Japanese Religions: Adapting and Shaping Society

Giving examples of established and new religions, discuss what you deem to be core features shared by many Japanese religions. How does the emergence of the religious sects reflect the spirit of the times? Prominent sociologists Reischauer and Jansen [1995:215] have put forward a claim that "religion in contemporary Japan is not central to society and culture. "During a recent poll, only one in three Japanese expressed faith in a religion [Yusa:2002:111] and it would thus be easy to conclude that the Japanese are a comparatively non-religious race; contrasting a study of America where 70% expressed religious faith could substantiate this.

However, if time is taken to dig deeper into the rich cultural history of Japan, it becomes plainly evident that although the Japanese claim to have no specific faith in any God, this in no way means that they are a non-religious nation. Throughout this paper, I shall endeavour to portray a country underpinned by religion. I shall argue the contrary to Reischauer and Jansen's theory by laying forth a claim that Japanese religion both shapes, and is shaped by their social and political climate, thus closely reflecting the spirit of the times.

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The historical aspects of Japanese religions

Firstly, I will examine the historical aspects of Japanese religions, then continue with an investigation into how religion has adapted over time to remain a fundamental aspect of Japanese systems such as education, the arts, healthcare and the family. A fundamental concept of 'Japaneseness' was prevalent ideology until the mid twentieth century. For many years, Japan was very much an island community, the country has a very strong national identity, which has been shaped by a combination of historical events and their religious background.

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Even in modern Japan, the spirit of the country is marked by 'wakon yoosai' the need to combine intervening Western technologies with the spirit of Japan. It was not until the 1854 Treaty that "Japan agreed to open two ports to American vessels. This act marked the end of Japan's self-imposed seclusion that had lasted over two hundred years" [Kitagawa: 1966:178]. During the Tokugawa period, there were two main schools of thought - 'opening of the country' (kaikoku) and 'repulsion of foreigners' (joi)" [Kitagawa: 1966:179]. This political ideology provides a parody for Japanese religions.

Japan is chiefly a bi-religious country, a blend of Buddhism and Shinto. Although this combination of two religions is practically unheard of in Western religious life, this is seen as more a way of life than just an acceptable practice. The problem with examining the religious beliefs of Japan is that the reader must redefine their predominantly Western monotheistic ideology of what it means to be 'religious' or to have 'faith'. It is only once the Westernisation of the concept has been removed that it is possible to view a country where religion has such great influence over daily life.

They even specifically designed a post-war Constitution with a stipulation that religion should be a separate entity from State Rule. This is something that Reischauer and Jansen failed to do, and thus neglected the intense power that religion has over both cultural practices and the everyday life of the average Japanese. This is contradicted by the fact that they do observe great detail of ritual in contemporary Japan, but fail to believe that these two systems are interlinked. Modern Japan still regards syncretism as the desirable way forward into the twenty-first century.

When stripped of all their rituals, practices or even beliefs, the fundamental core of the established religions of Japan is that they work harmoniously together. This poly-religious acceptance, "shinbutsu shugo" - literally 'overlapping Shinto and Buddhism' [Yusa: 2000:60] has meant that the characteristic teachings of many religious convictions can be combined to make a structural religion, which has dominated the essence of Japaneseness over its history, altering to suit changes in the country.

"It is difficult for us today to determine what features of Japanese culture are genuinely indigenous, because different cultural influences have been closely mixed with the native culture. Already in the 7th Century, when Japan first established a certain degree of national unity, there was a fusion of Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian elements. " [Ishisa: 1971:8. ] With this quote in mind, a brief discussion on the historical beginnings of Japanese religion is necessary, for it is impossible to fully understand their contemporary society if the past is hidden.

