Modern Life And The Old Time Religion Of Japan

I come from a place where people are really serious about religion and it’s everywhere you go.  No, I’m not from the Middle East – try the Middle West.  Missouri, to be exact.  So I’ve always found it refreshing that Japanese people aren’t so religious.

But when you look in all the Japan guides, they tell you that Japan has two religions – Shinto and Buddhism.Shinto

Shinto is the old-time religion with spirits in the trees and wind and the ghosts of your ancestors watching over you.  Buddhism came from China starting about 1,500 years ago along with civilization.  What happened was that Buddhist practice was basically slapped right on top of the old gods and now the two peacefully coexist.  The Shinto gods live in the shrines (神社) while Buddha hangs out in the temples (お寺).

If this is true, why don’t I have old ladies coming to my door with magazines asking if I’d like to learn about the Shinto spirits?  Why aren’t there Buddhist televangelists thumping sutras on TV every Sunday morning and telling me that in order to attain true enlightenment, I have to call now and giving my credit card?  Where’s the religion of Japan that I keep hearing so much about?

You’re Born Shinto, You Die Buddhist

When you ask someone in Japan about their religion, they’re likely to tell you that they’re Buddhist.  But while even the lamest Christians back home at least know a bit about Jesus Christ, if you ask most Japanese people about Buddhism, you’ll come up with nothing.  They’re likely to start talking about the wonderful temples of Japan and that’s about it.

I haven’t met a practicing Buddhist in Japan yet.  From what I understand, most of them can get the senior discount for McDonald’s coffee.  In other words, you don’t see a lot of young people interested in Buddhism and there is no ‘Buddha Camp.’

On the other hand, in many homes you see a shrine to relatives who have passed away with offerings of rice or sake.  I’ve actually seen people at Shinto shrines praying and making offerings, and these people were well under retirement age.  A friend of mine who says he’s not religious at all and basically scoffs at all things religious has all kinds of Shinto paraphernalia at his house and told me that some years are ‘bad years’ (厄年).

I don’t know about animism or the pantheon of gods, but definitely ancestor worship is alive and well in Japan.  Another scoffer-at-anything-religious (my wife) told me that she believes her dead ancestors are watching her every move.  It creeped me out to hear that, but she said it makes her feel warm and cozy.

What most people will tell you is that the Japanese do birth and marriage Shinto-style and death Buddhist-style.  Christenings are done by Shinto priests and although Western weddings are all the rage now (Christian weddings!  Go figure…), they were traditionally Shinto.  Meanwhile, funerals follow the Buddhist tradition.

Buddha and Barbecue

I’ve been wondering about all of this for a long time, and what prompted me to write this is a conversation I had with some construction workers at my neighborhood bar.  I have no idea how we got on the topic.  We were talking about barbecue and I was telling them about the difference between KC and Texas, and then we’re talking about religion.  Is there a connection?  Maybe.

Anyhow, when we started on religion, one got really into it.  He told me that the Japanese aren’t Buddhists really; they’re Shinto.  The old gods are alive and well in Japan, although Buddhism (and especially Zen) has made a huge influence.

He said that the Japanese are turned off by religion ever since the end of World War 2.  The people who led Japan into war were religious fanatics and used Shinto to control the masses.  Traditionally, the Emperor was considered a kind of god, and when he announced after the surrender that he was just a human being after all, the Japanese people turned away from religion.  In the mold of their new mentor the United States, they turned toward materialism and now you see what we’ve got today.

Interestingly, this dude’s opinion is very similar to something I heard Zen Buddhist priest Gudo Nishijima say in an interview.  He said that Japanese people are now uninterested in spirituality and only interested in materialism.  While more and more Westerners get interested in Buddhism and specifically Zen, he believes that it will come to Japan a second time, this time from the West.


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