.
A Tenjin Shrine in Kamakura, where students go to request academic success.
Note the votive tablets (ema) hanging to the left and right of the door.
On these are written the requests to the kami Sugawara Michizane for such success.
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
2) Religious and Spiritual Agents
Scholars have noted a general religious assumption that there is a highly mobile, fluid ‘lifeenergy’ capable of inhabiting anything, which becomes a site of power with which one can
establish a relation. These are the Shinto kami. In addition, Buddhism in Japan usually includes a
notion of a ‘buddha-nature’ underlying all things and within all persons. In effect, both traditions
agree upon this potential in all things, places, and persons.
Kami are generally conceived as having two sides: peaceful (nigimitama) and destructive
(aramitama). This is also true of ancestors (both cultural and personal), which are also kami or
treated as such.
Japanese mythology provides some significant examples of major, world-creating and worldsustaining kami:
For example, there is a famous creation myth from the Kojiki, a collection of stories
sacred to Shintoism, wherein several key kami are introduced and religious practices are
Izanagi and Izanami, the primordial kami couple, create the Japanese islands, the
seas, winds, mountains, trees, etc.
Eventually, the goddess Izanami dies by giving birth to fire and descends into
Yomi’s realm, the nether realm of death.
Izanagi tries to bring her back to the land of the living, but Izanami has already
begun to decay and drives her mate away.
Izanagi must purify himself with water since he has been polluted by death, thus
underscoring the importance of purification rites (especially with water) within
the Japanese religious imagination.
Like many religious traditions, the story also offers an explanation of how death
enters into the world (in part, as punishment for Izanagi’s infraction)
Subsequent to purification by water, Izanagi is able to give birth to several more
kami, including the moon and the very important sun goddess, Amaterasu
(considered the most important and powerful of the pantheon of Shinto deities).
In a later scene, Amaterasu hides in the famous Rock Cave due to the insults of
her brother, the wind god Susanoo. She is finally lured out by a bawdy dance
performed by another goddess, the ensuing laughter of a great crowd of kami,
and a mirror in which she sees her beautiful reflection.
Finally, this same series of stories includes an account of the birth of the first
human emperor as a direct descendant of the gods and goddesses. It is this story
that allowed the Yamato Clan and the subsequent imperial tradition to claim a
divine descent.
In addition to the myriad forms that kami take, there are also other spiritual agents. Most
important are the many Buddhas and bodhisattvas of Japanese Buddhism, who can also provide
benefits. Three of the most important are:
Amida Buddha: one of the celestial Buddhas who established a heavenly Pure Land
where all who have sincere faith may dwell after death. Amida is most associated with
Pure Land Buddhism (the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan).
Kannon: usually depicted as a female bodhisattva of mercy and compassion and often
represented with multiple arms so as to be able to aid all those who call upon her. She is
usually associated with Pure Land Buddhism and Amida Buddha.
Jizo: responsible for the souls of the dead and capable of descending into hell to free
tormented souls. Jizo is also known for saving children, including miscarried and aborted
Many small statues of the bodhisattva Jizo arrayed at Hase-dera temple in Kamakura.
In particular, this temple provided Jizo statues and rites for those who wished to commemorate and aid
the soul of a deceased or aborted child.
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
3) Unsettled Spirits
There exists in Japan an ancient sense that the deceased must be placated before they can become
benevolent (rather than angry) ancestors. This is one of the most enduring practices of Japanese
Implied in this notion is that the community includes both the living and the dead and the dead
can have both positive and negative effects on the living (i.e. on one’s health, success, etc.)
Most scholars acknowledge that this reveals the legacy of the shaman-centered religion of old.
Shamans were religious specialists who were particularly adept at communicating with,
appeasing, controlling, and even exorcising spirits.
The annual, national holiday of o-bon (the festival of the dead) remains the most visible
manifestation of this idea. It is usually held in mid-August and includes both a visit to the family
cemetery to greet and report news to the returning dead as well as a farewell ceremony consisting
of a release of lanterns onto a body of water.