Joy Hendry (2000) claims that the Shinto religion is the "foundation of Japan's identity as a nation" [Hendry:2000:117. ] Originating in ancient Japan, there are no scriptures or set texts as within predominantly Western religions, many scholars see Shintoism as a primitive animism, which has a more cultural than religious hold over its followers. Cultural emphasis is teamed with evidence that Shinto was actually an oral tradition until the 8th Century, using folk mythology to pass legends from generation to generation.

Japanese orientated mythology

One specific feature of Shinto its' totally Japanese orientated mythology. Whereas most Western religions are concerned with existence and creation of the world and universe - Shinto provides a refreshing outlook that only indicates the creation of Japan. The Ancient Japanese were blessed with a country with enough sunlight, rainfall and workable land to survive comfortably. This they believed was a gift from the Gods who ruled over the natural environment and were thus indebted to them.

Shinto believes that nature is all-divine, and the Kami (gods and spirits) are present in everything from trees to rivers and mountains. These gods also determined how the Imperial Rulers of Japan came to power; the most powerful gods gave the chosen ones supernatural powers to govern the country with. Buddhism was introduced to the country in approximately the 6th century. As with Shinto, the Japanese adapted its themes to suit the individual spirit of the nation, although the most major aspects were actually imported.

Its introduction meant that the homegrown approach of Shinto (which before the invasion of Buddhism, needed no name) needed to adapt. There was certainly a pro-Buddhist faction and a group which supported its abolition, but the Japanese calmly assessed the dispute, and decided that the invisible Kami and the visible foreign deities could be combined to make a "double-structured belief" [www. concentric. net/~Faychan/religion6. html - 10/10/02. ] Neither religion was what could be called 'poly-theistic' but similarly, both refuted the idea of monotheism.

The Japanese concerns with monotheism were to become more apparent when Christianity was introduced. The natural spirits of Kami could be easily modified to be multitasking -Shinto Kami became manifestations of Buddha's and Bodhisattvas. In fact, Buddhism stood up for itself by having scriptures and teachings that Shinto could not produce. Its solid base meant that during the inter-war period when Shinto found itself in trouble, Buddhism could strongly take a stand. Politics has played a major part in the adaption of religion throughout history.

As with Shinto Shrines, people are affiliated with a specific Buddhist temple, although not necessarily centred round a specific geographical area, and thus not always people from the same neighbourhood visit the same Temple. Although on the surface this seems a similar practice to Shinto, there is very different reasoning. During the Tokugawa period, rulers enforced the donka system, meaning it was a prerequisite for all members of the Japanese race to be registered at a Buddhist Temple.

Christian missionaries

Christian missionaries had become prolific in the country, and in an effort to purge the country of them in the late sixteenth century, everyone was forced to be a participating member in a dissimilar religion. However, "following the ancient Japanese model of 'unity of religion and government', the Meiji regime in 1868 established the Department of Shinto and issued the Separation Edict, separating Buddhism from Shinto on the ground that the Buddhist-Shinto coexistence that had been practiced for nearly ten years was contrary to the indigenous Japanese way.

" [Kitagawa: 1966:201. ] The practice of compulsory registration in Buddhist Temples was reversed to force acceptance of a Shinto Shrine. This was going against all Japanese traditions of poly-religious existence, so the act was quashed in 1873. After the Second World War, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers withdrew the formula for State Shintoism, and promised religious tolerance and freedom for all. By all accounts, the Second World War had a lasting effect on Japan; Land Rights were no exception.

After the re-writing of the Constitution, Land Reform took away acres of land from the Buddhist Temples. Buddhism moved with these social changes, and learnt how to diversify. As Shintoism had, Buddhism reached out on a community level. It set up Youth Hostels on its remaining land, reformed its teaching methods and set up schools and course centres. Mary Picone [1986] even talks about the amazing advancement of the commercialisation of Buddhism due to its willingness to adapt to the modern Japanese society, even starting courses for Japanese businessmen for meditation training.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

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Japanese Religions: Adapting and Shaping Society. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-separation-edict-12138-new-essay

Japanese Religions: Adapting and Shaping Society essay
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