Folk Religion, Japan

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Folk religion (minkan shinkō or minzoku shūkyō) is the unifying element underlying Japanese religious structure, the "frame of reference," as Miyake Hitoshi has termed it ("Folk Religion, " p. 122), through which the religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism have become rooted in Japan. Folk religion is generally considered to encompass a variety of customs, practices and ideas, including rituals, festivals and events linked to the calendrical cycle and to individual and social life cycles; concepts relating to the spirits of the dead and to other worlds; the use of amulets and talismans and divination; belief in the capacity of various figures of worship to bestow worldly benefits on petitioners; and concepts of spirit possession and shamanism.

The relationship between Buddhism and folk religion in Japan has been, and remains, one of interaction and mutual reinforcement. From its initial entry onward Buddhism has assimilated and adapted to existing folk ideas and practices, simultaneously shaping and influencing their development, while Buddhist ideas and practices have often taken hold through integrating with folk ideas and practices.

This process of mutual influence can be seen from the time Buddhism first entered Japan, bringing with it with Daoist concepts and practices relating to divination, oracles, and the calendar. These became embedded in Japanese folk religious structure: Cycles of lucky and unlucky days and years became part of folk religious consciousness, commemorated through rituals and practices, including the drawing of oracle lots and rituals for preventing misfortunes, that were carried out at Buddhist temples. Buddhist festivals— such as the summer Obon or Festival for the Sprits of the Dead—also became part of the annual round of observances followed by the Japanese.

Buddhism, folk religion, and the dead

Perhaps the main area of interaction between Japanese folk religion and Buddhism has been in relation to the spirits of the dead, ancestors and concepts of other worlds. Before the advent of Buddhism, folk traditions envisaged the spirit as departing from the body at death but remaining essentially tied to this world and reluctant to depart from its kin. Although the spirits of the dead could become benevolent protective deities, they were also inherently dangerous and fearsome, capable of possessing the living or afflicting them in various ways; the realms of death were dark and perilous. Buddhism offered more sophisticated and ultimately more positive visions of what lay beyond death, and offered means of subduing possessing spirits and pacifying the dead through rituals conducted by priests and, especially in earlier times, by ascetics who claimed exorcistic powers. Such notions and practices were readily assimilated into a folk tradition in which shamanic practitioners (including members of mountain cults who were deeply influenced by Buddhism) played a vital role in the religious life of ordinary people. Such practitioners continue to exist, and the new religions that have emerged in more recent times have drawn extensively from this folk/Buddhist shamanic tradition.

Buddhist funerary rituals offered a means of averting the dangers of pollution by purifying the dead of their sins and leading them safely from this realm to the next, thus transforming their spirits into benevolent ancestors existing in a mutually beneficial relationship with their living kin. Buddhism's concepts of other realms, of hells for the wicked and rebirth in the Pure Land for the virtuous, offered a moral vision of death and the beyond, while its rituals offering merit transference from the living to the dead enabled the living to aid their departed kin in the afterlife.

While these Japanese concepts of death and the ancestors show an obvious Buddhist influence, it is also clear that folk concepts have had an impact on Buddhism in Japan. The notion of the spirit of an ancestor being led elsewhere yet remaining in close contact with the living depends upon an implicit belief in an after-death existence that appears to conflict with standard Buddhist notions of transmigration—a dilemma never resolved in Japan, where Buddhist sects may articulate both concepts simultaneously—and represents a folk transformation of Buddhism. The relationship between the living and the dead remains central to Japanese Buddhism, which since early medieval times has been the primary medium through which death rituals and ancestor veneration have been carried out. Most Japanese households continue to use family Buddhist altars to memorialize their ancestors and most Japanese continue to envisage the dead through ideas framed by Buddhist rites and deeply influenced by folk beliefs.