There are many other instances of the prevalence of this religious notion of ‘unsettled spirits.’
The preceding example of requesting Jizo to intercede on behalf of deceased children is indicative
of this idea. In addition, the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors the war dead
of Japan, is also an effect of this religious disposition. Finally, one can see the theme worked-out
in such recent anime films as A Letter for Momo, directed by Hiroyuki Okiura (this is a great film
to show high school and college students!).
4) Diverse Practices
Practically, the seeking of this-worldly and other-worldly benefits from spiritual agents and
keeping good relations with ancestors entails a wide range of religious rites, practices, gestures
and actions. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
Worship at home alters (domestic worship) is one of the most common ways of doing
Japanese religion. This is done at either Buddhist or Shinto home alters, called butsudana
or kamidana respectively. Ritual actions include bowing, praying, lighting incense, and
giving offerings, such as a flower.
Shrine and temple worship is another common way of performing religion in Japan.
These may vary from small, street-side shrines to sprawling shrine and temple
complexes. Typical religious acts include:
Ritual cleansing of hands and mouth at water basins before approaching the
Buddhas and kami
Offerings of coins, incense, candles, flowers, sake, etc.
Bowing (and ringing bells and clapping one’s hands twice at Shinto shrines to
alert the kami of your presence) followed by prayers
The purchase of amulets, talismans and other religious power-objects which can
be taken to one’s home alter or affixed to one’s person for protection, blessings,
and reminders of one’s reciprocal relations with spiritual agents
The purchase of votive tablets (ema) and other objects upon which one can
inscribe messages so as to communicate directly with deities
Participation in national festivals (like New Years and Obon) or local festivals
(matsuri) entails shrine or temple visitation and worship
Religious pilgrimage to shrines, temples and other sites of sacred power remains
a significant component of Japanese religious practice
A hand and mouth cleaning basin found at the entrance to Shinto shrines and many Buddhist Temples
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
A display of temple objects available for sale at a Tenjin shrine in Kamakura
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Part 3: Japanese Religions
Another approach to teaching the religious life of Japan is to treat it as consisting of several
distinct traditions, Folk, Shinto, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist (Taoist), Christian, and the New Religious
Movements. This is a more traditional approach, though it may be somewhat misleading. Since it tends to
focus on one religious tradition at a time, students may assume that the Japanese follow one or the other
of these religions (as is typically the case in America). Though there may be some who practice religion
in this way, we know that the great majority of Japanese mix and combine traditions (what is called
religious syncretism or eclecticism). This is simply to say that when using the approach of teaching
Japanese Religions as discrete traditions, the overriding syncretism should be kept in mind.
The next section, Part 4, consists of a rough timeline of Japanese Religion. There you will see laid
out religious traditions, movements, ideas, practices, and effects as they emerge historically, period by
period. What follows in this section are brief descriptions of some of the most important religious
traditions, schools, and movements. They too are arranged chronologically to match-up with the timeline
in Part 4.
Early Religion (before the arrival of Buddhism):
There are no written records or accounts of religion in Japan until the 4th Century CE. What we
know of the religious life of the Japanese is through archeology and later accounts.
Chinese histories composed in the 4th Century provide the earliest glimpse. They describe a
Shaman-queen ruler, who controls the kami. Excavations of burial mounds have unearthed
objects such as jewels, swords, and mirrors.
Nara Period:
Buddhism enters from Korea in 538. Buddhist promises of ‘liberation’ and ‘salvation’ are a new
set of religious ideas, as compared to the ‘this-worldly’ focus of Shinto.
Six Buddhist schools arrive from Korea (by way of China) during the Nara Period. The Hosso
and Kegon schools are the only survivors today (both are relatively small in size).
