Japan has one of the most unique and colorful cultures in the world, so it’s no wonder that their religious culture is equally fascinating. But, in such a busy and modern nation, does anyone actually have the time or will to engage with this culture any more?
In short: absolutely yes! In fact, the religion of Japan is so deeply intertwined with the rest of the culture that you can find its influence in almost every area of Japanese life: from the way that they engage with nature, to the holidays they celebrate with their families. Below, we’ll explain how the two major religions in Japan — Shinto and Buddhism — shaped the past and present of the country, and how people engage with them nowadays.
These two religions dominate over 90% of the religious landscape of Japan, with many people identifying as both. In fact, you’ll often find idols from both religions happily coexisting in the same religious sites like divine flatmates. It can be a confusing situation for foreigners, with a seemingly endless stream of gods, Buddhas, myths, and legends to wrap your head around. But don’t fear: if you can’t tell your shrines from your temples, or your oni from your kami, you’ve come to the right place!
Shintoism, The Religion of Japan
Shinto, meaning “the way of the gods” (kami-no-michi), is the millennia-old native religion of Japan, and the most significant one in the country to this day. At its heart, Shinto is a type of animism: the oldest style of religion in the world according to which there’s a spirit that inhabits every creature, geographical feature, and natural phenomenon in existence. In Japanese, these spirits are known as kami — the supernatural entities believed to govern all things.
Japan was historically a nation of small agricultural communities, and Shinto traditions are what bound them together. This is why it places such importance on family, community, ancestors, and respect towards the natural world these farming villages relied on for survival. One day the villagers might pray to Inari — the god of rice, who uses magical kitsune (foxes) as his messengers — for a good harvest, and the next to Raiden — god of thunder, lightning, and storms — asking him to chill out and call off the typhoon tearing the roofs off their homes.
Over 80,000 shrines still stand in Japan, dedicated to the colorful cast of gods and spirits dreamed up over the years, proving how pervasive this religion still is in Japanese culture. In fact, over 70% of the population identify as Shintoist, and the religion continues to influence modern Japanese life in a number of ways.
Although most Japanese people will tell you they don’t literally believe in Shinto, come exam season, you’ll see plenty of sweaty-palmed students at the shrines praying to the gods. The kami these shrines are dedicated to is thought to grant good fortune for certain areas of life.
Before starting a new business project, for example, a Japanese salaryman might want to say a prayer to Ebisu — god of wealth and business success — whose cheery face still features in Japanese TV commercials and subway posters. The new year is a popular time to visit, with the hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year) holding special significance for the year ahead.
Shinto prayers have a special procedure. The Japanese will first ring the bell above the altar to alert the kami of their presence, then throw a 5 yen coin into the box (even gods have to make a living). After that, they bow twice, clap twice, say their prayer, then bow once more to signal the end. There’s a deity for pretty much every area of life you can think of, so among the tens of thousands of shrines in Japan, you’re sure to find the right kind of luck for you.
The calendar of events in Japan is totally unique, filled with traditional matsuri (festivals). Sure, Christmas and Easter are celebrated as fun commercial holidays, but there are also dozens of other events you won’t find anywhere else in the world — the vast majority of which have their roots in Shinto.
For example, on Setsubun (February 3rd, the day before the beginning of spring), families will throw roasted soy beans out of their windows and doors to scare off evil spirits. Dads will often don oni masks — a kind of Japanese ogre — to be chased out of the house by their bean-throwing kids. On the same day, about 100,000 people gather for the festivities at Senso-ji in Tokyo, and NHK features televised ceremonies with famous attendees.
Also impressive are the elaborate parades organized throughout the year, featuring portable shrines carried by locals to purify their hometown and give the gods a tour of the streets. A great example is the ‘Harajuku Omotesando Super Yosakoi’ in late August, with troupes of competing folk dancers totaling over 6,000 taking to the streets just north of Shibuya.
At Ise Grand Shrine, the Japanese pay their respects to the sun goddess, Amaterasu — daughter of the creator god of the Japanese islands. For centuries the official line of the Japanese imperial family was that they could trace their heritage all the way back to this goddess. To this day, the emperor is still the symbolic head of Shinto, performing rituals throughout the year said to bring good fortune to the people of Japan.
Right in the heart of Tokyo is a famous shrine dedicated to the man himself: Meiji Jingu in Yoyogi Park. Although the royalty isn’t as significant to Japanese life as they once were, you’ll still find plenty of locals visiting this spot on special occasions, with the deep-pocketed among them even having traditional Shinto weddings here.
