Japanese Religions: An Overview

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Like many other ethnic groups throughout the world, the earliest inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago constructed and lived in a religious world of meaning. To them the whole world was permeated by sacred power, authenticated by myths. In the early historical period, local traditions were consolidated around the emergent imperial cult in a form that later came to be designated as Shintō, or "the way of kami." Many aspects of the archaic traditions have been preserved as basic features of an unorganized folk religion. Meanwhile, through contacts with Korea and China, Japan came under the impact of religious and cultural influences from the continent of Asia. Invariably, the religion of the people was changed as they adopted and adapted the concepts, symbols, rituals, and art forms of Confucianism, Daoism, the yin-yang school, and Buddhism. Although all of these religious and semi-religious systems kept a measure of their own prior identity, they were by no means considered by the people to be mutually exclusive.

It is worth noting in this connection that the term shukyō (religion) is a neologism not used prior to the nineteenth century. In Japanese traditions, religious schools are usually referred to as dō, tō, or michi (way), as in butsudō (the way of the Buddha) or shintō (the way of kami), implying that these are complementary ways or paths within the overarching Japanese religion. Various branches of art were also called dō or michi, as in chadō (also sadō, "the way of tea") in the medieval period. This usage reflects the close affinity in Japan between religious and aesthetic traditions.

Prehistoric Background

The Japanese archipelago lies off the Asian continent, stretching north and south in the western Pacific. In ancient times, however, there were land connections between the continent and the Japanese islands. Animal and human populations thus were able to reach present Japan from different parts of the continent. Although we cannot be certain when and how the first inhabitants migrated to the Japanese islands, the scholarly consensus traces Japan's Paleolithic age back to between ten and thirty thousand years ago, when the inhabitants of the islands were primitive hunters and food gatherers who shared religious and cultural traits similar to their counterparts in other regions of the world.

Japan's prehistoric period is divided into two phases: (1) the Jomon period (jomon literally means "cord pattern," referring to pottery decoration), extending roughly from 8000 bce to about 250 bce, and (2) the Yayoi period (so named because pottery of this period was unearthed in the Yayoi district of present-day Tokyo), covering roughly the era from 250 bce to 250 ce. Further subdivisions of both the Jomon and Yayoi periods, as proposed by various archaeologists, are not relevant for our purpose. Archaeological evidence reveals a gradual development in the use of fishing and hunting tools, but in the artistic qualities of pottery making and designs and in the living patterns of the Jomon people, we still have few clues regarding their religious outlooks or practices. Thus, we can only infer that the practice of extracting certain teeth, for example, probably indicates a puberty rite, while female figurines may have been used in fertility cults.

There is no clear-cut date for dividing the Jomon and the Yayoi periods, because the Yayoi culture emerged in western parts of Japan while the Jomon culture was still developing in the eastern parts. Nevertheless, the transition between these cultural forms was sufficiently marked so that some scholars even postulate the migration during the early third century bce of a new ethnic group from outside. Yayoi pottery is more sophisticated in design and manufacturing techniques and more utilitarian than Jomon ware. Yayoi jugs, jars, and pots were used both for cooking and for preserving food. Moreover, Yayoi culture was based on rice cultivation, employing hydraulic technology. Evidently, communities were established in places of low altitude, and many farmhouses had raised floors, the space beneath them serving as storehouses for grain. As the Yayoi period coincided with the Qin (221206 bce) and the Han (206 bce220 ce) dynasties in China, and as Chinese political and cultural influence was penetrating the Korean peninsula, some features of continental civilization must have infiltrated into western Japan. This infiltration may account for the development in the Yayoi period of spinning and weaving and the use of iron, bronze, and copper. We cannot say with precision, however, what religious significance or uses bronze mirrors, bronze bells, dolmens (stone monuments), and funeral urns had.

The Ainu controversy and a culture-complex hypothesis

Although it is safe to assume that migrations of people to the Japanese islands were a part of larger movements of archaic peoples from Eurasia to North America, it is difficult to determine the ethnic identity of the first settlers in Japan. In this connection a heated controversy has been carried on in recent decades as to whether or not the Ainuwho have lived on the Hokkaidō, Sakhalin, and Kuril Islands, but who throughout history have never been fully assimilated into the cultural life of the Japanesewere indeed the original inhabitants of the Japanese islands. Scholarly opinion at the turn of the twenty-first century holds that the Ainu lived in northern Japan as early as the Jomon period, but that there was never, at least until the twentieth century, any significant amount of intermarriage between them and other inhabitants of the Japanese islands.

Although the exact identity of the Jomon people still remains unsettled, it is widely assumed that a number of ethnic groups came to the Japanese islands from various parts of the Asian continent during the prehistoric period, bringing with them various religious and cultural elements. A comprehensive culture-complex hypothesis proposed by Oka Masao in 1933 suggests that there were five major typological components in late prehistoric and early historic Japanese culture, mythology, religion, and social structure. According to Oka, various ethnic groups from South China and Southeast Asia with Melanesian, Austroasian, and Austronesian (Micronesian) cultural and religious traitsthe secret society system; horizontal cosmology; female shamans; mythical motifs of brother-sister deities; initiation rites; cultivation of taro, yam, and rice; and other characteristicsprovided the foundation for the agricultural society and culture of the Yayoi period.

A Tunguz group originally from Siberia or Manchuria, on the other hand, contributed a vertical cosmology, an exogamous patrilineal clan system, and a belief in deities (kami ) who descend from heaven to mountaintops, trees, or pillars. Finally, an Altaic pastoral tribe that had subjugated other tribes in Manchuria and Korea migrated to Japan toward the end of the Yayoi period or the early part of the historic period, establishing itself as the ruling class over the earlier settlers. This group, which had an efficient military organization, shared with the Tunguz group religious and cultural traits such as a vertical cosmology, Siberian-type shamanism, and a patriarchal clan (uji ) system. Its most powerful family emerged as the imperial house in the historic period.

Oka carefully avoids the question of the origin and development of the Japanese people and culture in a chronological sense. Although his hypothesis has been severely criticized by other scholars, it represents one of the most all-embracing efforts to explain the pluralistic nature of Japanese social structure, culture, and religion. Despite the lack of agreement concerning the details of the culture complex thus developed, it is widely agreed that, by the end of the Yayoi period, the inhabitants of the Japanese islands had attained a degree of self-consciousness as one people sharing a common culture.

The Yamatai controversy

One of the age-old controversies regarding Japan in the Yayoi period centers around the geographical location of the state of Yamatai (Yamadai), an important state in the Japanese islands and one that is mentioned in such Chinese dynastic histories as the record of the Eastern (Later) Han dynasty (25220 ce) and that of the kingdom of Wei (220265 ce). We learn from these documents that there were more than one hundred "states" in Japan, and that they acknowledged a hereditary ruler who resided in the state of Yamatai. These documents also record that the first Japanese emissary was dispatched to the Chinese court in 57 ce. A series of similar diplomatic missions followed in the second and third centuries. These same accounts reveal that during the second half of the second century, political turmoil developed in Japan owing to the absence of a ruler. An unmarried female shamanic diviner, Pimiko or Himiko, who occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching people, then became the ruler, and order was restored. The Chinese court offered her the title Queen of Wo (Wa) Friendly to Wei. Evidently she lived in seclusion in a palace, protected by armed guards. She was attended by a thousand female servants, while only a single male relative transmitted her instructions and pronouncements, presumably utterances she made in a state of trance. When she died a great mound was raised, and one hundred attendants followed her to the grave. After her death a king was placed on the throne, but since the people did not obey him, a young girl of thirteen, Iyo, was made queen, and order was once again restored. From these Chinese records we learn, among other things, that political stability in prehistoric Japan depended heavily on magico-religious authority. The intriguing question still remains, however, whether or not the state of Yamatai was located in the western island of Kyushu, as some scholars now believe, or in the central part of the main island where the so-called Yamato kingdom was established in the early historical period.

Early Historical Period

The early historical period of Japan corresponds to what archaeologists call the Kofun (tumulus) period (c. 250600 ce), so named because of the gigantic mausoleums constructed during this time for the deceased of the ruling class in the present Nara and Osaka prefectures. These great tombs are the visible remains of the early Yamato kingdom. It is significant that Japan was not mentioned in Chinese records between the mid-third and the early fifth century. Many scholars conjecture that during this shadowy period, the Yamato kingdom was established in the present Nara prefecture and gained a foothold on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. During the fourth century, according to Korean sources, Yamato became an ally of Paekche, one of the Korean states, and Korean artisans and scholars migrated to Japan, introducing new arts and techniques in weaving, ironwork, and irrigation, as well as the Chinese script and Confucian learning. In 391 Japanese expeditionary forces crossed the sea and fought against the northern Korean state, Koguryŏ, but were badly defeated. Following the military defeat in Korea, Yamato turned to the Chinese court to secure Chinese recognition and support for its claim of suzerainty over Korea. In fact, the Sung shu (a history of the Liu Song dynasty, covering the years 420479) mentions the names of five Yamato rulers who sent emissaries to the Chinese court. During the sixth century, Yamato sought to restore its influence on the Korean peninsula. In this connection Buddhism was introduced officially from Paekche to the Yamato court in 538 or 552.