From their initial encounter, Buddhism and Shinto have had to negotiate their relationship. At the
site of the famous Todaiji Temple in Nara, for example, the Japanese ruler first had to ask the
local kami if he could build the temple before proceeding. A shrine to this kami remains on the
grounds overlooking the temple and is a common occurrence at Buddhist temples.
To this day, Buddhism and Shinto exist side by side, with most Japanese not making a strong
distinction between them. From both, one can seek benefits from spiritual agents.
Todaiji Temple in Nara
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Tendai and Shingon Buddhism (Heian Period, 794-1185 CE):
Buddhism remained a religion of the elite from the 5th to the 9th Cent. CE
Founders Saicho (Tendai) and Kukai (Shingon) travel to China in 804 for new Buddhist texts and
They return with particular types of Buddhism that were popular in China at the time.
These Tantrayana-style Buddhisms suggest an easier and more inclusive approach to
enlightenment or liberation (one open to all, not just monks).
The Lotus Sutra, a famous Buddhist text, is the central sacred text of these schools.
Both schools use techniques of incantation, ritual gestures, meditation, visualization
exercises, and practice austerities to attain liberation.
Both affirm the body as a spiritual vehicle for realization of enlightenment in the here and
Both continued to respect the local kami as ‘manifestation from the original state’ (honji
suijaku), which means that they conceived of particular kami as particular manifestations
of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, or ‘Buddha-nature’ generally.
Most of the new forms of Buddhism that emerge in the next period have founders that
came from Tendai monasteries. Tendai had always affirmed multiple paths to liberation
and the new types of Buddhism whose founders come from Tendai reflect this openness
to different styles.
New sects of the Kamakura (and after) Period (1185-1392) and Ashikaga/Muromachi Periods (13921568):
Three new Buddhist sects in Kamakura:
Pure Land (Jodo-shu) and True Pure Land (Jodo-Shinshu)
Zen (Rinzai and Soto forms)
“Shinto,” as we know it today, also has its beginnings during this period
The Kamakura, it should be remembered, is the era of the samurai and the War Lords
Buddhist teaching of mappo arises and takes hold in Japan. It claims that we are living in a
degenerate age of dharma-decline and that a new, radical teaching (i.e. an agent of salvation) are
needed. A series of violent political events and natural disasters reinforces this religious claim.
What follows is a brief description of the various schools or sects of Buddhism that come about
during this time period. Since these remain the most popular and well-known types of Buddhism
in Japan to this day, they are particularly important.
Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo-shu) & Salvation:
Pure Land Buddhism’s offer of salvation (in the time of mappo) became popular among elites and
commoners (before this movement, still mostly elites in Buddhism).
This movement was probably aided by the emergence of a text with graphic details of rebirth in
the Buddhist six realms of rebirth. These realms are hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, the realm of
demonic beings, the realm of animals, of human beings, and of heavenly beings. Important to
note here is that all these are seen as temporary realms since reincarnation or rebirth is understood
to occur.
The founder of this movement is Honen (1133-1212).
Honen argued that the mappo period suggests that the traditional Buddhist means (i.e. Tendai and
Shingon) were not enough. What was needed was the help of a Buddha such as Amida, who
would save those who sincerely called on his name and lived a proper life.
The central practice of this tradition is to repeatedly recite or chant the nembutsu (the phrase:
‘Namu Amida Butsu,’ meaning ‘Hail Amida Buddha’) with sincere faith. This is understood to be
the only means of salvation in such dire times.
Pure Land views were considered a subversive doctrine by both the political regimes and older
Buddhist schools. Honen and his disciple Shinran, for instance, were banished from their home
region. Shinran also married (something Buddhist monks were not to do), which added to his
period of banishment.
This form of Buddhism remains the most popular form in Japan today.
True Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo-Shinshu):
This school was founded by Honen’s disciple, Shinran, soon after Pure Land.
Shinran argued that jiriki (self-powered) forms of Buddhism (such as Zen) were completely
insufficient. Instead, tariki (other-powered) forms of Buddhism, such as Pure Land and True
Pure Land, were the only legitimate forms in the time of mappo. (Note: In jiriki forms one obtains
liberation through one’s own efforts (i.e. meditation and proper conduct), while in tariki one
attains liberation or salvation through the saving grace and mercy of a Buddha such as Amida.)