In pretty much every neighborhood, you can find small roadside shrines dedicated to local spirits, their idols surrounded by offerings of crackers and candy. Stick around and you might catch sight of morning dog walkers and joggers stopping off at these mini worship sites to pay their respects.
Modern culture also benefits from the richness of Shinto mythology, as the colorful cast of supernatural characters with which the Japanese populated their islands eventually inspired the much of the films of Studio Ghibli, and Nintendo’s Pokémon!
If you’ve ever seen My Neighbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke — or won a battle with Pikachu or Vulpix — you’re already acquainted with some of the quirky nature spirits of this primal religion. The Japanese obsession with cute mascots is believed by some to have its roots in Shinto — even each of the prefectures has its own avatar! It’s clear that Shintoist thinking really is a key characteristic of Japanese culture, even in the modern-day.
Buddhism, The Religion of Asia
The other of Japan’s major religions are, of course, not indigenous to these isles. Buddhism has its roots in India, originating from the life and teachings of Siddartha Gautama around 2500 years ago. There are many types of Buddhism that flourished in Japan since its introduction in the 5th century. However, four key branches remain relevant nowadays: Jōdo-shū, Nichiren Shōshū, Shingon-shū, and the most internationally famous: Zen.
Two of the most important branches are Jōdo-shū and Zen. While the former is more widely practiced by modern Japanese Buddhists — who, like Shintoists, also make up 70% of the total population — the latter has had a more significant and lasting effect on traditional Japanese culture.
When visiting a temple, Japanese people will pray to the resident Buddha (one who has achieved enlightenment) or Bodhisattva (one who passed up on enlightenment to help people in the material world) much in the same way as at a Shinto shrine. However, you might be surprised to find out that about 6/10 Japanese people also have a small Buddhist altar in their home — for the purpose of ancestor worship — called a butsudan.
In Japanese Buddhism, ancestor worship takes a central role, and the most important festival for this is Obon: the Festival of the Dead. This is a three day stretch in August during which the spirits of the dead are thought to return to the material world to visit relatives. Most of the Japanese will spend these days visiting their hometowns in order to clean the graves of parents or grandparents.
It’s tradition to leave lanterns outside doorways in order to guide the spirits of the departed to the family home, with some even going to far as to light the lanterns at the graveside before walking back. After the festival finishes, lanterns are placed on rivers to guide the now-contented spirits back to their resting place.
Since the vast majority of Japanese young people from small towns end up moving to the big cities, Obon is also a time for these stressed-out office workers to return home for some precious time with relatives.
There are an astounding 77,393 temples still active in Japan today, many of them still thriving. These range from small local places of worship to fully-fledged monasteries filled with students.
One key Buddhist site close to Tokyo is the coastal town of Kamakura — one an important pilgrimage site for Japanese Buddhists, now also a popular holiday spot for Tokyoites looking to get a fix of traditional culture — along with some sun and sand.
The differences between the temples of the different sects in the town are quite stark. In Jōdo-shū temples, you’ll find plenty of golden idols dedicated to enlightened Buddhas of years gone by. However, Zen temples tend to be more sparse and unostentatious, with serene gardens and patterns of raked stones.
The picture isn’t all good, however. A worrying number of temples across Japan are closing every year due to a shortage of funding. Nowadays running a temple is often as much about marketing PR as religion, as staff strives to draw in enough foreign tourists to pay the bills. It’s an unavoidable fact that in Japan, as in almost every country around the world, the draw of traditional religion is on the wane.
Most Westerners quite rightly associate the word Zen with peacefulness and relaxation. The core idea behind Zen is that by escaping the trappings of everyday rational thought — clearing the mind entirely — practitioners can achieve enlightenment.
You’d be quite right for pointing out that that sort of slow and contemplative philosophy is a world away from the modern Japan of packed subway trains and blaring pachinko parlors, but the sentiment still resonates in many areas of the culture here.
Schoolchildren study the Zen-inspired art of haiku. Office workers study traditional arts such as tea ceremony and flower arrangement, both of which rest on a bed of Zen history and philosophy. Hell, even Marie Kondo owes her world-famous style of tidying to Zen!
The Japanese live fast lives with long hours and hard work days. Although modern times have seen a drop in the number of true believers, the religions of Japan are so ingrained in everyday life that their influence will persist for years to come. If you find yourself in the Land of the Rising Sun, take some time to discover one of the most fascinating and vibrant religious cultures in the world.