Prior to the introduction of Sino-Korean civilization and Buddhism, religion in the Japanese islands was not a well-structured institutional system. The early inhabitants took it for granted that the world was the land where they lived. They also accepted the notion that the natural world was a given. Yet their religious outlook had a strong cosmological orientation, so that their early religion might be characterized as a cosmic religion. Although they did not speculate on the metaphysical meaning of the cosmos, they felt that they were an integral part of the cosmos, which to them was a community of living beings, all sharing kami (sacred) nature. The term kami, a combination of the prefix ka and the root mi, signifies either a material thing or an embodied spirit possessing divine potency and magical power. The term kami, thus, refers to all beings that are worthy of reverence, including both good and evil beings. The people accepted the plurality of kami residing in different beings and objects, but their basic affirmation was the sacrality of the total cosmos.

Equally central to the early religious outlook was the notion of uji (lineage group, clan), which provided the basic framework for social solidarity. Although the uji was not based on the strict principle of consanguinity, some blood relationship, real or fictitious, was considered essential for communal cohesion. Each uji had clansmen (ujibito ), groups of professional persons (be ) who were not blood relations of the clansmen, and slaves (nuhi ), all of whom were ruled by the uji chieftain (uji no kami ). Each uji was not only a social, economic, and political unit but also a unit of religious solidarity centered on the kami of the uji (ujigami ) who was attended by the uji chieftain. Indeed, sharing the same kami was ultimately considered more important to communal cohesion than blood relationship.

As far as we can ascertain, the early kami cults did not have fixed liturgies. Most religious functions took place either at home or around a sacred tree or sacred rock, in the paddy field, or on the seashore. Because the uji group tended to reside in the same locality, the kami of the uji often had the quality of local or regional kami. Also, there were numerous other spirits who controlled the health, fortune, and longevity of people. They were variously called mono (spiritual entities) or tama (animating spirits) and were believed to be attached to human and other beings or natural things. Equally prevalent was the notion of "sacred visitors" (marebito ) or ancestral spirits who came from distant places to visit human communities. Celestial bodies (the sun, moon, and stars), meteorological phenomena (wind and storms), and awe-inspiring natural objects (mountaintops, tall trees, forests, the ocean, and rivers) were also considered sacred and, thus, were venerated. Not surprisingly, then, a variety of personsfortune-tellers, healers, magicians, sorcerers, and divinersserved as intermediaries to these divine forces.

Religion and government

The early Yamato kingdom was a confederation of semiautonomous uji, each of which owned and ruled its respective members. The Yamato rulers paid tribute to China and in return received a monarchical title from the Chinese imperial court. Gradually, the Yamato rulers solidified their influence over other uji chieftains with their military power and with their claims to genealogical descent from the sun deity. They thus exercised the prerogatives of conferring such court titles as O-muraji ("great magnate," presented to the hereditary vassal families of the imperial uji ) and O-omi ("chief of chieftains," conferred upon heads of former rival uji that had acknowledged the imperial authority); granting sacred seed at spring festivals to all uji groups; and establishing sacred sites for heavenly and earthly kami, as well as regulating matsuri (rituals) for them.

The term matsuri has the connotation "to be with," "to attend to the need of," "to entertain," or "to serve" the kami, the soul of the deceased, or a person of high status. Prior to a matsuri, the participants were expected to purify themselves and to abstain from certain foods and from sexual intercourse. It was understood that the most important duty of the Yamato emperor (enno ) was to maintain close contact with the sun deitythe imperial family's tutelary and ancestral kami and other heavenly and earthly kami by attending to their needs and following their will, which was communicated through oracles, dreams, and divinations and which concerned government administration (matsurigoto ). Thus, in principle, at this level there was no line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane dimensions of life or between religious rituals (matsuri ) and government administration (matsurigoto ). Both were the prerogatives of the sovereign, who was by virtue of his solar ancestry the chief priest as well as the supreme political head of the kingdom. The sovereign, in turn, was assisted by hereditary religious functionaries and hereditary ministers of the court. This principle of the unity of religion and government (saisei-itchi ) remained the foundation of Japanese religion when it later became institutionalized and acquired the designation of Shintō in contradistinction to butsudō (Buddhism).

Impact of Chinese civilization and Buddhism on Japanese religion

With the gradual penetration of Chinese civilizationor, more strictly, Sino-Korean civilizationand Buddhism during the fifth and sixth centuries, Japanese religion was destined to feel the impact of alien ways of viewing the world and interpreting the meaning of human existence. In order to create a designation for the hitherto relatively unsystematized religious, cultural, and political tradition, the Japanese borrowed two Chinese charactersshen (Japanese, shin ) for kami, and dao (Japanese, to or do )for "the way." The adoption of the name Shintō only magnified the profound tension between the indigenous Japanese understanding of the meaning of life and the worldauthenticated solely by their particular historic experience on the Japanese islandsand the claims of Confucianism and Buddhism that their ways were grounded in universal laws and principles, the Confucian Dao (the Way) and Buddhist Dharma (the Law).

There is little doubt that the introduction of Chinese script and Buddhist images greatly aided the rapid penetration of Chinese civilization and Buddhism. As the inhabitants of the Japanese islands had not developed their own script, the task of adopting the Chinese script, with its highly developed ideographs and phonetic compounds, to indigenous words was a complex one. There were many educated Korean and Chinese immigrants who served as instructors, interpreters, artists, technicians, and scribes for the imperial court and influential uji leaders of the state. Over the course of time, the intelligentsia learned the use of literary Chinese and for many centuries used it for writing historical and official records. Poets, too, learned to express themselves in Chinese verse or, as in the Man'yōshū, the eighth-century poetry anthology, utilized Chinese characters as a form of syllabary to render their oral verses. The people accepted Chinese as a written, but not a spoken, language. Even so, through this one-sided medium the inhabitants of the Japanese islands gained access to the rich civilization of China, and Chinese culture became the major resource and model for the emerging state of Japan.

Through written media, the Japanese came to know the mystical tradition of philosophical Daoism, which enriched their aesthetic tradition. The Japanese also learned of the yin-yang school's concepts of the two principles (yin and yang), the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth), and the orderly rotation of these elements in the formation of nature, seasons, and the human being. The yin-yang school thus provided cosmological theories to the hitherto nonspeculative Japanese religion. It was also through written Chinese works that the society, which had been based on archaic communal rules and the uji system, appropriated certain features of Confucian ethical principles, social and political theories, and legal and educational systems.

The introduction of Buddhist art equally revolutionized Japanese religion, which despite its aesthetic sensitivities had never developed artistic images of kami in sculpture or painting. Understandably, when Buddhism was officially introduced to the Japanese court in the sixth century, it was the Buddha image that became the central point of contention between the pro- and anti-Buddhist factions there. Anti-Buddhist leaders argued that veneration of a "foreign kami " would offend the "native kami." After this initial controversy regarding statues of the Buddha, however, the chieftain of the powerful Soga uji s secured imperial permission to build a new clan temple in order to enshrine Buddha images. Soon, thanks to the energetic advocacy of the Soga, Buddhism was accepted by other aristocratic families, but not because the profound meaning of Buddhist law (the Dharma) was fully appreciated. Rather, Buddhist statues were believed to have magical potencies that would bring about mundane benefits. Thus the statues of Shaka (Śākyamuni), Miroku (Maitreya), Yakushi (Bhaisajyaguru), Kannon (Avalokiteśvara), and Amida (Amitābha) were venerated almost indiscriminately in the uji -based Buddhism of sixth- and early-seventh-century Japan.

Prince ShŌtoku

The regency of Prince Shōtoku (574?622?), who served under his aunt, Empress Suiko (r. 592628), marks a new chapter in the history of Japanese religion. By that time Japan had lost its foothold on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, while the powerful Sui dynasty had unified China after centuries of disunity. To protect Japan's survival in the precarious international scene, Shōtoku and his advisers attempted to strengthen the fabric of national community by working out a multireligious policy reconciling the particularistic Japanese religious tradition with the universal principles of Confucianism and Buddhism. Shōtoku's mentor here was clearly Emperor Wen (r. 581605) of the Sui dynasty, who unified the races, cultures, and vast and diverse areas of China by utilizing Confucianism, Buddhism, and to a lesser degree Daoism as the arms of the throne. Moreover, his claim to semidivine status was sanctioned and authenticated by various religious symbols.

Shōtoku himself was a pious Buddhist and is reputed to have delivered learned lectures on selected Buddhist scriptures. Yet his policies, as exemplified in the establishment of the Chinese-style "cap ranks" of twelve grades for court ministers or in the promulgation of the Seventeen-Article Constitution, represented an indigenous attempt to reconcile Buddhist and Confucian traditions with the native Japanese religious tradition. Shōtoku envisaged a centralized national community under the throne, and he advocated the veneration of Buddhism as the final refuge of all creatures. Moreover, he held the Confucian notion of li (propriety) to be the key to right relations among ruler, ministers, and people. Shōtoku was convinced that his policy was in keeping with the will of the kami. In his edict of 607, he states that his imperial ancestors had venerated the heavenly and earthly kami and, thus, the winter (yin, negative cosmic force) and summer (yang, positive cosmic force) elements remained in harmony, with their creative powers blended. He urged his ministers to do the same.