His school had great success among commoners since he claimed that even the sincere repetition
of just a single nenbutsu can secure salvation, even for the most wicked.
He pushes beyond Pure Land doctrine by claiming that only Amida Buddha’s saving grace, not
one’s actions or efforts, can save one (thus, ‘true’ Pure Land).
True Pure Land followers eventually formed armed militias and controlled whole provinces by
1500. Subsequently, they were violently put down by warlords.
Rinzai Zen:
Eisai (1141-1215), a Tendai priest, goes to China to discover Chan Buddhism. The Chinese word
‘chan’ is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna meaning ‘meditation,’ which tells us its central
religious practice. Chan had by now become a dominant tradition in China (whereas Tendai and
Shingon forms had faded in importance).
Eisai studies under and is certified as enlightened by a Chinese Chan master of the Linji sect.
Eisai brings this lineage (which, according to Chan, goes back to the original Buddha of India) to
Japan as the Rinzai sect of Zen (Chan) Buddhism.
Eisai is also credited with promoting tea in Japan, mainly to keep meditating monks awake and
Eisai acquired Kamakura patrons (and financial backing) by writing The Propagation of Zen for
the Protection of the Country and separated from Tendai Buddhism.
He built the first Zen temple in Kyoto called Kenninji.
Eisai maintained that ‘sudden enlightenment’ or satori could be obtained through the use of zazen
(seated meditation) and koans (riddle-like questions or phrases to be meditated upon by Rinzai
monks). The intent of these practices is to induce a break-through experience whereby one sees
reality as it is, overcoming delusion and selfishness.
Rinzai Zen was also attractive to samurai in a culture that valued the warrior above all others. Zen
provided discipline, greater endurance, and confronted one with the reality of death (something
warriors were constantly faced with) as a religious practice.
Soto Zen: The Gradual Path:
The founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Dogen (1200-1253), studied with
Eisai, the Rinzai founder.
Dogen, like Eisai, traveled to China but brought back the Caodong (or, Soto) lineage of Chan
Buddhism to Japan.
Dogen argued for a ‘gradual enlightenment’ through ‘just sitting’ (shikantaza), rigorous study,
and physical labor.
He integrates zazen (meditation) into all activities. In other words, all activities can be forms of
meditation, and meditation is the manifestation of ‘buddha-nature.’ There is, for example,
Dogen’s relating of an encounter with an enlightened cook at a Chinese monastery. There,
cooking is meditation, is attainment of liberation.
Dogen asked the question, “If one is born with innate Buddha-nature, why must one make any
effort to achieve enlightenment?” He suggests that ‘buddha-nature’ is not somewhere else, but
here. That it is not later, but now. These are Zen teachings that carry into the present, including
into cultural material that has been strongly influenced by Zen.
Dogen established Eiheiji monastery in the countryside, away from the urban centers of power.
Soto Zen has sometimes been called ‘farmers Zen’ as it appealed to the farmer’s work ethic and
made the ordinary a vehicle of religious practice.
Soto priests eventually performed funeral services, where a corpse was ordained as a monk or a
nun. ‘Funerary Buddhism’ remains one of Buddhism’s most wide-spread and important practices
today. Recall the phrase: “Born Shinto, die Buddhist.”
As suggested, many cultural practices, especially the arts, become Buddhist-inspired. These
include: flower arranging, gardening, haiku poetry, Noh Theatre, and anime and manga films and
Nichiren Buddhism:
This form of Buddhism is named after its founder, Nichiren (1222-1282).
Nichiren argued that faith in the Lotus Sutra was the only path to salvation in the time of mappo.
More specifically, Nichiren claimed that chanting the mantra: “namu myoho renge kyo” (“Hail
the marvelous teaching of the Lotus Sutra”) was the true means to liberation and that all other
forms of Buddhism were corrupt or wrong.
