When it comes to religion, many Japanese people mix rites of different faiths in a way that may be considered puzzling by Western observers. It’s not uncommon for a same person to be baptized with a Shintō ritual, have a Christian wedding and a Buddhist funeral. This peculiar approach to religious matters may have originated by the fact that Shintō, the original Japanese religion, is based on the belief that countless Kami (gods, or spirits) exist. Unlike the big monotheistic religions in the West, Shintō allows the existence of different divinities that can easily fit in the same religious system. That was the case with Buddhism, introduced in Japan in the 6th century. Since its assimilation in the Japanese system of beliefs, Buddhism has had a deep impact on every aspect of Japanese culture, but it never got to replace Shintō, that maintained its importance until present times. The introduction of Christianity, in the 16th century, was more problematic, and the causes for it wil be explored in the dedicated paragraph. Let’s give a closer look to these religions, and check some important places linked to them.

Shintō, the original Japanese religion

As we said before, Shintō religion is based on the belief that there are countless Kami, that can take many forms, such as animals, forces of nature, the spirits of ancestors.

Many forms of Kami

Many forms of Kami. From pixabay

Shintō religion has a strong bond with rituals, a lot of Japanese festivals are linked to the harvest, the cycles of life and death, the contemplation of nature. According to Japanese mythology, the Japanese emperor is a direct descendant of  the main Shintō goddess, Amaterasu Oomikami, the sun divinity. Shintō shrines are very common in all Japan. The most important one is the shrine of Ise, dedicated to Amaterasu.

Article in Hub Japan about famous Shintō shrines:

Ise Grand Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine

Sanno Shrine

Toshogu in Nikko

Buddhism, the first imported religion

Buddhism arrived in Japan through Korea during the 6th century. Seong of Baekje sent a mission to Nara with Buddhist priests and monks, along with a picture of Buddha and some sutra. And in Nara it’s still possible to see two very important Buddhist temples of Japan, the Asuka-dera and the Tōdai-ji, where is preserved the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world.

 Great Buddha of Nara

The Great Buddha of Nara. From Wikipedia

Buddhism gained a huge popularity in Japan, and especially with the Zen school, it deeply affected Japanese culture in many ways. Zen boosted calligraphy, inspired architecture, set rules for the Tea Ceremony, and has been one of the driving forces of the Samurai class. Buddhism is divided in many sects, each of them differing slightly in the doctrine and in the way to reach enlightenment.

Article in Hub Japan about famous Buddhist Temples:

Todai-ji

Hiraizumi

Christianity, the religion of the West

Although there are several Christian Churches in Japan (Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, just to cite a few), Christianity was never really popular in Japan. It’s estimated that today only 1% of the population consider themselves Christians. It’s not really surprising, as it differs so much from the religions Japanese people are accustomed to. Christianity does not allow the belief in gods other than the Christian one, so a real fusion with Shintō or Buddhism is hardly possible. Nonetheless, when Christianity was first introduced in the 16th century, it found some followers. The Jesuits that got to Japan were received friendly, and some Japanese people were even willing to convert. It was only after Toyotomi Hideyoshi gained power that Christian faith was forbidden, and Christians persecuted and killed.

Virgin Mary disguised as Kannon

Virgin Mary disguised as Kannon. From Wikipedia

Nonetheless, some converts kept their faith even when being a Christian could mean to be sentenced to death! It is from this period, 17th to 19th century, that the “hidden Christians” (隠れキリシタン) started to disguise their sacred images as different divinities. There are statues of the Virgin Mary disguised as Kannon and saints disguised as Bodhisattvas dating back to that period. Christianity was practiced in secret by until 1871, when freedom of religion was introduced. 

Article in Hub Japan about famous Church:

Oura Church