Prince Shōtoku took the initiative in reestablishing diplomatic contact with China by sending an envoy to the Sui court. He also sent a number of talented young scholars and monks to China to study. Although Shōtoku's reform measures remained unfulfilled at his untimely death, the individuals he sent to China later played important roles in the development of Japanese religions and national affairs upon their return.

The RitsuryŌ Synthesis

Prince Shōtoku's death was followed by a series of bloody power struggles, including a coup d'état in 645, which paradoxically strengthened the position of the throne. The Taika reforms of 645 and 646 attempted to consolidate the power of the centralized government by such Chinese-style measures as land redistribution, collection of revenues, and a census. During the second half of the seventh century the government, utilizing the talents of those who had studied in China, sponsored the compilation of a written law code. Significantly, those penal codes (ritsu ; Chinese, lü ) and civil statutes (ryo ; Chinese, ling ), which were modeled after Chinese legal systems, were issued in the name of the emperor as the will of the kami. The government structure thus developed during the late seventh century is referred to as the Ritsuryō (imperial rescript) state. Although the basic principle of the Ritsuryō state was in a sense a logical implementation of Prince Shōtoku's vision, which itself was a synthesis of Buddhist, Confucian, and Japanese traditions, it turned out to be in effect a form of immanental theocracy, in which the universal principles of Dao and Dharma were domesticated to serve the will of the sovereign, who now was elevated to the status of a living or manifest kami.

The government's effort to consolidate the Ritsuryō structure was initially resisted by the former uji chieftains and provincial magnates who had residual power in the court. Ironically, after usurping the throne from his uncle, Emperor Tenmu (r. 673686) managed to bring new elements into the rank of court nobility and to reorganize the governmental structure. Tenmu ordered the compilation of two historical writings, the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters, completed in 712) and the Nihongi (or Nihonshoki, the Chronicle of Japan, completed in 720). Tenmu is also credited with canonizing Amaterasu, the sun deity, as the ancestral kami and with making her Grand Shrine of Ise the tutelary shrine of the imperial house.

One characteristic policy of the Ritsuryō state was to support and control all of the religious ways. Thus, the government enforced the Soniryo, or Law Governing Monks and Nuns, which was modeled after a Chinese code, the Law Governing Daoist and Buddhist Priests, of the Yonghui period (640655). The government also elevated the Office of Kami Affairs (Kanzukasa ) to a full-fledged Department of Kami Affairs (Jingikan ), charged with supervising all officially sponsored Shintō shrines and overseeing the registers of the entire Shintō priesthood and other religious corporations. The Jingikan was given equal rank with the Great Council of State (Dajokan ).

Nara Period (710784)

During the eighth century Japanese religion reached an important stage of maturity under Chinese and Buddhist influence. It was a golden age for the Ritsuryō state and the imperial court. Thanks to the newly acquired Chinese script, the two mythohistorical writingsthe Kojiki and the Nihonshoki as well as the Fudoki (Records of local surveys), the Man'yōshū (Anthology of myriad leaves), and the Kaifuso (Fond recollection of poetry) were compiled. Also in this century, the Yoro Ritsuryō (Yoro penal and civil codes), the legal foundation of the Ritsuryō state, was fixed in writing.

The immanental theocratic principle of the Ritsuryō state was based on the myth of the solar ancestry of the imperial house. Similarly, the compilation of the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki was ordered by Emperor Tenmu in 673 to justify his accession to the throne. Thus, although the format of these chronicles was modeled after Chinese dynastic histories, their task was to sort out myths, legends, and historical events in such a way as to establish direct genealogical connections between the contemporary imperial house and the sun deity. With this objective in mind, the chroniclers worked out a transition from the domain of myths (narratives with divine actors), classified as the "age of kami," to the "historical" accounts of legendary emperors, who were presumed to be direct ancestors of the imperial house. Although the chronologies in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki were obviously fabricated, these mythohistorical writings provide a rich source of myths in which the ethos and meaning structure of early Japanese religion unfold. Later, under the guide of nativist scholars (kokugakusha ), these two chronicles came to be regarded as semi-canonical scriptures of Shintō.

The Man'yōshū is as important as the chronicles for our understanding of early Japanese religion. In its literary form, the Man'yōshū utilized Chinese characters only for their sound value, disregarding their lexical meaning. Many of the poems in this anthology portray an interpenetration of what we now call religious, aesthetic, and political values. The Man'yōshū also reveals the crucial religio-political role oral poets played in public and ritual declamations of the sacred order of the heavens and the human realm.

In contrast to earlier periods, when Korean forms of Buddhism influenced Japan, early eighth-century Japan felt the strong impact of Chinese Buddhism. In 710 the first capital, modeled after the Chinese capital of Chang'an, was established in Nara, which was designed to serve as the religious as well as the political center of the nation. During the Nara period, the imperial court was eager to promote Buddhism as the religion best suited for the protection of the state. Accordingly, in every province the government established state-sponsored temples (kokubunji ) and nunneries (kokubunniji ). In the capital city the national cathedral, Tōdaiji was built as the home of the gigantic bronze statue of the buddha Vairocana. The government sponsored and supported six schools of Chinese Buddhism. Of the six, the Ritsu (Vinaya) school was concerned primarily with monastic disciplines. The other five were more like monastic schools based on different philosophical traditions than sectarian groups. For example, the two Hīnayāna schoolsthe Kusha (deriving its name from the Abhidharmakósa ) and the Jojitsu (deriving its name from the Satyasiddhi )were devoted to cosmological and psychological analysis of elements of the universe, whereas the Sanron (Mādhyamika) school specialized in dialectic analysis of concepts in order to suppress all duality for the sake of gaining perfect wisdom. The Kegon school (deriving its name from the Avatasaka Sūtra ) was a form of cosmotheism, viewing the cosmos itself as divine, and the Hossō (Yogācāra), probably the most influential system during the Nara period, stressed analysis of the nature of things and a theory of causality. Only those who had taken vows at one of the three official ordination platforms were qualified to be ordained monks. With government subsidies, the monks were able to devote their lives to the study of the doctrinal intricacies of their respective schools.

Despite such encouragement and support from the government, monastic Buddhism did not have much impact on the populace. More important were three new religious forms that developed out of the fusion between the Japanese religious heritage and Buddhism. The first new form was the Nature Wisdom school (Jinenchishu), which sought enlightenment by meditation or austere physical discipline in the mountains and forests. Those who followed this path, including some official monks, affirmed the superiority of enlightenment through nature to the traditional Buddhist disciplines and doctrines. The indigenous acceptance of the sacrality of the phenomenal world was thus reaffirmed.

Second, a variety of folk religious leaders, variously called private monks (shidoso ) and unordained monks (ubasoku ; from Sanskrit upasaka ), emerged. Many of them were magicians, healers, and shamanic diviners of the mountain districts or the countryside who came under nominal Buddhist influence, although they had little or no formal Buddhist training. Their religious outlook was strongly influenced by the popular religious traditions and Daoism, but they also appropriated many features of Buddhism and taught simple and syncretistic folk Buddhism among the lower strata of society.

A third new form grew out of the interpenetration and amalgamation of the kami cults and Buddhism, whereby Shintō shrines found their way into the compounds of Buddhist temples and Buddhist chapels were built within the precincts of Shintō shrines. This development can be seen in the history of the construction of Tōdaiji, which was promoted by reported oracles from the Great Sun Deity of the Inner Shrine of Ise and from the kami Hachiman of the Usa Shrine in Kyushu. Indeed, Hachiman was explicitly equated with a Buddhist bodhisattva. This Shintō-Buddhist amalgamation, which began in the eighth century and later came to be called Ryobu (two aspects) Shintō, remained the institutional norm until the forced separation of Buddhism from Shintō shrines in the late nineteenth century.

Erosion of the RitsuryŌ Ideal

In 794 the capital was moved from Nara to a remote site and then again ten years later to the present Kyoto. The new capital in Kyoto, called Heiankyo (capital of peace and tranquility), was modeled after the Chinese capital. Although Kyoto remained the seat of the imperial court until the nineteenth century, the Heian period covers only the period from the late eighth to the late twelfth century, when political power was concentrated in the capital. Eager to restore the integrity of the Ritsuryō system, the leaders of the Kyoto regime forbade the Nara Buddhist schools to move into the new capital. Instead, the imperial court favored, side by side with Shintō, two new Buddhist schools, Tendai (Chinese, Tiantai) and Shingon (Chinese, Zhenyan), introduced by Saichō (767822) and Kūkai (774835), respectively. Both Saichō and Kūkai had been disillusioned in their youth by the formalism and moral decadence of the Buddhist schools in Nara, both had studied in China, and both were to exert great influence on the further development of Japanese religion.