Nichiren was a street-corner preacher who strongly politicized his religion as well. He claimed
that failures of the nation were due to rulers not adopting the Lotus Sutra. He preached that his
teaching would save the nation.
Nichiren Buddhism begins as a strongly nationalistic religious tradition. Nichiren preached one
sutra (religious text), one practice (chanting), one nation, for example.
Several ‘new religions’ have their roots in this tradition (including Soka Gakkai, a form that has
migrated to Western countries).
Confucianism and the Beginnings of Shinto:
Rulers begin to take a serious interest in Confucian teachings on social order during tumultuous
Muramachi Period
In particular, the Confucian teaching of the ‘rectification of names’ was seen as a means
of organizing society. That teaching, by placing and defining everyone in a hierarchical
system, and by stressing loyalty and humaneness, offered a Confucian model of a
harmonious society that was extremely attractive.
The Emergence of ‘Shinto’:
Shinto becomes a more self-conscious and distinct tradition during this period as well. It
begins to take on more of the forms and roles it is associated with today.
Big shrines, like Ise Shrine, open themselves more to commoners and become pilgrimage
Some Shinto priests critique and attempt a reversal of the honji suijaku teaching, which
implied the superiority of Buddhas over kami. To the contrary, the Shinto Priests claimed
that Buddhas were actually manifestations of kami.
New Religious Expressions:
Christianity enters Japan in 1550. After initial success, then persecution, it is forced out of Japan
(or underground) by 1641.
Japan begins to increasingly shift toward a national religious identity based on Shinto in the
The ‘Native Learning’ (Kokugaku or ‘study one’s country’) movement aids in this shift toward
‘Native Learning’ argued for the superiority of Japanese culture/people over all others.
It argued for the superiority of native spiritual traditions, like Shinto, over Confucian and
Buddhist teachings.
Scholars of this movement used texts such as the Kojiki and Nihongi to justify the divine
status of the emperor and Shinto as the state religion.
Recent Developments:
Meiji government (1868-1911) makes state Shinto a reality with divine authority granted to the
government and creation of a fervent religious-based nationalism
A period of persecution of Buddhism as non-native ensues. Shinto and Buddhism are
forcefully separated.
Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead is established. State-sanctioned literature suggests that
the greatest glory is to die for the nation and to be enshrined at Yasukuni. This shrine in
Tokyo remains a symbol of Japanese and Shinto nationalism to this day, with politicians
visiting or avoiding its sacred precincts.
The Japanese kamikaze (‘divine wind’) pilots of World War II are frequently
cited as the most extreme example of such nationalism (they willingly crashed
their planes into American and allied ships to sink them).
After the war and Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Emperor was stripped of his divine
authority and a separation of religion and state was enacted in the new constitution.
Post-war religious freedom produces a proliferation of ‘new religious movements.’
Soka Gakkai, one of the largest of the ‘new religions,’ like many more such movements,
has mostly Buddhist roots.