Folk religion, Buddhism, and worldly benefits

Another major area of folk-Buddhist interaction concerns Buddhism's reinforcement and expansion of existing folk beliefs about the role of figures of worship in providing worldly benefits (genze riyaku). In pre-Buddhist Japan spiritual entities such as clan tutelary deities were petitioned for protection and aid; adapting to this tradition, Japanese Buddhism portrayed its figures of worship—buddhas and bodhisattvas such as Bhaisajyaguru (Japanese, Yakushi; the buddha of healing) and Avalokiteśvara (Kannon; the bodhisattva of compassion)—as powerful agents capable of granting benefits and interceding to heal illness and provide happiness and good fortune to those who worshiped them. Buddhist sūtras, notably the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarika-sŪtra) provided accounts of miraculous happenings and promises of worldly benefits for those who follow the Buddhist way. Such notions have consistently been emphasized by proselytizing Buddhist itinerants and priests who have composed numerous stories and miracle tales relating to Buddhist figures of worship. Icons and statues of popular figures such as Avalokiteśvara and sacred places such as temples have been portrayed in such stories as sources of spiritual power and benefits that can be accrued by all. Buddhist temples have become primary sites for making petitions for worldly benefits, and primary sources of protective devices such as talismans and amulets, which are widely used in Japan. In the provision of worldly benefits there are few if any distinctions between "elite" monastic centers and "popular" temples; often the two are synonymous, with the monastic practitioners of purportedly elite institutions actively promoting the miraculous powers of the statues, icons, and relics at their institutions. Some scholars argue that there exists a "common religion" (Reader and Tanabe) centered on worldly benefits, in which elite and popular, institutional (Buddhist) and folk religion are effectively parts of one dynamic.

Folk heroes and pilgrimage customs

One of the most striking popular figures of worship who grants worldly benefits is Kōbō Daishi, who can be seen as an exemplar both of the folk transformations of Buddhism and of Buddhist influence on folk religion. Kōbō Daishi is the posthumous name of KŪkai (774–835), founder of the Shingon Buddhist tradition and of numerous temples in Japan. Shingon Buddhist sources suggest that Kūkai entered into eternal meditation at death, and the sect promoted him, in his posthumous guise as Kōbō Daishi, as a transcendent miracle worker who could bring benefits to the faithful. Cults of worship developed around him, portraying him as an itinerant who dispenses rewards to the worthy and retribution to the venal. Pilgrim-age routes—most notably an eighty-eight-temple circuit around Shikoku, the island of Kūkai's birth—also developed around this cultic figure; he has transcended sectarian boundaries and become the focus of an extensive folk faith, still vibrant in modern Japan. A study by Kaneko Satoru (Shinshū shinkō to minzoku shinkō, 1991) shows that the pilgrimage and veneration of Kōbō Daishi are deeply embedded in the folk customs of Shikoku, and that such folk practices and attitudes permeate the lives of people who officially belong to orthodox sectarian Buddhism but whose daily lives and localized faith are rooted in Kōbō Daishi and pilgrimage-centered folk religion.

The interactions between Buddhism and folk religion in Japan have been extensive. Folk religion is the underlying stratum upon which Buddhism and other traditions have built their foundations and through which they have responded to the needs and views of Japanese people.

See also:Divinities; Festivals and Calendrical Rituals; Ghost Festival; Ghosts and Spirits; Japan; Local Divinities and Buddhism; Merit and Merit-Making; Shingon Buddhism, Japan; Shinto (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism


Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (1975). Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1999.

Hori, Ichirō. Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Kaneko Satoru. Shinshū shinkō to minzoku shinkō. Kyoto: Nagata Bunshōdō, 1991.

Miyake Hitoshi. "Folk Religion." In Japanese Religion, ed. Hori Ichiro et al. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1981.

Miyake Hitoshi. Shugendō: Essays on the Structure of Japanese Folk Religion. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2001.

Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

Reader, Ian, and Tanabe, George J., Jr. Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Ian Reader