Saichō, also known by his posthumous name, Dengyō daishi, established the monastic center of the Tendai school at Mount Hiei, not far from Kyoto, and incorporated the doctrines of the Saddharmapuarīka (Lotus of the good law) Sūtra, esoteric (i.e., Tantric) forms of meditation and ritual practice, Zen (Chinese, Chan) meditation, and monastic discipline (Vinaya) into his teachings. He was conciliatory to the kami cults and his form of Shintō-Buddhist (Tendai) amalgam came to be known as Sannō Ichijitsu (one reality) Shintō. Shortly after Saichō's death, the Tendai school increasingly stressed its esoteric elements to the extent that it came to be styled Taimitsu (Tendai Esoterism). The Tendai monastic complex at Mount Hiei remained for centuries a most powerful institution and produced many prominent religious figures during the medieval period.

Kūkai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi, established the Shingon monastic center at Mount Koya, not far from present-day Osaka. He also served as the head of the prestigious Toji (Eastern Temple) in Kyoto. As a result, Kūkai's teachings are often referred to as Tōmitsu (Eastern esoterism). Kūkai was noted for his exceptional erudition. His scheme of the ten stages of spiritual development included teachings from all the major Buddhist schools and also from Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Moreover, he taught that the essential truth of esoteric teaching could be revealed in art, thus affirming the mutual penetration of aesthetic and religious experiences. The Shingon school provided the theoretical basis for Ryobu Shintō, as mentioned earlier. According to both the Tendai and Shingon traditions of the Shintō-Buddhist amalgam, Shintō kami were believed to be manifestations (suijaku ) of the buddhas who were the original realities (onji ).

Meanwhile, in an important step toward restoring the Ritsuryō system, the government sponsored the Shinsen shojiroku (New compilation of the register of families), completed in 815. It divided the aristocracy into three categories: (1) descendants of heavenly and earthly kami (shinbetsu ); (2) descendants of imperial and other royal families (kobetsu ); and (3) descendants of naturalized Chinese and Koreans (banbetsu ). The preface to this register acknowledged that provincial records had all been burned. Thus, in the absence of reliable documents, many commoners pretended to be scions of noblemen, while the children of naturalized Chinese and Koreans claimed to be the descendants of specific Japanese kami. Despite the admission of the impossibility of the task involved, the register presented the purported genealogies of 1,182 families as an essential instrument in the hands of the nation.

Nearly a century after the compilation of the Shinsen shojiroku, the government undertook the ambitious enterprise of collecting all supplementary rules to previously promulgated edicts and ceremonial rules known during the Engi era (901922). Of the fifty books that comprise these documents, the Engishiki, the first ten are devoted to minute rules and procedures of dealing with various aspects of Shintō, such as festivals, the Grand Shrine of Ise, enthronement ceremonies, ritual prayers (norito ), and a register of kami. Of special importance to the understanding of Japanese religion are the ritual prayers, some of which might be traced back to the mid-sixth century when ritualized recitation of prayers, inspired by the Buddhist example of reciting scriptures (sūtras) developed. The remaining forty books of the Engishiki are detailed descriptions of rules and regulations of all the bureaus under the Grand Council of State (Dajokan), including numerous references to affairs related to Shintō. The section on the Bureau of Yin-Yang (Onmyoryo), Book 16, mentions the duties of masters and doctors of divination and astrology in reciting the ritual prayers (saimon ) addressed to heavenly and earthly kami.

The underlying principle of the Engishiki, which epitomized the Ritsuryō ideal, was that the imperial court was the earthly counterpart of the heavenly court. Just as the court of the Sun Deity included various functionaries, the imperial court included religious and administrative functionaries, and the stylized daily rituals of the court, properly performed, had great bearing on the harmonious blending of the yin and yang elements in the cosmos, as well as on the welfare of the people. Though the Engishiki was completed in 927, it was not put into effect until 967, by which time the very ideal of the Ritsuryō system was again eroding.

The foundation of the Ritsuryō system was the sacred monarchy, authenticated by the mythohistorical claim that Amaterasu, the Sun Deity, had given the mandate to her grandson, Ninigi, and his descendants to "reign" and "rule" the world, meaning Japan, in perpetuity. Ironically, during the Heian period the two institutions that were most closely related to the throne, namely, the Fujiwara regency and rule by retired monarchs (insei ), undercut the structure of the Ritsuryō system. The regency had been exercised before the ninth century only by members of the royal family and only in times when the reigning monarch needed such assistance. But from the late ninth century to the mid-eleventh century, the nation was actually ruled by the regency of the powerful Fujiwara family. The institutionalization of the regency implied a significant redefinition of the Ritsuryō system by the aristocracy. The aristocratic families acknowledged the sacrality of the throne, but they expected the emperor to reign or act ritually only as the manifest kami and not to interfere with the actual operation of the government. The latter was believed to be the prerogative of the aristocratic officials. Moreover, the Fujiwaras, who had managed to marry off their daughters to reigning monarchs, claimed added privileges as the titular sovereigns' maternal in-laws.

The custom of rule by retired monarchs began in the eleventh century, when ambitious monarchs abdicated for the purpose of exercising power from behind the throne with the claim that they were still legitimate heads of the patriarchal imperial family. This institution of insei was weakened by the end of the twelfth century and effectively ended owing to the growth of political power held by provincial warrior families.

The Heian period witnessed the phenomenal growth of wealth and political influence of ecclesiastical institutions, both Shintō and Buddhist, equipped with lucrative manors and armed guards. However, among the members of the lower strata of society, who were largely neglected by established religious groups, magico-religious beliefs and practices of both indigenous and Chinese origins prevailed. In addition to healers, diviners, sorcerers, and the practitioners of onmyōdō (yin-yang and Daoist magic), mountain ascetics (shugenja )heirs of the shamanistic folk religious leaders of the Nara periodattracted followers in places high and low. In the course of time, mountain ascetics allied themselves with the Tendai and Shingon schools and came to be known as the Tendai-Shugendo and the Shingon-Shugendo, respectively.

Female religious figures of various sorts also helped to spread Buddhism among the masses, while lay religious itinerants also helped to spread the fame of certain temple-shrine complexes. Such literary works as the Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji) by Lady Murasaki and the Makura no soshi (Pillow book) by Lady Sei-shonagon also reveal that during this period many calamities, ranging from earthquakes, fires, floods, and epidemics to civil wars, were widely believed to have been caused by the vengeance of angry spirits (goryo ). Some of these spirits came to be venerated as kami and shrines were built to honorbut also to confinethem. Festivals for such angry spirits (goryo-e ), with music, dance, wrestling, archery, and horse racing, as well as Shintō, Buddhist, and yin-yang liturgies, were held in order to pacify the anger of goryo and, thus, to protect the populace.

Frequent occurrences of natural calamities also precipitated the widespread belief that the apocalyptic age of the Latter Days of the Law (mappō) predicted in Buddhist scripture was at hand. This may also account for the growing popularity of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit, Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, or Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Life), who had vowed to save all sentient beings and had promised rebirth in his Pure Land to the faithful. Amida Buddhism was to become a powerful spiritual movement in the following centuries. The Heian period, and the elegant culture it produced, vanished in the late twelfth century in a series of bloody battles involving both courtiers and warriors. It was followed by a new age dominated by warrior rulers.

Religious Ethos during the Kamakura Period

The country was ruled by warrior-rulers from the late twelfth to the nineteenth century, even though the emperor continued to reign throughout these centuries. This is a matter of considerable significance for the development of Japanese religions. There were three such feudal warrior regimes (bakufu or shogunates): (1) the Kamakura regime (11851333); (2) the Ashikaga regime (13381573); and (3) the Tokugawa regime (16001868). Unlike the Ritsuryō state, with its elaborate penal and civil codes, the warrior ruleat least under the first two regimeswas based on a much simpler legal system. For example, the legislation of the Kamakura regime consisted of only fifty-one pragmatic principles. This allowed established Shintō and Buddhist institutions more freedom than they had had under the cumbersome structure of the Ritsuryō state. It also set the stage for the development of new religious movements, many with roots in the folk tradition. Moreover, over time the power of major Buddhist institutions and schools, including the Tendai, Shingon, and the Pure Land, was severely curtailed by brutal wars waged by Oda Nobunaga (15341582) and other warriors against the sōhei (monk-soldiers) and adherents of these religious groups.

Unlike the Fujiwara noblemen and retired monarchs, who had wielded power from within the framework of the imperial court, the Kamakura regime established its own administrative structure consisting of three bureaus: military, administrative, and judiciary. The warriors, for the most part, were not very sophisticated in cultural and religious matters. Many of them, however, combined simple Buddhist piety with devotion to the tutelary kami of their families rather than those of the imperial Shintō tradition. In part, the cohesion of the warrior society, not unlike the early Yamato confederation of semiautonomous clans, was based on the uji and the larger unit of uji federation. Accordingly, the tutelary kami of warrior families (for example, Hachiman, the kami of war of the Minamoto uji, the founders of the Kamakura regime) increased in prominence. At the same time, the peasantry, artisans, and small merchants, whose living standard improved a little under the Kamakura regime, were attracted to new religious movements that promised an easier path to salvation in the dreaded age of degeneration (mappō). On the other hand, the Zen traditions, which had been a part of older Buddhist schools, gained independence under the influence of the Chinese Chan movement and quickly found patronage among the Kamakura rulers.

