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Japanese religion

Japanese religion. A brocade of religious traditions developed over 2,000 years and consisting of indigenous folk religion, organized Shinto, various schools of Buddhism, Confucian teachings, Taoist practices, and even Christian influences. There are original strands and added strands in Japanese religious history, none discarded, always changing and growing. The various strands intertwine and permeate each other, and Japanese people typically participate at different levels in several of these religious traditions. There are certain characteristics common to all, such as a sense of intimate relationship with the sacred reality in nature, an emphasis on local cults and festivals, veneration of ancestors with strong attachment to familial groups, and a clear sense of the unity of religion and the nation.

The indigenous folk religion, later called Shinto or kami no michi, revolved in prehistoric times around a feeling of awe for sacred powers called kami. The social unit was the clan (uji), each of which had a tutelary kami (ujigami). When the imperial clan became dominant, a sacred national community was forged with the emperor as the divine head, supported by the myths collected in the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki. The central myths tell of the sun kami Amaterasu Omikami.

New dimensions came to Japanese religion starting in the 6th cent. CE, with the advent of Sino-Korean culture with its system of writing, political models, and above all Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The Japanese accepted all aspects of Chinese culture without discrimination: Confucian concepts such as filial piety and veneration of ancestors, Taoist divination and fortune-telling, and especially Buddhist rituals and teachings. At first Buddhism was more the domain of the court and the élite (see NARA BUDDHISM), but by the Heian period it developed into the religion of all Japanese people, especially in the Tendai and Shingon forms, that provided a theoretical basis for the Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation known as Ryōbu Shintō and Sannō Ichijitsu, in which kami were understood to be manifestations of the Buddhas.

The most typically Japanese forms of Buddhism developed at the beginning of the feudal era in the Kamakura period, when classical Japanese court society was disrupted and people longed for security of faith and certainty of salvation in a time of confusion and degeneracy. New popular schools of Buddhism developed to meet their needs in this time of spiritual awakening: Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen Buddhism.

Western influences entered into Japanese religion with the introduction of Christianity by Francis Xavier (1506–52) and other Jesuit missionaries in the middle of the 16th cent. Within one century Christianity rose rapidly to be accepted by many feudal lords and their people and just as rapidly was destroyed, with some tenacious Christians forced underground to continue their faith as ‘hidden Christians’ (kakure kirishitan). In reaction to the foreign threat associated with Christianity, the Tokugawa rulers closed Japan to all foreign influences and gave to Buddhist temples the task of monitoring the religious practices of the people. As Buddhism became formalized and stagnant, a movement to restore Shintō arose, drawing on antecedents such as Yoshida Shintō. Some used neo-Confucian ideas, as in Suiga Shintō and Shingaku, but the scholars of the Kokugaku (‘national learning’) movement such as Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) used a painstaking study of ancient philology in an attempt to return to the pure roots of Japanese culture and separate Shinto from Buddhism, thus creating Fukko (‘return to antiquity’) Shintō. When pressure from the W. forced Japan to open up again in the 19th cent., the restoration government of Emperor Meiji moved toward making State Shinto (Kokka Shintō) the ritual and ideological support of the nation with the emperor as its symbolic head. New Shinto movements which had arisen in the turbulent days at the end of the Tokugawa era and beginning of the Meiji era were categorized as Sect Shinto (Kyōha Shintō). While Buddhists, Christians, and Sect Shintoists had freedom of religion, allegiance to State Shinto was required of all.

With Japan's defeat in the Second World War came the disestablishment of Shinto and the formation of the Association of Shinto Shrines independent of the government. The Sect Shinto groups have continued to attract large numbers of adherents, and many New Religions (shinkō shūkyō) have developed and are flourishing, drawing on ideas and practices from the various Japanese traditions. Among many, however, there persists the sense that much of the spiritual heritage of Japan has been lost amid the secularization of modern life.


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