It is also clear to see that family loyalty and community spirit play a large part in the religious upkeep of the country, and that religion is not merely a function of governmental social control. The Shinto faith, although not an organised religion as such, places special concern with the Japanese community values. The local neighbourhood is associated with a specific Shrine, and because they are expected to partake in the upkeep of the Holy place, they are often found working side by side.
Although this is becoming increasingly difficult with the modernization of the country, there is still time found to visit the Shrine, thus uniting a district that would otherwise never find time to communicate. These Shrines also form the base for festivals throughout the year, and reinforce the community spirit that would otherwise be lost through the hectic lifestyle of twenty-first century Japan. Because they maintain the Shrine together, they acquire protection from the God that is remembered there. These Shrines also allow the Japanese to achieve another passion, that of trips.
As with any other religion, there are specific times with which a visit to the place of worship is expected. Times in life such as marriage, or times of the year such as New Year, but also at other times, the Japanese relish a trip to the nations famous Shrines and Buddhist temples. The conversion to Christianity seems mainly to be made by individuals who are separated from their families, maybe for work reasons. Those who decide to convert whilst still with their families are often seen as betrayers of the Japanese community spirit.
“With the move of people away from small villages to large cities, the traditional family and social matrix broke down, and city dwellers, cut off from their roots, sought emotional and spiritual comfort” [Yusa: 2000:107. ] The main complaint by Japanese of the so-called ‘new religions’ is that its followers are cut off from the community religions. These ‘new religions,’ of which there are now hundreds, mostly appeared around the time of the Second World War and the decades afterward, when their founders claimed to have had revelations and visions.
These charismatic leaders then attracted followers who, probably due to the political upheaval of the country, needed something strong and secure to believe in. To some extent, New Religions jeopardise the ‘oneness’ of Japan. They were introduced during a time of unease, and upset, but are now finding that the stable plateau of modern Japan has less use for them, causing many of the smaller one to die out. Most ‘new religions’ do in fact allow citizens to combine rituals from other religions in the time-honoured practice.
This reduces family-unit disapproval as much as unlike monotheism, they can still attend celebrations and festivals as a household. However, the establishment of ‘new’ religions has also had advantageous effect on the religious outlook of Japan, for they have provided a challenge to the religions which had been present for centuries, for example, the introduction of the Jodo Shinshu sect by founder Shinran, which was introduced as a confrontation to Buddhist principles. These challenges ensure that all religions in Japan progress with the times or are swallowed by other sects.
This is especially true with groups such as Sokagakkai who question political ideology with their political wing Komei. This group has a commitment to anti-abortion, thus housing political and cultural opposition to those religions who admit acceptance of the practice. There is a strong emphasis on individual rights within new religions such as ‘Mahikari Kyodan’ or ‘Kofuku no Kaguku’, and provide “a contradiction to the rationalist approach of modern religion” [Sugimoto:2001:235.
] Unlike the established religions, which are automatically inherited at birth; these new religions give people the choice to believe. In fact, many scholars such as Thomsen and Van Straelen [as reported in Kitagawa: 1966:220] view these not as ‘new religions’ but as offshoots from existing ones – thus aptly named ‘pseudo-religions. ‘ These pseudo-religions split and merge whenever a need for a new moral outlook is needed. Confucianism, which many Japanese have adopted, whilst being oblivious to its presence, was once hailed as the legal basis of the country.
The most important aspect of this legal connection was that of family loyalty and respect, which was why the Tokugawa shoguns applied its theory to the country. Even in contemporary Japan, community ties and loyalty often suppress elemental individualism. “Given Japanese religion’s long association with the larger political whole, and the changes in the balance of power between Buddhism and Shinto, as well as amongst different Buddhist sects, it is clear that the meaning of rituals in Japan has often shifted depending on the prevailing norm.
Rituals may have stayed the same, but time and politics might well have affected their meaning” [Hendry: 1998:219. ] This quote states that the meaning of rituals in Japan is bound to have changed due to adapting trends and norms within society, this paper will now examine a ritual that has existed over many centuries. The rituals surrounding ancestor veneration are as important today as they were two hundred years ago, even though the methods, and their place in society itself, may have altered.