Significantly, all the leaders of new religious movements during this period began their careers at the Tendai headquarters at Mount Hiei, but all had become disillusioned with the established schools for one reason or another. Three of these leaders altered their religious resolutions when they found certitude of salvation in reliance on the compassionate Amida by nembutsu (recitation of the Buddha's name). They then became instrumental in the establishment of the three Pure Land (Amida's Western Paradise) traditions. They were respectively, Hōnen (Genku, 11331212) of the Jōdo (Pure Land) sect, who is often compared with Martin Luther; Shinran (11731263) of the Jōdo Shin (True Pure Land) sect, a disciple of Hönen, who among other things initiated the tradition of a married priesthood; and Ippen (Chishin, 12391289) of the Ji (Time) sect, so named because of the practice of reciting hymns to Amida six times a day. On the other hand, Nichiren (12221282), founder of the school bearing his name and a charismatic prophet, developed his own interpretation of the Hokekyo (Lotus Sūtra), the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra, as the only path toward salvation for the Japanese nation.

In contrast to the paths of salvation advocated by the Pure Land and Nichiren schools, the experience of enlightenment (satori ) was stressed by Eisai (Yosai, 11411215), who introduced the Rinzai (Chinese, Linji) Zen tradition, and Dōgen (12001253), who established the Sōtō (Chinese, Caodong) Zen tradition. Zen was welcomed by Kamakura leaders, partly because it could counterbalance the powerful and wealthy established Buddhist institutions and partly because Zen priests could introduce other features of Song Chinese culture, including neo-Confucian learning. The Zen movement was greatly aided by a number of émigré Chan monks who settled in Japan.

Despite the growth of new religious movements, old religious establishments, both Shintō and Buddhist, remained powerful during this period. For example, both gave military support to the royalist cause against the Kamakura regime during the abortive Jokyu rebellion in 1221. On the other hand, confronted by a national crisis during the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281, both Shintō shrines and Buddhist monasteries solidly supported the Kamakura regime by offering prayers and incantations for the protection of Japan.

A short-lived "imperial rule" from 1333 to 1336 followed the decline of the Kamakura regime. This rule aided the Ise Shintō movement, which tried, not very successfully, to emancipate Shintō from Buddhist and Chinese influence. Ise Shintō influenced the royalist general Kitabatake Chikafusa (12931354), author of the Jinnō shōtōki (Records of the legitimate succession of the divine sovereigns). The imperial regime was also instrumental in shifting the centers of Zen and Song learning, established by the Kamakura regime in the Chinese-style Gozan ("five mountains") temples, to Kyoto.

Zen, Neo-Confucianism, and Kirishitan during the Ashikaga Period

Unlike the first feudal regime at Kamakura, the Ashikaga regime established its bakufu in Kyoto, the seat of the imperial court. Accordingly, religious and cultural development during the Ashikaga period (13361573, also referred to as the Muromachi period) blended various features of warrior and courtier traditions, Zen, and Chinese cultural influences. This blending in turn fostered a deeper interpenetration of religious and aesthetic values. All these religious and cultural developments took place at a time when social and political order was threatened not only by a series of bloody power struggles within the bakufu, but also by famines and epidemics that led to peasant uprisings. The devastating Ōnin War (14671477) accelerated the erosion of Ashikaga hegemony and the rise of competing daimyō, the so-called sengoku daimyō (feudal lords of warring states), in the provinces. In this situation of shifting fortunes and power vacuums, villages and towns sometimes developed something analogous to self-rule. Merchants and artisans formed guilds (za ) that were usually affiliated with established Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines, whereas adherents of Pure Land and Nichiren sects showed themselves willing to defend themselves as armed religious societies. Into this complex religious, cultural, social, and political topography, European missionaries of Roman Catholicism, then known as Kirishitan, brought a new gospel of salvation to Japan.

Throughout the Ashikaga period, established institutions of older Buddhist schools and Shintō (for example, the Tendai monastery at Mount Hiei, the Shingon monastery at Mount Koya, and the Kasuga Shrine in Nara) remained both politically and economically powerful. However, the new religious groups that had begun to attract the lower strata of society during the Kamakura period continued to expand their influence, often competing among themselves. Some of these new religious groups staged a series of armed rebellionssuch as Hokke ikki (uprisings of Nichiren followers) and ikkō ikki (uprisings of the True Pure Land followers)to defend themselves against each other or against oppressive officialdoms. The Order of Mountain Ascetics (Shugendo) also became institutionalized as the eclectic Shugenshu (Shugen sect) and promoted devotional confraternities (kosha ) among villagers and townspeople, competing with the other new religious groups.

Zen and neo-Confucianism

By far the most influential religious sect during the Ashikaga period was Zen, especially the Rinzai Zen tradition, which became de facto the official religion. The first Ashikaga shogun, following the advice of his confidant, Musō Sōseki established a "temple for the peace of the nation" (ankokuji ) in each province. As economic necessity compelled the regime to turn to foreign trade, Sōseki's temple, Tenryūji, sent ships to China for this purpose. Many Zen priests served as advisers to administrative offices of the regime. With the rise of the Ming dynasty (13681644), which replaced Mongol rule, the third Ashikaga shogun resumed official diplomatic relations with China, again depending heavily on the assistance of Zen priests. After the third shogun regularized two Gozan (the five officially recognized Zen temples) systems, one in Kyoto and the second in Kamakura, Gozan temples served as important financial resources for the regime. Many Zen priests earned reputations as monk-poets or monk-painters, and Gozan temples became centers of cultural and artistic activities.

Zen priests, including émigré Chinese Chan monks, also made contributions as transmitters of neo-Con-fucianism, a complex philosophical system incorporating not only classical Confucian thought but also features of Buddhist and Daoist traditions that had developed in China during the Northern Song (9601127) and Southern Song (11271279) periods. It should be noted that neo-Confucianism was initially conceived in Japan as a cultural appendage to Zen. Soon, however, many Zen monks upheld the unity of Zen and neo-Confucian traditions to the extent that the entire teaching staff and all the students of the Ashikaga Academy, presumably a nonreligious institution devoted to neo-Confucian learning, were Zen monks.

The combined inspiration of Japanese and Song Chinese aesthetics, Zen, and Pure Land traditions, coupled with the enthusiastic patronage of shoguns and daimyō, made possible the growth of a variety of elegant and sophisticated art: painting, calligraphy, renga (linked verse), stylized Nō drama, comical kyogen plays, flower arrangement, and the cult of tea. Some of these art forms are considered as much a religious "way" or discipline (dō or michi ) as the "ways" of kami or the Buddha, implying that they are also soteriological paths.

The Coming of Kirishitan

When the Ōnin War ended in 1477, the Ashikaga regime could no longer control the ambitious provincial daimyō who were consolidating their own territories. By the sixteenth century Portugal was expanding its overseas empire in Asia. The chance arrival of shipwrecked Portuguese merchants at Tanegashima Island, south of Kyushu, in 1543 was followed by the arrival in Kyushu in 1549 of the famous Jesuit Francis Xavier. Although Xavier stayed only two years in Japan, he initiated vigorous proselytizing activities during that time.

The cause of Kirishitan (as Roman Catholicism was then called in Japanese) was greatly aided by the strongman Oda Nobunaga, who succeeded in taking control of the capital in 1568. Angry that established Buddhist institutions were resisting his scheme of national unification, Nobunaga took harsh measures. He burned the Tendai monastery at Mount Hiei, killed thousands of Ikko (True Pure Land) followers, and attacked rebellious priests at Mount Koya to destroy their power. At the same time, ostensibly to counteract the residual influence of Buddhism, he encouraged Kirishitan activities, a policy reversed after his death. Nevertheless, by the time Nobunaga was himself assassinated, there were reportedly 150,000 Japanese Catholics, including several daimyō.

The initial success of Catholicism in Japan was due to the Jesuits' policy of accommodation. Xavier himself adopted the name Dainichi (the Great Sun Buddha, the supreme deity of the Shingon school) as the designation of God. Later, however, the name was changed to Deus. Jesuits also used the Buddhist terms jōdo (pure land) for heaven and so (monk) for the title padre. Moreover, Kirishitan groups followed the general pattern of forming tightly knit religious societies as practiced by the Nichiren and Pure Land groups. Missionaries also followed the common Japanese approach in securing the favor of the ruling class to expedite their evangelistic and philanthropic activities. Conversely, trade-hungry daimyō eagerly befriended missionaries, knowing that the latter had influence over Portuguese traders. In fact, one Christian daimyō donated the port of Nagasaki to the Society of Jesus in 1580, hoping to attract Portuguese ships there, which would in turn benefit him, not least by supplying modern firearms. Inevitably, however, Jesuit-inspired missionary work aroused strong opposition not only from anti-Kirishitan daimyō and Buddhist clerics but from jealous Franciscans and other Catholic orders as well. Furthermore, the Portuguese traders who supported the Jesuits were now threatened by the arrival of the Spanish in 1592, via Mexico and the Philippines, and of the Dutch in 1600.

