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People and Society, Religion

Tenrikyo, Nihon shoki, Aum Shinrikyo, midsummer celebration, Soka Gakkai

Japan is primarily a secular society in which religion is not a central factor in most people’s daily lives. Yet certain religious traditions and practices are vitally important and help define the society, and most Japanese people profess at least some religious adherence.

The dominant religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is native to Japan. Generally translated as “the Way of the Gods,” Shinto is a mixture of religious beliefs and practices, and its roots date back to prehistory. It was first mentioned in 720 in the Nihon shoki, Japan’s earliest historical chronicle. Unlike most major world religions, Shinto has no organized body of teachings, no recognized historical founder, and no moral code. Instead, it focuses on worship of nature, ancestors, and a pantheon of kami, sacred spirits or gods that personify aspects of the natural world. From 1868 to 1945, under the Japanese imperial government, Shinto was Japan’s state religion. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the occupation government separated Shinto from state support.

Buddhism originated in India, arriving in Japan in the 6th century by way of China and Korea. In the centuries that followed, numerous Buddhist sects took root in Japan, among them Zen Buddhism. Zen was introduced from China in the 12th century and quickly became popular among the dominant warrior class under the rule of Japan’s first shogunate (military government), the Kamakura. Today the largest Buddhist sect in Japan is the Nichiren school.

Shinto and Buddhism have been intertwined in Japanese society for centuries, and a majority of the population identify themselves as members of one or both of these religions. Indeed, most Japanese blend the two, preferring attendance at Shinto shrines for some events—such as New Year’s Day, wedding ceremonies, and the official start of adulthood at age 20—and Buddhist ceremonies for other events, most notably Obon (a midsummer celebration honoring ancestral spirits) and funerals. Confucianism and Daoism, which came to Japan from China by way of Korea, have also profoundly influenced Japanese religious life.

More than 20 million Japanese are members of various shinko shukyo, or “new religions.” The largest of these are Soka Gakkai and Rissho Koseikai, offshoots of Nichiren Buddhism, and Tenrikyo, an offshoot of Shinto. Most of the new religions were founded by charismatic leaders who have claimed profound spiritual or supernatural experiences and expect considerable devotion and sacrifices from members. Although it is very small in comparison to other religions, one of Japan’s new religions, Aum Shinrikyo, gained considerable notoriety when some of its members released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000.

Japan also has a significant minority of Christians, constituting about 4 percent of the population. Portuguese and Spanish missionaries introduced Christianity to Japan in the 16th century. The religion made strong inroads there until the Japanese government banned it as a potential threat to the country’s political sovereignty from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. Today, about two-thirds of Japan’s Christians are Protestants, and about one-third are Roman Catholics. Small communities of followers of other world faiths live in Japan as well.

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