by past Project Interfaith intern, Josh Campbell.
As part of a field research project I conducted during my time in Japan, in which I collected over 20 hours of in-depth interview data, I explored people’s understanding of religion and religious behavior. One of the more interesting things I found is that many Japanese people don’t immediately recognize or understand the word “Shinto.” When I asked what a person thought of Shinto, I would often have to spell out the Chinese characters (which some native speakers would even misread as “Shindo”) and link it to the idea of jinja (a Shinto Shrine) before people understood what I was asking about. It’s hard to imagine asking an American that attends Church every week what they thought of Christianity, and then having to spell it out to the person because they didn’t understand the word, only to have them misread it as “Christism.” Confucianism was even more obscure to the people I interviewed, with only a few people even recognizing the name of Confucius (Koshi in Japanese) and almost none being familiar with his teachings. This revealed something that many foreign nationals in Japan can attest to: Religion is something people just don’t talk about in Japan.
This may be a consequence of the image of religion in Japan that has developed during the 20th century. The atrocities committed by the Japanese army during World War II (and the eventual consequence of becoming the only nation to have suffered the horrors of the atomic bomb) were justified and encouraged by a nationalistic religious fervor whipped up by State Shinto officials and Buddhist priests (Victoria, 2006). After the war, this led to many of the culpable religious institutions and ideologies falling into disrepute (Hendry, 2003). When attempting to find a Buddhist priest or monk that would be willing to be interviewed for my research, I was often rejected. At first I didn’t understand why, but it was later explained to me that it was because my interview schedule also included questions concerning politics and views on society, which Buddhist priests and monks are now usually restricted from commenting upon due to the consensus of religious leaders concerning the separation of church and state.
During the latter half of the 20th century, new religious movements would eventually gain a foothold in Japan. These often involved much more exclusive affiliation than the traditional Japanese religion. The image of these new religious movements in the public consciousness would become forever tarnished with 1995 Saran Gas Attacks on the Tokyo Subway system perpetrated by a new religious movement known as Aum Shinrikyo. (Metraux, 1995) This attack resulted in the deaths of a dozen commuters and the injury of several thousand. The consequence of these high profile terrorist attacks by a religious organization that originated in Japan has led to the distrust and suspicion of religion, especially nontraditional forms of religion, as exhibited in the data found on the website for the Association of Religious Data Archives. This is further compounded by the increased involvement of some of these new religious movements in politics, such as Soka Gakkai’s involvement with the Komeito Party (Hendry, 2003), which flies in the face of the post-war consensus on the separation of church and state.
Now, going back to our original question, it becomes more apparent why asking about belief isn’t the necessarily the best approach. Japan is home to a traditional religious culture that integrates elements of Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism, without defining a specific theological ideology or dogma. Rather, these all represent activities and behaviors connected to personal benefit or social obligation.
The average person experiences Shinto when they go to shrines to receive blessings and good fortune during times of new beginnings, whether that be getting your car blessed by a Shinto priest or observing the customary visit to the shrine on New Year’s Day. They experience Buddhism when they go the temple to observe the ending of something, whether that be a loved one’s funeral or to mark the end of the year on New Year’s Eve by ringing a sacred bell, and as a way to show respect to one’s ancestors at the family’s Buddhist altar in their house. They experience Confucianism in the form of the hierarchical relationships and obligations that govern Japanese social interactions. They even experience Christianity when they celebrate Christmas (though they do this by going out on a date or getting KFC – and yes, that is the common custom for December 25th in Japan) or hold their wedding at a Christian church. If you ask them how they identify, they may very well identify as an Atheist or Agnostic. And this same person is unlikely to see any contradiction or conflict between these diverse behaviors and beliefs.
This kind of religious or spiritual framework is very foreign to most Western concepts of religion and thus leads to much confusion when engaging in interfaith dialogue. In fact, it even suggests an interesting type of interfaith relations, with very little conflict between major religious institutions in contemporary Japan because they are not seen as mutually exclusive organizations in competition with each other, but rather as diverse sources that cooperate to inform ethical behavior and religious identity.
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.