Meanwhile, following the death of Oda Nobunaga, one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (15361598), endeavored to complete the task of national unification. Determined to eliminate the power of Buddhist institutions, he not only attacked rebellious monastic communities, such as those in Negoro and Saiga, but also conducted a thorough sword hunt in various monastic communities. Hideyoshi was interested in foreign trade, but he took a dim view of Catholicism because of its threat to the cause of national unification. He was incensed by what he saw in Nagasaki, a port that was then ruled by the Jesuits and the Portuguese. In 1587 he issued an edict banishing missionaries but did not enforce it until 1596, when he heard a rumor that the Spanish monarch was plotting to subjugate Japan with the help of Japanese Christians. In 1597 he had some twenty-six Franciscans and Japanese converts crucified. The following year, Hideyoshi himself died in the midst of his abortive invasion of Korea.

The Tokugawa Synthesis

The power struggle that followed the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi was settled in 1600 in favor of Tokugawa Ieyasu (15421616), who established the bakufu in 1603 at Edo (present Tokyo). The Tokugawa regime, which was to hold political power until the Meiji restoration in 1868, was more than another feudal regime; it was a comprehensive sixfold orderpolitical, social, legal, philosophical, religious, and moralwith the shogun in its pivotal position.

  1. Political order. The Tokugawa form of government, usually known as the baku-han, was a national administration (bakufu ) under the shogun combined with local administration by daimyō in their fiefs (han ).
  2. Social order. Under the Tokugawa regime, Japanese society was rigidly divided into warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant classes, plus special categories such as imperial and courtier families and ecclesiastics. Accordingly, one's birth dictated one's status as well as one's duties to nation and family and one's role in social relations.
  3. Legal order. The Tokugawas formulated a series of administrative and legislative principles, as well as rules and regulations (hatto ) that dictated the boundaries and norms of behavior of various imperial, social, and religious groups.
  4. Philosophical order. The Tokugawa synthesis was based on the neo-Confucian principle that the order of Heaven is not transcendental but rather is inherent in the sacrality of nation, family, and social hierarchy.
  5. Religious order. In sharp contrast to the principle of sacred kingship that authenticated the immanental theocratic state as the nation of the kami, the Tokugawas looked to the throne to add a magico-religious aura to their own version of immanental theocracy. They grounded this notion in what they felt were the "natural" laws and "natural" norms implicit in human, social, and political order. The first shogun, Ieyasu, was deified as the Sun God of the East (Tosho) and was enshrined as the guardian deity of the Tokugawas at Nikkō. According to the Tokugawas, all religions were to become integral and supportive elements of the Tokugawa synthesis. However, they tolerated no prophetic judgment or critique of the whole system.
  6. Moral order. Running through the Tokugawa synthesis was a sense of moral order that held the balance of the total system. Its basic formula was simple: the Way of Heaven was the natural norm, and the way of government, following the principle of benevolent rule (jinsei ), was to actualize this moral order. This demanded something of each person in order to fulfill the true meaning of the relations (taigi-meibun ) among the different status groups. Warriors, for example, were expected to follow Bushidō ("the way of the warrior").

Kirishitan under Tokugawa rule

The religious policy of the Tokugawa regime was firmly established by the first shogun, who held that all religious, philosophical, and ethical systems were to uphold and cooperate with the government's objective, namely, the establishment of a harmonious society. The first shogun stated in an edict of 1614: "Japan is called the land of the Buddha and not without reason. Kami and the Buddha differ in name, but their meaning is one" (quoted in Sir Charles Eliot, Japanese Buddhism, p. 309). Accordingly, he surrounded himself with a variety of advisers, including Buddhist clerics and Confucian scholars, and shared their view that the Kirishitan religion could not be incorporated into the framework of Japanese religion and would be detrimental to the cause of social and political harmony. Nevertheless, the Tokugawa regime's initial attitude toward Catholicism was restrained. Perhaps this was because the regime did not wish to lose foreign trade by overt anti-Kirishitan measures. But in 1614 the edict banning Kirishitan was issued, followed two years later by a stricter edict. A series of persecutions of missionaries and Japanese converts then took place. Following the familiar pattern of religious uprising (such as Hokke ikki and ikko ikki), armed farmers, fishermen, warriors, and their women and children, many of whom were Kirishitan followers, rose in revolt in 1637 in Shimabara, Kyushu. When the uprising was quelled, Kirishitan followers were ordered to renounce their faith. If they did not do so, they were tortured to death.

The regime also took the far more drastic measure of enforcing national seclusion (sakoku ) when it cut off all trade and other relations with foreign powers (with the exception of the Netherlands). Furthermore, in order to exterminate the forbidden religion of Kirishitan, every family was required to be registered in a Buddhist temple. However, hidden Kirishitan groups survived these severe persecutions and have preserved a distinct system of belief and practice into the twenty-first century.

Buddhism and the Tokugawa regime

The Tokugawa regime's anti-Kirishitan measures required every Japanese citizen to become, at least nominally, Buddhist. Accordingly, the number of Buddhist temples suddenly increased from 13,037 (the number of temples during the Kamakura period) to 469,934 during the Tokugawa period, although the latter number is disputed. Under Tokugawa rule a comprehensive parochial system was created, with Buddhist clerics serving as arms of the ruling regime in charge of thought control. In turn, Buddhist temples were tightly controlled by the regime, which tolerated internal doctrinal disputes but not deviation from official governmental policy. Since Buddhist temples were in charge of cemeteries, Buddhism was highly visible to the general populace through burial and memorial services. The only new sect that emerged during the Tokugawa period was the Ōbaku sect of Zen, which was introduced from China in the mid-seventeenth century.

Confucianism and Shintō

Neo-Confucianism was promoted by Zen Buddhists prior to the Tokugawa period. Thus, it was taken for granted that neo-Confucian scholars were also Zen clerics. Fujiwara Seika (15611619) first advocated the independence of neo-Confucianism from Zen. By his recommendation, Hayashi Razan (15831657), one of Seika's disciples, became the Confucian adviser to the first shogun, thus commencing the tradition that members of the Hayashi family served as heads of the official Confucian college, the Shoheiko, under the Tokugawa regime. Razan and many neo-Confucians expressed anti-Buddhist sentiments, and some Confucian scholars became interested in Shintō. Razan, himself an ardent follower of the Shushi (Chinese, Zhuxi) tradition, tried to relate the ri (Chinese, li, "reason, principle") of neo-Confucianism to Shintō. Another Shushi scholar, Yamazaki Ansai (16181682), went so far as to develop a form of Confucian Shintō called Suika Shintō. The Shushi school was acknowledged as the official guiding ideology of the regime and was promoted by powerful members of the Tokugawa family, including the fifth shogun. Especially noteworthy was Tokugawa Mitsukuni (16281701), grandson of the first shogun and the daimyō of Mito, who gathered together able scholars, including Zhu Shunshui (16001682), an exiled Ming royalist. He thereby initiated the Mito tradition of Confucianism. The Dainihonshi (History of great Japan), produced by Mito scholars, subsequently provided the theoretical basis for the royalist movement in the nineteenth century.

The second tradition of neo-Confucianism, Oyomeigaku or Yomeigaku (the school of Wang Yangming) held that the individual mind was the manifestation of the universal Mind. This school also attracted such able men as Nakae Toju (16081648) and Kumazawa Banzan (16191691). Oyomeigaku provided ethical incentives for social reform and came to have some characteristics of a religious system. Quite different from the traditions of Shushi and Oyomei was the Kogaku (ancient learning) tradition, which aspired to return to the classical sources of Confucianism. One of its early advocates, Yamaga Soko (16221685), left a lasting mark on Bushidō, while another scholar of this school, Ito Jinsai (16271705), probed the truth of classical Confucianism, rejecting the metaphysical dualism of Zhu Xi.

Throughout the Tokugawa period, Confucian scholars, particularly those of the Shushigaku, Oyomeigaku, and Kogaku schools, exerted lasting influence on the warriors-turned-administrators, who took up Confucian ideas on the art of governing and on the modes of conduct that were appropriate for warriors, farmers, and townspeople, respectively. Certainly, such movements as Shingaku (mind learning), initiated by Ishida Baigan (16851744), and Hotoku (repaying indebtedness), championed by Ninomiya Sontoku (17871856), were greatly indebted to Confucian ethical insights.

