by past Project Interfaith intern, Josh Campbell.
In 2000, it was claimed that Japan had 108 million followers of Shinto and 95.4 million Buddhists, which was pretty impressive for a country that, at the time, only had a population of 127 million (Hendry, 2003). This means that either 160% of Japanese people are religious or that the majority of Japanese people identify as both. To understand what is going on here, we have to think not in terms of religious belief, but of religious practice or behavior.
Japan’s religious history helps illuminate this phenomenon somewhat. Originally the main Japanese island was home to an indigenous religion that bears similarities to traditions found in East Asia, as well as the Polynesian islands. These traditions involved the worship of the kami, which can be translated as God, gods, spirits, or sacred entity. The “way” of the kami would later be systemized as Shinto (literally “the way of the kami”) in the 19th century. During the sixth century CE, Buddhism would be introduced from China via Korea at the behest of the Emperor of Japan (an institution which drew its ultimate authority from Shinto mythology and religious rituals). Eventually Buddhist monks would also bring Taoist and Confucian thought into Japan.
By the Tokugawa Shogunate (a.k.a the Edo Period [1603-1868]), Buddhism was a key part of the government’s bureaucracy, as all households had to register with a local Buddhist temple, and Buddhist priests ran many of the schools in Japan. Shinto shrines permeated every Japanese community, with every village organizing community activities and events around the local shrine. This period witnessed a great deal of syncretism (the integration of different religions), with Buddhist Bodhisattvas being worshiped as Shinto kami and Confucian thought and practice being incorporated into Buddhism (which is ironic considering how these represented to rival factions in China that had incited violence against each other throughout history).
While the government would systemize and attempt to separate Shinto from other traditions into an institution known as State Shinto during the modern era, this syncretic culture never really disappeared. It can still be seen today almost anywhere you go in Japan. It may be something as small as finding good luck charms (originally a Shinto tradition) at a Buddhist temple or witnessing an eight-spoked wheel (a Buddhist symbol) on an offering box at a Shinto Shrine. It can also be found at a theological level, with Buddhist deities enshrined at a Shinto Shrine as kami. And one sees it in almost every household, with its members participating in local festivals and religious activities at their neighborhood Shinto shrine and paying tribute to their ancestors and deceased relatives at their butsudan (a familial Buddhist altar usually located at the house of the eldest sibling).
This syncretic religious behavior led a friend of mine to once say, “Japanese religion is being Japanese.” And, in a sense, he is right. Over the centuries, Japan has developed its own integrated form of religion and spirituality that incorporates several different religious institutions, practices, and worldviews. This is, in part, because Japanese religion is more a question of personal behavior than of organizational affiliation.
Just what are these personal behaviors? We'll get to that next time......
Josh Campbell was the Development and Resources Intern for Project Interfaith. Upon completing his time at Project Interfaith he moved on to the Peace Corps. He is currently stationed in Morocco where he is working as a Youth Development Volunteer.