The 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, by one of these ‘new
religions,’ have had a tremendous impact on the general sense of ‘religion’ among the
Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead in Tokyo
Photograph by Timothy A. Brown
Part 4: A Timeline of Japanese Religion:
8000-200 BCE
Jomon Culture:
Religion expressing a mixed hunting, fishing, gathering, and some planting culture; female, male, and
half-animal/half-human representations suggesting fertility and trance-state religion; animism (a religious
form generally concerned with relating humans to the beings, objects and forces of the natural world);
probably comparable to Polynesian and Melanesian religions of this era
200BCE-200 CE
Yayoi Culture:
Religion (probably from Korea) expressing a more agriculture (rice)-centered culture and cycles (like
Shinto); shamanistic religion (shamans were religious specialists particularly adept at communicating
with other powers); emerging religious stories that were probably prototypes for stories found in the later
Shinto sacred texts of the Kojiki and Nihinshoki
Kofun Culture:
A period of the building of great burial mounds holding political sovereigns; gradual unification under the
Yamato house; emergence of an imperial mythology/religion; ritual swords, jewels, and mirrors found in
excavations of mounds; shamans (mostly women) using trance-states still predominant religious form
Arrival of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism (or Taoism):
Nihinshoki says Buddhism arrived from Korea in 538 or 552; largely Buddhist and Confucian state
consolidated under Prince Shotoku (573-621); Buddhism used as a means of unifying Japan (since Shinto
kami were associated with particular clans and locales); Shinto also promoted by the subsequent
emperors; compilation of Kojiki ordered (completed in 712); Ise Shrine promoted as main imperial shrine
Nara Period:
Buddhist high point; first permanent capital in Nara; six Buddhist schools in Nara (Hosso and Kegon
being the two most important survivors); Great Buddha of Nara established at Todaiji Temple (a Kegon
temple); Elite and popular forms of Buddhism; Buddhist preachers and wonder-workers wander the
Heian Period (modern Kyoto):
Shingon (founded by Kukai) and Tendai Buddhism (founded by Saicho) dominant (both brought from
China); Shinto and Buddhism largely combined; a golden era of imperial courtly life and Japanese
literature (i.e. Tale of Genji) strongly influenced by Buddhist ideas; Confucian teachings (i.e. filial piety)
continue to be promoted at level of family and state; Daoist (Taoist) ideas (i.e. astrology, yin-yang,
placating spirits) especially effect popular religion
Kamakura Period:
Shoguns and samurai values dominant; Emergence or importation of new Buddhist schools: Pure Land
(Jodo-shu) under Honen, True Pure Land (Jodo-Shinshu) under Shinran, Nichiren, Rinzai Zen under
Eisai, and Soto Zen under Dogen; Buddhist idea of mappo (that we are living in a degenerate age
requiring new methods of salvation) widespread
Ashikaga or Muromachi Period:
A period of civil war and strife; Zen Buddhism dominant under Ashikaga patronage; Zen arts of poetry,
gardens, tea ceremony, flower arranging, painting, and Noh drama emerge; martial arts also associated
with Zen; emergence of militant, Buddhist religious sects; Shinto revival (especially at the Ise Shrine);
religious pilgrimage takes on greater significance; Christianity, under St. Francis Xavier, arrives in 1549
Momoyama Period:
Unification of country under warlords; a particular distrust of Buddhist groups by warlord Oda
Nobunaga; Christianity initially tolerated then persecuted
Tokugawa Period:
Relative isolation of Japan; Confucianism adopted as state ideology; registration of all citizens at
Buddhist temples made mandatory; Buddhism under state control; rise of Shinto nationalism through
Kokugaku (“national learning”) school
Meiji Period:
Reopening of Japan; restoration of direct imperial rule; Japanese modernization; separation of Shinto and
Buddhism; Shinto’s imperial ideology promoted by state; Buddhism reformed (i.e. marriage of priests);
Japanese Buddhism becomes more international (especially Zen); Christian missions recommence
Taisho and early Showa Periods:
Strong imperial ideology and State Shinto emerges; religions pressured to support World War II
1945Late Showa and Heisei Periods:
Postwar religious freedom and rise of the new religious movements (i.e. Soka Gakkai); continuation of
traditional religious life; secularization; Yasukuni Shrine controversy (a symbol of continued support of
State Shinto); Aum Shinrikyo (a new religious movement) gas attacks on Tokyo subway system
I want to express my appreciation to all the scholars on Japanese Religions that have helped me to
understand and organize this religiously complex country. Most important were John Nelson and Robert
Ellwood, whose writings gave me a framework to work upon. In addition, I want to thank John Breen, H.
Byron Earhart, Joseph Kitagawa, T.P. Kasulis, Ian Reader, Masashi Haneda, and Susumu Shimazona for
writing works that allowed me to fill in this framework.

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