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The Six Faces of Japanese Religion

Written by Maciamo

Unlike all-encompassing monotheistic and moralistic religions like Christianity and Islam, the Japanese have historically used six different religions to explain metaphysical questions, teach morals, reach spiritual peace, legitimate political power, unify customs and traditions, or provide folk superstitions.

Fox statuettes at a Shinto shrine (© Vaidas Bucys - Fotolia.com)


Westerners and Middle-Easterners think of religion as an all encompassing system of moral rules, spirituality, metaphysics, and an explanation of why the world is as it is, what is life and what happens after death. This whole, comprehensive package is not, however, typical of all religions. It is typical of the monotheistic religions from the Middle East. Ancient religions, even in the Middle East and Europe, were very different. To understand this, there is no better example than Japan.

Japan has two official religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, plus an non-official one, Confucianism, that happens to be more important in everyday life than the two others. The Japanese, like the Chinese before the Communist Revolution, did not choose to follow one of these "religions". They followed each one of them for the simple reason that they are complementary, rather than exclusive. Interestingly non of these religions really have gods. That makes it difficult for Westerners to classify them as religions. Nowadays Confucianism and Buddhism tend to be regarded as philosophies (or "teachings"), while Shintoism is so unique that it doesn't fit nicely in any denomination.

Confucianism provides the moral rules, the system that hold the society together and regulates the place of every individual. Buddhism provides the spirituality, the way to make peace with oneself and the universe, to release stress and negative feelings. It is a method of self-improvement, usually practised alone.

Shintoism was originally a form of animism, a belief in the spirits of Nature, known in Japanese as kami. Shinto literally means the "Way of the Kami". The word kami is often erroneously translated as "gods" or "deities", but in fact is closer to what Westerners call ghosts or fairies. It is not a coincidence that many adult Japanese still believe in ghosts. The spirits of Nature frequently show up in Japanese anime and manga (for example in Hayao Miyazaki's film Princess Mononoke). These kami are not deities in the Western sense of the term as they lack human characteristics, don't care much about humans, and aren't intelligent (even less ominscient) beings. They supernatural powers aren't more evolved than those of ghosts and fairies in European folk stories. The kami live in our world, not in a distant heaven, and don't have any particular control over human lives, as gods and deities would.

What makes Shintoism so special is that it is also a polytheistic religion, in addition to being an animistic one. There are, however very few Shinto deities, and they are often linked to State Shintoism, the cult of Japanese emperors. Most of Shinto deities are only mentioed in creation myth of Japan, an epic legend that bears a lot of similarities to those of the ancient Indo-European religions (Greco-Roman, Germanic, Celtic...), which probably emerged from the distortion of oral stories about the formation of the prehistoric tribe that would later become the Yayoi people, the Bronze Age invaders of Japan. In contrast, the animistic form of Shintoism has its roots in the Jomon (Neolithic and Paleolithic) Japan.

Polytheistic Shintoism's most important deity is the Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun and the Universe. There is only one shrine dedicated to her in all Japan (at Ise). She is the mother of other deities, and the ancestor of all Japanese emperors. Amaterasu is the core of State Shintoism, the religious legitimation of the ruling dynasty. This has been a frequent use of religion all over the world in history, be it with Egyptian pharaohs descending from the gods, deified Roman emperors, or European kings and emperors who received their power directly from god. Until the end of WWII, all Japanese emperors were considered as living gods by the Japanese. Emperor Hirohito had to renounce to his divine status in order to keep his throne following the defeat of Japan against the Americans.

The most popular deities venerated in Shinto shrines are Hachiman, a former emperor turned God of War, and Inari, the Goddess of Fertility and Agriculture. Inari is an answer to one of the most basic need and deepest worry of human beings, the fear of not having enough food or not to be able to procreate. It is hardly surprising that Inari shrines are ubiquitous everywhere in Japan, and offerings of rice are still common. Fertility goddesses have always been among the most popular in all polytheistic societies. Pre-Christian Europe was no exception. The Greeks venerated Aphrodite, the Romans Venus, and the Norse Frigg. The cult of Egyptian fertility goddess Isis even became the most widespread cult in all the Roman Empire at one point. Catholicism even has its own substitute fertility goddesses in the form of the Virgin Mary, St Catherine and St Anne. Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, the approximate equivalent of Mars, Ares, Thor and Odin, is the most popular deity among men. He represents the latent male desire of power, authority and glory.

Polytheistic deities in Shintoism are usually referred to as Ōkami (literally 'Great Kami'), or Ōmikami for Amaterasu, to distinguish them from the plainer, impersonal kami of animistic Shintoism.

Shintoism has a third aspect, distinct from animism and polytheism. It is the set of Japanese customs and traditions, such as the Shichi-Go-San rite of passage, traditional weddings, or matsuri (festivals). Although many of them normally take place in or near a Shinto shrine, there is little, if any, religious connotation linked to them. They are just traditions perpetrated in the formal context of Shinto shrines. Japanese weddings are not performed before god, or any deity. Japanese mythology doesn't even have a deity for love or marriage. A lot of matsuri involve the parading a portable shrine (a mikoshi) through the streets. The mikoshi is said to contain the local kami, though this kami lacks a name or identity, and merely acts as a symbolic excuse for the festival. It isn't alike to the veneration of a deity. It isn't more religious than the modern Western idea of ancient Greco-Roman or Germanic gods. It is all purely folkloric. Likewise, Setsubun, the Bean-Throwing Festival held at the beginning of spring, was originally held by superstitious folks to drive away evil spirits. Nowadays it is carried on by tradition. There are still superstitious people around, but being superstitious is not the same as believing in god. Festivals like Shichi-Go-San, Seijin Shiki (coming of age ceremony), Hinamatsuri, or Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) are purely cultural and are only associated with Shintoism as part of a need for categorisation.

Then there is Taoism, another Chinese philosophy sometimes categorised as religion because of its temples and superstitious or supernatural beliefs. Although Taoism was never officially recognised in Japan, and Japan doesn't have Taoist temples or institutions, pretty much all the Taoist concepts and ideas were imported to Japan as part of the "Chinese cultural package", along with Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese characters, during the late Yamato period (250-710) preceding the foundation of Nara as the first capital of Japan. The better known concepts of Taoism include Chinese astrology, the Yin Yang dichotomy, the Qi ('lifeforce', Ki in Japan), Fengh Shui, traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese martial arts, and festivals such as Qixi (Tanabata in Japan). All these have become part and parcel of Japanese culture as well. What Japan didn't keep from Taoism is its ethics and the pantheon of Chinese deities.

As we have seen, Japanese religion has six faces: Confucisanism for morals, Buddhism for spirituality (and the after-life), Animistic Shintoism to explain the mysteries of Mother Nature, Polytheistic Shintoism to legitimate the political power and appease the fundamental life concerns of human beings, and Cultural Shintoism to hold together the customs and traditions that give Japan its cultural specificities. Taoism provided most of Japan's folk superstitions, and part of its cultural heritage.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam's great innovation was to combine all the five elements into a single ensemble, and to put everything under the single authority of an all-knowing, almighty god. The cohesion of the whole makes it much more difficult for believers to refute any part of religion. Understanding how religions were formed is the first step towards deconstructing religions and freeing one's mind..

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