ShintŌ Revival and the Decline of the Tokugawa Regime

With the encouragement of anti-Buddhist Confucianists, especially those of Suika Shintō, some Shintō leaders who were overshadowed by their Buddhist counterparts during the early Tokugawa period began to assert themselves. Shintō soon found a new ally in the scholars of Kokugaku (National Learning) notably Motoori Norinaga (17301801), whose monumental study, Kojiki, provided a theoretical basis for the Fukko (return to ancient) Shintō movement. Motoori's junior contemporary, Hirata Atsutane (17761843), pushed the cause of Fukko Shintō even further. The nationalistic sentiment generated by the leaders of the Shintō revival, National Learning, and pro-Shintō Confucians began to turn against the already weakening Tokugawa regime in favor of the emerging royalist cause. The authority of the regime was threatened further by the demands of Western powers to reopen Japan for trade. In time, the loosening of the shogunate's control resulted in political and social disintegration, which in turn precipitated the emergence of messianic cults from the soil of folk religious traditions. Several important messianic cults developed, including Kurozumikyo, founded by Kurozumi Munetada (17801850); Konkokyo, founded by Kawate Bunjiro (18141883); and Tenrikyō, founded by Nakayama Miki (17981887). These so-called new religions have survived down to the present and remain significant religious communities.

Modern Period

The checkered development of Japanese religion in the modern period reflects a series of political, social, and cultural changes that have taken place. These changes include rapid urbanization and demographic shifts; industrialization, modernization, and (in some ways) Westernization; the toppling of the Tokugawa regime (1868), followed by the restoration of imperial rule under the Meiji emperor (r. 18681912); the increasing influence of Western thought and civilization, as well as Christianity; the Sino-Japanese War (18941895); the Russo-Japanese War (19041905); the annexation of Korea (1910); World War I, followed by the short-lived Taisho Democracy; the economic crisis followed by the rise of militarism in the 1930s; the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China followed by World War II; Japan's surrender to the Allied forces (1945); the Allied occupation of Japan; and postwar rebuilding and renewed economic prosperity. The particular path of development of Japanese religion was, of course, most directly affected by the government's religious policies.

Meiji era

Although the architects of modern Japan welcomed many features of Western civilization, the Meiji regime was determined to restore the ancient principle of the "unity of religion and government" and the immanental theocratic state. Their model was the Ritsuryō system of the seventh and eighth centuries. Accordingly, sacred kingship served as the pivot of national policy (kokutai ). Thus, while the constitution nominally guaranteed religious freedom and the ban against Christianity was lifted, the government created an overarching new religious and ideological system called State Shintō, which was designed to supersede all other religious groups. In order to create such a new official religion out of the ancient Japanese religious heritage, an edict separating Shintō and Buddhism (Shin-Butsu hanzen rei ) was issued. The feeling of leading bureaucrats and politicians was that the Shintō-Buddhist amalgam of the preceding ten centuries was contrary to indigenous religious tradition. After the abortive Taikyo Sempu (dissemination of the great doctrine) movement and the compulsory registration of Shintō parishioners, the government decided to utilize various other means, especially military training and public education, to promote the sacred "legacy of the kami way" (kannagara ). This led to the promulgation of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors (1882) and the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890). Significantly, from 1882 until the end of World War II, Shintō priests were prohibited by law from preaching during Shintō ceremonies, although they were responsibleas arms of the government bureaucracyfor the preservation of State Shintō.

In order to keep State Shintō from becoming involved in overtly sectarian activities, the government created between 1882 and 1908 a new category of Kyoha (sect) Shintō and recognized thirteen such groups, including the "new religions" Kurozumikyo, Konkokyo, and Tenrikyō, which had emerged in the late Tokugawa period. Like Buddhist sects and Christian denominations, these groups depended on nongovernmental, private initiative for their propagation, organization, and financial support. Kyoha Shintō groups, however, have very little in common. Some consider themselves genuinely Shintō in beliefs and practices, whereas others are marked by strong Confucian features. Still others betray characteristic features of folk religious traditions, such as the veneration of sacred mountains, cults of mental and physical purification, utopian beliefs, and faith healing.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries other "new religions" emerged. One of the most important historically is Omotokyō, founded by Deguchi Nao and greatly expanded under the leadership of her son-in-law, Deguchi Onisaburo. Numerous Omotokyō followers split off over the decades, founding their own religious movements and communities. In addition, it is important to note that women found leadership roles and positions of power in these religious movements by practicing and adapting older forms of shamanic mediumship and forms of faith healing. Figures such as Nakayama Miki, earlier in the nineteenth century, and Deguchi Nao represent the manner in which women used their experiences of divine possession as authorization to speak out against patriarchal oppression and governmental attempts to control religious beliefs and practices. An illiterate former ragpicker, Deguchi Nao came to be seen as a real threat to the national government and, consequently, was imprisoned; in addition, her group was repeatedly harassed by government authorities into the twentieth century. This fact testifies to the manner in which religious visionary experience became, in the hands of lay men and women in Japan, a powerful weapon of the weak.


The Buddhist establishment was destined to undergo many traumatic experiences in the modern period. The Meiji regime's edict separating Shintō and Buddhism precipitated a popular anti-Buddhist movement that reached its climax around 1871. In various districts temples were destroyed, monks and nuns were forcibly laicized, and the parochial system, the legacy of the Tokugawa period, eroded. Moreover, the short-lived Taikyo Sempu movement mobilized Buddhist monks to propagate taikyo, or government-concocted Shintō doctrines. Naturally, faithful Buddhists resented the Shintō-dominated Taikyo movement and advocated the principle of religious freedom. Thus, four branches of the True Pure Land sect managed to secure permission to leave the Taikyo movement, and shortly afterward the ill-fated movement itself was abolished. In the meantime, enlightened Buddhist leaders, determined to meet the challenge of Western thought and scholarship, sent able young monks to study in Western universities. Exposure to European buddhological scholarship and contacts with other Buddhist traditions in Asia greatly broadened the vista of previously insulated Japanese Buddhists.

The government's grudging decision to succumb to the pressure of Western powers and to lift the ban against Christianity was an emotional blow to many Buddhists who had been charged with the task of carrying out the anti-Kirishitan policy of the Tokugawa regime. Thus, a large number of Buddhists, including those who had advocated religious freedom, allied themselves with Shintō, Confucian, and nationalist leaders in an emotional anti-Christian campaign called haja kensei (refutation of evil religion and the exaltation of righteous religion). After the promulgation of the Imperial Rescript on Education in 1890, many Buddhists equated patriotism with nationalism, thus becoming willing defenders and spokesmen of the emperor cult that symbolized the unique national polity (kokutai ). Although most Buddhists had no intention of restoring the historical form of the Shintō-Buddhist amalgam, until the end of World War II they largely accepted Buddhism's subordinate role in the nebulous but overarching superreligion of State Shintō.


Confucians, too, were disappointed by the turn of events during the early days of the Meiji era. It is well to recall that Confucians were the influential guardians of the Tokugawa regime's official ideology. In the late Tokugawa period, though, many of them cooperated with Shintō and nationalist leaders and prepared the ground for the new Japan. Indeed, Confucianism was an intellectual bridge between the premodern and modern periods. Although the new regime depended heavily on Confucian ethical principles in its formulation of imperial ideology and the principles of sacred national polity, sensitive Confucians felt that those Confucian features had been dissolved into a new overarching framework with heavy imprints of Shintō and National Learning (Kokugaku). Confucians also resented the new regime's policy of organizing the educational system on Western models and welcoming Western learning (yogaku ) at the expense of, they felt, traditionally important Confucian learning (jugaku ). After a decade of infatuation with things Western, however, a conservative mood returned, much to the comfort of Confucians. With the promulgation of the Imperial Rescript on Education and the adoption of compulsory "moral teaching" (shushin ) in school systems, Confucian values were domesticated and represented as indigenous moral values. The historic Chinese Confucian notion of wang-dao (the way of true kingship) was recast into the framework of kodo (the imperial way), and its ethical universalism was transformed into nihon-shugi (Japanese-ism). As such, "nonreligious" Confucian ethics supported State Shintō until the end of World War II.


The appearanceor reappearance, as far as Roman Catholicism was concernedof Christianity in Japan was due to the convergence of several factors. These included pressures both external and internal, both from Western powers and from enlightened Buddhist leaders, who demanded religious freedom. Initially, the Meiji regime, in its eagerness to restore the ancient indigenous polity, arrested over three thousand "hidden Kirishitan" in Kyushu and sent them into exile in various parts of the country. However, foreign ministers strongly protested to the Meiji regime, which was then eager to improve its treaties with Western nations, and urged the government to change its anti-Christian policy. Responding to these pressures, the government lifted its ban against the "forbidden religion." This opened the door to missionary activity by Protestant, as well as Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox, churches. From that time until 1945, Christian movements in Japan walked a tightrope between their own religious affirmations and the demands of the nation's inherent immanental theocratic principles.

The legal meaning of religious freedom was stated by Ito Hirobumi (18411909), the chief architect of the Meiji Constitution:

No believer in this or that religion has the right to place himself outside the pale of the law of the Empire, on the ground that he is serving his god. Thus, although freedom of religious belief is complete and exempt from all restrictions, so long as manifestations of it are confined to the mind; yet with regard to external matters such as forms of worship and the mode of propagation, certain necessary restrictions of law or regulations must be provided for, and besides, the general duties of subjects must be observed.

This understanding of religious freedom was interpreted even more narrowly after the promulgation of the Imperial Rescript on Education. Spokesmen for anti-Christian groups stressed that the Christian doctrine of universal love was incompatible with the national virtues of loyalty and filial piety taught explicitly in the Rescript. Some Christian leaders responded by stressing the compatibility of their faith and patriotism. Although a small group of Christian socialists and pacifists protested during the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, most Christians passively supported the war effort.