Religion innately bonds the institutions of ancestor veneration and the family system of the Ie, even though this family system was abolished, the practical side of it often lives on in religious veneration. The ie proves that unlike in Western Countries, religion is undertaken as a unit and links each generation of the family, existing and ancestral. Owning family tombs where each generation of the family is buried and visited in remembrance does this. Many Japanese people turn to Buddhist Priests to assure their loved ones a secure place after death, and to ensure that they become ‘ancestors.
‘ For this reason, veneration is correlated to cosmological theories. This ancestor praise is very important in the dual religions of Japan, and exists as a core belief for both. The dead, although associated more with the Buddhist beliefs than the Shinto, are greatly revered in both religions. They are honoured in recognition of their achievements and noble qualities. Indeed, whatever the religion: “Few practices are as important in Japan as activities related to the ancestors and to rituals and practices centred on the deceased and their graves”…
“By venerating and ritualising ancestors, the living are seeking their protection and favour in this life, and ancestors are regarded as a potential source of benefits. ” [Reader and Tanabe: 1998:15. ] Although Japanese people warmly accept practices from both Shinto and Buddhist religions, there has been a dividing of the ways in their execution. The family will customarily adopt Shinto beliefs for celebrations such as birth, harvest and home building; but for death and burial, the family will become at one with the Buddhist teachings.
It is for this reason that at times of death and burial, there is a white sheet placed over the Shinto Shelf to protect it from the pollution within the house during the mourning period. Often a sign or token is also placed outside the door to warn people that the household has entered a time of mourning, and thus pollution. There are specific details of Shinto practices that need drawing attention to, one of which is the theme of cleanliness and pollution, which is also common in Buddhism, the other major Japanese religions. In Japan, it is an obligatory to remove shoes before entering the house.
This practice is continued in the established religions of Japan. In a Shinto Shrine there is a supply of fresh running water at the entrance to wash away the pollution of the world outside, and in Buddhism, incense is normally used to purify the temple. This idea extends from the Shrine or Temple into the Japanese home in the form of the Shinto Shelf. Upon this shelf are placed the trinkets and relics of places visited by family or friends. Most Shrines or Buddhist temples sell amulets and good luck tokens, which are then returned to the house and placed upon the shelf.
Similarly, a household will have a ‘butsudan,’ an altar containing Buddhist memorials and symbols. The Shinto religion is concerned with any form of pollution entering the Shrine. This becomes evident in the ill, and menstruating women or those who have recently borne children who are not permitted to enter the sacred place until a certain pollution period has expired. This fact can be witnessed by the periodic dismantling of the Ise Shrine, one of the most important religious sites for Shintoism. This rebuilding (sengu) is done every twenty years, and “the most recent sengu took place on October 2, 1993” [Yusa: 2002:27.
] These rebuilding techniques reinforce the community spirit, since trades used are often passed down from father to son. Most importantly, Shintoism emphasises the need for freshness and cleanliness, thus rebuilding is only cancelled in times of war or national economic crisis. Aspects of religion are tightly bound in Japan, and marking another sign of changing times and the use of both wakon yoosai and the poly-religious faith of Japanese people is the concept of health and sickness. Specialists exist who work with the three religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism.
They are basically Taoist, but call upon Buddhist methods for deceased ancestors or Shinto methods for problems involving living relatives. When visiting a Japanese hospital, often a mix of traditional Eastern and advanced Western medicine is offered; and the walls will often be lined with talisman and amulets for good luck. Similarly, the Japanese have adopted a strong belief in thanks. This may well stem from the Buddhist belief in Karma (what you do in this life will reap rewards or punishments in the next life. ) So, if a doctor has cured a patient, they will buy him a substantial present in thanks.
We can see how much Buddhism has adapted to contemporary society by a case study of Japanese society which has come under much global scrutiny in recent years – that of abortion. Christianity has been critical in the establishment if this debate, and both new and established religions have taken this issue as a major cultural campaign. “Abortion is a common form of birth control in Japan, and women seem to be encouraged to attribute misfortunes which may befall them later to the actions of the aggrieved souls who’s lives they terminated – an interesting phenomenon since Buddhism is officially opposed to the taking of life.
