by past Project Interfaith intern, Josh Campbell
Back in the fall of 2008, I left on my first international adventure – a year of study in Shizuoka, Japan. I had already spent two years preparing through the academic study of the Japanese language and its culture, as well as through personal interaction and discussion with Japanese international students. By the time I came back in 2009, I had experienced and learned so much and, in many ways, had become Japanese myself.
I now found myself in a position where I was often asked to represent the community and culture I had called home for the last year, whether it was at official functions and events or just in casual conversation. I quickly found though that trying to sum up a people, their lifestyle, their worldview, and their identity was nearly impossible. So much to be lost in translation, so much that couldn’t be easily explained without direct exposure. Still, what was the point of going over there and having all of these experiences if I didn’t at least try to help impart a better understanding of the people and the culture.
This was no more the case than in trying to describe and explain Japanese religious behavior to curious Americans. The first thing people ask me about Japanese religion is also probably the worst, and possibly the most misleading, question to ask, “What do they believe?” In the US and other countries with European cultural heritage, the question of religious identity has been usually a choice between the various Abrahamic religions, which are at least partially, if not mostly, defined by orthodoxy, or correct belief. One identifies as a Christian by a belief in God and salvation through Jesus Christ. One identifies as a Muslim by believing in God and that Muhammed (PBUH) is his messenger. Jewish traditions often require the belief in the covenant with G-d.
If one steps off a plane in Japan and asks the first person they see, “What do you believe?” besides the person being confused by your abrupt interrogation, they may very well say they don’t believe in any religion (or that they don’t believe in God). This same person is likely to have been blessed by a Shinto priest when they were born, taught Confucian family values growing up, married in a Christian church, and to plan on being buried in a Buddhist cemetery. This same person’s religious identity is likely to have remained unchanged throughout their lifetime. I can’t imagine the grief it would cause a census-taker when an individual checked off the boxes for Atheist, Buddhist, Confucianist, and Shintoist all on the same sheet.
This has actually happened. 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.
But more on 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.