During the time of infatuation with things Western, curious or iconoclastic youths in urban areas were attracted by Christianity in part because of its foreignness. As a result, Westernized intellectuals, lesser bureaucrats, and technicians became the core of the Christian community. Through them, and through church-related schools, universities, and philanthropic activities, the Christian influence made a far greater impact on Japan than many people realize.

Christian churches in Japan, many of which had close relationships with their respective counterparts in the West, experienced difficult times in the 1930s. Under combined heavy pressure from militarists and Shintō leaders, both the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in Rome and the National Christian Council of the Protestant Churches in Japan accepted the government's interpretation of State Shintō as nonreligious. In their view, obeisance at the State Shintō shrines as a nonreligious, patriotic act could be performed by all Japanese subjects. In 1939 all aspects of religion were placed under strict government control. In 1940 thirty-four Protestant churches were compelled to unite as the Church of Christ in Japan. This church and the Roman Catholic Church remained the only recognized Christian groups during World War II. During the war all religious groups were exploited by the government as ideological weapons. Individual religious leaders who did not cooperate with the government were jailed, intimidated, or tortured. The only religious freedom at the time was, as stated by Ito Hirobumi, "confined to the mind."

Japanese religion in the twentieth century

In the modern world, the destiny of any nation is as greatly influenced by external events as by domestic ones. As far as modern Japan was concerned, such external events as the Chinese Revolution in 1912, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the worldwide depression intermingled with events at home and propelled Japan onto the world stage. Ironically, although World War I benefited the wealthy elite, the resultant economic imbalance it produced drove desperate masses to rice riots and workers to labor strikes. Marxist student organizations were formed, and some serious college students joined the Communist Party. Many people in lower social strata, benefiting little from modern civilization or industrial economy and neglected by institutionalized religions, turned to messianic and healing cults of the folk religious tradition. Thus, in spite of the government's determined effort to control religious groups and to prevent the emergence of new religions, the number of "quasi religions" (ruiji shukyo ) increased from 98 in 1924 to 414 in 1930 and then to over one thousand in 1935. Many of them experienced harassment, police intervention, and persecution by the government, and some of them chose for the sake of survival to affiliate with Buddhist or Kyoha Shintō sects. Important among these groups were Omotokyō, founded by Deguchi Nao (18361918); Hito no Michi, founded by Miki Tokuharu (18711938); and Reiyukai, founded jointly by Kubo Kakutaro (18901944) and Kotani Kimi (19011971). After the end of World War II, these religious groups and their spiritual cousins became the so-called new religions (shin shukyo ).

The end of World War II and the Allied occupation of Japan brought full-scale religious freedom, with far-reaching consequences, to Japan. In December 1945 the Occupation force issued the Shintō Directive dismantling the official structure of State Shintō; on New Year's Day 1946 the emperor publicly denied his divinity. Understandably, the loss of the sacral kingship and State Shintō undercut the mythohistorical foundation of Japanese religion. The new civil code of 1947 effectively abolished the traditional system of interlocking households (ie seido ) as a legal institution, so that individuals were no longer bound by the religious affiliation of their households. The erosion of family cohesion greatly weakened the Buddhist parish system (danka ), as well as the Shintō parish systems (ujiko ).

The abrogation of the ill-famed Religious Organizations Law (enacted in 1939 and enforced in 1940) also radically altered the religious scene. Assured of religious freedom and separation of religion and state by the Religious Corporations Ordinance, all religious groups (Buddhist, Christian, Shintōnow called Shrine Shintōand others) began energetic activities. This turn of events made it possible for new religions and Buddhist or Sect Shintō splinter groups to become independent. Sect Shintō, which comprised 13 groups before the war, developed into 75 groups by 1949. With the emergence of many more new religions, the total number of religious groups reached 742 by 1950. However, with the enactment of the Religious Juridical Persons Law (Shukyo hojin ho ) in 1951, the number of government recognized religions was reduced to 379142 in the Shintō tradition, 169 Buddhist groups, 38 Christian denominations, and 30 miscellaneous groups. This was done by subsuming some groups under others.

In the immediate postwar period, as many people suffered from uncertainty, poverty, and loss of confidence, a large number of men and women were attracted by what the new religions claimed to offer: mundane happiness, tightly knit religious organizations, healing, and readily accessible earthly deities or divine agents. The real prosperity of the new religions in Japan, though, came after the Korean War, with the intensification of urbanization. Not only did the urban population increase significantly, but much of the nation assumed the character of an industrialized society. In this situation some of the new religions, especially two Buddhist groups, Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōseikai, gained a large number of followers among the new middle class. Some of these new religions took an active part in political affairs. For example, as early as 1962, Sōka Gakkai scored an impressive success in the elections of the House of Councillors, running candidates under its own political party, Kōmeitō. In this way, Sōka Gakkai enjoyed a bargaining power that no other religiously based group had achieved in modern Japanese politics. Other groups have also attempted to gain political influence by campaigning for their favorite candidates for political offices. Under pressure, however, the formal ties between Sōka Gakkai and Kōmeitō were severed in the 1980s.

It has not been easy for older Buddhist groups to adjust to the changing social situation, especially since many of them lost their traditional financial support in the immediate postwar period. Also, religious freedom fostered schisms among some of them. Nevertheless, the strength of the older Buddhist groups lies in their following among the intelligentsia and the rural population. Japanese buddhological scholarship deservedly enjoys an international reputation. Japanese Buddhist leaders are taking increasingly active roles in pan-Asian and global Buddhist affairs, while at the same time attending to such issues as peace and disarmament at home. For their part, some Shintoists now promote Shintō as a "green religion," an ecologically oriented nature religion.

In the highly technological industrial society of postwar Japan, nationalists, intellectuals, and the mass media have collectively created and promulgated the image of a timeless Japanese religiosity and spirituality. While historically untenable, this invented tradition has demonstrated a remarkable appeal both to the Japanese people and to foreigners. The construct of "Japanese religion"singularhas come to mean for many people a nostalgic and comforting nature religion. Moreover, in the work of Japanese folklorists and foreign Japanophiles, Japanese religion is touted as proof that the social intimacy of the traditional village or small town is still accessible in spite of the alienating and isolating aspects of the high-tech and industrial world of global capitalism. The Japanese, we are told, still feel close to nature, still love poetry and the arts, and still observe numerous traditional rituals and matsuri.

A significant part of Japanese religious life continues to focus on family values and on observances performed in the home. In addition, many men and women of all social statuses still subscribe to fortune-telling, geomancy, and healing cults. While the Japanese are avid global travelers, for many, their world of meaning in some significant ways remains strongly tied to their land, language, customs, and traditions, no matter how recent in origin these might actually be. Shintō successfully transformed itself from State Shintō to Shrine Shintō in short order during the Allied occupation. Today, millions of pilgrims and worshipers continue to visit large and small Shintō shrines, Buddhist temples, and sacred mountains.

As noted, many persons have sought refuge in socially conservative new religions, while still others have turned to New Age religions. The latter groups are extremely diverse and eclectic in their beliefs and practices. Most such groups are media savvy and have exploited new communication technologies to gather followers. These groups are generally tolerated by the government and the public, but only if they do not threaten the status quo in any major way. The media frenzy and widespread fear of cults generated by the reporting on criminal acts of members of the religious group Aum Shinrikyō in the late twentieth century indicates the tenuous nature of religious freedom in contemporary Japan. Aum Shinrikyō gained international notoriety after it was implicated in the release of poisonous nerve gas in the Tokyo subway and the murder of some of its critics. The sarin gas attack was part of a misguided attempt to bring about the millennium that the members of the group expected. In the wake of the Aum affair, the government took what some have called draconian steps to police nontraditional religious groups now labeled "cults." In the late twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, numerous examples of what the sociologist of religion Shimazono Susumu has labeled "postmodern religion" have emerged in Japan. Religion in its diverse manifestations remains an important component of the lives of many Japanese.

See Also

Ainu Religion; Amaterasu Ōmikami; Amitābha; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Japan; Bushidō; Christianity, article on Christianity in Asia; Confucianism in Japan; Dōgen; Domestic Observances, article on Japanese Practices; Drama, article on East Asian Dance and Theater; Gozan Zen; Hijiri; Hirata Atsutane; Hōnen; Honjisuijaku; Ippen; Jōdo Shinshū; Jōdoshū; Kami; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia; Kokugaku; Konkōkyō; Kurozumikyō; Li; Mappō; Motoori Norinaga; Musō Sōseki; Nakayama Miki; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Nichiren; Nichirenshū; Norito; Ōmotokyō; Onmyōdō; Poetry, article on Japanese Religious Poetry; Reiyūkai Kyōdan; Risshō Kōseikai; Saichō; Shingonshū; Shinran; Shintō; Shōtoku Taishi; Shugendō; Sōka Gakkai; Tendaishū; Tenrikyō; Yinyang Wuxing; Zen.


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Japanese Religions: An Overview

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