” [Joy Hendry :2000: 121. ] Because ancestor veneration is a core belief in major religions, the issue of abortion is raised with trepidation. By destroying the next generation of the family, adults are effectively abolishing the generation that would venerate them after their death. For this reason, mizuko jiko (stone statues representing the foetus) are constructed so it will not be enraged at being eradicated before birth. There is a vast inter-dependence and reliance upon religion within the spheres of economic and political policy as well as all areas of cultural development.
This has allowed space for the national culture of combining individuality with elements of strict conformity to shine through within the national religious forbearance. Evidently, Japan has not gone through history living in harmonious synchronization, either with itself or the rest of the world, from which it is separated by a narrow stretch of water. Christianity, although not deemed as a ‘new religion’ by the Western world, had been seen as a dominant threat for much of Japanese history.
Francis Xavier attempted to bring the religion to the people of Japan in 1549, deemed by many as an unsuccessful attempt, which resulted in the religion and all associated with it being banned for the duration of the Tokugawa period, only being allowed to return in the mid nineteenth century. The ruling bodies need not have worried, because although they shared common concerns about moral issues, such as the prevalence of abortion and homosexual practice in Japan [Yusa: 2000:73,] the Japanese found it hard to accept the monotheism of a jealous, exclusive and selfish God that would not allow them to worship other gods.
The Christian religion refuses to be combined with any other religion, and therefore is mainly associated with individual converts rather than whole families. There are however, ways in which Christianity is now moving towards the essence of Japaneseness – and trying to adapt itself to its surroundings as the established religions did all those years ago. It has set up schools and universities with good reputations.
There is also an increasing trend for young couples to request a Christian wedding ceremony, even if they are not practicing Christians, for this is the religion which has truly introduced the explanation of love being the main reason for marriage. This contradicted previous attitudes to marriage from other religions such as Shintoism, which stated that religion was for the continuation of the family line rather than for love of another. The basic goal of Japanese religions today in the contemporary climate is to “epitomize and sustain the essential ethos of Japan, the unique experience – past and present – of living as Japanese.
” This is an enormous task for religion, but there is one ‘religion’ that is called upon by all fellow-countrymen. They may be a combination of Shinto and Buddhist or they may belong to a ‘new religion’ but what is religion but a system of faith? And the system of faith that is most adhered to is the uniqueness of Japan. They truly believe in the nation in which they live – Japan is a religion in itself, and every member of the Japanese race is united in the experience of being part of the nation.
‘Religion’ has become a social institution, and religious practices have indoctrinated themselves into Japanese life by manifesting as social customs. This common religion shares an analogous series of customs, opinions and beliefs, which overarch the day-to-day lifestyle of the religious consumers. It would not be fair to say that a specific religion was better, or higher than another, for there is an intricate balance between all religions present in Japan, and this balance tips as the historical culture of the times is modified.
No matter what the religion calls itself, be it a past State religion or an adaptation manifesting as a ‘new’ religion, the effect is the same. The only way it can sustain the cultural philosophy of Japan is by becoming at one with its people. As the people of the nation change, their religion must adapt. This was particularly evident after the second World War when the country was in a state of upheaval and all the ‘new’ religions appeared to cope with the demand for a meaning to the new style of life.
Japanese religion has become entangled so much with the fundamental aspects of everyday life that it is mostly indistinguishable from the cultural, political, economic or social aspects of the countries rich heritage. I will conclude this paper by restating my argument that although there are many religions co-existing on such a tiny island, they all share many fundamental principles, such as the importance of ancestor veneration or the necessity to bond with fellow citizens.
These religions are not only a reflection of social change but also a pillar of change within themselves – they shape, and are shaped by the social and political climate of Japan, thus adapting over time to fit the spirit of the country. They emerge from a basal need to correct the shortcomings of existing religious and cultural principles in contemporary life and thus match the spirit of Japan in contemporary society through creation of a new religion or adaptation of an existing religion for that very purpose.
The syncretic nature of religion is reproduced throughout Japan within relations between State and individuals and between family units and the individual. Religion has been incorporated into the very fabric of Japanese society, so much so that some religious practices are now seen as cultural tradition and not religious occurrences. Religion links all Japanese institutions together, and therefore does continue to reflect the contemporaneous spirit of the times.